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Love, Death, Robots, but no Women

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Vacuumslayer has previously spoken about her fondness for the Netflix anthology series Love, Death + Robots. I’m a bit more of a skeptic. The concept is a great one: a series of animated shorts, in a variety of styles, telling science fiction stories, many based on previously published short fiction. It’s a great fusion of medium and material—science fiction, and especially the more action-y type favored by this show, is expensive to realize in live action, and animation gives much greater scope for the imagination—and a way of showcasing authors and ideas that don’t get a lot of play in more mainstream-friendly SF.

Or it would be, if the execution were not so samey and unimaginative. A few weeks ago, when the list of episodes comprising the third season was released, I made the following observation on twitter:

There have been thirty-five Love, Death + Robots episodes. Something like thirty of them are based on a previously-published short stories. Only one of those stories is by a woman. (Also, only one of those stories—not the same one—is by a person of color.) And frankly, that’s not only reprehensible in its own right, but it tells in the final product. There’s a certain laddishness to the stories the show chooses to tell, a disinterest in the inner life of anyone but manly, taciturn men. Bug hunt stories abound, and despite the show identifying itself as science fiction, there is no shortage of episodes that are just plain horror, whose appeal seems primarily to be watching a lot of people get torn to bits cinematically (“The Secret War” in season 1; “The Tall Grass”, season 2; “Bad Traveling”, season 3). Though some episodes have female protagonists, there are also a lot of stories where women exist to be ogled (“The Witness”, season 1) or fucked (“Beyond the Aquilla Rift”, season 1; “Snow in the Desert”, season 2).

I watched the recently-released third season over the last couple of evenings and was not impressed. You can read my short reviews of each episode in this twitter thread, but the bottom line is that Love, Death + Robots is rapidly running out of ideas. Out of only nine episodes, two have exactly the same premise—a special ops team in Afghanistan encounters a supernatural menace that kills them off in extremely gruesome ways—which is not even the first two times that the show has featured a story along those general lines. The season’s big selling point is John Scalzi’s return to the characters of “Three Robots”, a standout from the first season in which robots go on vacation in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Earth. But where the original episode was clever and genuinely hilarious, “Three Robots: Exit Strategies” is a blunt instrument hammering at a point that, even if you agree with it 100%, gets pretty tedious to hear about. More importantly, it’s not funny. Even the episodes that reach for slightly more original ideas—”The Very Pulse of the Machine”, about a stranded astronaut on Io who begins to hear the moon’s voice; “Swarm”, about scientists studying a non-sentient but extremely sophisticated alien species—are really more idea samples, cutting off before anything genuinely interesting or thought-provoking can happen.

The one genuinely good episode in the season is “Jibaro”, an original piece written and directed by Alberto Mieglo. It’s a pretty basic story—conquistadors in the South American jungle encounter a supernatural menace (in fact it’s the exact same story as the two Afghanistan-set episodes, just shifted in time and space)—but there is, for once, an attempt at visual storytelling, and at using the photorealistic animation in cinematic, emotive ways (too many Love, Death + Robots episodes live and die by their voiceovers, or look like video game cut scenes). On the other hand, it’s also an episode that features the gruesome and somewhat sexualized murder of a woman.

It’s particularly aggravating because this often ends up feeling like a conscious choice rather than laziness or ignorance. Some of the authors the show has chosen to adapt—people like Rich Larson, Ken Liu, Paolo Bacigalupi—are deep cuts, people whose names you’d only know if you were interested in the SF short fiction scene. A few, like Joachim Heijndermans or Claudine Griggs (the only woman whose work has so far been adapted), are positively obscure. And yet the result of that curation is practically a monoculture, and vast swathes of the current science fiction scene—including a lot of the people doing the most exciting work in it—have been excluded from selection. I can’t imagine trying to make a show like this one and not looking at writers like Kameron Hurley, Aliette de Bodard, Yoon Ha Lee, and Peter Watts. Even if you narrow your definition of SF to the more militarized, space-based kind, these authors alone should keep you in fascinating, varied stories for a long time.

So, as a service to the Love, Death + Robots producers—and really, to readers of this blog who may have walked away from the show with a pretty narrow idea of what SF short fiction is capable of—here are a few stories that I think would make good episodes. I’ve tried to focus on stories by and about women, POC, and queer people, and just picking one or two of them would up the show’s quotient in those categories by hundreds of percents!

  • Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin (2019) – a man from a totalitarian colony supposedly established by Earth’s finest when they fled ecological devastation returns to what he’s been told is a wasteland, only to discover a whole new way of living. In general I think Jemisin is an incredibly cinematic author—I’d also love to see adaptations of “Non-Zero Probabilities” and “The City Born Great”.
  • “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang (2019) – a planet locked in a state of mutually assured destruction has a uniquely gruesome way of preventing its leaders from pushing the big red button.
  • “Through the Flash” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (2018, from the collection Friday Black which you should run out and read this very minute) – a suburban neighborhood has been trapped in a time loop that ends with the nuclear annihilation of the Earth.
  • “Strange Waters” by Samantha Mills (2018) – a fisherwoman has been carried off by a storm and is trying to return to her home city. The only problem is that each time she sails, she travels through time to another period in the city’s history or future.
  • “What Gentle Women Dare” by Kelly Robson (2018) – an 18th century prostitute is questioned by a visiting alien about the nature of humanity.
  • “The Destroyer” by Tara Isabella Burton (2016) – in a futuristic Roman empire, a mad scientist transforms her daughter into a cyborg to curry favor with Caesar.
  • “Sacred Cows: Death and Squalor on the Rio Grande” by A.S. Diev (2015) – pseudo-gonzo journalism about the chaos that ensues when a poor Mexican factory worker shoots at a herd of cows—who just happen to be flying.
  • “We Are the Cloud” by Sam J. Miller (2014) – in the future, poor people can rent out portions of their brains so that rich people can have uninterrupted network access. A troubled teen discovers that he can access the network, and considers how to strike back at the system that has abused him.

(Hey, it’s LGM Fundraising Day! Give us money so I can write more hard-hitting pieces about Netflix anthology series! I mostly use my LGM cash to buy stuff off my Steam wishlist, which I might end up writing about here. So really, think of it as an investment in the future.)

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