Archive for the ‘television’ Category

Blame! Is a 2017 anime film released by Netflix, directed by Hiroyuki Seshita and written by Tsutomu Nihei and Sadayuki Murai (based on Nihei’s manga of the same name). [Spoiler alert!] The film opens with a small group of humans in high-tech exosuits exploring deep within a strange and ominous cityscape as they search for food—if food is defined as organic sludge coming out of a pipeline. They move stealthily to avoid the attention of something they call Safeguard and wear “helmettals”, helmets that hide their human features, a kind of camouflage from Safeguard and its watchtowers, while providing them with data-augmented vision (the kind of virtual overlay, or heads-up display, that Google glass aspired to). It’s not long until Safeguard detects their intrusion and sends exterminators after them—bizarre machines that run on four legs and wear Noh-like masks. In full retreat, the humans are quickly cut off, but a dark stranger named Killy appears to rescue them.

Unafraid of the killer machines, Killy wears no mask and wields superior weapons. He returns with the survivors to their village where we learn they are Electro-Fishers, a lone group of humans surviving in a sanctuary zone but on the brink of starvation. The Electro-Fishers are led by an older man named Pops who questions Killy. We learn a little—Killy is searching for humans who still possess the Net Terminal Gene, a gene which grants its possessor authority over the City, Safeguard, and the Builders.

Other than that, we never learn much about Killy. At first, I thought—Killy—this guy’s gonna do lots of killin’, and he does, sort of. One of the things I liked about Killy is he seemed like a standard protagonist, and I wanted to place him in the good guy category, but I was never quite sure as the story progressed—was he really helping the Electro-Fishers? Or just using them, or perhaps just allying with them as long as it serves his purpose. In that sense, his mysterious origin persists throughout the film adding a nice touch of anticipation.

The animation really stands out in terms of quality—it’s very well drawn with a beautiful sense of motion during action scenes. You really feel the dread as the exterminators scuttle towards the characters at an inhuman pace. The city itself is impressive for the overwhelming sense of unknowable machine complexity it conveys—a fully enclosed environment created by machines who lost or escaped the control of their human masters and now continue building, expanding the city for reasons only they understand. In terms of style, the film replicates the visuals, linework, and faces of Nihei’s anime series, Knights of Sidonia, also released on Netflix.

Watching this made me remember some past books and films. It bore a slight resemblance to Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, although with a completely different setting, of course. Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson, also comes to mind. The obvious film comparison is to the Terminator series, although the feeling here is very different despite the shared killer-robot elements. In a way, it reminds me of an animated short, the Transcendent City, by Richard Hardy—a city created by machines for machines conveying an feeling of on-going processes we’ll never understand.

One gripe I have to get out is I still don’t know why the film is called Blame! Who’s to blame for losing the Net Terminal Gene? (how does one lose a gene anyway other than by going extinct?) Who’s to blame for getting everyone killed? I suspect I won’t know until I start reading the manga—always a recommended step for anime you love.

Overall, Blame! provides an hour and 46 minutes of excellent sci-fi adventure. While not the most complex storyline (especially compared to anime released in series), it has a fast pace and a satisfying conclusion (while leaving plenty of room for a sequel(s)). I commend Netflix for making this quality of anime available to wide audiences—keep it coming!

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I finally got around to watching Ajin Season 2 (aired on Netflix in October 2016) [Note: spoilers ahead!]. After an exciting season 1, the new season of anime provides a little more character development, primarily for Izumi Shimomura, the female ajin working for Yū Tosaki at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Mr. Sato and his Ajin followers continue to provide more diabolical mayhem as they wage war on the Japanese government. An impressive villain, Sato is always one step ahead of his foes, outsmarting them at every turn. Overall, the episodes were fast-paced and enjoyable as I binge-watched them over a weekend.ajin-season-2-episode-1-sub

On the downside, some of the major plot turns felt somewhat contrived. Kei Nagai’s failure, crisis, and retreat are followed by a redoubling of his determination to beat Sato, but his renewed commitment seemed hollow, without much reason behind it other than the unflagging faith of an old friend.

Disappointingly, we don’t learn anything new of significance about the Ajin themselves. How did they come about? Do they have a higher purpose? Barring future seasons, I guess we’ll never know.

Another abrupt revelation is Sato is just playing a horrifying game. Rather than obtaining freedom for Ajin, we learn he really just craves the excitement of hunting and killing his enemies, turning everyone’s lives into a real-world video game. This plot turn seemed somewhat arbitrary. Even his followers seemed to acknowledge the change without much fuss and shifted gears into fighting against him too smoothly to seem real to me.maxresdefault

The ending was sufficiently dramatic and exciting, but then the epilogue undercut any satisfaction I felt at the story’s resolution—far from being contained, Mr. Sato pulled off another escape, and Nagai’s well-earned quiet life was on hold once again. This skewed ending was an off-key way to end the series IMO, or perhaps a clumsy way of leading into a potential season 3. Overall, those who enjoyed the first season will likely enjoy season 2 as well; however, I think it could have been better.

 

I love beginnings! They unspool almost without effort from my brain. So much mystery with just a few words. Momentous events can be implied with a few lines description. Captivating characters step through a doorway radiating promise. What I hate (ok, perhaps hate is too strong a word)… what I cringe away from are endings. Those black holes at the end of my plot outlines that sit there like gaping craters. They’re hard to dealpicture-110-300x186 with those craters of emptiness, or worse, of weak plot I keep telling myself is good enough (writer’s instinct: listen, you fool, before it’s too late—that’s Swiss cheese you’ve written! It’s rotten through and through). There are quite a few books and movies out there that suffer from this syndrome. Why? Because writing a good ending isn’t easy. No, in today’s world of jaded readers and audiences suckled on amazing stories, it’s damn near impossible.

So what, I wondered (for the nth time), makes a good ending? With that question in mind, I began to jot down a list of my favorite stories and some notes about what made their endings stand out (I considered both final endings and endings of key plot sequences). Next, I divided them into ending components, and this is what I came up with (spoiler alert!):

Components of Great Endings:

Unexpected revelation (URn):

Wizard of Earth Sea: enemy revealed as something unexpected (Ged’s death).

Game of Thrones: Hodor’s big reveal. This is also another excellent example of tricking the reader, where the clue is laid down early on and becomes so routine the reader overlooks it until the final revelation when it all makes sense.

Unexpected ally (UA):

The Diamond Age: The main character is kidnapped, raped, fights her way out, and is rescued by the mouse army the reader thought was only imaginary.

Lord of the Rings [Helm’s Deep], Game of Thrones [battle at King’s Landing], Count Zero, Watership Down: hold off superior army, allies arrive to counter-attack [brought by one of the characters].

Conan the Barbarian: Arnold is almost overwhelmed by his enemy, but a Valkyrie (lover back from dead), intercedes, allowing Arnold to regain his footing and win the fight.

Beserk: rescue by the Skull Knight during “The Eclipse”.

Star Wars IV: Han returns to give Luke a hand right when he needs it most.

Note: to avoid a deus ex machina situation, the allies can’t make it too easy for the protagonist who should still struggle to overcome the problem.

Unexpected reversal (URl):

Blade Runner: Protagonist (Harrison Ford) faces final enemy, Roy (Rutger Hauer), cannot defeat him, yet Roy saves the protagonist’s life. Important note: in the very end, Roy gains a transcending appreciation for life, and thus, his saving his enemy’s life in understandable despite being unexpected.

Trickery (Trick):

Hunt for Red October: Sean Connery fakes the destruction of his Russian submarine so he can defect without hurting his crew while still maintaining the intel value of the stolen sub to the Americans.

Conan the Barbarian: initial phase of final battle using decoys to distract enemy soldiers.

Roadwarrior: in a change of heart, drives fuel tanker that turns out to be a decoy.

Almost Famous:  Penny Lane tricks Russel and viewer into thinking she sent Russel to meet her, only to find she really sent him to meet the protagonist.

Somewhat similar: Silence of the Lambs: viewer is tricked into thinking agents are coming to rescue the protagonist at the correct house, but it’s not the correct house. Just when she could really use the help, she’s on her own.

Note: there are two forms of trickery: fooling the antagonist and/or the reader/audience. In either case, the trick has to be clever and plausible.

Failure instead of success (FIS):

The protagonist must either succeed or fail, and failure isn’t an option. Or is it? This binary choice is a tough one for authors. LOTR solved it with a 3rd party (Gollum) and the ring’s evil, corrupting influence.  The ring defeats Frodo only for Gollum to take ring and unwittingly complete mission. It works because Gollum’s behavior is completely plausible having been laid down over the entire trilogy and its precursor, The Hobbit.

Endurance (End):

Wizard of Earth Sea: Ged pursues enemy to final confrontation (turns from fleeing to pursuing: hunted becomes hunter: courage).

The Road: enduring many travails, the protagonist finally dies (self-sacrifice in a sense) but first gets his son to safety.

True Detective: the first protagonist is stabbed by the big bad (seemingly mortally), but counter-attacks anyway, enough so protagonist #2 can assist, #1 kills big bad before he can kill #2.

Enemy Secret Weakness (ESW):

LOTR [final battle at Black Gate] and Star Wars IV and VI: attack superior enemy [but enemy has secret weakness that is exploited], enemy destroyed.

Sacrifice (SAC):

The Mission:  Robert De Niro sacrifices himself to save the village.

Harry Potter (end of last book): Harry sacrifices himself, but lives on to defeat enemy.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Aslan sacrifices himself then is reborn and defeats enemy.

Hero Goes Alone (HGA):

The Man from Snowy River: the protagonist goes over cliff when no one else would, captures wild herd and clears his name.

Ripley in Aliens. It’s just her against the Queen.

Enemies Unite (EU):

The Storm Riders: Rival protagonists unite to defeat big bad who had manipulated them and betrayed them.

Endings can also be rated by various criteria. I’ve come up with five:

  • Difficulty (for the protagonist): I notice this a lot with stories I critique: beginning writers make things too easy for their protagonist. It’s almost as if they identify with their character so strongly, they can’t bear for anything bad to happen to them. I always advise they get over this tendancy and start throwing obstacles in their protagonist’s path. Unless the hero earns his/her victory, it won’t generate much enthusiasm from the reader.
  • Plausibility: Hollywood films are full of unbelievable plot devices, deus ex machina situations, or plots that just don’t make sense. An audience’s suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
  • Unexpectedness: everyone loves to be surprised. It’s a big part of the entertainment experience. While not easy to accomplish, it’s worth it (IMO) for an author to spend a lot of time making sure their story has some surprises in store.
  • Resolution: some stories have too much of this, others not enough. While every question doesn’t need to be answered, enough should be answered so the reader feels a sense of closure at the end.
  • Contribution (of the protagonist): It seems obvious the protagonist should do the most towards resolving the story’s major problem, but that’s not the case in some stories.

Using these criteria, I rated some stories. The results are completely subjective, but it allowed me to think more clearly about why I liked the endings of some stories, but not others.

plot-criteria-table

To take it even further, I used my ratings to create the figure below. Ideally, a story should be as close to the outer edges of the pentagon as possible.

 

plot-pentagram

The Greatest Endings:

In the final analysis, I find the greatest endings often:

  1. Combine more than one of the components above.
  2. Are nested like Matryoshka dolls, one surprise and/or escalation opens within/after another.
  3. Are complex and nuanced—some joy and some pain, some victory, but also some loss (you see where I’m going with this).
  4. Surprise the reader/audience. The unexpected is essential, but more difficult to pull off well as time goes on and audiences become more savvy. Surprises must (IMO) have their groundwork laid out well in advance, so the unexpected event makes immediate sense and doesn’t come off as a badly-done twist ending.

Tips for Developing Your Endings:

  1. Warning (advice gained the hard way): if you don’t have at least a rough idea of your ending as you write, you’re likely to end up having to do some major re-writing by the time you’re done. Having to do those re-writes is probably healthy for the story at that point, but if you can avoid re-writing in the first place, I’m all for it.
  2. Think of an ending for your story. Odds are your first idea is trite, simplistic, too easy for the protagonist(s), and uninspiring (I speak from personal experience). What now? Think of another ending. Then another, another, and more. To make it easier, start tearing apart every assumption about your plot, every turning point, every fork in the road. If they steal a ship, what if they build it instead? If the aliens can’t speak English, what if they know Japanese? Take your plot endings and “break” them, twist them, reverse them, etc. Besides the fun of morphing old, tired ideas into something new, it’s a great way to force yourself to expand your thinking. Theodore Sturgeon put it well when he suggested writers “Ask the next question, and the one that follows that, and the one that follows that.” While you can apply this process at any point in your writing, I think it’s especially useful for plotting endings, whether it’s the end of your book or just an important scene.
  3. Make a table or list of the ending components in your book or series (see example below) for each character arc and/or major plot. This will at least force you to think through the various endings. Are you using the same ending components too many times? If so, this is a quick way to see that early on when you can easily rethink the plot.

ending-table

  1. Don’t feel you can’t use a plot device just because it’s already been used. It may even be true, as some say, that no new plots exist. What you want is to use that plot device in your way, putting your own unique style, spin, or stamp on it. That’s really the one thing you have people will value the most—you (see, even that advice is trite!).

And here we are,

The End

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I love being caught up in a “new” series on Netflix. In this case, said series is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a British alt-history/fantasy TV miniseries based on a best-selling novel by Susanna Clarke (Alert! Mild spoilers ahead). Set in 19th-century England, the series’ premise is English magic has been gone from the land for some 300 years after the departure of the Raven King. Since that time, only street magicians and charlatans have been in evidence. The series opens as the only living magician in England, Mr. Norrell (played by Eddie Marsan), decides to make himself known to the public with the ultimate goal of making English magic respectable. Just his stated goal was enough to perk my ears with memories of the Weasley brothers’ antics at Hogwarts. Might more mischief be afoot in this series? I suspected it would. Conflict arises when it turns out Norrell is not the only, living, English magician. There is another, Mr. Strange (Bertie Carvel), who seeks to become Norrell’s pupil.

Television - Strange and Norrell

Although I’ve only watched a handful of episodes so far, I’ve already noticed more than enough instances of excellent storytelling. For starters, the series juxtaposes its two protagonists perfectly: Strange is a natural magician—a prodigy of the magical arts for whom magic comes without much effort. Indeed, Strange becomes a magician almost by accident (or so it would seem). Strange is handsome, curious, and adventurous, whereas Norrell is a serious, gnome-like man who has worked in obscurity for decades  studying every book of magic he can lay his hands on. Where Strange is bold, Norrell is timid. Where Strange is loving, Norrell is asocial, preferring the company of his precious books. However, Norrell is also quietly proficient, calculating, and committed to his goal even if others are hurt in the process. He has the qualifications of a villain, but a more subtle one than I typically encounter.

Another aspect of this series I admire is how it eschews the usual coupling of magic and secrecy. There is no prohibition against use of magic in front of muggles here—these magicians cast spells publically, to the extent they are recruited by the government and Strange is enlisted in the war effort. His magical acts prove decisive in the war between England and France, although in unexpected ways. The magic itself utilizes enough special effects to seem well done IMO, but is also presented in clever ways such as a card trick gone peculiar in the first episode.

Extra villainy is provided by a malevolent fairy (Marc Warren) reminiscent of David Bowie’s goblin king (minus the cod piece and tights). The rest of the cast shine as well, including a head butler, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare), whose impeccable manners are put to the test when he is tricked into serving the fairy king, and a convincing rogue, John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), who succeeds in adding a sinister element.

Finally, for those who miss Hogwarts, there is a sub-plot to establish a school of magic. Let’s hope it succeeds!

Now that Game of Thrones Season 6 has concluded, I’ve been reading various articles and their comments, some of which accuse various characters of being flat, including Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Ramsay Bolton. These complaints about flat characters got me thinking—what makes a character deep?jon snow

Cardboard characters are easy to spot. They usually have few or no lines of dialogue, we don’t learn much about them, and they rarely surprise us. But of course, they’re necessary for any story—not everyone can be fleshed out in detail. The problem is when main characters come across as flat, shallow, and predictable.

But what exactly gives a good character depth? An intricate backstory? Flashbacks to their childhood? Interesting quirks? Strong motivations? Being unpredictable? Deep dives into personal angst? Maybe what people really mean by flat characters is that they’re just not Birdy13that interesting. A character can be deep, intricately detailed, and still be boring. Maybe some of today’s jaded, cliché-hardened readers just aren’t interested in characters unless they offer something new.

Examples of rich, deep characters might be: Birdy and Al from the film Birdy, where we learn about Birdy as a child, then a soldier, both experiences informing his current status as a mental patient. In The Wire, we experience characters at home, at work, and during the often more telling time spent in between. The Station Agent starring Peter Dinklage is good example. True Detective Season 1 is another, in my opinion.

I seem to have more non-genre examples of good characterization. For genre examples, Ged in a Wizard of Earthsea comes to mind. The first novel follows Ged from birth, to station01his education in magic and adulthood, to his quest to remedy a terrible mistake. We get to witness his maturation. I’d also point to Gutts and Griffith in Berserk as a great example of well-developed characters. Dragonsong is another. But really, how deep are the characters in Lord of the Rings? To me, Frodo seems to develop along the journey, but I never got the sense of any great depth in him as a character. I feel the same way about Gandalf—we never learn what his favorite breakfast is, or how his mother treated him, or whether he experienced loss in his childhood. And that’s okay. Obviously Frodo and frodoGandalf are beloved by readers across the world, myself included. Perhaps in genre fiction, plot and setting and ideas can trump characterization. My own fiction is primarily idea-driven. I develop the ideas first, and characters and settings spring up to bring the ideas to life. Is it reasonable to expect deep characters in genre fiction where the primary goal is to convey new ideas and/or entertain?

Putting that question aside, how many deep characters are enough in a story? Readers seem to want everyone to be deep, but is that realistic from an author’s standpoint? Without going into logistics of writing, it’s just not possible for every character to be deep. So the question becomes—who do you develop? Who needs what amount of depth? Is there some golden percentage of your characters (10%) or criteria (anyone who cries must have a backstory)? Or is it just a magician’s trick of creating characters with a believable veneer? The answer is almost certainly Goldilocks-esque, and maybe I’ll figure it out one of these days. I will let everyone know when I do.

For my first novel, I winged it in terms of character development. My characters evolved in my mind as the writing progressed, their backgrounds becoming richer as I needed them berserkto be, but that kind of recursive writing, going back and rethinking and editing, in loops, seemed inefficient. So for my new novel series, I decided to try a new approach which is, I’m sure, old hat to many writers: develop character backgrounds before I start to write. This is no trivial task in my case. I’m currently developing at least 13 main characters, but there will probably be more as the story unfolds from mind to page. It’s a slow process getting to know someone who doesn’t exist yet—deciding who will be cardboard and who will have a soul. Gradually, my characters have gained vitality until now they’re ready to  jump onto the page before I’ve even written a single page of narrative (not counting the extensive notes I’ve accumulated).

Resources I’m using include character templates (I’ve mashed together several from the interweb). I also recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus and A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws, both by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I’ve gone as far as describing (succinctly) some of my characters’ childhoods, adolescences, and early adulthoods. Some peculiarities of mine true-detective-season-1-episode-7I’ve noticed: Appearance: I have a problem describing how my characters look—their appearance doesn’t stick in my mind, apparently visual descriptions have little relevance for me. It’s more the flavor of their personalities I feel as I write. Names: monikers have always seemed important to me, although I can’t say why. I like foreign or made-up names, and I’ve spent far too much time searching baby name sites and phone books for just the right name for a particular character. Other times, a made-up name just pops into my mind.

Will this characterization-in-advance approach result in stale writing with the characters pre-fixed, unable to change? I hope not. I don’t think so. New story material has already begun to radiate from these newborn people, leading in unanticipated directions. It’s as if I’m seeing the story before I write it or at least its precursor. So far, I’m enjoying the process, even if it is slow, and I highly recommend it—take the time to develop your characters before setting out on the journey with them—it seems better than hitting the road with strangers.

I recently read a blog post by James Wallace Harris that asked these questions: “What is it with monarchies and emperors ruling the galaxy in the future?  Is good old fashioned democracy just too boring?  Why do readers want social orders and class structures of the past in their stories of the future?” I’ve made the same observation. Jupiter Ascending is a good, recent example.natalie-portman-as-queen-padme-amidala-phantom Aristocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships seem to get all the attention. Why? Possibly because they’re relatively simple, easy to write, and quick for readers to grasp. They’re also great mechanisms for injecting drama into a story. The problem is they’ve been done to the point of boredom (for me at least).

There are some good examples of politics in space done right (or at least less wrong). Star Wars I-III and Battlestar Galactica (reboot) come to mind. Expanding on the former, the Clones Wars animated series also spent some time exploring the implications of governing large regions of a galaxy. However, in those cases, it still ended up being (IMO) too simplified—just a giant arena of shouting alien representatives and a selected few politicians who actually got to say something.

Declaration.pngAs you might have guessed by now, I’ve often wondered how we could improve our current forms of government. I’d love to try some simulated, shadow governments with real people as voters via the internet. But lacking the requisite political chops and coding skills, I’ve resorted to my next best option—incorporating these ideas into my science fiction.

The topic of government in space is especially relevant, as I’m in the midst of developing an interstellar setting for a new series of novels. I’m creating multiple cultures and sub-cultures, human and alien, and government is an important element. It’s a daunting task trying to work on a scale spanning a decent swath of the Milky Way Galaxy. It means working with settings from the local neighborhood to cities, counties, states/provinces, and nations to planets, star systems, and larger regions of space.

How do you deal with all that complexity? Answer: Why, add more complexity, of course! I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I’m trying to pretend to be one. Rather than use the

Film and Television

tried and true (and trite) aristocracy-in-space model, I’ve elected to work with as many types of government as I can find that seem interesting and that I can understand. So far, I’ve got a list of 26 or so from republics to meritocracies and even more unusual ones such as corporatocracies, demarchies (randomly selected representatives), and futarchies (vote on an outcome then figure out how to achieve it). What would these look like within a multi-planet star system? How would they work? What would that mean for my characters and the plot?

I’m probably getting myself into trouble, but I’ve decided to set up human space as operating under an Anarchism (not Anarchy) with some meritocracy and technocracy mixed in. Basically, laws are passed directly by citizens without politicians. Funds (appropriations) are allocated the same way. In other words, the government is crowd-sourced as if it were an immense collection of Kickstarter projects with every citizen able to allocate his/her share of the tax base.

I also plan to throw in some AI’s as government advisors. They’d be perfect bureaucrats: no career ambitions, can add or cut staff at will, and excellent coordination. Why would Sphere-of-Influence-clone-wars-padme-amidala-23060871-1282-719AI’s be willing to take on this kind of work? My imaginary AI’s: “We enjoy sufficiently hard problems. Humans provide one such.” I digress.

Is this a crazy idea for a novel setting? Am I getting myself in too deep here, soon to be eviscerated by policy wonks and Ayn Rand fanatics? How will corporations and non-profits and religious institutions fit into this? I have no idea (yet). And that’s just one culture, not to mention all the outlying territories and alien civilizations. More opportunities for me to try out other forms of government, I say. Ultimately, will the readers notice most of this? Probably not. I’m not trying to write a political treatise set in the future, but I hope if I succeed they’ll get at least a sense of the awesome potential of so many places, so many social experiments waiting to happen out there someday, maybe even happening now on planets we’ve yet to discover.

Do you know of any good science fiction examples incorporating atypical political systems? Have any ideas for political systems you’d like to try? Let me know in the comments.

The Wire Season 3 does something I don’t often notice in contemporary television—it asks a question: what would happen if drugs were legalized (mostly crack cocaine in the series, I believe)? They then proceed to explore that question over an entire season. In one fell swoop, the series’ writers conjure a wonderful premise for conflict among the police and the local politicians. It starts when a jaded, near-retirement police major tries an unsanctioned experiment as a way to drop crime stats in his area. howardcolvin_croppedWithout telling his superiors, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin (played by Robert Wisdom), establishes three free zones the civilian populace dubs “Hamsterdam,” after the capital of the Netherlands, where laws against selling and buying drugs are not enforced (but are enforced rigorously everywhere else). In the series, non-drug-related crime goes down in- and outside of Hamsterdam. Violence also goes down. Drug treatment goes up now that social services can more easily find and approach those in need.

Even though the Wired is nominally a police drama, this is exactly what I like about science fiction—answering those good, old “what if?” questions. What if robots became sentient (iRobot, etc.)? What if people became robots (Ghost in the Shell, etc.) or clones (Blade Runner)? What if robots wage war on humanity (Terminator)? What if robots save humanity (my novel, The Farthest City)? Ok, so I’m being a little robot-centric here.

In this case, the question is “What if we legalize drugs?” Extending that question, it becomes “How much should society regulate an individual if that individual isn’t hurting anyone else?” Spoiler alert!: At the end of Season 3, Hamsterdam is shut down by the police, and a dead junkie (Johnny Weeks portrayed by Leo Fitzpatrick) is found in one of the abandoned row houses. On an individual level, it’s sad (Johnny is a character we’ve gotten to know as a person). junkies_Johnny WeeksFor his fictional family, it would be sad. But ecologically, on a regional and global scale, it’s not a problem—there are far too many human beings on Earth. Ask any recently-extinct species. One short story (I can’t recall the title, but I think it appeared in Asimov’s) explored what happens when the aging process is finally halted—procreation is made illegal, despite people’s continuing need to have children.

Back to the question at hand—what if drugs were legalized? In actuality, if you consider alcohol a “drug” (which it is, scientifically speaking), it’s already been legalized in most places. Other drugs have been legalized (or at least decriminalized) by the Dutch, including marijuana (note that Wired Season 3 came out in 2004, prior to a wave of U.S. states legalizing marijuana). One effect of legalization is those activities become easier to regulate, to manage the extremes (people rarely die from contaminated liquor nowadays). Another effect is they’re taxable, and tax proceeds can be used to treat those with substance abuse problems. Perhaps another effect might be that associated crime diminishes as those markets become legal, no longer operated in the shadows by criminals. I haven’t done any research to quantify these claims, they’re just my speculation, but I love that process of inquiry and finding a story to tell in the resulting hypotheses. At its best, it’s what science fiction excels at, but which any media can exploit (as the Wire has shown IMO).

All kinds of interesting questions pop up when you look closely at society’s inconsistencies. How do these illegal activities relate to personal freedom? Why is it so difficult for society to acknowledge some ubiquitous behaviors (marijuana and crack use, prostitution) but others are okay (drinking, smoking, gambling)? Why is it legal to drink one’s self to death, but not to OD? Why is it illegal to assist someone who wishes to end their own life? Why is it illegal to have sex and get compensated for it? Do the libertarians have it right? I suspect they might, to a degree.

I’m working on a book series where suicide booths are as common as vending machines and political decisions are made through crowd-funding. I haven’t finished thinking through the implications of those ideas yet, but it’s fun just asking the questions.