Science Fiction

Orphan Black, the many roles of Tatiana Maslany

Tatiana Maslany as Alison, Helena, Sarah, Beth, Cosima, and Katja.

Orphan Black is a new science fiction television show produced by BBC America and Space, starring Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. I recently discovered this series, the first season of which just finished airing in the beginning of June 2013, and I plowed through all 10 episodes in two days.  It’s a smart, complex, often dark yet at times quite funny, and well-paced show with a continuous narrative arc that explores the issues of identity and intellectual property. There is fine acting all around but the two standouts are Tatiana Maslany, who plays many roles on the show for which she deservedly won a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series, and Jordan Gavaris, who plays the foster brother of one of Maslany’s characters.

Minor spoilers follow, but everything I mention is revealed in the first episode or featured prominently in the official publicity for the show.

The science fiction element of the show is pretty low key. You won’t see much in the way of futuristic technology in this series. Instead, the plot revolves around the controversial subject of human cloning and the early stages of body modification and genetic engineering. Who are we if we are not biologically unique, if there are others out there who are genetically identical to us? How much would our experiences and personal choices shape who we become despite this? What would you do if you encountered to your surprise not one but two or three or more other people who look exactly like you? What is it that makes us human? These are some of the questions explored in Orphan Black.

The series begins by introducing us to the main character of the show, Sarah Manning, played by Maslany. Sarah is an orphan, born in Great Britain, raised by a foster mother, and moved to Canada at an early age. Now a young woman, we meet her trying to escape a wild life of crime, drugs, and an abusive boyfriend. Sarah aims to get her life back together, reclaim custody of her daughter Kira from her foster mother Mrs. S, and scrounge up enough money to make a new life somewhere for herself, her daughter, and her foster brother Felix (played by Gavaris).

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Oblivion Movie Poster

The other day I found myself watching a soccer game. The players were not very good: defenders were constantly out of position, midfielders of the same team were bunching together and stealing the ball from each other, few passes were completed, and those that were often gave the impression of being accidental. Once, the goalie was even caught standing inside the goal when one team took a shot. Fortunately for them, the shot went well wide of the mark, despite the fact that it was taken a mere ten feet from the mouth of the goal.

Notwithstanding the poor level of play, I was enraptured. I cheered, I groaned, I shouted encouragement. I never missed a second of the action. What is more, I had just as eagerly watched the 30-minute practice that had preceded the game. The reason for my enthusiasm was that one of the players was my four-year-old son. There is a lesson there for storytellers of all stripes.

Oblivion is the second opus of director Joseph Kosinski, who also gave us Tron. It is a perfectly average movie on net, with some attributes rising a little above and others sinking a bit below. Of all the changes one might suggest to improve the film, the single most important one would be to populate it with characters we care about. The same thing that turned an hour and fifteen minutes of abject boredom into an engaging experience on a small soccer field in central Ohio would have dramatically improved every single scene of Kosinski’s work.

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Android's Dream by John Scalzi

Amazon / Audible

The Android’s Dream, a novel by John Scalzi, is a science fiction tale that takes place in the not too proximate future. This was my first experience with Mr. Scalzi, and I came away impressed enough to want to read other titles by him that have garnered more acclaim. There are a variety of different tones and elements in the present novel, in use of which Scalzi demonstrates talent. He can be funny, clever, action-oriented, and even, on occasion and to a small degree, poignant. I was not always convinced by the way he mixed these different tones together, but overall the novel was a fun read. Scalzi exhibits the flair of a true storyteller with his well-refined and polished plot and cast of diverse characters.

The title refers to a line of specially bred sheep, named in honor of Philip K. Dick one supposes, which become the object of a hunt to prevent an intergalactic war. When a group of men of varying interests conspire to insult an alien diplomat during trade negotiations, the blowback leaves Earth on the brink of war. As things get increasingly out of hand — to the point where even the original conspirators begin to doubt the course they have plotted — an agent of the American government must find an Android’s Dream sheep to offer to the aliens, as appeasement, so they can sacrifice it in an important ceremony.

I do not know whether or not Scalzi has written sequels or other novels in this world, or if he plans to, but he has a knack for world creation that would seem to leave a lot of room for future work in this universe. There are different alien species with odd customs and cultures, eccentric politics, a variety of characters, and a number of odd social developments (including a religion devoted to Evolved Sheep whose adherents belong to one of two categories: true believers, and those with a sense of humor who want to make the Church’s prophesies come true for the fun of it). The message is not profound and the characters are not explored in the kind of depth that makes them stick with you long after you have closed the book for the last time, but the story is coherent, moves well, and provides a few interesting twists that give it a little kick at the right time.

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Prometheus Unbound Podcast

In episode two of the Prometheus Unbound Podcast, Matthew and I (Geoffrey) discuss libertarian speculative fiction and introduce the Book of the Month, Today’s Tomorrows Writing Prompt, and Fiction Forecasts segments of the show.

We break the ice with some brief chit-chat about what we’ve been reading before seguing into our discussion of libertarian spec fic. The Book of the Month is Coyote by Allen Steele. In Today’s Tomorrows Writing Prompt, we turn a speculative eye on the very real possibility of an intellectual-property dystopia. And in Fiction Forecasts, we talk about upcoming (at the time of recording) television shows, movies, and books.

What We’ve Been Reading

Libertarian Speculative Fiction

We covered a lot of ground in our discussion of libertarian spec fic, but we really only scratched the surface of this broad, deep, and no doubt controversial topic. I’m sure we’ll be revisiting many of the stories and issues we covered, and many more besides, in future episodes. So subscribe and stay tuned!

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the things we covered: what qualifies a work of fiction as libertarian; libertarian themes in science fiction and fantasy; why they seem to be more common in science fiction and why libertarians seem to favor this genre; our favorite works of libertarian spec fic; the Prometheus Awards; and probably more that I’m forgetting as I write this.

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