Larger than Life: A review of Syfy’s The Expanse

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If there’s one thing you can say about Syfy’s new show The Expanse (broadcast on Space for us lucky Canadians, eh), it’s that it doesn’t mess around with the title.

This show is big. It’s huge!

The premise behind the latest sci-fi adventure to hit our view-screens is that by the twenty-third century, mankind has expanded beyond Earth and has colonized the moon (now called Luna), Mars, and the asteroid belt just past Mars (known simply as “The Belt”).

This isn’t your happy-go-lucky brand of aggressive interstellar settlement; rather, these territories have been divided into factions, and as you can expect, these factions don’t exactly get along. At the outset of the show, the United Nations, who control Earth and Luna, find themselves on the brink of war with the highly militarized Mars. Meanwhile, poor working-class ‘Belters’ struggle for basic necessities in the Belt, while simultaneously supplying these necessities to anyone who is bigger and stronger than them (which is everyone).

So yeah, it’s big, and it gets bigger. After all, you learn all of the above in the show’s first thirty seconds.

Over the course of the first episode, “Dulcinea”, we are introduced to a stunning array of characters—so many that zero-gravity isn’t the only thing that makes your head spin. Cast is one place where this show seems to overstep its bounds, becoming a little too large for its own good. With settings bustling with activity, the viewer very quickly gets the feeling of impersonality, reminiscent of promenade scenes in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

This can be a good thing, if that’s the effect a show is trying to achieve. However, many scenes, including the opening of this episode, seem to evoke a more personal feel akin to shows like Firefly, in which a single down-to-earth crew deals with down-to-earth problems, albeit in a fantastic universe.

The contrast between the show’s attempts to create a grand space opera and the moments when it tries to focus more on the intricate workings of its world(s) can be a little jarring.

Fortunately, the show does focus down onto a small handful of main protagonists.

The first we meet is Detective Miller (Thomas Jane) of the massive metropolitan space station Ceres in the Belt. He’s your classic morally grey veteran, police officer, and tough guy, and he seems to be pissed off by at least one person at all times. It’s a trope that’s been done to death, but if you’re anything like me, it’s still nice to see grumpus over there almost flush a smooth-talking sleazeball out an airlock for “not holding up his end of the bargain.” There’s still a lot of potential with this character, especially considering the setting in which the show has placed him, and Jane does a decent job of giving the character depth through his acting. If the show was just about Detective Miller, it would probably be a pretty good show.

Next we’re introduced to the strapping Jim Holden (Steven Strait), the second of our gruff ‘manly man’ characters. Eye candy with a slacker attitude, he serves as a deck officer on the Canterbury, an ice freighter travelling around the Belt in a very Firefly-esque struggle for a solid day’s earnings. Again, his character is one we’ve seen before, but the show does a decent job of making him someone that you can at least imagine caring about. Over the course of the episode, we see him and his crew reluctantly explore a distress beacon, only to find more mystery and tragedy than any of them wanted. If this show was just about Jim Holden and the crew of the Canterbury, it would probably be a pretty good show.

Finally, we’re star-struck by UN Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a family woman who seems to have some much more sinister pastimes than babysitting her grandson. Our first female protagonist, most of her appeal comes from her enigmatic qualities. I wouldn’t go as far as to call her a female Frank Underwood in space, but it’s not exactly a leap. However, just because we’ve seen similar characters before, doesn’t mean she’s any less interesting. Aghdashloo’s acting is wonderful, and the character herself spawns questions galore for the show to expound in future episodes. If this show was just about UN Deputy Undersecretary Avasarala, it would probably be a pretty good show.

Both the promise and the problem of this show stem from its combination of all these stories.

Like I said, this show is big, and part of the reason it’s big is because it explores so many corners of its universe. However, in a universe as diverse as the one we see here, these corners can look very different.

As I’ve already mentioned, there isn’t all that much new here; we’ve seen both the characters and the premises before. In order for it to be a truly great show, the goal for the series should be to connect these very diverse stories in a way that viewers haven’t seen before—which is quite a task.

It makes a good start as this first episode progresses, adding unique elements and subtle connections that allow us to see these characters as all existing together somehow, but it is still to be seen how this idea will play out over the series.

Unfortunately, we see when the show gets too big more than once, showing that a ‘shoot for the stars, land on the moon’ mentality isn’t always the right one. The special effects, though passable, leave a lot to be desired, and the pace is slow enough at points to be unmemorable. When you factor this into the already large issue of trying to capture too many parts of this massive universe into one comprehensible story, it all proves quite daunting.

Is the show good? That really remains to be seen. The first episode was good. It wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t revolutionary—it was good. It played on old tropes and familiar concepts, but kept them fresh enough to make me (literally) scream for more when the credits rolled. It was good.

Yes, it’s big, and big isn’t always good—but at least it has potential.

The Expanse premiered on Space Channel on Monday, December 14 at 10pm and broadcasts weekly on Tuesdays at 7pm. Episodes are also available for streaming at Space.ca.

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

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Star Wars: the Force Awakens—We’re Home

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It’s been nearly ten years since the release of the almost universally loathed Star Wars prequels, and over thirty since we first witnessed the Star Wars that generations know and love. When Disney revealed that they are making a new trilogy, with new filmmakers, of course we were nervous. But the release of The Force Awakens proved those nerves to be unfounded. J. J. Abrams and company have not only given us a return to form for the galaxy far, far away, but they have delivered a movie that in the Star Wars series might only be outshined by The Empire Strikes Back.

From the opening shot of the movie, Abrams reveals what kind of ride we are in for: one that reverently loves the original trilogy and is going to deliver a new twist on a familiar world.

Just to get it out of the way, yes the original cast are back. Carrie Fisher slips in as General Leia in what is more of an extended cameo, along with C-3P0 and R2-D2. Yes, Luke Skywalker is in the movie. That’s all I can say about that.

Harrison Ford is also back as Han Solo, alongside Chewbacca. Watching them feels like coming home. Ford is fantastic as a grizzled, older Han. At no point while watching do you think “look, it’s Harrison Ford in a costume” the way you did when watching the fourth Indiana Jones movie. He is Han Solo. He slips back into that role, and he owns it. That really is Han Solo strutting around the Millennium Falcon.

But this isn’t just two hours with the cast of A New Hope in their old age. The new characters of The Force Awakens are incredible, and I’m happy to admit that within the first half an hour I was sold on following the adventures of this new generation.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is the first new character we meet. He’s described as the best pilot in the Resistance, and he knows it. Isaac brings a swagger and charm to the role so easily that if I look him up in the dictionary I’d expect the word “likeable” to be written next to his name. His is a character we don’t get enough of, and I hope that he makes a bigger return in episode VIII.

The real stars (pun intended) of the show, are John Boyega as Finn and Daisy Ridley as Rey. A Stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn is a dorky, lovable guy just trying to get along in the universe and escape the villainous First Order. Finn is all-around just a good guy. His chemistry with Rey, Poe, Han Solo, and even Chewbacca will make you smile, and it’s worth mentioning that Finn is funny. Many of the films best laughs come from him, and it’s hard not to love how much John Boyega clearly enjoys being in Star Wars. But Finn is not alone; a lot of his best material comes from the chemistry and clear friendship between him and Rey.

Simply put, Rey is amazing. Between her, Jessica Jones, and Mad Max’s Furiosa, it is a refreshing year to be a fan of great female leads in science fiction movies. A scavenger on the planet Jakku, Rey is both fierce and kind. She charges through the movie with an emotional and physical fervor that the Luke Skywalker of yesteryear never quite managed. A silent introduction of her sliding down a desert sand dune, buzzing around on a speeder, and watching the sun set through a dusty rebel pilot’s helmet sets the tone for the character without a word. Her reaction to seeing a forest after spending her whole life in the desert pulls at heartstrings, her friendships with Finn and Han Solo make you cheer, and when Rey gets down to battle, you’re on the edge of your seat. Without the friendship and capability of Finn and Rey this movie would have been great, but with them it’s damn near perfect.

Also, the new droid of the film BB-8 is surprisingly lovable. I was ready to find him just as annoying as the infamous Jar Jar, but no. BB-8 is great. He bleeps and bloops lovably and capably along. I’d happily accept a BB-8 of my own. I’d call him buddy.

Of course, you can’t talk about Star Wars without talking about villains. The shiny Captain Phasma does far less to deserve her spotlight than Boba Fett ever did, First Order General Hux is appropriately Naziesque, and Supreme Leader Snoke isn’t really enough of a presence to justify a real opinion.

This leaves the weight of villainy on the shoulders of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. There was always a threat of delivering a villain who was just not as good as Darth Vader (something Lucas’s prequels fell prey to each time), but The Force Awakens cleverly circumvents the issue. In fact, the long shadow cast by Vader’s image is one of Kylo’s principle motivations. Kylo Ren is different kind of villain, and it works. When he meets our heroes for the climactic lightsaber duel (I don’t consider saying there is a lightsaber fight a spoiler), he delivers the dynamic exciting clash between the dark side and the light that Star Wars must always have.

It’s hard to say much about the plot without spoiling the movie, but I can talk about the structure. The plot of this movie is simple, coherent, and easy to follow. Yes, there are elements and beats we have seen before. This is a movie that needed to convince us that Star Wars is back, so there are certain things it needed to do. This is not a criticism, because while The Force Awakens is nostalgic for the original 1977 film, A New Hope was in turn nostalgic for Flash Gordon and the Westerns of the 1950/60s. Star Wars was always nostalgic for something, so the reverence shown in this film was rightly placed. I went into a movie theater to see Star Wars, and that is what I saw. I couldn’t be happier.

Yes, there are small problems, but hey, nothing is perfect! The fact that I only really find issues when I go in to nitpick (one interaction between Leia and Chewbacca didn’t ring true for me) means it was a pretty good ride.

One word of warning: if you walk into The Force Awakens expecting a completely original plot with nothing you’ve ever seen before, you’re going to be disappointed. J. J. Abrams has come on record to say that A New Hope is his favorite Star Wars movie, and it shows here. But for me, I went in to watch Star Wars, and by gods, Star Wars is what I got.

In fact, after two hours, if I’d walked out and been told the next one was playing right away, I would have happily walked right back in and taken my seat. Ladies and gentlemen and variations thereupon, here are my thoughts on The Force Awakens summed up: Star Wars is back. It’s the best it’s been since Empire.

May the Force be with us all!

-Contributed by Benjamin Ghan

The Women of Star Wars: Part Two

Be sure to check out the first part of this article, which covers Beru Mars, Mon Mothma, and the slave girls on Tatooine.

Shmi Skywalker

Hoo boy. A Virgin Mary joke here is way too obvious, but suffice it to say, there’s a reason why Phantom Menace is considered to be the absolute worst of the Star Wars movies. Seriously, if you want an example of how threatened the Star Wars movies are by women, just take a second to see if you can slot every female character I’ve talked about into the virgin/whore paradigm. Shmi, of course, is the ultimate example of the virginal mother figure. She’s a character composed entirely out of archetypes with zero personality (this makes Anakin’s later descent into evil less-than believable, because, as we saw with Beru, I don’t think anyone is emotionally invested in her death). If I’m really digging deep here, I can say how I like that she’s not especially good-looking—unlike almost everyone in the prequels, she looks weathered. Her dialogue is terrible, and so is her personality. If Jar Jar Binks didn’t exist, she would be the worst character of the prequels.

Padmé Amidala

Oh, Padmé. Never has a character been such a charisma-suck. You have to feel sorry for Natalie Portman. She did her best with the crap that was handed to her. This character only exists to give a pretext for Anakin’s fall from grace. Not even a good pretext—did anyone else find the reasons behind Anakin’s turn to the dark side completely unbelievable? The original idea—that Anakin was an arrogant, talented man who was seduced by the controlling power of the dark side—seems much more believable than the idea that a good man seriously believed he could save his possibly dying wife by slaughtering a bunch of children. The tragic hubris of the original story is destroyed by this plotline.

Anyway, poor Padmé is a complete failure of a character on almost every level. She has zero personality, and seemingly no failings—besides being completely boring. She’s basically a younger version of Shmi, which admittedly gives Anakin’s obsession with her an intriguingly Freudian component. I could go on for pages and pages about the many failings of Padmé Amidala as a character, but I’m going to zero in on a specific one that has always bugged me: the various costumes this character is forced into. They make no sense and they’re incredibly distracting. I understand that Padmé is a senator, but Leia wasn’t running around in ridiculously elaborate and constricting gowns throughout the original trilogy. Even as a refugee, or when she’s sleeping, Padmé’s costume (including hair and makeup) is exceptionally detailed. This has the unfortunate effect of undermining her credibility, since the script seems invested in making her seem down-to-earth, but the costuming tells a completely different story.

Leia Organa

Into this horribleness comes Leia Organa, a character so good she doesn’t actually seem to belong to this franchise. Leia is sharp, more than a little shrewish, judgmental, and I love her. Leia is such a good character that she single-handedly almost contradicts all previous evidence that Star Wars is a hostile place for female characters. The great thing about Leia is that she is actually a three-dimensional character with idiosyncrasies, flaws, and actual human dialogue.

Rey

This analysis is going to be short, because we know very little about her yet, but I think based on the rest of this article, we can all agree that another interesting female character is long overdue for this franchise. And, good news! Early appearances are promising! She’s wearing clothing that looks similar to Luke Skywalker’s outfit in A New Hope, which leads me to believe that she will going on the same epic hero’s journey.  I was also really excited to see the moment in the trailer when she offers a hand up to John Boyega’s character, Finn. That one gesture has more confidence and agency in it than I’ve ever seen from a woman in Star Wars.

Like almost every other Star Wars fan out there, I apprehensively learnt that Disney had acquired the Star Wars franchise and was planning on expanding the saga. I was even more apprehensive when I learned that J. J. Abrams was directing. I absolutely loathed his adaptations of Star Trek. Wow, were they ever bad—stupid too, which is absolutely unforgiveable when dealing with such a thought-provoking legacy. However, if we’ve learned anything from the prequels, it’s that a proven track record of making great films in a franchise doesn’t stop you from coming back and making terrible ones. So I guess there’s no reason why a man with a proven track record of making terrible franchise films can’t come up with a good one. And we do have Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote The Empire Strikes Back) writing the script, so that’s not nothing. In the end, it’s really hard to see how Abrams could do worse with Lucas’s legacy than Lucas did himself, so let’s see what the Lost creator comes up with.

-Contributed by Lara Thompson

The Women of Star Wars: Part One

Space opera is a fascinating sub-genre of speculative fiction—part science fiction, part Western, and all action. Star Wars is undoubtedly the most famous example of the space opera—rightly so, as it’s fantastic. I’m unabashedly critical of movies, but every time I get to the last thirty minutes of Empire all I can think is, “This is so good.” I’ll give credit to Lucas; I don’t think he wrote Star Wars exclusively for guys. However, anyone who’s ever watched the movies (especially the original trilogy) is struck by how Princess Leia is apparently the only woman in the universe.

Being a woman certainly doesn’t stop me from identifying with Luke Skywalker. He’s a human being, after all, and so am I. But what bothers me is how every female character in Star Wars is incredibly two-dimensional, with the notable exception of Princess Leia. Congratulations Carrie Fisher, you had the unenviable task of carrying the weight of your entire gender on your shoulders and you succeeded admirably.

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Photo from http://makingstarwars.net

In my opinion, the really stunning moment of the trailer for the new adaptation was the revelation that the new trilogy is going to focus on a female protagonist: Rey. In honour of this overdue leap forward, let’s take a look at the past women of Star Wars.

Beru Lars

It’s never a good sign when the first significant female figure in the series is killed twenty minutes into the first movie and is never mentioned again. Beru and Owen Lars exist to tie Luke Skywalker to Tatooine, and the plot necessitates that they die in order for Luke to relinquish his hold on his old life and start his adventure.

Beru exists as a loving bridge between her husband and her adopted son Luke, who have fundamentally different ideas about what Luke’s future should hold. She is also the one who first points out that Luke “has too much of his father in him,” thus starting a trend throughout all the original films of people remarking that Luke resembles his father. Of course, the horror of that statement is only really revealed in Empire where we learn exactly who it is that Luke resembles so much. Beru exists as a plot device—her death is the tragedy that spurs the hero forward. In that light, it makes thematic sense that not a lot of time is spent establishing her character. Beru does show up in the prequel films as well, but no new information is really given about who she is as a person. Of course, as we’ll see later when we get to Shmi Skywalker, if you don’t establish a character complexly, the audience is not very emotionally invested in their death. This works to the advantage in A New Hope, since it is a light-hearted film, but backfires in Attack of the Clones.

Mon Mothma

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Photo from http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Mon_Mothma

I decided to include Mon Mothma mostly because she is one of the only women to have ever appeared in the original Star Wars films, and also because she plays such a monumental role in the Expanded Universe. I’m not going to explore the Expanded Universe in this blog post—it exists outside of  the canon for most fans—but it’s important to realize that Mon Mothma is essentially the leader of the rebellion, even in the original films. She has also been the subject of many jokes since she is “the only other woman in the universe” besides Leia. If you haven’t yet checked out the Family Guy parodies of the classic Star Wars films, I highly encourage you to do so, if only because that joke gains especial poignancy when you realize that Angela, Peter’s boss in the cartoon, parodies Mon Mothma and that Angela is voiced by Carrie Fisher herself. Interestingly, in addition to being the only other woman in the universe, Mon Mothma, much like Leia in the first film, is shown almost entirely in white, continuing the trend of female political figures attired in spotless white.

The Slave Girls on Tatooine

Sexual violence is downplayed in Star Wars—with good reason. The sort of trauma that results from rape doesn’t really fit into the Star Wars feel of everything being alright at the end of the day. After all, we never see Luke grieve for his slain relatives ever again and Leia does not even mention Alderaan after the first movie. Leia’s torture in A New Hope is non-sexual (we are even more thankful for this when we realize that Darth Vader, the interrogator, is her father).

However, though it is never explicitly spoken of, there is an undertone of sexual violence in Star Wars. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. Slaves are seen dancing for the entertainment of Jabba’s court. In a famous scene, Jabba tries to draw a Twi’lek dancing girl towards him by her neck chain. When she resists his advances, he cuts the chain and throws her down to feed the Rancor. After she is captured, Leia is forced into the famous bikini-outfit, which certainly carries an implication of objectification and potential sexual assault. Jabba licks or kisses her in an off-camera moment (again, he draws her to him by her chains).

Check out my second post, featuring Shmi, Padme, and, of course, Princess Leia!

-Contributed by Lara Thompson

Illustrated by Gwen Wolinsk

More Societal Quirks of Widespread Cryonics and its Contemporary Status

*Scroll down/ click here to read part 1 of this blog*

Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel Cryoburn discusses a number of social issues that arise in a society in which cryogenic preservation is commonplace.

While driving around Kibou-daini, the planet on which the novel takes place, one of Miles’s retainers notices a discomfiting sign that advertises a gated community in a rather novel way. It asks, “Did you die 100–150 years ago?” His local guide explains that some of the small number of people cryo-revived are not fans of modern Kibou-daini, and try to form enclaves of their age class to maintain isolation from the younger generations. This seems to be a satire of one of the common reasons for undergoing cryonics: the desire to see what sort of future humanity has made for itself. Since we typically associate the progression of centuries with positive social and technological change, one would assume that the future one wakes up into would be an improvement upon the past, but there is no guarantee of this; as Bujold points out, what happens if you don’t like the future? In another instance of wry humour, Bujold also states that some unfrozen customers choose to go back into cryosleep, hoping that they will one day be woken up in a society more to their liking.

Bujold identifies another issue, something often glossed over by a number of sci-fi authors: what happens if the technology, like all human technology, is prone to problems? Upon agreeing to cryonic preservation, prospective clients need to have a lot of trust in their company, since if something goes wrong with the procedure, the clients will never find out.

This very scenario forms a substantial part of Cryoburn’s storyline. Before the events of the novel, one of the largest cryocorps, NewEgypt, developed a bad batch of cryofluid, which, after about thirty years, allowed a set of clients’ bodies to decay until they were unrevivable. Cryofluid, a mixture of various chemicals, is pumped into a person’s blood vessels during preparation for cryonic preservation, which prevents the formation of tissue-damaging ice crystals and assists with the preservation process.

In a move typical of a large corporation, NewEgypt decided to cover up this problem and attempted to sell off the contracts of their unlucky clients. This illustrates not only the problem of allowing corporations to amass vast political power, but also another interesting difficulty with cryogenic technology—humans tend to be short-sighted due to our inherently short life spans. Cryonics, however, operates on the scale of centuries, which makes it a difficult enterprise to maintain, as both the necessary technology and maintenance structures would need to last for an amount of time that is outside the typical human window of understanding.

Bujold also seems to suggest that Kibou-daini’s cryonics may have led to an unhealthy focus on death. Due perhaps in part to the marketing and omnipresence of the cryocorps, Kibou-daini is a world obsessed with cryonics and an ‘afterlife’ so to speak. There is an almost ancient Egyptian fixation with preparing for a future life.

The main antagonist of the story is, fittingly, the NewEgypt cryonics company which preserves its clients in giant pyramids. Even those without the resources to pay for high-quality cryonics try to find some way to get themselves frozen. As Miles notes, “Kibou-daini was a planet so obsessed with cheating death, even the street people managed to scavenge hope” in the form of an unlicensed cryofacility he stumbles upon (Bujold 36). This intense focus on ‘cheating death’ may be responsible for the unfortunate economic conditions of Kibou-daini, as the welfare of the dead seems to be trumping that of the living.

Though her overall picture of a post-cryonic society is quite negative, Bujold does highlight the fascinating possibilities of cryonics to potentially extend lifespans, and likens the cryorevival that she depicts to a technological resurrection. Bujold also suggests that, should cryonics be developed, it will inevitably rise to prominence, due to the human desire for immortality. As Miles also point out, those groups which refuse to undergo cryonics (known on Kibou-daini as the Refusers) will be like religious sects on Earth that practice strict abstinence—by nature of their very beliefs they will cause their own extinction.

How close are we to becoming Kibou-daini? Though cryogenic revival is still very much a technology of the future, cryonic preservation has been going on since 1962. A number of corporations (The Cryonics Institute, Oregon Cryonics, and KrioRus are some of the main ones) offer cryogenic services, and currently around 270 people are being maintained in cryonics facilities. Due to current laws (in America, at least), cryonic preparation can only be started after a person is legally dead. Most cryonics companies offer two types of preservation: head and whole body. Head (or neuropreservation) is the simpler of the two options, as there is less tissue to prepare; however, corpses prepared this way would require technology that could provide a new body for their use.

After a client’s death, all their blood is drained from their body and replaced with specially formulated cryoprotectant fluid containing various anti-freeze chemicals that are intended to reduce ice crystal formation in blood vessels. The client’s body is then gradually frozen and stored at around -196 degrees Celsius. At present, cryonic preparation is quite a complex operation, and requires a team of surgeons. This, combined with the need to wait for legal death, can increase the cost of cryonics, as the client must pay for a team of cryogenic surgeons to be nearby when they are on their deathbed. Preservation typically costs between $12,000 (for neuropreservation only) and $800,000 for full body preservation from a top of the line company. These costs are one-time payments (though one can arrange a yearly plan before one’s death) as yearly payments after death are obviously problematic.

People who undergo cryonic preservation now are banking on the eventual development of a number of theoretical technologies. These include advanced nanobots capable of regenerating body tissue, medical advances in curing diseases, android technology, and mind uploading (a theoretical technique wherein a person’s mind and memories would be scanned and transferred into the medium of computer magnetic memory). Outliving ourselves may not just be the stuff of sci-fi anymore.

-Contributed by Chris Boccia

Politics and Popsicles: The Social Effects of Cryogenic Preservation

Humanity has always been fascinated by the idea of resurrecting the dead. In classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, human resurrection moved from the realm of myth to that of science fiction thanks to the advent of electricity and the industrial revolution. One increasingly prevalent method of facilitating resurrection in sci-fi is cryonics. Though a common hallmark of technological advancement in a number of futuristic worlds, few writers have contemplated the larger implications of its addition to the average person’s end of life options. Science fiction author Lois McMaster Bujold, however, has tangled with the social implications and hazards of cryonics—she has in fact written a novel almost entirely dedicated to an exploration of the subject.

Since the early 1920s, cryonic preservation has been one of the most popular technological solutions to the desire for resurrection, and has been featured in a number of science fiction books, television series, and films. For those unfamiliar with the art of making human popsicles, cryonics is the low-temperature preservation of human brain and body tissue after death, with the goal of eventual revival pending technological advances. In a number of futuristic sci-fi pieces, cryonic preservation and resuscitation are routine medical procedures. Some famous recent examples include Interstellar, which featured cryosleep, the suspension of healthy humans to avoid aging; 2001: A Space Odyssey, which proved you should never trust a computer with deep-frozen humans; and the second installment of the Star Trek reboot.

The vast majority of writers tend to use cryonics to place a contemporary person in a futuristic society (in the original Planet of the Apes, for instance) or, in the case of Star Trek, to allow for the speedy revival of the franchise character. Cryonics is thus used only as a vehicle. In some cases it’s used to allow for a connection between contemporary readers and the main character and to simplify exposition (it’s much easier to justify having a narrating character go on for a page about the cool society you’ve written into existence when they have to explain things to a two-hundred-year-old reanimated popsicle). Or, it allows for a main character to be killed off temporarily.

Bujold, however, does a much deeper analysis of cryonics in her Hugo Award-nominated novel, Cryoburn. Set on the planet Kibou-daini, it features her most well-known protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan. In his capacity as Imperial Auditor (a kind of high-level investigator and troubleshooter) of the planetary government of Barrayar, Miles has been tasked with analyzing the business practices of the White Chrysanthemum Cryonics Corporation, which has recently opened a branch on a Barrayar-controlled world.

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In Bujold’s futuristic universe wherein space travel and extensive genetic manipulation are eminently possible, cryonics is also a well-developed field; however, it is mainly used as an emergency medical strategy to stave off brain-death when a person dies in an area where medical help is inaccessible, and is generally short-term. In The Vorkosigan Saga, cryonics is primarily used to attempt to preserve soldiers killed in action for eventual resuscitation.

On Kibou-daini, however, cryonics has become something of a cultural phenomenon. The majority of the planet’s citizens opt for cryopreservation after death, which has led to the proliferation of massive cryonics companies and a number of associated political issues. Kibou-daini can be viewed as the embodiment of a Bujoldian thought-experiment: what would happen in our contemporary society if cryonic technology advanced so as to become both relatively affordable and effective? Bujold also offers her opinions on this thought-experiment via Miles, whose views will determine whether or not his alliance of planets will welcome commercial cryonics.

Centuries of cryonics have deeply altered both the Kibou-daini political and social systems. Cryonic preservation has become more prevalent than life insurance is in their current society, and is viewed as a public service as necessary as healthcare. Like how we pay into retirement plans, most Kibou-danians who can afford it pay yearly fees to cryonics companies, who will preserve them if the worst comes to pass.

This societal setup is not, in of itself, terribly problematic—as one Kibou-daini native notes, the system worked well initially. Kibou’s downfall came when a small number of successful corporations took advantage of the planet’s capitalistic economic system and bought out the majority of the smaller firms. These companies have, correspondingly, grown incredibly powerful as they accumulate both the wealth and influence that comes with caring for the future lives of millions. The resulting corporation-controlled ‘democratic’ political system bears a certain uncanny resemblance to that of modern-day North America. On Kibou-daini, however, the corporations’ political sway is also abetted by a certain legal problem which comes along with advanced cryonics: What constitutes ‘death?’

Under modern definitions, a person is legally dead if their heart stops beating. With technological advances that permit resuscitation of those properly cryofrozen however, this clinical definition of death cannot really be applied. Instead, Kibou-dainians are only considered dead when their brains are so damaged or decomposed that a successful cryo-revival would be impossible. Thus, since they are still technically ‘alive’, cryopreserved Kibou-dainians retain their assets and an important privilege despite their frozen state: their right to vote. As a person in cryonic stasis would have difficulty marking a ballot, their voting proxies (as well as their assets) are kept by their cryonics company. This arrangement is problematic for a number of reasons. Issues of corruption aside, it has also led Kibou-daini into a bizarre situation where, since death rates vastly exceed revival rates, the cryofrozen ‘dead’ can outvote the living via their corporate sponsors.

Bujold thus seems to be critiquing the American capitalistic economy and simultaneously suggesting that, should advanced cryonic technology be developed, its beneficial effects in terms of individual life extension may be offset by negative social effects.

Be sure to check out Part Two of this post! 

-Contributed by Chris Boccia

-Illustrated by Lorna Antoniazzi

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Peace in Their Time

“No peace in our time, growls the war-mongering renegade Klingon General Chang (Christopher Plummer) as he fires on the USS Enterprise. But peace in our time is what Star Trek VI is all about.

When the legendary Leonard Nimoy approached director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II) with a proposal for a new Star Trek movie, he led with the idea: what if the wall in space came down?

Many pieces of this movie mirror actual peace-making processes of history, and so in reference to the Chernobyl disaster, the movie begins when the Klingon power plant moon of Praxis explodes in front of the USS Excelsior, commanded by Captain Hikaru Sulu. With the space around the Klingon Empire now in disrepair and in need of an evacuation, peace must be made with the Federation if the Klingons are to survive. This peace process is pushed forward by the Klingon Chancellor, as opposed to the Federation.

Then enters The USS Enterprise, and our heroes become entangled in this political drama. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) calls the Star Fleet captains to discuss the treaty. In response, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) betrays his bigoted hatred of the entire Klingon race, a hatred which was cultivated when, in an earlier movie, a Klingon extremist killed Kirk’s son.

So Kirk, Spock, their crew, and the new Vulcan addition Valeris must reluctantly forge the way for this new peace treaty.

Of course Kirk must be the one to escort the Abraham Lincoln-esque Klingon Chancellor Gorkon, because to quote Spock: “only Nixon could go to China.”

But sadly, in the image of those who strive for peace, such as Lincoln, Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin, and Anwar Sadat, Gorkon doesn’t get to see his dream of peace fulfilled. After one dinner party scene (in which every character just quotes Shakespeare because I guess the writers were hungover that day), the Enterprise is framed for the assassination of Chancellor Gorkon. With Kirk and McCoy arrested for his murder, it seems like peace is slipping out of reach.

What follows is a dark and comical murder investigation aboard the Enterprise as Spock and the crew search for the assassins. Meanwhile, Kirk and Dr. “Bones” McCoy are put on trial, and sent to an alien gulag prison on a planet so cold that the surface will kill you in minutes. There is no escape.

However, after a couple of wonderful fight scenes with aliens—which Kirk wins with a swift kick to the knee (that wasn’t a knee, he is later informed)—and after Kirk takes a moment to reflect on his blind hatred of the Klingons, the party escapes. This is done with the help of a shapeshifter (with the obligatory make-out session with the captain), who guides them out.

But the shapeshifter betrays them, and then morphs into… Captain Kirk. Now folks, say what you will about Will Shatner, but him playing a female shapeshifter playing him is amazing.

He yells, “Surprise!”

He makes kissy faces at himself.

When the original Kirk says “I can’t believe I kissed you,” his shapeshifter counterpart replies, “It must have been your lifelong ambition,” which sent me into such a violent fit of laughter it scared both of my cats.

But eventually they escape, and Spock discovers that the masterminds behind the assassination were in fact his Vulcan disciple Valeris, a Star Fleet general, and Klingon General Chang. Irony abounds as in their determination to sabotage an interspecies peace treaty, these three members of different species were able to conspire together for war.

Valeris is arrested, and the Enterprise rockets off towards the peace summit being held between the Klingons and the Federation. Kirk, who has reconciled with his prejudice, is desperate to stop the assassination of the rest of the leaders who could save the treaty.

Enter General Chang, with a Klingon warbird ship that can fire its weapons even when “cloaked” (invisible, for the uninitiated). It turns out that it was Chang who fired on Chancellor Gorkon! Christopher Plummer’s character is just full of cheese—he laughs maniacally while spinning in his chair and blasting the Enterprise and most of his lines are just disconnected Shakespeare quotes. But his most important line is certainly: “Admit it Captain, it’s better this way.”

Chang genuinely believes it would be better for them all to kill one another than to have peace, because he doesn’t want to stop hating.

That is the true brilliance of this movie, a cheesy space opera based on the end of the Cold War. The message of this movie isn’t lost with time. If it’s not a story about the Cold War, then it can easily become a story about the Middle Eastern conflict of today. This is a story about change, about warring sides finally laying down their arms, and about how everyone is vulnerable to bigotry. That includes both the best and the worst of people. The end message is that bigotry and racism need to be pushed aside to form a better world. Star Trek VI shows that we mustn’t be afraid to forge a better future together, and we shouldn’t be so afraid to lose the flawed world of today.

Of course, the Enterprise beats Chang’s ship (with Sulu’s help), and they stop the assassination. When Kirk shakes hands with Chancellor Gorkon’s daughter, he tells her what her father told him:

“It’s about the future, Madame Chancellor. Some people think the future means the end of history. Well, we haven’t run out of history quite yet. Your father called the future the undiscovered country. People can be very frightened of change.”

These words ring true today as well. So whether it’s here on earth, or out there amongst the stars where no one has gone before, I say raise a glass.

Here’s to the undiscovered country.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan