Love Death & Robots

Beyond the Aquila Rift: Beautifully animated short that wonderfully conveys Reynold’s “space is really, really big” perspectives.

I was somehow blindsided by the existence of the Netflix animated anthology show, Love, Death & Robots. I’d heard nothing about it, knew nothing about it, and basically wasn’t even aware of it until a friend told me to watch it. Maybe that’s the child-centric life of a parent speaking, but I can’t help feeling like it generated no buzz until it quietly arrived on scene. Either way, hey. New Scifi show. That’s always a good day, right? So I sat down to watch it.

 

“When the Yogurt Took Over” is classic Scalzi: amusing and devoid of anything meaningful.

 

There are a lot of things I can gripe about with LD&R, and I will. It’s an anthology show, so it’s wildly uneven. Tone shifts from episode to episode, animation quality shifts, etc.  It’s a series on a streaming service, which means it’s pretty close to “anything goes” in terms of content, and so there’s way more in the way of gratuitous nudity and sex than I’d really like to see. But there are some things that it does really well, and one of those things is letting the authorial voice shine through in its episodes.

There might be some original stories in LD&R‘s first season, but the vast majority appear to be based on short stories by established authors. Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Marko Kloos, and John Scalzi all have episodes (along with others), and for better or worse, the episodes feel like their work. It’s really a neat thing for a guy who’s read at least a dozen books from Peter F. Hamilton to get to sit down and watch what genuinely feels like a Hamilton story unfold on screen. The same goes for the others, though I’ve read less of their works. (About half a dozen for Reynolds, maybe three each for Kloos and Scalzi.) “Beyond the Aquila Rift” and “Zima Blue” both bear Reynold’s trademark hard scifi with light body horror; “Sonny’s Edge” gives us Hamilton’s oft visited question of “How will biotech change lives in big and small ways?” There are four (!) episodes bearing Scalzi’s name, and they are, as Scalzi’s work frequently is, amusing and vapid.  The worst episode, “The Witness,” is written by no one I’ve ever heard of, but it certainly feels like it would be the sort of story written in present tense, beloved by Worldcon, and probably nominated for a Hugo by virtue of being mildly in the territory of speculative fiction if you look at it cross-eyed with your head tilted just so. (Alright. No more Hugo jabs for today.)

“Suits” feels like the collision of Starcraft and one of my son’s tractor books, and it’s beautiful.

What makes this really frustrating is that it’s hard to recommend Love Death and Robots unreservedly. Many episodes are good, but feel like they’ve had sexual content added to them because, “Hey. No FCC breathing down our necks, guys! Boobs and wang for everyone!” And yeah, someone is going to tell me I’m a prude, but, you just don’t need what was in most of these stories. Case in point: “Suits” is an utterly charming episode about farmers protecting their crops, homes, and families from hordes of ravening alien beasts, and if there was so much as a nip slip in it, I missed it. “Ice Age” and “Lucky 13” are similarly sex-free, and, similarly, top of the pack.  In fact, those three are the top of the pack. “Ice Age” is an amusing live action episode in the vein of Cowboy Bebop‘s “Toys in the Attic” or Futurama’s “Godfellas”: an ancient freezer with left over food develops a civilization. It’s not earth shattering, but it’s fun, and I laughed a lot harder at a nuclear war than I should have. “Lucky 13” is one of Mark Kloos’ episodes, and is predictably military SF, following the pilot of a dropship that hangar scuttlebutt says is bad luck. Maybe it’s the aviation buff in me, but I found it heart warming.

The B-tier episodes are still pretty enjoyable, but many of them are too sexed up to be comfortable: “Sonny’s Edge,” about an underground bioengineered monster fighting league and the secret of an undefeated fighter. “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” about a FTL jump gone wrong. “Good Hunting,” (By Ken Liu, translator of the Three Body Problem) about a shape-shifting fox learning to survive the death of magic as a steampunk revolution sweeps through China. (It also spends an annoying amount of time griping about colonialism.) “Zima Blue” is another Reynolds story that, if I recall correctly, isn’t sexed up, but is animated too abstractly to hit the right notes for me. Outside this second string, most episodes aren’t complete stinkers, outside of “The Witness,” but didn’t really grab me as they could have.

“Lucky 13,” the story of a dropship and her pilot.

I’m in a weird place with Love, Death  & Robots. There’s some really good stuff in here, dragged down by some garbage and the need to be adult just because. It is, as I said, hard to recommend without hesitation, but at the same time, I really want to see another season– because I want to see more authors that I’ve enjoyed get some screen time. More Hamilton and Reynolds. Give me some Dan Simmons, some Larry Corriea (Tom Stranger would be great here!), Jim Butcher, John C. Wright. Neal Stephenson. Heck. I’ve got a few written that might fit the bill… just put some clothes on those people, eh?