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Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Futuristic Stink of Amazon’s Science Fiction

Farts linger, far into the future. So suggests Solos, the latest sci-fi show on Amazon Prime. Even though its characters deal with everything from time travel to superbabies to memory theft, they still get gassy. No fewer than three times, Peg, a space-bound septuagenarian played by Helen Mirren, talks about her old-lady toots. (All hail Queen Elizabeth Number, ahem, Two.) Elsewhere, Anthony Mackie’s Tom describes, to a cloned version of himself, his wife’s code-red stink bombs. Twice! Actually, make it thrice. Thieving the selfsame memory in the finale, the great Morgan Freeman rehashes the stench.

That Solos was made during a global pandemic, a time of endless sitting with ourselves and our smells, makes a certain olfactory sense. To watch such on-the-nose theatrics is to feel, if not seen, then sniffed. But as any gastroenterologist will tell you, excess gas usually points to a deeper issue, more chronic in nature. To diagnose it, then—this diegetic dyspepsia—a comprehensive examination of the patient must be performed.

Amazon has shat out science-fiction programming for years, and it ranges, on the smell-o-meter, from the merely obnoxious to the just plain noxious—a flatulence that fluctuates. Early on, the company mostly Philip K. Dick’d around, first with an adaptation of Man in the High Castle and then with Electric Dreams, an anthology series based on that author’s short stories. The former collapsed in due course, and the latter was never more than off-brand, harder-trying Black Mirror, but at least neither strove to speak to our bowels.

Throughout the week, WIRED is publishing a series of essays about the current state of streaming services. Read about Netflix losing its cool here.

With Solos, Amazon stoops to a condescending science fiction that’s just like us, farts and all. As in Electric Dreams, each episode is self-contained, but the show squanders any advantage that format has—as a playground for ideas—by focusing on the people. On their so-called “humanity,” as David Weil puts it. He’s the creator of Solos, and what he’s creating, he says, is “human connection.” Never mind that, to establish it, he resorts to awkward world-building, stagey melodramatics, and characters who are, in every way, full of shit.

Apologies for the potty mouth, but the fault lies with Amazon, whose science fiction practically overflows with bodily discharge. Enjoy the animated vomit, in Undone; in Upload, the dancing streams of computer-generated pee. Even the studio’s most artistic attempt at an adult drama, Tales From the Loop, occasionally finds its head in the toilet. A sort of Our Town of tomorrow that shifts its focus from one sad human (or robot) to another, the show truly plumbs the depths. In the ickiest scene, an older man goes number one, misses his target, and has to clean up the mess. The camera cuts to the stray yellow droplets and everything. Poor Jonathan Pryce, an actor of distinction, potential pissed away. When his character drops dead a while later, it seems less of health complications than of shame.

Shame, too, is felt by the audience. As these fictional future humans connect with us by way of that most universal of processes, expulsion, our own stomachs begin to bubble and ache. Is that all we are? Grotty, leaky fleshbags, mucking up clean, utopian futures? To Amazon, no shit. Humans have urges and needs, and Amazon exists to fulfill them. In fact, if you keep watching, it’ll even show you how.

If there’s anything Amazon likes more in its science fiction than reminding humans of their disgusting humanity, it’s depictions of its megacorporate self. Sometimes, it’s right there in the title. In Tales From the Loop, the titular Loop is a mysterious organization whose societal contributions shape the course of daily life; the startup Upload, in the show of the same name, seeks to trap paying customers in a simulated existence for all eternity. Elsewhere, the institution interpenetrates reality, everywhere and nowhere at once: a Matrix-like simulation run by rich people in Bliss, the AI company in episode 4 of Solos. (Uzo Aduba’s in that one, the most shamelessly Covid-centric.) In The Boys, the faux-edgy superhero shockfest that blows up brains in place of having one, it’s called Vought, an ultra-evil Pharma giant with fingers in every global conflict. Then there’s Autofac, from episode 2 of Electric Dreams.

Behold the truest stand-in for Amazon. Autofac is a drone-delivery corporation, run entirely by machines, that populates the world with fake humans once the real ones die out, just so they have more customers to send products to. It’d be kind of a funny joke, if Autofac didn’t then turn those fake humans into sick slaves. Experiments with drones, automated factories and grocery stores, AIs in every home: These are Amazon’s real-world efforts as well as the subject of the “fictional” stories it produces, schemes of subjugation and mass dehumanization infinitely mirroring each other into a collapsing oblivion.

So to recap: There’s this megacorporation. It’s science-fictionalizing our everyday existence. At the same time, it’s selling us a science fiction of “human connection” premised on the inevitability of just such a dehumanized/megacorporatized future that’s also designed to either obscure or make light of—farts!—that very fact. Gross.

It’ll only get messier. At a certain point, the other big tech companies will have to make meta-science-fictional moves of their own. So you’ll see blockbusters brought to you by Google, utopian series developed by Facebook. Apple TV already has its own burgeoning sci-fi empire, with three shows and counting, and Microsoft has sponsored a sci-fi anthology based on research from its own labs. “Science fiction prototyping,” the futurists call it. Why merely create the future, when you can also tell people how to live, breathe, and go to the bathroom in it?

And none of these companies will ever claim influence over the creators they’ve commissioned for this purpose, of course. Full creative license, they’ll say. Tell whatever stories you want. Don’t fall for it. Whether it’s utopias or dystopias, art or trash, science fiction should never be underwritten by the institutions invested in making it science fact. Especially when so much original sci-fi exists outside the corridors of corporate power, even if it’s accessible only via enemy territory, on platforms like … Amazon Prime. Its catalog of rentables is, truth be told, unparalleled. Costs more money to tap into, yes. And the best stuff is hard to find amid the rows and rows of agitprop. But you know who’s there to help? Real people.

So the next time you scroll over to Solos, or Upload, or The Tomorrow War on Prime—a science fiction in which you accept your lot as powerless in the face of global domination—try this. Don’t hit Play, but scroll down instead. There, you’ll find a category called “Customers who watched this item also watched.” It’s the last, best place on the site for human-generated recommendations. The more to the right you scroll, the weirder the stuff gets. Funky, forgotten space operas. Boisterous ’80s fantasy. Farther and farther you’ll travel from the control of Amazon, its tentacles, its overreach. You’ll be staging a rebellion from within, the way science fiction always intended, and you’ll notice a change. Your stomach will settle, the gas will pass, and you’ll breathe fresh air again.

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