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Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction

Collection: Slipping by Lauren Beukes

March 21, 2017

Single-author collections can sometimes feel like side projects, perhaps merely of ancillary interest in an author’s oeuvre. This isn’t the case with Lauren Beukes’ Slipping: Stories, Essays & Other Writing (2016), a bold, impressive record of her work’s unique energy and versatility.

Over the course of four novels, Beukes has developed a reputation for shifting effortlessly into new and different gears, her genre work running the gamut from post-cyberpunk SF to gritty urban fantasy to horror-tinged police procedural. Slipping reveals even more modes, a blend of traditional and experimental pieces that span multiple genres. Those early futuristic chops shine through in tales like “Branded,” which depicts a future in which corporate sponshorship mashes up with body modification, and the slick, prescient cyberjournalism tale “Riding with the Dream Patrol.” “Confirm/Ignore” is a sort of contemporary fiction that riffs on the notion of social media as vehicle for generating alternate realities, a before-its-time spin on the notion of Internet complicity in post-truthism. Just as engrossing are the more traditional SF stories like “The Green,” a vividly imagined colony world scenario, or “Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs,” an inventive, manga-inspired adventure with a humorous, stream-of-consciousness feel.

The non-SFnal tales are sociopolitically charged. The funny, fantastical “Princess” is a saucy, feminist reimagining of “The Princess and the Pea,” while more scathing glimpses of gender issues tinge the biting horror of “My Insect Skin” and the quietly creepy stalking plotline of “Parking.” Then there’s “Dear Mariana,” a clever epistolary of relationship horror that deploys a playful formal conceit.

Most of Beukes’ work brandishes the sharp edge of critique, targeting social injustice, gender inequality, and media manipulation, among other topics. When late in the volume the content switches over to non-fiction, the underpinnings of the author’s worldview come more into focus, while also illuminating her approach to fiction. Most striking of these is “Adventures in Journalism,” which paints a picture of Beukes’ journalistic roots and how they inform her creative process. There are also powerful pieces regarding her novel research: “All the Pretty Corpses” (The Shining Girls) and “Inner City” (Zoo City). The non-fiction selections are an effective touch to end the collection, highlighting the uniquely effective power of Beukes’ varied prose: her non-fiction effortlessly elevates real-life scenarios to the feel of heightened-reality legend, a reversal of the way so much of her fiction seems to be digging at a larger truth. I knew going in that Beukes was a powerfully talented wordsmith; Slipping broadened my appreciation more than I was expecting. Very highly recommended.

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Fiction, Science Fiction

Novel: Impersonations by Walter Jon Williams

March 20, 2017

Typically space opera isn’t wheelhouse reading for me, but when Walter Jon Williams is involved, I’m always game. Impersonations (2016) is a standalone sequel to the Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy of the early 2000s, and it’s an intriguing, fast-paced follow-up.

The original trilogy depicted a future interstellar empire composed of multiple species, conquered by a powerful alien race called the Shaa, who ruled their domain by a stringent set of guidelines known as the Praxis. The death of the last living Shaa led to civil war when a race called the Naxids attempted to fill the power void. Carolina Sula is a hero of the war whose command helped quash the Naxid rebellion. The only problem: she won the war through her own resourcefulness and ingenuity, rather than following the script of her stodgy higher-ups. As Impersonations begins, Sula has been “rewarded” for her success with a backwater command, running the shipyards of a now-insignificant planet called Earth. Fortunately, Sula is a history buff, and looks to make the best of her situation by delving into the ruins of humanity’s past. But her quiet posting is jeopardized when an old friend turns up whose presence could expose the darkest secrets of her checkered past. And this is just the first complication in a slowly escalating intrigue that ultimately proves explosive.

I loved the Dread Empire’s Fall series, and I suspect fans of the original trilogy will relish this return to its universe, even though the space opera trappings are scaled back slightly to focus on one familiar and yet strikingly different planet. While prior knowledge surely enhances the enjoyment, the story does stand alone, and the worldbuilding delivers a timely focus on alternative governance, which resonates interestingly in light of current events. Sula is a compelling and capable protagonist, and while the plot starts quietly, it builds nicely toward an exciting home stretch that delivers satisfying reveals that could point toward further adventures in the series. A bracing science fictional thriller.

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Science Fiction, Television

Lightspeed Review: Black Mirror

February 14, 2017

In my opinion, Black Mirror is one of the best science fiction television shows ever made. Have you watched it yet? If not, perhaps my review of this remarkable anthology series — now online as part of Lightspeed’s February issue — will tempt you. Check it out, and enjoy some great fiction while you’re there!

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Fantasy, Science Fiction

New Review in the February 2017 Lightspeed

February 1, 2017

It’s the first of the month, which means a new issue of Lightspeed is out! This month’s stellar lineup includes fiction by Ian R. MacLeod, Jack Skillingstead, Seanan McGuire, and Kelly Barnhill, among others. My contribution is a review of the brilliant science fiction TV show Black Mirror. (If you haven’t watched this show yet, you should, especially since we’ve all been living in an episode since the election.)

My review will be available for free online later this month, but there’s nothing keeping you from buying an ebook copy now — or better yet, subscribing to support this excellent magazine.

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Film, Science Fiction

Film: Eva

January 31, 2017

Polished, professional, dull as rocks: that’s my nutshell reaction to Eva (2011), a Spanish science fiction film that layers a futuristic surface over its conventional human drama. Alex Garel (Daniel Brühl) is a robotics genius who returns to his home town to complete a highly advanced project: a robot with human emotions. Which is ironic, since Alex seems to have repressed so many of his own emotions; strained encounters with his brother David (Alberto Ammann) and sister-in-law Lana (Marta Etura) soon reveal why. But David and Lana also have a daughter, Eva (Claudia Vega), a clever, precocious, and unpredictable 10-year-old who Alex quickly comes to believe may be the key to perfecting the emotional software of his creation.

The film boasts some gorgeous mountain scenery, an excellent score, and highly professional performances across the board, especially from the young Vega, a remarkable young actress who pulls off the film’s crucial role with aplomb. The CGI visuals aren’t entirely convincing, but they’re effective enough. What Eva lacks is a compelling narrative: there’s no momentum, no energy, and no real surprise, and because the characters aren’t particularly fleshed out or memorable, the plot’s bittersweet moments and tragic turns lack impact. It’s an earnest and attractive effort on many levels, but ultimately falls short.

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Fiction, Science Fiction

Novel: Zeroes by Chuck Wendig

January 26, 2017

Chuck Wendig’s action-packed hacker novel Zeroes (2015) has all the quirky character and spitfire language of his notoriously opinionated blog posts. Since that was pretty much what I was looking for, I found it satisfying, a fast and furious, cinematic read. It opens like a seventies heist movie, as government agent Hollis Copper rounds up and arrests a team of hackers: Chance, Aleena, DeAndre, Reagan, and Wade, a diverse bunch of computer geek misfits who are thrown together in the “Hunting Lodge,” a secret government facility where busted computer geniuses are put to work doing Uncle Sam’s dirty work. But this pod of five mismatched oddballs, who come to be known as “the Zeroes,” gradually come together as they start to make sense of the hacking challenges that are thrust before them.

Zeroes is a breezy, fun read, with a solid premise and well clocked plotting. Wendig likes his characters a little more than I did, I think: the humor of their bickering banter didn’t always entirely click for me. But their hearts are in the right place and they eventually make for a winning created family; similarly, the novel’s thematic subtexts are agreeabele, once you dig past the politically incorrect rough edges of its players. Happily, Wendig is as colorful and audacious in his fiction as he is in his opinion.

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Science Fiction, Television

TV: The Kettering Incident (Season 1)

January 24, 2017

It’s a good time to be alive if you’re a fan of atmospheric chillers where geography is character. The Kettering Incident is the latest in my queue to fit that mold, doing for the rainforests of Tasmania what Bloodline does for the Florida Keys, or — perhaps more relevant — what Fortitude does for its majestic Arctic island. It’s unsettling, gorgeously shot television that tells an intriguing story and transports the viewer to stunning, faraway places.

Dr. Anna Macy (Elizabeth Debicki) escaped a troubled childhood in the small logging town of Kettering, Tasmania in the wake of a tragedy, when her best friend Gillian disappeared. This “Kettering incident” hangs over the hard-luck town like a curse, and while it’s been dormant for fifteen years, it’s about to be reawakened. Anna, a hematologist who suffers from inexplicable blackouts, wakes up back in Kettering one day, not knowing how she got there…all the way from London. The villagers remember her, and not fondly; she’s emblematic of the troubles that loom over the community, which involve not just Gillian’s disappearance, but a faltering economy and an ongoing clash between millworkers and environmentalists. Only one person seems interested in Anna’s return: Chloe Holloway (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), an impetuous teenager whose brief involvement with Anna portends a new tragedy, and starts to peel away the edges of an intriguing local mystery.

A likely first impression of The Kettering Incident is that it’s the Tasmanian Twin Peaks, right down to the logging mills and troubled teen girls, the drug-running high schoolers and the sinister, scheming conspiracies. It’s also resonant of the spooky mysticism of The X-Files and Millenium, soft SF with a patient, super-serious tone. While it owes a debt to these trailblazing genre shows, it reminds me most of Fortitude, a similarly brilliant, slow-building creeper of horrific science fiction with intrinsic environmental themes. Fans of the above shows will find it appealing, then, but it’s also a distinctive show in its own right, with a haunting ambience that’s addictively immersive.

Alas, one area it doesn’t quite match Fortitude is in the strength of its characters. Debicki is mesmerizing as the haunted Anna, and there is some effective supporting work from the likes of Matthew Le Nevez, Henry Nixon, Damon Gameau, and Tilda Cobham-Hervey, among others. But the residents of Kettering aren’t nearly as quirky, diverse, or memorable as those of Twin Peaks or Fortitude. The breathtaking landscape, however, almost makes up the difference. Tasmania’s broad vistas and encroaching, lush forests paint an unforgettable picture of this unique, remote corner of the world, which serves as the perfect backdrop for a spine-tinglingly creepy story. There are a few slow patches on the journey from its masterful credit sequence to its jaw-dropping final moments, but they’re worth weathering. The Kettering Incident might not gets its hooks into everyone who tries it, but for the rest it will be difficult to forget.

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Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction

Collection: Collected Fiction by Hannu Rajaniemi

January 23, 2017

Hannu Rajaniemi is a remarkable writer. Even at his most difficult — for sometimes, indeed, he’s a tricky writer to process — he’s certainly one of the field’s most inventive and interesting voices. Collected Fiction (2015) is a vibrant mix of his various genre stories, uneven in quality, but breathtaking in range and scope. The pieces don’t always connect but when they do, it’s stunning, and even when they don’t, it’s difficult to deny the author’s relentless creativity.

Rajaniemi is known primarily for complex futuristic SF full of brain-twisting ideas and quirky neologisms, so for me one of the surprises of Collected Fiction is that it shows his signature style to be just one of many. Indeed, he writes effectively in more conventional modes: more traditional SF, contemporary fantasy, even the tinge of dark horror. Most successful of these, I think, are “Fisher of Men,” an evocative contemporary fantasy about a man who encounters sirens and sea gods along the coast of Finland, and “Paris, In Love,” a charming, fantastical short-short about requited love between a man and a city. “Satan’s Typist” is a snarly, clever horror short, and there are other intriguing experiments on display, like the Twitter microfictions of “Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories” and a text iteration of “Snow White Is Dead,” one of several possible results of a “choose-your-own-adventure” fiction piece designed to react to human brainwaves while read with a brain-machine interface.

But Rajaniemi is at his most impressive when inventing truly visionary science fictional futures, which at times he does with such effortless, future-shocky disorientation that it almost feels like the work of an SF writer from the future, working from an advanced science fictional playbook. One of his earliest stories, “Shibuya No Love” — which I had the good fortune of sifting out of the Futurismic slushpile when I was an editor — shows glimpses of the future worldbuilding brilliance that would turn up in stories like “Deus Ex Hominie,” “His Master’s Voice,” “Elegy for a Young Elk,” and “The Jugaad Cathedral.” These stories defy easy synopsis, but dazzle with colorful language, eye-popping visuals, and more ideas per page than most writers pack into an entire novel.

In its comprehensiveness, Collected Fiction has its share of weaker, merely good entries, and to be fair it loses some steam late in the volume. But it’s still an impressive record of one of the field’s most distinctive, ambitious, and restlessly creative voices.

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Science Fiction, Television

TV: The 100 (Season 3)

January 12, 2017

The 100 Season 3 PosterThere’s something about The 100 that makes me forget, between seasons, just how very good it is. I suspect it’s the same thing that delayed my interest initially: it simply doesn’t look like it should be that good. But every season, after a few episodes of warm-up, it quickly reveals itself to be one of the most engrossing, thoughtful, and powerful narratives on television, if not one of the most ambitious.

As season three begins, the young survivors of the hundred — along with the many other adults who survived the failing space stations — have established themselves in the wreckage of their ship, now the city of Arkadia. In the wake of the vicious clash which saw Clark (Eliza Taylor) and the hundred triumph over the treacherous citizens of Mount Weather, Arkadia is looking to forge a peaceful way forward. To that end, Clark, whose leadership against Mount Weather has gained her notoreity and respect, is working to leverage her influence with their leader Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) to become a new Grounder tribe, “Skaikru.” Unfortunately, the arrival of a new group of space survivors turns up, led by the fiery Charles Pike (Michael Beach), who has lost so many of his friends to Grounder brutality that he can’t accept the attempts of Clark and Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick) to make peace. Meanwhile, Theolonious Jaha (Isaiah Washington), who has left the group in a quixotic, spiritual search for the fabled “City of Light,” actually finds it — but his discovery, which may explain the mysteries of the end of the world, only leads to new threats.

Over its first two seasons, The 100 evolved from YA survival drama to a complex, gripping war epic. To start, season three continues in that vein, and felt like a show creatively spinning its wheels: new factions arrive to perpetuate the conflicts that previous events may otherwise have resolved, forcing the heroes to evaluate their moral codes and make new decisions. More of the same, in other words, well enough executed but not particularly innovative by the show’s standards. But about seven or eight episodes in, the season turns the corner, enlivening its science fictional scope and raising the stakes astronomically with an ingeniously conceived new threat. The second half of the season not only justifies the slow-build of the first, but redeems an extremely controversial mid-season plot twist — one that justifiably enraged large segments of The 100′s fan base, and yet ultimately serves the logic of the greater narrative.

Meanwhile, the show continues its impressive track record of thrusting its characters into thorny, moral gray areas, and carefully shading their points of view to make them relatable, even when their decisions are questionable. Survival ethics continues to be a major theme, but the show also looks at religious zealotry, the politics of fear, and the severe emotional consequences of grief, guilt, and trauma. The huge, diverse cast does a fantastic job with the material, even at its most melodramatic: it’s a particularly strong acting year for Lindsey Morgan (Raven), Devon Bostick (Jasper), and Marie Avgeropoulos (Octavia), but really there isn’t a weak link in the cast. My favorite character is still the snarky, resourceful neutralist Murphy (Richard Harmon), who always seems to be accidentally in the thick of things.

Transcending a slow start and the show’s familiar imperfections (questionable medical science and superhuman pain resilience continue to plague the show), the third season of The 100 ultimately escalates into another first-rate science fiction drama, with a truly epic finale. Looking forward to the next chapter.

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Film, Science Fiction

Film: The Coming Days

January 3, 2017

Interesting German science fiction drama The Coming Days* (2010) starts promisingly, but fizzles out down the home stretch. In the near future, Europe is in crisis thanks to energy woes, immigration problems, and unstable political conditions in neighboring regions. Against this backdrop, two sisters of a wealthy family find themselves on different paths: responsible Laura (Bernadette Heerwagen) wants to pursue a degree, get married, and have a child, while Cecilia (Johanna Wokalek) is lured into a political movement by her edgy boyfriend Konstantin (August Diehl). While Laura is busy trying to build a conventional, happy life with retired, bookish lawyer Hans (Daniel Brühl), Cecilia’s involvement with the extremist Black Storm group escalates into a radical, full-blown attempt to save the Earth — by dismantling civilization.

The Coming Days is an intriguing watch, and attempts some ambitious worldbuilding in its decade-long depiction of the collapse of the European Union. Its futuristic furniture is minimal, but effectively deployed, and it deftly uses science fictional themes to examine existential questions. The narrative strategy is also clever, as we follow one character living towards a future society that another is actively trying to destroy. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really pay off structurally, sputtering out in an ugly finale that doesn’t integrate the science fictional content and the human drama as well as the rest of the film. I suspect the messy ending is part of the point, but that doesn’t make it any more satisfying. Unfortunate, because it’s an attractive, ambitious film that’s well performed, with Heerwagen standing out in something of a proxy role for the average viewer. A stronger ending might have elevated it to greatness; as it is, it’s still worth watching, but with a disappointing aftertaste.

* The title on Netflix is The Days to Come, but I decided to switch to the IMDB translation.

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Film: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

December 30, 2016

Last year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens underwhelmed me with its formulaic approach and sly, winking nostalgia for the franchise’s past. This year, I went into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) with genuine enthusiasm, excited to see a standalone story less beholden to fan service and character continuity. Alas, I slammed into a wall of flat characterization, hollow spectacle, and an execution that felt soulless.

Bridging the gap between the prequels and the original trilogy, Rogue One tells the story of the brave rebel group that stole the Death Star blueprints which would enable Luke, Leia, Han, and company to score a massive blow against the Empire at the end of A New Hope. The key figure in this effort is Jyn (Felicity Jones), daughter of the Death Star’s reluctant architect Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Coerced into completing the Death Star, Galen has been secretly resisting the Empire from within, and his end game is to deliver to the Rebels the means of the Death Star’s undoing — a mission that relies on Jyn’s reluctant participation. A ragtag crew forms around Jyn, including ruthless rebel agent Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind martial artist Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his hard-nosed companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). This group forms the core of a rogue faction that inspires the Rebellion to stand up against the Empire.

Rogue One is generally entertaining, and not without its strengths; it’s certainly the franchise’s most mature, least cartoonish entry, with more rough edges and gray areas. At times it embraces its secret roots as a war film, reminiscent of The Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone, with its roster of misfits and scoundrels pulling off a highly dangerous, unlikely operation. And the first major action setpiece — an ambush orchestrated by the forces of Forest Whitaker’s rebel-within-the-Rebellion character, Saw Gerrera — is a gripping sequence of guerilla insurgency.

Unfortunately, the film has a debilitating flaw: uninspired characters. Jones and Luna are convincing enough soldiers, but aren’t particularly interesting, both poorly defined by the script and rather lifeless in the execution. They’re overshadowed by the underused Yen and Jiang, and to a degree by Tudyk’s robotic comic relief. But none of the heroes have enough presence to carry the day, or, for that matter, to match the expected but capable villainy of Ben Mendelsohn as Imperial officer Orson Krennic. The absence of a truly rallying team undermines what might otherwise have been a epic adventure.

Another major disappointment is that Jones is very nearly the token female character in the film; both the Rebellion and the Empire are shockingly male-dominated, even moreso than previous Star Wars films. (There are barely even any female extras in the background shots.) It doesn’t help that the film is structurally incoherent (especially early), and that there is creepy, jarring CGI stunt-casting, and that the universe’s technological rules vary randomly at the whims of the plot, or that the music doesn’t quite match John Williams’ usual memorable standard. But none of those issues would be as noticeable had the film given us a hero to rival Daisy Ridley’s Rey or John Boyega’s Finn. Instead, an unmemorable band of anonymous characters deliver a flashy but disposable spectacle.

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TV: 3% (Season 1)

December 27, 2016

Is it possible for art to be highly derivative and still feel wholly original? Look no further, perhaps, than Netflix’s Brazilian science fiction import 3%, a dystopian allegory that conjures memories of many genre ancestors, but is ultimately very much its own thing, fresh and different and powerful.

In a stark Brazilian future, wealth, power, and privilege is rigidly controlled by the Process, a yearly rite of passage whereby 20-year-olds participate in a series of tests for a chance to join an elite caste. The winners move on to the utopian society of the Offshore, while eliminated candidates return to the squalid slums of the Inland. Among the many hopefuls this year: the steely, determined Michele (Bianca Comparato); kind, wheelchair-bound Fernando (Michel Gomes); Rafael (Rodolfo Valente), a cocky rogue who will do anything to advance; Marco (Rafael Lozano), who hails from a long line of successful Process candidates; and tough, no-nonsense Joana (Vaneza Oliveira). These five, and others, provide candidate’s-eye views of the Process’s many difficult challenges.

Running the Process, meanwhile, is the calculating Ezequiel (João Miguel), whose control of the Process is called into question by a visiting Offshore agent named Aline (Viviane Porto), who arrives to monitor and possibly undermine his work. Ezequiel’s position is further endangered by intelligence that this year’s Process may have been infiltrated by an agent of “the Cause,” an underground protest movement. The system has been in place for over a hundred years, but weaknesses are starting to show and resistance is mounting. Is everything about to change?

The answer, of course, is hopefully3% is clearly an extended metaphor for the world’s current ills: the inherent inequality and injustice of neoliberal capitalism, where society’s citizens are pitted against each other in systemic, dog-eat-dog competition. The show’s world mirrors our reality, using the language of SF to render its harsh rules explicit, shining a light on just how heartless and entrenched our ways truly are. Even at its most obvious, it’s a raw, powerful political critique. As Michele, Fernando, and the others work their way through the constantly mutating trials of the Process, its rules grow increasingly random and arbitrary, calling attention to every unfair twist of fate that dooms candidates to impoverished obscurity in the Inland. Through it all, Ezequiel plays god, an emblem of the system’s cruel design. This is a sham meritocracy, where worth is defined less by character and ability than by ambition, luck, and sheer ruthlessness.

But there’s hope within this cruel system, and not just because the establishment is under siege — both from the Cause, and from internal politics, both of which threaten to tear down the system. The many well defined characters moving through the Process, even as they desperately seek to claw their way to a brighter future, occasionally show sparks of kindness, connection, and cooperation. Clearly, these moments suggest, there is a better way to run this world — and by extension, our own. From time to time, the bleakness of the setting is mitigated by this hopeful insight.

3%’s many stylistic progenitors are legion. The thematic approach resembles that of The Twilight Zone, in which the tools of SF are leveraged to touch on universal truths. The high-stakes tests capitalize on a potent reality show energy: think Survivor, but ratcheted up in intensity in the manner of Lord of the Flies or, more pertinently, The 100. (This peaks in episode 4, “Gateway,” in which a team challenge takes dark turns reminiscent of the Stanford prison experiment.) The systemic, age-based trials conjure comparison to Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, while enormous, post-industrial interiors and quirky fashions harken back to Logan’s Run. And then there’s a certain skiffy, thought-experiment ambience to the whole exercise that brings to mind many low-budget, high-concept SF films (many of which are streaming on Netflix) such as After the Dark, Circle, Cube, and Exam. There’s even some structural shades of Lost, as pre-Process flashbacks reveal backstory, peeling away layers of mystery.

But for all these ancestors, ultimately 3% has its own distinctive angle, its own feel. Some of this is surely cultural, a Brazilian voice examining the issues from a slightly different perspective. It could also be the unabashed way it leans into a rather unsubtle visual style, particularly in the set design and costume departments; it wears its messaging on its sleeve, but with such surreal conviction that it actually strengthens the emotional truth. It manages to stand outside its influences even as it slots quite comfortably among them.

Subtext may dominate, but 3% also boasts a sparkling surface. The cast is capable and charismatic, with Valente, Oliveira, and especially Comparato standing out. With one exception — episode 5 (“Water”), in which Ezequiel’s manpain-heavy backstory slows things down — its episodes possess compelling tension and urgent pacing. The sound and visual design is consistent, moody, and unnerving. Even its occasionally weak special effects, particularly the unrealistic CGI longshots, manage to contribute to an effective allegorical feel. Overall, it’s an impressive creation that manages to feel familiar and different, specific and universal, all at the same time. Recommended.

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