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Love, Death and Robots

Entry updated 6 February 2023. Tagged: TV.

US animated online tv series (2019-current). Blur Studio for Netflix. Created by Tim Miller. Executive producers Joshua Donen, David Fincher, Jennifer Miller and Tim Miller. Directors include Jerome Chen, Victor Maldonado, Tim Miller, Gabriele Pennacchioli and Alfredo Torres. Main adapter Philip Gelatt. Voice cast includes Elly Condron, Peter Franzen, Zita Hanrot, Michael B Jordan, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, Steven Pacey, Kevin Michael Richardson, Emma Thornett and Scott Whyte. 35 episodes of 6 to 18 minutes. Colour.

Recalling such Television Anthology Series as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Love, Death and Robots – whose origins lie in a planned revival of the Heavy Metal film franchise – mainly features adaptions of short stories. Episodes are made by studios from around the world, using different types of animation, though hyper-realistic CGI and 2D dominate.

Season One included three stories by John Scalzi, two by Alastair Reynolds and others by Claudine Griggs, Peter F Hamilton, Joe R Lansdale, Ken Liu, Alberto Mielgo and Michael Swanwick. The genre is largely sf, but some episodes centre on Supernatural Creatures, with many including strong Horror elements (see Horror in SF).

This is an often impressive and memorable set of episodes, employing an interesting variety of art styles. The standouts are Reynolds's art-focused "Zima Blue" (Summer 2005 Postscripts) by Passion Animation Studios, and Scalzi's humorous "Three Robots" (as "Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind from the Era of Humans for the First Time" in Robots vs. Fairies, anth 2018, ed Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe) by Blow Studio. Also noteworthy are Hamilton's urban-gladiatorial "Sonnie's Edge" (September 1991 New Moon) by Blur Studio; Mielgo's strange and cyclic "The Witness" (original to this series) by Pinkman TV; Swanwick's microcosmic "Ice Age" (January 1984 Amazing) by Digic Pictures/Blur Studio/Atomic Fiction; Griggs's spacewalking crisis "Helping Hand" (June 2015 Lightspeed) by Axis Studios; Reynolds's lost Starship tale "Beyond the Aquila Rift" (in Constellations: The Best of New British SF, anth 2005, ed Peter Crowther) by Unit Image; and Liu's Steampunk "Good Hunting" (2012 Strange Horizons Fund Drive Bonus Issue) by Red Dog Culture House. Most of the remaining stories range from fairly good to adequate, about half being Military SF.

There are flaws: though promoted as an adult series, the viewer might sometimes feel they are experiencing a fourteen-year-old's notion of adult perks, with gore, titillation and swearing aplenty; meaning that – fine and dandy as the aforementioned are – opportunities to explore ideas in Art, science and society with any depth are not often embraced (exceptions here being "Zima Blue" and, with caveats, "Good Hunting"). In "Beyond the Aquila Rift" the inserted soft porn scene might be seen as merely a gratuitous interruption; but with "Good Hunting" the repeated objectification of Yan (as fox-girl, woman and Cyborg), apart from being uncomfortable in itself, undermines the story's themes of colonialism, abuse and culture. Additionally, some stories' use of aggressive banter as a substitute for characterization can be wearying.

This was a landmark series for sf animation, though the percentage of stories written by women was worryingly low at 11%.

Season Two's eight episodes comprised: John Scalzi's "Automated Customer Service" (in Ytterbium 2019 Read Me, anth 2019, ed Ytterbium Committee), where a Robot carer tries to kill an old woman and her dog, with customer service proving unhelpful; Rich Larson's "Ice" (October 2015 Clarkesworld), set on a run-down colony planet (see Colonization of Other Worlds) where a group of youngsters – all but one biologically augmented – entertain themselves by racing across the ice as the frostwhales breach; Paolo Bacigalupi's "Pop Squad" (October/November 2006 F&SF), where Immortality means that reproduction is illegal, so a policeman's job includes shooting children; Neal Asher's "Snow in the Desert" (in May 2008 Spectrum SF, ed Paul Fraser) where bounty hunters seek Snow (Franzen), whose regenerative abilities make him immortal – he is helped by and finds solace with Hirald (Hanrot), a Cyborg sent from Earth; Joe R Lansdale's "Tall Grass" (in Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, anth 2012, ed Eric J Guignard); a passenger – who fittingly resembles H P Lovecraft – steps off a steam train that has stalled in the middle of nowhere and unwisely wanders into the tall grass; Joachim Heijndermans's "All Through the House" (Winter 2017 Curiosities); two children sneak downstairs to catch a glimpse of Santa ... who somewhat resembles the Alien from Alien (1979) – fortunately they have been good; Harlan Ellison's "Life Hutch" (April 1956 If), where a crashed space pilot (Jordan) makes it to a safety pod unluckily controlled by a malfunctioning robot; and J G Ballard's "The Drowned Giant" (in The Terminal Beach, coll 1964), where a naked giant washes up upon a beach and a Scientist (Pacey) observes its fate over the following weeks.

The season two standouts are the artistically thrilling "Ice" and the downbeat "The Drowned Giant", though the violent "Snow in the Desert" and amusing "All Through the House" are good too. The rest are moderately enjoyable, though "Pop Squad", not one of Bacigalupi's best and clearly chosen for shock value, suffers from the implausibility of the premise whereby almost everyone accepts that murdering children is the best means of preventing Overpopulation. Happily the second season drops the Fan Service of the first.

Season three had nine stories: John Scalzi's "Three Robots: Exit Strategies", a sequel to season one's "Three Robots"; here the robots visit the failed last redoubts of extinct humanity – survivalists, the rich and politicians; the super rich tried to get to Mars, but only Cats made it. Neal Asher's "Bad Travelling" (Space Pirates, anth 2008, ed. David Lee Summers): on an alien ocean a giant intelligent crab, with a taste for human flesh, boards a shark hunting vessel and, operating a corpse's vocal chords, instructs the new captain to take it to a populated island; when the crew vote to do so – rather than choosing a riskier option that will save lives – he feeds them to the crab before killing it. Michael Swanwick's "The Very Pulse of the Machine" (February 1998, Asimov's) has a stranded astronaut trekking across Io (see Jupiter): either the moon is a machine into which she is absorbed, or she is hallucinating due to the Drugs she takes to keep herself going (likely the former). In Jeff Fowler's and Tim Miller's "Night of the Mini Dead" (original to the series) an amorous couple's graveyard shenanigans brings about the Zombie apocalypse and ends with nuclear weapons destroying the Earth (see End of the World), though this is but a small fart from a galactic perspective; we observe events from a distance. Justin Coates's "Kill Team Kill" (SNAFU: Unnatural Selection, anth 2018, ed. Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding) has a patrol attacked by a Cyborg grizzly bear; there is plenty of wisecracking and gore in a deliberately ridiculous tale, affectionately Parodying the Clichés of Military SF. In Bruce Sterling's "Swarm" (April 1982 F&SF), the Swarm is a hive of mindless insects and their parasites; a researcher arrives with a mission to steal an egg; however, the hive (see Hive Minds) has often faced the unwelcome attention of intelligent life. A second Neal Asher story, "Mason's Rats" (November 1992, Orion), concerns a farmer whose rat problem results in an arms race between the intelligent rats and the technology of the pest control company: eventually he sides with the rats. Alan Baxter's "In Vaulted Halls Entombed" (SNAFU: Survival of the Fittest, anth 2015, ed Geoff Brown and Amanda J Spedding) has marines entering a cave, to be picked off one by one by spiderlike creatures, until the two remaining discover a chained abomination (probably an elder god from the Cthulhu Mythos) that instructs them to free it; one dies and we then cut to the other, now eyeless and earless, wandering the surface, uttering an incomprehensible language. Finally, Alberto Mielgo's "Jibaro" (original to the series) has conquistadors facing a gold and jewel bedecked siren; all are driven mad and kill each other – save one, who is deaf, and who takes her adornments, throwing her unconscious body into a river. When he then drinks, her blood in the water means he can hear – and is thus susceptible to her call.

The standout is "The Very Pulse of the Machine", but "Kill Team Kill", "Mason's Rats", "Bad Travelling" are good too. "Three Robots: Exit Strategies" and "Night of the Mini Dead" are reasonably fun. "Swarm" gets its tone wrong: the blasé voice of the Swarm's intelligent caste in Sterling's story is made menacing instead, undercutting the power of the story. The siren in "Jibaro" is visually interesting, but the story less so; similarly, the monster and its prison in "In Vaulted Halls Entombed" are adequate, but most of the characterization and plotting are routine Military SF. All the stories are at least enjoyable, but the individual impact of the gore-heavy stories is undermined by there being five of them. Frustratingly, as in season two, there were no woman writers; though there are two female directors. [SP]


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