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Almost Human: Season 1, episode 2. Skin (2013)

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Almost-Human2

So catching up the pilot show with a recap, it seems the criminals were winning so, to even up the battle, the government of the day invested billions in creating androids to stand alongside the weak soft creatures and, when the machines could be bothered, carry the dead bodies home every time the criminals won. This seems an illogical use of taxpayers’ money. For rather less money, it would have been possible to pay for more human officers to man the barricades. Having these androids which can just be switched off if anyone broadcasts a radio signal at the right frequency seems less than sensible. And the first model, the ones with the synthetic soul — well they weren’t called the crazy ones for nothing. Putting this together doesn’t seem to create a very credible future society. Frankly, as technology goes, I prefer the idea of cloning or, if you want a more esoteric idea, the Kiln People by David Brin gives you clay duplicates called “dittos”. Staying on more conventional territory, we avoid all the problems of programming machines to become effective police officers by creating cyborgs, augmenting human biology with mechanical body parts.

Manufacturing womandroids for prostitution is not very original — the slang of this culture dubs them bangbots. I prefer the darker child androids for paedophiles in the Wonderland novels by Michael Shean (see Shadow of a Dead Star). Indeed, ever since AI populated Rouge City with empty sex machines like Gigolo Joe, I’ve been sceptical of the economics and the psychology that would enable humans to find machines sexually attractive. The sample on display at the start of Almost Human: Season 1, episode 2. Skin (2013) seems incredibly human including being remarkably dim — it takes guardian humans to come in, shoot the copyright thief and take their investment property away before it can be copied. This failure to program her to protect herself from investigation by bankrupt scientists, is just one of several appallingly sexist moments in this episode. Since these females are based on the same DRN platform as our heroic android, it would have been possible to make them as intelligent as him. Yet they are stereotypically sex objects for men to lust after while all they do is pander to male fantasies.

The killers use a DNA bomb to contaminate the scene — that’s a nice idea — so much more neat and tidy than actually blowing the room up. And the two guardian humans wear spray-on masks that prevent their faces from being seen by surveillance cameras (remember there’s a paywall on the NYT, but the article “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma” discussing incompetence starts with a man who thought lemon juice would have the same effect). Sorry, I was getting ahead of myself again. The sex machine at the beginning of the episode is leaving human DNA behind from a human woman who was abducted — you would think these stereotypical Albanians would watch her like a hawk and clean down any surfaces she was seen to touch. Anyway, it’s apparently illegal to have androids with human DNA. And then there’s another woman abducted, this time leaving a boy behind as a convenient witness.

Michael Ealy and Karl Urban driving (or not)

Michael Ealy and Karl Urban driving (or not)

We then tune into Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) and note our human hero’s potential dislike of kids and cats. Incongruously, we discover his testicles are also backed-up. I take this to mean his lack of mutual sexual activity is leaving him frustrated, but who knows what Dorian (Michael Ealy), our synthetic with a soul, sees when he uses his radar and other high-tech wizardry to remotely interface with his human partner’s balls. The thing I’m finding slightly puzzling is how this car is being driven. It doesn’t seem to be autonomous which is surprising given the sophistication of AI technology in the androids, yet our hero is not spending as much time as feels safe looking out the front windscreen. Obviously this allows him to have meaningful conversations with his partner (which are actually quite engaging), but the whole experience of the driving feels slightly wrong.

So where are we with this episode? It’s playing quite a sophisticated game with notions of trafficking, problems of identity and the nature of mortality. Human women are being abducted so that their skin and other relevant glands can be transferred to a production line of machines. Obviously, in the medium term, this kills the human woman but, since she cannot be endlessly programmed and reprogrammed, she’s too much trouble for our pimps to manage (unless sadistic men are prepared to pay a premium price for raping human women). Creating the ultimate machine with the look and feel of a real woman in all the right places is a great long-term business model. Except, for reasons taken to be so obvious they need no rehearsal in this culture, laws make it illegal to have machines with human DNA.

This strikes me as distinctly odd. The fact the skin is human (assuming it can be kept alive while grafted onto a machine) doesn’t change the nature of the machine. It’s just like a different set of clothes for the android to wear. Indeed, the only reason for this law seems to be so that the script can “kill” off the rescued machine, while patting the rescued human woman on the head and sending her home with her son. This gives our android the chance to offer hope to the nos morituri te salutamus machine. Yes, there really is an android Heaven and I’ll see you when I get there. I wondered whether Michael Ealy would smoke a last cigarette before powering down the bangbot. Where is his emoticon chip when he needs it? Surely he should be “feeling” something when the humans execute one of his kind for no obvious reason? Could he not leak a little machine oil from his soulful eyes? Meanwhile our human drives himself to the home of his ex-partner so he can be more human and tell the son of that family all about the father he lost. It’s sad that science fiction shows on US television feel they have to engage in sentimentality. Having played with the idea of our hero being sexually excited by bangbots while also feeling attracted to Detective Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly), the human woman working in his unit, it would have been enough to leave him allergic to kids. Having him turn into someone “nice” may win him prizes with the female demographic watching the show, but doesn’t feel very credible. This leaves me still feeling indecisive. Almost Human: Skin has a good relationship between Karl Urban and Michael Ealy at its heart, but the stories are not yet very coherent.

For a review of another episode, see
Almost Human. Season 1, episode 1 (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 3. Are You Receiving? (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 4. The Bends (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 5. Blood Brothers (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 6. Arrhythmia (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 7. Simon Says (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 8. You Are Here (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 9. Unbound (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 10. Perception (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 11. Disrupt (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 12. Beholder (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 13. Straw Man (2014).

Cry of the Children by J M Gregson

Cry of the Chilren J M Gregson

As we start Cry of the Children by J M Gregson (Severn House, 2013) the twenty-sixth in the Lambert and Hook Mystery series, Chief Superintendent Lambert, along with Detective Sergeants Bert Hook and Ruth David, is confronted by a case of abduction. Lucy Gibson is seven-years-old and a slight underperformer in school. Her “uncle” takes her to the fair. He thinks he has his eye on her as she goes on a ride but, when it stops, there’s no sign of her. So, in the best traditions of barkers who puff the wares of the different side shows on fair grounds, “Roll up, roll up! Test your detective strength on a Golden Age style child abduction and murder mystery. See the ex-husband as he huddles in his boarding house. Be amazed by the new man in the missing child’s life who may have something to hide. Look warily at the old paedophile as he lurks in his house near the abduction scene. Be worried about the slightly slow but powerful woman who took a baby in the past. Allow your prejudice a moment’s freedom when you see the Irish roustabout with sometimes more than voyeurism on his mind. And speculate on whether the mother would have a motive for spiriting her own child away.”

Although I’m approaching the review with a note of levity, this should not disguise the profoundly disturbing nature of the crime under investigation. To abduct and kill a defenceless child is one of the worst forms of homicide. Because we’ve grown less trusting as a society, parents are now more vigilant. There’s less tolerance for those who do not fit the prevailing standards of normality. So, for example, single men who spend time in play areas for children or near schools quickly become suspect and individuals with mental health problems can find themselves excluded from social activity when their behaviour triggers a prejudiced response. For the police, the list of suspects quickly comes down to the missing parent who has a motive to take the child, locals with criminal records indicating some predisposition to “attack” children, and those individuals in the community whose behaviour has been picked up in gossip. It’s all about motive and opportunity.

J M Gregson

J M Gregson

This is a story told by the omniscient author and, in this instance, I feel it places a slight barrier between the reader and the emotions of the characters. The technical problem, if course, is that once you open the door to different points of view, it’s easy to let slip the identity of the killer(s) before time. That’s why the classic police procedurals and detective stories tend to use a single character detective as the point of view. The result in this case is an admirable example of a puzzle to solve with a limited number of suspects. None of them have properly verifiable alibis and all have the means to commit the crime. In different ways, the individuals are either the usual victims of prejudice or unsympathetic for some reason. To keep the necessary distance, the characters are only lightly sketched, barely rising above stereotypes. So, I only empathised with one of those in the frame. I didn’t really care which of the others might have done it (assuming the more sympathetic person didn’t do it, of course).

Putting this together, Cry of the Children is a carefully constructed problem with the waters suitably muddied to ensure the reader does not get a clear view of which suspect(s) might have done it. We do get to see more of the series detectives and their narrative arcs advance. But it’s not as involving as other books of this type. So this book is for you if you want a puzzle to solve with absolutely everything in the investigation laid out for you to see. Ignoring the descriptions of what the suspects themselves are doing, you have a fair chance of working out who did it.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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