Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Virtual Archaeologist

I've got another idea for a story.

Archaeo-gaming is a thing, you know. As a sample, here's a cute and chatty article on Skyrim by a couple of career archaeologists.

I keep coming back to the image of an archaeologist-protagonist walking into a vast and ancient underground space in search of secrets, and this doesn't mesh well with the realities of our current world.*

These settings are, however, found in games. And there is a lot of interesting stuff to talk about here, between the morality of the virtual world, material culture astride the twin horns of Intellectual Property and Cultural Appropriation, etc. As just one for-instance, discussion has already arisen about the ethics of virtual replicas of cultural artifacts and practices of still-living peoples. (Throw the big money of the AAA market in and you've got the makings of an online Dakota Access Protest).

I simply can not do justice in a morning blog post to how many interesting ideas there are in current Archeo-gaming. And it intersects into other equally fertile fields, among them retro-computing and the rich legacy of old hacker lexicon and lore. Deep Magic, indeed.

Simplistically, the archaeological subjects are both the material culture of the games themselves; the intentional content of developers and the modding community and the sandbox creations of open communities like Second Life, and the borrowed material culture being variously recreated for research or educational purposes, repurposed for entertainment, or borrowed or stolen. Then there is interaction with the environment; the material culture of a designed in-game object is as much influenced by the core mechanics and the technological limitations and the developed history of game design. In a circle of continuous dialog and influence that causes those choices to move along evolutionary pathways; emergent as much as designed.

And there are actual bits of archeogaming that would be fun to either describe or reference; the near-legendary Atari Dig of 2013 in New Mexico, or the grand failure of late 2016, the great No Man's Sky survey. (In the former, old game cartridges were unearthed from a dump, in the latter, the terrain of a procedurally generated game was explored using archaeological survey methods).

But...I need to eat and solder, and I think the only way I can really describe what I'm after is to write the damned thing.

* it isn't exactly an exception, more a question of spin. Want to go into a great crumbling underground complex full of dangers and potential treasures? Try Urban Archaeology. Our intrepid Indy could be exploring into the sarcophagi of Chernobyl. Although those aren't exactly dangers a bullwhip is good against. And the local security of the still-active power plant would probably object, too!

Oh, yeah, and another weird idea that popped up two minutes ago as someone on the radio used the formulaic phrase "Passed on": Second-chance world. A technically blank slate situation where everyone has, after their death, a second chance to make different choices. Where they are reborn young enough to have time to explore that alternate career path, find time for their music, chose the other potential life-mate, etc.

Except of course it is never that simple. Even in this new world one discovers many of the same doors are closing. Life is what happens to you while you were waiting for a chance to finally do the things you wanted to do, and maybe this is true no matter how many chances you have at it.

(There are millions of other world-building thoughts that tumble after that first one. What's the timing of the reborn and what do they have of their old-world skills? If this has been happening for a while, then there will be a built-up society already. One which will by the nature of societies have definite ideas where it wants newcomers to fit in. How do religions react to this place? I can imagine a local offshoot of Buddhism confronting the reality of being stuck on the damn wheel and wanting off. And so on and so forth!)

(One answer to the question if whether the history is as long as our own -- meaning that essentially it replicates the history of our world, except with a slight head start in later periods -- is if groups are largely separated. Which means each group decants into a survival situation, which is going to be largely fatal -- and really, really restrict the life choices. But on the flip side, then you could call the tale, "Friday's Child.")

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Blood of an Eidokko

Bit by bit I'm realizing my current infatuation with history is not new. And I realize I've even dabbled with an archaeological/anthropological mystery before. The setting, however, was the fictional warped-mirror-of-contemporary-Japan setting of my unpublished novel Shirato.

A slight scene-setting is necessary. In Shirato, several multi-planet civilizations are involved in inter-planetary trade; the protagonist is a young machinist-trainee on a sort of "Shop truck" serving in the merchant marine of Tojima. As is slowly revealed through the story, in a time in the past roughly comparable to the 1940s of our timeline Tojima developed interstellar travel and made contact with the world of Kojima, which in short order developed their own trading empire, which is in the current day in increasingly violent conflict with Tojima.

Except the interaction of these two civilizations is more complex. In a history so ancient it is largely shrouded in myth, Kojima had been first to explore the "Gates" left by a long-vanished alien predecessor species. They had walked there, carrying swords, and they had brought much of their language and culture to Tojima. The parallels here to the uncomfortable history between China and Japan (and throw in Korea and Okinawa into the mix) are quite intentional.

So in current mythology, the Koyamajin were ancient conquerers of Tojima, thrown off by legendary heroes. The Tojimajin were the rapacious traders of a later age who used their higher technology to impose the equivalents of Commander Perry, the Opium Wars, etc. And with both sides gearing up to current-day war all of these myths, legends, and highly-colored histories are being trotted out by the propaganda machines.

Protagonist Mie Nakamura's people are from small northern-latitude fishing villages remote from the capitol of Tojima; not quite Okinawa or Kuril Islands but definitely considered rural, backwoods, out of the mainstream of Tojima culture. They are in character New England whaling town; hardy, quiet, a strong sense of local identity and solidarity. In the main story, she becomes reluctant wielder of the heritage of Tojima's legendary heroes and must work her way through the net of social obligations and expectations to find a way of diffusing the seemingly inevitable war. Her island heritage; an inability to shirk hard work or the harder path, is in her mind key to her ability to do so.

In any case. The splinter story takes place in these islands, with an archaeological team investigating what legends describe as potentially one of the "gates" that shut down two thousand years ago at the peak of the overthrow of the Kojima (and, in the main story, are in the process of coming awake again).

The official stance is that the old samurai class, the carefully-cultured bloodlines that are strongly represented in the current-day political and economic elite, are original Tojima stock. Places like the Edo island chain, closer to the origin of the Kojima invasion, were more strongly bred into by the invaders. This isn't Soviet Science, and it doesn't reach the crassness levels of, say, America in the 18th and 19th century (or for that matter, some of the discourse today!) but it is something that is being thought and hinted at and dog whistled out in the current inflammatory war fever.

So there is a lot of pride involved, with the elite working hard to support their conceits of being the best and truest and the islanders being not just the unwashed masses and not just hicks, but practically inbred (well, outbred, but the emotional association is similar).

Except for the skeletons. Our archaeological team, led by a prominent and very politically connected man from the top university (the equivalent of Todai, the Tokyo university all the elite go to), has an agenda to support the mainstream view. A young troubled grad student on the team, our narrative POV character (who is not so coincidentally falling for a local girl) is less certain.

So here they are in the cold, rain-swept, rocky rugged northern tip of human habitation, put up with graciousness and New England-style hospitality by the hard-scrabble locals, digging into ancient monuments while politics heats up back home and interstellar war looms overhead.

And of course the anthropological evidence -- the forensics, in fact, of bones found in a sealed portion of the cavern -- is that the capitol has it pretty much backwards. The phenotype seen most clearly in the face of the young local woman injured during the stormy climax of the story is that of the indigenous people. The tall, lean-faced barons of industry and secretaries of war are the remnants of the ancient invasion.

Well, only sort of. Human genetics doesn't work that way. But if you are going to try to make a political point based on a misapplication of that science, you've got no reason to cry when the evidence you want to trump turns out to say something different than what you wanted it to say.

A pretty much unpublishable story, if for no other reason than that it depends too much on the novel for background. Without seeing the war unfold, and the complicated history slowly uncovered as it is in the novel, the pressures that become murderous passions at that lonely archaeological dig are hard to connect to emotionally.

It does, however, demonstrate that I've been trying to tell that archaeological story for quite some time now. Maybe some day I'll figure out a form in which it works.

Kudzu Plot

Just opened another show.

Actually, "kudzu" is used of literary plotting, and it means lots of bits left dangling. That's actually a good thing in a lighting hang. Learned that myself from a tech named Steve, who had been Production Manager at a regional theater I'd worked for, was getting stress-related illness and took time off from that, meeting me at a smaller community theater as the outgoing Master Electrician. He taught me the value in leaving tails (dangling cords) on any instrument that was in indeterminate state (to be moved, to be decided, not circuited, etc.)

What I found when I went in for this show (my first "Earnest," actually) was more like cruft. All wiring develops cruft. Under the time pressure of Tech Week, and later during the run, stuff that breaks or is changed gets fixed with a fast band-aid. Then in adherence to Joe Ragey's First Law, what you opened with, stays up for the run.

More than that, those unlabeled, poorly routed, barely dressed cable runs are still there when the show closes and get used again and again until no-one knows how power from here gets over there or which of two dozen identical dust-covered bits of wire in a huge tangle are actually carrying the audio to the house mains.

And it can be built on for a while. The story was told from the first Myst game that there were so many cables linking the computers of the render farm, when something died they'd just purchase a new piece of Cat-5 and drop it on top of the pile. Trouble is, in budget-strapped theater, if a free dimmer is showing up there, even if it is impossible to trace how it gets there, someone will grab another length of cable, plug it in to where the dimmer showed up, and run it out to where the new light needs to be. Eventually there are cable runs that literally circumnavigate the grid to come back two hundred feet of cable later to a couple of feet from where they started.

The term in software is Technical Debt. And it follows a similar path. Every now and then someone will spend the effort to trace one or two critical leads and will stick labels on them. But those break, change, are re-purposed, and in time there are layer upon layer of old falling-off obscurely written and mostly wrong labels as well.

And finally you just have to refactor. Which is what I did over about two weeks. Tore out almost everything and then hung from scratch. But I couldn't touch the giant tangle that is the primary run from booth to stage; a huge bundle that contains audio, DMX, power, Clear-com, and who knows what else that at one point someone put in and if we knew what it was would be very useful.

The other lesson from this particular show was how to handle a dishrag cyc. See, in some sets you will have a cyclorama, a big seamless usually pale blue piece of fabric stretched across the stage in front of the back wall. And they are a pain to light smoothly, with a variety of speciality instruments designed for that purpose that still don't do the job well.

Thing of it is, there's a big John Cage element here. If you don't light a cyc, it still has color. The color of all the stray light, bounce light, etc. Which means it usually looks like a dirty dishrag. And this is a problem if the act is set in, say, the interior of a flat in London. Because the back wall shouldn't be bright glowing daylight blue.

So what I tried this time was the same trick I've used on set walls where the coverage is spotty and the wall itself has wrinkles you are trying to hide. Stick patterns in. Unfortunately, I only had one 50-degree instrument to work with and even that was a little small. What I needed was a bank of four. But, still, throwing an intentional pattern on the cyc -- even if it is run low and pulled slightly out of focus to draw less attention -- looks vastly more intentional than the spill light which is also falling on it. So it looks better.

(I could get away with a lot of patterns on this show because the set concept was period posters and postcard art. The pattern I used most was GAM's "homespun." Which is now in my list of favorite patterns along with "Summer Leaves" and "Construction A, B, C, D.")

So the show is finally open. I begged off the gala and went home shortly after the Act II curtain, slept ten hours and spent a very quiet Saturday.

Now it is Sunday. I have hopes (but faint hopes) of getting a couple things done I've put off during this long show. Practice the violin (and post up another progress video), clean up the place a little, assemble holocrons (with more documentation photographs to go into the assembly instructions), complete and order the next run of PCBs, and do paperwork for some of my various jobs.

Reality is I'll probably take a short walk, listen to NPR, and read backlogs of archaeology blogs.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Alas, Babylon

So I'm reading one of the Belisarius books (alternate military-history set during the Byzantine era) and during a scene set in Babylon attention is drawn to the (remains of) the Ishtar Gate. And I stopped and hit the books (rather, hit Wikipedia) to confirm. I've seen the Ishtar Gate. It was reconstructed from salvaged bricks and historic descriptions in the early 20th century and it is at the Pergamon in Berlin and I'd stood within in it. And is pretty durn spectacular, too.

Today I was listening to The Ancient World and was reminded that king Croesus (yes, the " rich as..." himself), was the person who had famously been assured by the Oracle in the most Delphic prophesy ever that if he went to war, "A great empire would be destroyed." You probably could have seen that coming, since his opponent on the battlefield was Cyrus of Persia. Yes, that Cyrus, himself prophesied to usurp a king and hidden away as a child (no reed basket for him, though). The man who had saved the child from royal murder, Harpagus, was punished with the death of his own child. But he bid his time well, rose to become an important general in Astyages' forces, and at the right moment took his revenge (not coincidentally handing Cyrus the start of his empire).

The big battle of these two forces was also the one where wily Cyrus put camels at the front of his forces, whose strange smell and presence spooked the horses of Croesus' calvary. Croesus died crying out the name of Solon of Athens, Solon the Lawgiver, who had long ago cautioned Croesus that it was premature for him, or for any man not yet dead, to be described as the happiest man in the world.

Of course this is smack in the middle of Herodotus' favorite feeding grounds, and the rise of Athens, Sparta, and soon enough the Homeric poets. Xenophon wrote of these battles, too. So no wonder a whole bunch of familiar stories are gathered in one place.

(Cyrus also got in a dig that outdid the Laconians in being laconic. The fairly young polis threatened the rising empire-builder with a, "Do not put your eyes towards these territories or you will have to face the Spartans." Cyrus replied by gesturing for his interpreter and local guide, "The who?") It took Sparta a generation to recover from that insult...which they did at a little place called the "Hot Gates." But by that time Cyrus was gone.)

In any case.

I'm still pondering how to write an archaeological adventure story. Fiction based on real archaeology has been done (particular mention here of the Samantha Sutton stories for young readers). Historical fiction also has its attractions (one of the podcasts I follow reviews and discusses in depth the archaeology and anthropology underlying novels set in prehistoric times).

There's even a weird excuse I've only seen employed in basically scientific fantasies of a Victorian setting: to be only restricted to that which was known in the period being described. That is; a story set before the Michelson-Morley experiment can have the luminiferous aether as part of the underlying science. One set before Mariner might have canals on Mars. I've never seen anyone use that excuse to set a story in the time of Pliny the Elder in which there is indeed a land where men have their heads in their torsos, though!

It is a fancy worthy of further contemplation, however. Set a story in the heady years when Archaeology is just starting to develop as a science out of Antiquarianism, and the difference between myths and verified histories has yet to be largely disentangled. In such a world, your hero archaeologist would be less professionally condemned for acting like a genre Tomb Raider, and there might indeed be surprising new civilizations to be discovered. After all, in a time when the biblical Flood is still a matter for professional discussion, Atlantis is a relatively sane conception.

About all I've managed towards a modern-day setting is having the skeptical academically-trained protagonist in the hire of a credulous but filthy rich sponsor. Sponsor sends him to look for a Bosnian Pyramid or Mu Stone or whatever, but whilst on this fruitless search he stumbles into something a lot more interesting.

Thinking about it again, the idea of mysteries unveiled is important. An even better way of looking at it might be secret truths; that what gets discovered is fresh and surprising. There's a hint here of the joys of insider knowledge. The reader wants to share the vicarious pleasure of knowing something the rest of the world doesn't. And it can't be too trivial, or too obscure. Not as much fun finding out a secret about an obscure early Roman playwright -- you want the subject of the revelation to be at least on the scale of a Christopher Marlowe.

I would put in the requirement that the mystery driving a genre adventure needs to be important enough to someone for violence to be offered. But that, sadly, seems all too low a bar. You can get attacked with murderous intent just for wearing the wrong t-shirt. Although I find it a little hard to imagine the person who would resort to murder to cover up the real authorship of Shakespeare's plays.

A last odd bit to throw into the mix. In the back of my head for a couple decades has been the idea of something known to ancient peoples that takes on a new importance in the modern age. Say, a long-term comet of potential threat and the chance that Mayan astronomers had recorded the last pass in sufficient detail to work out the ephemeris. The thought is still largely unformed; the above is not necessarily a good example.

(Actually, Greg Bear did something a bit along the line I think I'm thinking, with a modern physicist investigating a rare bit of physics (a macro-scale object that behaves like a subatomic particle) early Mycenaeans had previously encountered.))

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Forbidden Archaeologist

I am strongly tempted to write again.

That is, to write for publication. Fanfic has kept the tools sharpened, helping me crank out that one million words of crap the apocryphal quote claims you have to work through. Except from what I'm seeing on Amazon et al, more and more of that first million words -- as Sturgeon's Law worthy as they are -- are being published regardless.

In any case.

What has specifically whetted my appetite is the stories. Those bits from history that Evan S. Connel called "pickled plums." The mysteries, but even more, those things that strike me as tantalizing hooks.

Such as: I can't remember the details right now, but a Pharonic library was uncovered during the silver age of archaeology; those heady early days when cuniform were first being translated, Assyria discovered, the Valley of Kings excavated. In any case, the first barge load of scrolls and artifacts was attacked by bandits and sunk in the Nile, never to be recovered. And one wonders what might have been learned from them.

Many are the important finds that have gone astray this way, from Peking Man on. And if you read back into history, there were entire cultures with an antiquarian bent of their own, uncovering everything they could find from a passed culture significant to them, and confounding future archaeologists by decorating their palaces with the treasures of people long gone by.

What I mean to say is there are so many spaces in real known history for an amazing artifact search; to track something from the abandoned royal city of Amarna to collections of Alexandria through the great artifact collection of Napoleon to the similar mass shipment of antiquities into Berlin. At each stop exploring cultures and histories and cities modern and ancient.

But almost opposed to that artifact-centered view, I've also grown in sympathy (though only the vaguest understanding) of modern Archaeological thought and method. And that I also want to talk about even in a work of genre fiction.

So you could say that almost what I want to write is an anti-Lara Croft. An Indiana Jones who understands and honors antiquities protection, a Nathan Drake with an actual academic background. Someone who isn't inclined by skills or nature to whip out a dual pair of pistols at every excuse. A Scully, though possibly in a Mulder universe.

The biggest problem I have is close to the heart of the dichotomy between actual Archaeology and the fictional exploits of pop-culture figures who only carry the name. And that is, in short, I don't believe in aliens.

I find the real world spectacular and surprising. But I'm up against a genre expectation of lost sciences and ancient technologies and sprawling underground complexes. Or, to get to the heart of it, to mysteries uncovered.

After reading through dusty archives and interviewing strange reclusive people in far-off exotic lands and cutting through jungle and fighting off disease and weather and animal attacks, the reader has a legitimate expectation to find something other than that the Moai of Rapa Nui were carved to honor local chiefs and walked into place with a rocking motion with ropes and lots of willing hands.

So what to do?

I could make a convincing case for a view that is minority but otherwise has academic respectability. Such as, for instance, the two waves of prehistoric colonization into the Americas (and, no, the Solutreans are not one of them). I can't do this because this would be mostly of interest to academics, and they are a tough audience. I like research, but I know my limitations!

Another temptation is to go Focoult's Pendulum on it. In Umberto Eco's novel, a small group of far too widely-read publishers made up a far too believable conspiracy theory and got themselves in serious trouble with some true believers. No real Templars were ever involved.

My problems are two; I can't come up with a good Ancient Aliens backstory that doesn't make mainstream Archaeology look like idiots. And I can't come up with any alternative explanation of early technological innovations, worship practices, etc., that isn't an insult to the peoples involved -- some of whom have direct living cultural descendants.

Part of this is what I call in my own notes a "Watt-Evans" problem. In at least one novel, Lawrence Watt-Evans framed a story in genre terms but then had events unfold realistically. Case in point being a certain prison run by an oppressive future society. His protagonist does the usual genre things to escape. All of them fail, usually quickly.

It is easy to say, "Lazy writer" when a genre protagonist gets away with something (like escaping a modern prison). The way I look at it, though, is that there are thousands of people working on that problem right now who have, shall we say, intimate understanding of the situation. Is the writer expected to come up with something none of them have? It's like asking a science fiction writer to out-do everyone in multiple fields of science and come up with the actual physics of faster-than-light travel. (Which they could then patent -- heck, they'd make more on the Nobel than they would with a novel.)

You have to cheat. The character needs an unfair advantage, or the fictional world has forgotten to take a precaution the real world does not forget. Otherwise there's no story. The Great Escape isn't much of a story if Eastwood's character spends a couple weeks thinking about it then gives up.

(Actually, there is a good cheat available to the writer; find something clever someone in the real world already did. Hopefully not one all your readers have also heard of).

So, in short, if there had been an Atlanean civilization -- super-science and all -- that sunk below the waves, the kind of evidence for it wouldn't be hidden in such a way that only an Indiana Jones could find it. If there are writings in ancient manuscripts they'd have been translated and commented on already (probably by the Greeks). If there were underground complexes GPR would have picked them up.

Well, those are bad examples. The big point is anything that's world-changing leaves a footprint. Or put it another way; there is far too much consistent evidence for the world as we understand it. There isn't a gap large enough to stick something the scale that pseudo-archaeology demands.

And the evidence, if it was there, would be diffused. Would be visible in the patterns of trade routes and evolution of cultural artifacts and genetic distributions and word-frequency analysis. In large-scale comparative studies. Not in one convenient 19th-century printing of an obscure Latin translation of a lost Babylonian text found in a bookstall on the bank of the Seine.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Blackout : the 4'33" of lighting design

Most plays are presented as if they take place in several different physical settings and over a span of time longer than that which the audience has actually been sitting in their seats. The last line of Act I, scene 3 is said, and the first line of Act I, scene 4 is spoken by a different person, in the following Summer, in a different part of the forest.

The solution too many Directors reach for to cover while the actors change places, the furniture is moved, set pieces are shifted, etc., is to turn off the lights and then turn them back on when everything is ready.

I would swear that some Directors actually believe this is like making a cut in a film. The lights go out, then come back on and magically we are somewhere else.

Reality is that there is no such thing as a blank, a void. You don't present "nothing" by turning out the lights. You present something different. Usually (and especially in the smaller, less professionally-experienced theaters) what you get is several long minutes of shadowy figures visibly fumbling around in the blackness, cursing quietly as they try to find their spike marks.

John Cage's point was that the "silence" of a concert hall was filled with the sounds of rustling paper, air conditioning, coughing, shuffling feet. And to him this was on equal musical footing with a piano concerto. Perhaps. What is certain is that the activity of scene change has a specific character -- and it may not be in keeping with the character of the play.

The more charitable interpretation of what is expected to take place in the minds of the audience during a theatrical blackout is that it is akin to a commercial on radio or television. The audience skips over it, edits it out of the experience of the play in the same way they don't include intermission as part of the world of the play.

I still find it distracting. Watching a scene change, especially a difficult scene change, takes me out of the play. Intermission only happens once, and it happens at a dramatic point that practically demands you sit back and take stock of the situation before heading back into the action. Scene changes break the flow. A slightly better argument is that scene changes, like the velvet seats and the proscenium arch and so forth are part of the total experience of live theater. One watches certain shows (Phantom comes to mind) for the moments of "How did they do that?"

But other shows -- many, many shows -- the Directorial intent is to distract as little as possible. To keep the audience immersed in the story and the world of the play. And I have to say to these Directors -- I have said, and more than once -- that a blackout fails to accomplish this.

Because especially when you've got an awkward set and less-skilled crew people, the actual experience of a blackout is the discomfort of watching dimly-lit people struggling. 

Better, in my opinion, to light it. Put enough light on it -- I like the term "Change Blues" because Directors get what I'm after almost immediately -- so the crew can find their spikes and move with grace and surety instead of fumbling and trying to hide their flashlights. And take the time to work out the changes, to choreograph them a little.

And, depending on the show and the design, you may be able to do the change au vis. When we did Shrek not long ago we pushed the rolling units out in full lights. And more than that; I made sounds for them so a tower would grind on with a sound of stone against stone, and Shrek's house would pop up like a mushroom sprouting with squelching leafy noises.

This is, for some shows, going too far in the other direction. And I have no problem with a blackout if you can make the necessary changes in under thirty seconds and without a lot of noise. But otherwise: it is my strong opinion that you are going to see it anyway, so instead of pretending you are hiding it and achieving nothing but hazard for the crew, discomfort for the audience, and a less-than-stunning visual image, you should light it enough to make it pretty. And make the whole thing go faster and smoother so you can get on with the play.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Zoned Out

An old but unposted-post, from when I found myself watching two different television shows in alternation, separated by a wee bit of Mass Effect and a little of the Anabasis of Xenophon.

Otherworld ran a mere 8 episodes in the mid 80's. When I caught a few episodes a couple of decades ago it didn't do anything for me. Now I find the underlying premise more acceptable. Not the idea of a family trapped in a mysterious other world, that was fine. But the emotional through line; that what is important is staying together as a family, even if that means settling in, finding jobs, otherwise becoming temporary settlers (at least, until Commander Kroll catches up with them again). As a kid I wanted more shooting lasers, less going to PTA meetings.

The plots are clever. It's basically Star Trek on foot, as the family crosses the Forbidden Zone into one isolated community after another. The overall setting is dystopian but the people are basically good. Even the troops of the oppressive regime are humanized (in one episode the elder boy is drafted into the Zone Troopers and experiences first-hand the indoctrination they go through and their essential powerlessness within the system they represent). The gloss is family values and moral choices, but the situations have a Gulliver's Travels twist in their pointed satire on present-day society. The typical starting point with the family comfortably ensconced in the ersatz Anytown, USA de jour means they can be confronted with questions of social responsibility, morality, militarism, mortality, etc. from a close-to-home perspective.

(A unexpected sharp observation from the first episode. The eldest son has fallen for an android who is an essentially perfect human duplicate. Although he seems to accept her, he dismisses her feelings for the family he is urging her to abandon as not real. She presses him into an admission that he doesn't believe that she, as an android, has a soul. So she leads him to the computer that backs up their memories, and points. "There's my soul," she says, "That light there, third from the left. Can you point to yours?")

One of the most refreshing things about this show is that unlike, say, Sliders, the Sterlings recognize immediately that they don't know the lay of the land and what they don't know can kill them. So instead of asking stupid questions in loud voices until they get unwanted attention, they are careful to charm and dissemble and not get caught out by their ignorance. (Not that it always saves them; Trace gets drafted because he takes getting a "yellow slip" from his school for his poor academic performance to be equivalent of similar-sounding but ultimately toothless warnings on our world.)

Of course it is far from perfect. 80's hair once again makes an unintentional period piece of all the supposed otherworldly communities. The effects are minimal to go along with the budget -- save one oddly effective touch; otherwise seemingly ordinary automobiles and doorknobs are juiced up with subtle-yet-nifty electronic sound effects. And there is (to paraphrase from a term coined by Brian Aldiss) a rather "cozy refugee" aspect to it all. Given my own financial background, I can't help noticing how clean the (many changes of) clothing available to the lost family are, or how often they conveniently find themselves with yet another upscale suburban home, status jobs, and well-funded schooling for the kids. One starts to get the impression that their pursuer Kroll is all and all working harder and having a tougher time of it than his purported victims. 

From a couple decades later, Threshold similarly lasted a mere thirteen episodes. The aspect of this one that is refreshingly different is that the central "team" don't really get along and really, really don't want to be there.

The idea is transparently borrowed. Michael Crichton set up in his novel Sphere the idea of a contingency plan for an unlikely circumstance (essentially, alien contact) complete with a list of experts in various fields who would be drafted into an ad-hoc team if said event were to actually occur. He was borrowing from himself as well, since there was something similar in Andromeda Strain, but Sphere added the clever distinction that the plan -- and the names -- were throwaway choices made by a far-from-conscientious drafter who was just doing it for the money and was sure it would never actually happen.

In Threshold, the plan was well-intentioned and the experts appear effective, if as usual over-tasked (why hire a NASA aeronautics engineer and make them do the soldering themselves?) At least this series has some explanation for the latter; in one episode, when one of the fractious experts complains about all the grunt work he's being given, it is explained to him that with all the data miners and military people they have on call, only eight people are cleared to actually know the full details of their work. A more facile explanation than most for why the "bridge crew" seems to do all the work.

Oh yes, the plot. Apparent alien spacecraft appears near a Navy freighter then vanishes, but not before emitting a "signal" that causes all who hear it -- or even hear a recording of it -- to go through severe psychological and physical changes; chief among them a strong desire to expose as many more people to the alien signal as possible.

So in this show, the "masquerade" (the idea of fighting the threat in secret instead of making it public and enlisting everyone to help) makes more sense. Due to the specific nature of the threat, telling everyone would mostly generate false leads and would rapidly multiply potential vectors. This is literally the kind of problem that just knowing about it puts one at risk (rather H.P. Lovecraft like if one thinks about it; even hearing a recording of the alien signal can change you irrevocably into becoming slave to the alien plan). And implicitly pointed out in the series is that lots of people -- particularly terrorist groups -- are entirely willing to overlook the risks when presented with these terribly easy-to-use potential weapons of mass destruction.

Again the flaws are there. It is very much a piece with conventions of story, character, camera work of 2005 television. The science is once again bogus, although it drifts a little closer than some to reality every now and then. But the acting is solid, the situations amusing, and the constant shifting and escalation of the threat removes it completely from the status quo limbo of so many television series. There is absolutely no assurance that the masquerade will continue successfully; information about the alien signal is spreading despite all they can do. In fact, the team essentially fails; they slow the spread down but for every outbreak they find and stop, three others go unstopped. Through even the few episodes filmed the problem is leaping out of any containment (the writers stated in interviews that indeed, by the next season the threat would be fully public. By the third season, the uninfected would be a vanishingly small resistance).

Oh, but just once I'd like to see a top-secret the-Secretary-will-deny-all-knowledge agency that doesn't have a fortune to spend on chrome, mood lighting, and giant wall screens.