A manifesto for a more wondrous age.

I recently started watching the HBO show Scavengers Reign, & was immediately transfixed. It turns out, some things are as good as twitter tells me they are. The show follows some of the surviving crew members of the spaceship Demeter, after they’ve crash-landed on the planet Vesta Minor: an alien world, & oh so far from home.

In the opening minutes, some official from the fleet of space freighters is informed of the Demeter’s disappearance. “For their sake,” he gloomily notes, “let’s hope their are no survivors.” Vesta is nothing like Earth, & not even anything like Pandora from the Avatar series, or very many of the “alien” worlds in most sci-fi tales. It is a harsh, foreboding climate, filled to the gills with strange fauna & flora, each of which seemingly aiming to kill the castaways in new & terrifying ways. In it’s own way, Scavengers Reign manages to pack each 23 minute episode with all the tension & horror of Alien. Vesta is a hostile place, more or less unknowable to us, & of course, also to the people with the misfortune of finding themselves marooned there.

Beyond the mysterious & dark world, I was also captivated by the crew themselves. I’m particularly fond of the dynamic between Azi, one of the former crew members, & Levi, the robot accompanying her. Levi reminds me a bit of Interstellar's TARS, if TARS were interesting. Levi responds to Azi’s orders, & also provides advice or suggestions when prompted. But same as with all the other former crew members, Vesta begins to infect Levi, changing them in strange & new ways. In one episode, Levi shows Azi a sort of cairn sculpture they built in a hideaway. When Azi asks Levi why they did it, they respond: “I don’t know. I just thought it looked nice.” Levi begins to communicate somewhat with some of the fauna; they even start to whistle. At first, this troubles Azi: after all, these are nonessential functions, & survival is at stake. But she soon learns to accept, & even love, these new emergent parts of Levi.

I binged the series to get caught up last week while sick (they’re releasing three, 23 minute-long episodes each Thursday), & did so with my dog asleep on my chest. She’d been sitting next to me, but at one point, sat up, gently pawed at me as if to ask permission, & then relocated once I’d granted it. In the show, Levi speaks; but part of the revelation they find is the realization there’s something beyond just words. What’s communicated by a herd of fleeing creatures? Levi is not the only character in the show to figure this out, but to that point in the series (episode 6), practically the only character to have something besides a negative experience in doing so.

I had a gym buddy once talk to me about the surprising intelligence dogs have. He felt certain that his dog, if not given enough attention relative to other members of the household, would become envious. “Envy is a complex emotion,” he liked to say. He was right, I think. It’s easy to understand what my dog is requesting from me when she goes to stand facing the door to the back porch, or rolls onto her back while I’m petting her. One time, we took her to a farmer’s market, & my girlfriend & I watched her sniff the air before subtly drifting toward the cheese tent like a cartoon character might float towards a fresh pie on a kitchen windowsill. But it’s a bit more nuanced when she puts her head on my lap to ask if she can be held.

There’s another scene in the show where Levi becomes interested in a trail of (what seem like) insects. Through flashing lights, Levi’s able to convey something of a message to it, something beyond the perception or understanding of Azi. Light ripples throughout the swarm. I think of all the smells my dog is able to distinguish on a walk. It’s not as if I can’t smell, same as Azi is technically able to see (& with the right set of tools) produce light; but these signals don’t carry as much meaning for us. I’ve seen my dog smell something on the ground & wag her tail, or conversely have the hair on her back stand up or growl. I guess it’s possible for me to image a smell that might excite me (like freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies), but I have a hard time trying to think of a smell that might make me angry.

In a recent Japanese lesson, one of my teachers told an anecdote about an interaction between a woman who only spoke Japanese & a woman who only spoke German. Despite nearly zero common vocabulary, (rudimentary) communication was possible. I don’t think this is too hard to believe; probably anyone who’s done any sort of language study has experienced some interaction that made them proud, even if they were only able to communicate at the level of a child. But it’s kind of miraculous to me we can have any effective communication between species (of course, not just limited to dogs). Among that, “give me food” is one thing, but “rub my tummy,” “let me sit on your lap,” or “play a game with me” seem like something else entirely. (Isn’t it kind of wild that dogs & a number of animals even have the concept of play?)

Scavengers Reign is great for a lot of reasons, & its truly punishing, nearly unfathomable world is a huge part of the appeal. But like many great sci-fi stories, what it makes me think about is not only the fantastical setting but the deep, & deeply human questions it asks; it makes me think of events & characters not hundreds of light years away, but curled up next to me on the couch.

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