Why “Love, Death + Robots” is more than just a sci-fi series?

Love, Death + Robots is a Netflix TV series that saw its debut in 2019. The first season aired with eighteen episodes in total. These stand-alone episodes were animated adaptations of short stories. They largely dealt with the science-fiction genre but were not restricted to it. Undoubtedly, these stories were as fascinating as they could get, ranging to different premises. Each episode showcased highly the imaginative quality of these stories.

The following year saw the airing of another season of Love, Death + Robots. This one ranged to only eight episodes in total. The initial impression one could get upon viewing it was that it lacked the intensity, characteristic of the first season. However, such an assumption nullifies by the time one reaches the end.

If we were to generally summarize the series as a whole, we would notice that elements of horror recur frequently. Most of the stories in the series narrate a near-prophetic conflict of humans and technology, not impossible shortly. Machines -akin to humans created for the service of Gods in Sumerian mythology- came into existence to ease human lives. We find the descriptions of machines in humankind going back as early as to the invention of wheels. The horror element, then, mostly arises from this idea of machines, turned on its head. With its dimension of ease, machines also come with ranges of complexity, resulting in horror for one of one’s own creation.

A still from Three Robots

The horror! The horror!

Such postmodern horror is characteristic of most of these episodes, from both seasons. Horror, wherever emergent, is mostly due to human creation i.e. machines, going haywire. The very first episode of the second season, called Automated Customer Service, depicts, for instance, a home-cleaning “Vaccubot” turning against its owner. The malfunctioning was so immense that there was no way other than the destruction of the hostile machine, for the question was of either the machines’ life or the human’s. In another episode of similar nature, Life Hutch, from the same season, depicts a conflict between a human and a robot.

A still from "Automated Customer Service" (Love, Death + Robots)
A still from Automated Customer Service
A still from "Life Hutch" (Love, Death + Robots)
A still from Life Hutch

Machines are fully capable of dominating us. Such is not only because of their harder build as compared to soft human tissue and fragile bones, but mostly because they would share a consciousness(if it comes to that) drastically different from ours. The episode called Three Robots from the first season sheds light on some possible differences. In a post-apocalyptic world, three robot-tourists roam about a city populated with human carcasses and daily-life objects.

The objects scattered around are as mysterious to them as would museum antiques to a more “developed” observer from a later period of history. Implying that robots have succeeded human civilization, the episode humorously depicts puzzlement over other human factors like that of the presence of a digestive system, by the robots.

A still from "Three Robots" (Love, Death + Robots)
Puzzlement over humans,…
A still from "Life Hutch" (Love, Death + Robots)
…their design…
A still from "Life Hutch"( Love, Death + Robots)
…and their origin, in Three Robots

Glimpses of their lesser-developed ancestors scattered around who had once been slaves to humans further satirizes this dichotomy. Meanwhile, when humans are only aiming to make better slaves of technology, only the “machine-awareness” is awaited in this period of double-edged advancement to reverse the dichotomy of humans and machines.

A willing suspension of disbelief…

A  still from "Fish Night" (Love, Death + Robots)
A still from Fish Night

Many of the episodes are also renditions of stories that bring the supernatural and the traditionally fantastic into play. Tall Grass from the second season, for instance, is of a popular folklore nature, although without the absence of a Midas-touch of technology altogether. The engine becomes equivalent to warmth and deserving of embrace while the tall grass field of unknown evil.

If Coleridge’s words, “willing suspension of disbelief” to let the fantastic takeover, holds any truth, it is in Fish Night from the first season. Through a dream-like depiction of a ghostly waterbed in the midst of a desert, the episode ends in tragedy.

However, irrespective of whether an episode is completely sci-fi or not, we cannot help but point out the notable presence of at the least a scientifically driven world. The supernatural and the fantastic, wherever present, is shown to be unfolding in such a modern setting. Whether in a relevantly familiar world, as in Fish Night, or a comparatively advanced one, such as in Automated Customer Service, or a non-existent one, such as in Three Robots, the workings of the modern world are instantly recognizable.

…and the various possibilities

The impact of our rapidly growing technological advancement is so immense that even the imagination is hostage to it. Once established contrary to technological rationality by Romantics such as Coleridge, the imagination now comprises of technology. Inside the highly imaginative mind results in the various technological distortions characteristic of Love, Death + Robots.

Due to such technological distortions that are not only imaginative, but would-be possibilities shortly, and that a majority of people anywhere in the world can relate to the rapid technological progress, the horror element only becomes a possibility. As one robot-tourist notes, “You’ve seen one post-apocalyptic city, you’ve seen them all“.

The modern tragedy in Love, Death + Robots

In the face of this rapid advancement, ambition also soars higher at the highest possible zenith.

The tragedy, then, is that what may further existence may put an end to it, too. But, the curious mind is seldom satisfied. The dissatisfaction may find one, human or machine-awareness alike, shrouded by a mist of confusion. One might be led to question their purpose.

The various modifications enabled Zima Blue to get to the unreachable corners of the universe. Despite that, the artist never became satisfied. The Hubris reached through constant search and ambitious artistic attempts defied the very origin of Zima’s being. His nemesis is this ambition that had made Zima the conscious, enlightened being he now was, possible due to the modifications. Upon being inquired whether he is a man or a machine, Zima responds with a crisis of identity.

A still from "Zima Blue" (Love, Death + Robots)
Zima responds…
A still from "Zima Blue" (Love, Death + Robots)
…with a crisis of identity, in Zima Blue

The end of Zima Blue then signifies the doom(bliss, for Zima) which, despite raging ambitions, we are bound to return to. Unlike Zima who viewed the blue of the swimming pool, what a human fetus probably first viewed as the womb’s darkness. Ambition already poses a close relation to death and calls out to this darkness and the void aloud. Existential retribution follows ambitious hubris. Tragedy, then, finds its place in the modern and more familiar world of Love, Death + Robots. That too, through an enactment not far removed from the ancient tragic plays. Only the objects of ambition and desire have somewhat changed, substituted by technology.

Technology and change

The nemesis of Zima also sheds light on the infinite possibilities of the technological realm. Not all the episodes necessarily depict a conflict. Both the rift and amicability between humans and machines are present in the show. Technology is significant, if not anything else, of change. Many stories in the series also make use of technology as an aid. Here is also where we stumble upon the “love” factor of Love, Death + Robots, having already discussed the other two. Like death, love also unravels while set in a world comprising of technology. In fact, this aspect of the technology enables the branching off of other aspects of love itself.

A still from "Snow In the Desert" (Love, Death + Robots)
A still from Snow In the Desert

Of love in Love, Death + Robots

For instance, the love between cyborgs and humans recurs in both seasons. This further leads one to ponder over the various possibilities of love in the technologically advanced age, as the duality of humans and machines faces further reduction. The cold steel once known for utility can also be capable of love. It was, undoubtedly, due to Hirald being a cyborg in Snow in the Desert from the second season, that also prevented her from dying.

Technology, then, not only rages in revolt but finds amicability with humans and even entities like the Huli Jing as in the episode Good Hunting from the first season. Huli Jing is a Chinese mythological entity. The blending of mythology and modern technology in this episode again reflects the dominating presence of a technologically relevant realm. Moreover, technology is shown as a possibility, and even a substitute for magic, that may enable a mythical entity like the Huli Jing to relive her ancient form in actuality. Even mythical concepts of immortality fuse with cyborgs as in Snow in the Desert.

A still from "Good Hunting"
The dominating technologically relevant realm…
A still from "Good Hunting"
…reflected through the blending of technology…
A still from "Good Hunting" (Love, Death + Robots)
…with mythology, in Good Hunting

But, again, attention should be brought to the absence of a sci-fi premise in its entirety. Simplicity such as love for one’s home is also reflected. It was upon the debris of the modern world, Dvorchek found his home in The Dump. This love for his home and Otto -a deformity, again, of the excesses and waste of modern age- is limitlessly intense. This story, moreover, sets the traditional love for home and family at the most neglected of modern world places -the dump.

A still from "The Dump"
The dump is the setting of the traditional love for home…
A still from "The Dump"
…of Mr. Dvorchek

The other constituents of Love, Death + Robots

While the technological world always recurs, the series does not confine itself to a strictly science-fiction genre. As already mentioned, the premise is dominant of a technological age, but that does not make every story overflow with mind-bending quantum theories. There are episodes as such, too(Beyond the Aquila Rift, for instance). Still, a viewer even repulsive to science-fiction may advance the risk of watching this series. Why?

One astounding example may respond to such a query. Although, personally, I am more biased towards the first season and the succeeding one felt inferior in comparison. Yet, by the end of the second season, I was sitting awestruck. The closing episode narrates the melancholic tale of a giant, washed ashore dead. Even for the narrating scientist, this incident was an unsolvable mystery. A tale only of the “ceaseless metamorphosis” of the giant, the absurdity of The Drowned Giant is self-reflective. For the most part, the episode only contains philosophical pondering alongside the simultaneous butchering of the giant’s corpse. The absurdity lies in the very “categorical fact of his existence“. The giant, in his likeness to a mythical Greek hero, magnificently rested on the beach. It appeared seemingly alive to the narrator.

A still from "The Drowned Giant"
The giant, in his likeness to a mythical Greek hero…
A still from "The Dump"
…being manipulated in the hands of some “imperfect and puny copies“, in The Drowned Giant

Unaware of the giant, his ironic fate had made a monument of him to be manipulated in the hands of some “imperfect and puny copies”. The absurdity deepens as pieces of the giant’s bones begun to appear following his corpse’s butchering. However, this sight only symbolically confirms the narrator’s dreams of the giant’s resurrection.

A diverse realm

The Drowned Giant relies largely on emotions and awe to unravel its narrative, not on conventional science elements, as expected of science-fiction. The giant indeed finds itself in the visible technological domain in a quite similar way as Dvorchek, who had found himself at the margins of it. But, more than anything else, this episode steers the show sharply away from the confinements of science-fiction. So does The Dump and many other stories rendered in Love, Death + Robots. True, the technological realm is never absent, but it also animates the various emotions in ways different from traditional understanding. Love is one example, which modifies in accordance to an ever-developing world. The Huli Jing, with technological aid, could find herself attuned to her older mythical self again. In other words, the imaginative and the emotive finds newer manifestations in a technological world.

This, moreover, enables Love, Death + Robots to have a richer context and even diverse domain than the first appearance of a strict sci-fi series. From cartoonish to intricately realistic, the range of animation suitably sets the premise for the plethora of stories. Also, the sound design does not lag for an immersive experience. Concluding this, one must only watch the various episodes only to get a first-hand experience.

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