Intellectual Fortitude

In 1971, barely into my teens, I went to a movie with my dad: The Andromeda Strain, based on Michael Crichton’s bestseller, and one of the more faithful adaptations of an SF novel put to film. It’s not a perfect movie. Even back then I could see it wasn’t great on character development. There was a lot of expository dialog in which scientists told each other things they would already have known, if not for the need to fill the average movie-goer in on what amino acids are. But there was one way in which the movie stood out from others of its kind, in which it continues to stand out even today:

It portrayed scientists doing science.

Admittedly, depending on how low you set your standards you can see that all the time. Tony Stark invents Strong AI overnight, all by himself. Some goofball biologist hooks himself up to a brain in a vat and intuits the genetic complexities of Pacific Rim‘s monstrous Kaiju. Anne Hathaway’s character in Interstellar witters on about the transcendent properties of Love as a Universal Force. A thousand movies portray scientists either as goofy caricatures or charismatic lone wolves, pulling conceptual breakthroughs from their asses through the sheer force of their own intellect.

Of course, these characters were invented by screenwriters who have no clue how science works, and who couldn’t care less. Their goal was to provide mindless entertainment to hordes of popcorn-munchers. The Andromeda Strain, with its average-looking everyday researchers and their plodding scientific method, would never get made today. (If you don’t believe me, just look at what Robert Schenkkan did to Crichton’s story when A&E rebooted it as a miniseries back in 2008).

At least, that’s what I thought before I watched the first season of Fortitude. I mentioned that show back when I was complaining about the (significantly inferior) Humans, but I couldn’t go into detail until a certain overseas embargo had expired.  And here we are.

Fortitude is an offbeat British/Norwegian co-production which made it to North America this year, despite the fact that its glacial pacing and delayed payoffs should have been a death sentence in any demographic raised on instant gratification. Set in the Norwegian arctic, it begins with a man being mauled by a polar bear. It begins with two children finding a mammoth carcass, barely frozen in melting ice, and a short-tempered Russian facing off against a Norwegian sheriff with poor impulse control. It begins with a woman in a hotel room, aiming a rifle at the closed door while a man on the other side raises a tentative knocking hand. It begins with infidelity and fever, with a plan to carve a hotel from the heart of a glacier, with a scientist being hacked to death by a mysterious assailant wielding a potato peeler.

That’s some of what happens in the first episode. None of it is explained in that first hour. The characters are ciphers, their motives hidden from the viewer. If you want everything spelled out in nice bite-sized chunks— if you prefer Transformers to 2001— this is not your movie. Hell, Fortitude doesn’t even tell you what genre you’re in until almost the end of the season.

Don’t go to Wikipedia for help on that score. It classifies Fortitude as “Psychological Thriller/Drama/Mystery”. In fact, it’s science fiction— but the science elements, while speculative, are so utterly plausible that I feel as if I’m misusing the term. It hinges on science, yes: on speculative biology, on events that have not yet happened but which could. Isn’t that the very definition of hard SF? And yet, having watched all those cryptic pieces coming together over eleven hypnotic hours, “SF” still doesn’t do it justice to my mind. Fortitude is more immediate than that label suggests, as if I were to describe a story about an Ebola epidemic as “science fiction” six months before an outbreak happened in the real world.

Not quite the recipe, but you get the idea.

Not quite the exact recipe, but you get the idea.

If I had to sum it up in thirty words or less, I’d describe Fortitude as a cross between Twin Peaks and John Carpenter’s The Thing, as written by Michael Crichton. Ostensibly a crime drama revolving around a series of brutal murders in a small town— “fortitude” might be exactly what you need when they show the bodies, by the way— it mixes in subplots involving cancer, infidelity, politics, shamanism, climate change, rape, mob justice, wildlife biology, and food-related sexual obsession. (Also a pig in a hyperbaric chamber— still not sure what that was doing there.) Everyone has dangerous secrets to hide, and you can’t shake a creepy sense of something supernatural in this icebound berg. But the payoff, when it comes, is far more down to earth. The season’s almost over before you see the science behind the fiction— and even then, with that element revealed, you might mistake it for just one thread in a messy tapestry.

Tug on it, though; you’ll see a whole web of connections.

All of which would be enough to give Fortitude my personal seal of approval. But it goes one step further, serving up perhaps the most understated and accurate portrayal of working scientists that I’ve seen in a genre show. Blind alleys abound. In contrast to Tony Stark’s infallible intuition, hypotheses— when tested— turn out to be wrong. Researchers worry out loud about confirmation bias. Unexpected findings inspire literature searches for real-world precedents. And Fortitude‘s scientists are more than delivery platforms for exposition, they’re people as well as professionals. The local wildlife biologist, at ease in a world of hungry polar bears, delights in mocking a visiting biologist brought in for his first-hand experience with “apex predators” (turns out he did his thesis on badgers); she uses her lab equipment to cut up reindeer steaks. The characters muse over beers on Darwin’s thoughts about God.

It’s not to everyone’s taste. A friend of mine threw up his hands in confusion after the first episode, plaintively wondered if it got better. I’ll tell you what I told him: no, it does not get better. It pays off. It demands more patience than the average eyeball bait, and it rewards that patience more richly.

For all its crypsis and glacial pacing, that strategy seems to have worked— well enough to get Fortitude renewed for a second season, at least. I don’t know where they’ll go from here. The central mystery has been resolved, and besides, half the cast is dead. Then again, the solution to that mystery turned out to be just one manifestation of an environmental meltdown that contains within it the seeds of myriad disasters. Perhaps the next season will explore one of those. Perhaps it will go in some other direction entirely.

I hope we’re still around to see what that is.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Thursday October 15 2015at 01:10 pm , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

23 Responses to “Intellectual Fortitude”

  1. Speaking of shows that show scientists doing science (tho also full of breakthrough moments) did you ever see the Canada made and set Regenesis? Curious for your take on it too.

  2. It is a magical thing, this serial long form plot television show with a pay off at the end. A satisfying ending is a wonderful thing.

  3. So what was the embargo about? Fortitude is at the top of the netflix queue.

  4. Oboy! I am going to watch some of these episodes. You had me at mammoth.

  5. You lost me at “Michael Crichton” but you basically won me back with everything else. “The Thing plus Twin Peaks” is about as relevant to my interests as it’s possible to get. Onto the queue it goes.

    …and Stanley Tucci! And Michael Gambon! And Christopher goddamn Eccleston! Okay, yes. A million times yes.

  6. I’ve discovered Fortitude after reading about it in your blog. And yes, every minute of it was if not great then significally better than most nowaday series.
    What you call glacial pacing many would name suspense and give an acclaim for it.

    Fortitude is one of two series I actually enjoyed this year – the other being Wachowski’s Sense8. However, sense8 had promising SF premise but did nothing to explain a scientifical base for it.

  7. Psychological Thriller/Drama/Mystery

    Well, I thoroughly enjoyed it as precisely that, which is mostly what it is and all it appears to be until… well, you know. If I’d have one criticism it’s the usual problem that when a grittily realistic narrative begins to incorporate SF elements there doesn’t seem to be the same degree of respect for verisimilitude with regard to those bits as for the gritty psychological crime drama bits. But to go into detail about my nitpicks would involve unconscionable spoilage, and they were comparatively minor.

  8. Dan Ballard: Speaking of shows that show scientists doing science (tho also full of breakthrough moments) did you ever see the Canada made and set Regenesis?

    I did. In fact, my then-partner worked for the Writer’s Guild of Canada, so I even got to see the pilot script prior to filming. She thought it sucked, but then, she didn’t really care about the science.

    I thought it was a good show. In terms of its portrayal of both scientists and the bugs they studied, Regenesis took a lot more care than most TV shows I’ve seen. Since I’m not a microbiologist myself, though, and since I feared that years of reduced expectations had lowered my approval threshold, I checked with an actual microbiologist out of UBC. She told me the science was spot-on.

    eriko: So what was the embargo about? Fortitude is at the top of the netflix queue.

    No, it was my review that was embargoed. I originally wrote this for Nowa Fantastyka over in Poland, and they get a 2-week exclusivity window after publication.

    Weaver: But to go into detail about my nitpicks would involve unconscionable spoilage, and they were comparatively minor.

    Yeah, I also found (for example) that certain hospital staff seemed remarkably unobservant when it came to the condition of one of their patients. But I’m willing to lump that in with the dirt-bike/Semi chase scene from Terminator 2: pretty unbelievable, but not plot-critical. If you take it out the story still holds up.

  9. Anne Hathaway’s character in Interstellar witters on about the transcendent properties of Love as a Universal Force.

    Where else does this crock of amphibian shit feature? Is it due to background christianity?

    I’ve seen Dan Simmons use it, especially in the Endymion books. Why, escapes me. He is something like Lovecraft, except from the other side. Has more than one book where mystical bollocks ruin a good tragedy and provide a happy ending.

  10. eriko,

    Is that by chance in Canada? It’s not in my Netflix, not even the DVD rental part. (I only subscribe to streaming.) (In US here.)

  11. Btw, shilling might be above our host, but for fellow Canadians in the audience, tomorrow’s the last day people can vote for the Prix/Aurora awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Hugos (except no Puppy controversy, and membership is only $10.. which, incidentally gets you ebook copies of most of the nominees, btw, as part of the voter’s pack, at least until tomorrow…), and Echopraxia is in the Best English-language Novel category. I voted for it (though I certainly appreciated the opportunity to sample some of the other nominees, which were on my to-read-eventually list).

    If you’re a member, or want to be, the site where it can all be done is at:

  12. Peter D: Btw, shilling might be above our host,

    I think you meant “below our host”. At least I hope that’s what you meant. But thanks for bringing it up. It’s nice to see the word trickle out even in the absence of relentless tub-thumping.

  13. Peter Watts: I think you meant “below our host”.

    Woops! Yes, that is what I meant. I think I got confused between whether to word it “Shilling might be below our host” or “Our host might be above shilling.”

    Or perhaps I was looking at it from the perspective of some hypothetical intelligent deep sea culture where it’s considered more honorable the deeper you go and therefore their less noble impulses were given the metaphorical orientation of being above.

    But probably the first one..

  14. Terry, I’m in the US and cannot find Fortitude on Netflix either. Very frustrating!

  15. I watched it based on your recommendation. Loved it! As you say, a slow burner, but well worth the wait. Comparison with Twin Peaks is apt – nobody was quite what they seemed. The character development was handled well (especially the sheriff). I too have no idea what the pig in the hyperbaric chamber was about – I thought it was going to turn into an “evil scientists experimenting on remote community” thing but luckily it didn’t.

    Oh, thanks to one of your commenters here I’ve been watching Rick and Morty too. Cracks me up a lot. for all your TV viewing suggestions 🙂

  16. Gator,

    Thanks, Gator. At least we’re not alone in our deprivation!

  17. Not on Pivot nor Pivot On demand on US cable either.

  18. Heads up to anyone who may still be following this thread: Jesus Olmo has pointed me to "Investigate Fortitude", a nifty series of 3-minute Youtube shorts exploring the science that underlies the show. Be warned: these were originally aired following each episode, so they contain massive spoilers; the last one gives away the punchline of the whole season.)

  19. The reveal was brilliant, but I was a little disappointed, since I was already writing a game based on literally the exact same concept, and now I’ll feel like I’m ripping off Fortitude.

    Welp, a lack of originality has never stopped art before. And there are worse things to rip off.

  20. Hey, you finally checked out Fortitude. Glad you liked it. In addition to having some decent science elements, I think it is also worth noting just how gorgeous the show is — some major UHD scenery porn.

    And it’s been renewed for a second season. No idea how they’ll pull that off, but I’m pretty excited for it.

  21. That was a great watch. Thanks for the recommendation. Given the excellent cast and the overall quality it’s shocking to me I hadn’t heard anything about it before.

  22. Off-topiciness from a year ago.

    Danish scientists make crystals that can “store” oxygen. May be useful for deep diving, respiratory ailments.

  23. Off-topiciness.

    New unicode candidate emojis include…
    …a squid at U+1F991.