Very rarely does one get to see, in contemporary American television and cinema, works of science fiction in which diversity of representation goes hand in hand with the radical politics that this representation demands. Even more scarce is the politics of revolutionary anti-imperialism and the critical recognition of science fiction’s entanglement with empire. After all, the genre is dependent on the vocabulary of colonialism for its very tropes, from space travel to the alien invasion to the stale eugenicist outbreak narrative. Believe me: I, too, sat on the edge of my seat through Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) and loved to bits its focus on black beauty and identity; but it bummed me to see the conservative politics involved in making the antagonist, Erik Killmonger, both an icon of black revolution and a propagator of American imperialism. I mean, what really happened to the politics of solidarity of the Black Panthers revolutionaries who participated in the anti-colonial struggles of the Global South as equal comrades?
Even as a tradition exists of anti-colonial science fiction in the United States, television adaptations of these works manage to create, somehow, colonialist fantasies with a generous dollop of good old American freedom and democracy. Who could forget, for example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1972 anti-Vietnam War novel The Word for World Is Forest and its spurious (and uncredited) adaptation Avatar (2009)—which evokes every colonialist, gendered, and ableist stereotype one could think of?
Is it any surprise, then, that I got hooked on the Brazilian science fiction television series 3%, the first Portuguese-language television show on Netflix, that deftly manages to string together the politics of class inequality in contemporary Brazil with the long history of colonial interventionism in Latin America and the myriad forms of resistance that have developed around it? And I am certainly not complaining that it does so through a brilliant and diverse cast, among whom Vaneza Oliveira, who plays the incredible Joana, has won herself a fan for life in this reviewer.
At first glance, 3% seems to be a typical survivalist tale. Twenty-year-old inhabitants of a post-catastrophic “Inland” must compete in a rigorous “Process” to win a place among the “3%” who would have the chance to begin their life anew on the “Offshore,” a utopia that operates purportedly on the principle of unadulterated merit. In the conventions of the survivalist sub-genre, the Process comprises a series of tasks that test the candidates’ intelligence, morality, and courage—but above all, their desire to change their lives for the better. Family ties, inheritance, and romantic attachments are all put at stake in the Process: once a person passes over to the Offshore, their ties to their loved ones, left behind in the Inland, are irrevocably severed.
“You create your own merit” is the unofficial motto of the Process, conducted by the ruthless Ezequiel, played by João Miguel. The strength of the mirage of this Offshore utopia lies in the way its meritocratic society often seems to be an ideal alternative to our world—in which race, heredity, wealth, and opportunity play a vast role in determining an individual’s success in life. The Process motto is also recognizable, however, as the most sought-after promise of neoliberalism, whose glorification of “individual merit” has long been the basis of the American dream. In fact, then, the show takes it upon itself to reveal the constructedness of the neoliberal fantasy of “pure merit” and the myriad ways in which it is deployed to maintain systemic inequality.
The echoes of Brazil and its representations in popular media are key to worldbuilding in 3%. While reviewers like Liz Shannon Miller of IndieWire rue the fact that the low budget of the series is apparent in the lack of special effects and technological advancements in the futuristic world (apparently to Miller, the Offshore looks like just another American park), it seems to me, rather, that 3% challenges the very basis of science fiction’s foundations in technological modernity, and the latter’s embeddedness in the colonial project that purports to bring progress to the “primitive” worlds of the Global South.
The show’s dystopic imagination is informed by the vast inequalities of Brazil that are spatially mapped on to the two divided worlds of the Inland and the Offshore. It is not a coincidence that César Charlone of City of God (2002) fame collaborates on the direction of many episodes in the series: the cinematography of São Paulo’s favelas in the representation of the Inland is unmistakably his. M. Elizabeth Ginway, in her book, Brazilian Science Fiction (2004), makes note of these “differential processes of modernization,” due to which “Brazil currently lives in several stages simultaneously—the pre-industrial, the industrial and the post-industrial—providing material ripe for exploration in Science Fiction” (p. 30). The Inland, modelled after Brazil’s slums, is dotted by ruined skyscrapers without the basic amenities of water and electricity. People live in makeshift houses and scavenge for food. In direct contrast, the Offshore is by the sea and features big houses furnished with modern appliances and technology.
The first season centers around the Process itself. At the heart of it lies the knowledge of a “militant” from the Cause, an insurgent organization based in the Inland that seeks to destroy the Offshore completely in order to get rid of the very basis of the existing inequality between the inhabitants of the two. One of the Cause’s resistance tactics is to recruit and train potential rebels who would participate in the Process—with the aim of their passing it and then destroying the repressive Offshore from within. While most of the eight episodes are each based in turn on one task in the Process, the season also structures each task around the personality of one significant character in the show. At the center of the first season are Joanna, Michele, Fernando, Rafael, and Marco, twenty-year-olds who are set to enter the Process, which represents their one chance to leave their lives of abject poverty and begin a new life in the Offshore. Their attitudes towards the various tasks in the Process are determined by the complex of their experiences and background.
The strength of 3% lies in its well fleshed-out characters, whose lives and ideologies intersect dialectically. I have to put this on record: 3% is a winner for its diversity politics because it casts queer, black, brown, and disabled characters in distinctive roles; but, above all, it makes space for their radical and heterogeneous politics. The show pushes back against the stereotypes of disability so frequently deployed in science fiction, through which the fictional world becomes a point of redemption, a means to transcend the state of disability. In 3%, Fernando, played by Michel Gomes, rejects time and again the narrative of redemption which posits the Offshore as a means to transcend one’s disability. In the first season Fernando’s disability emerges as an essential element of his identity, and is crucial to creating a distinctive niche for one of the most brilliant and empathetic characters of the show.
3% employs characterization to raise concerns around class, religion, and family relations, to imagine sociopolitical attitudes towards systemic inequality. These political narratives not only allow its audience a peek into the labyrinthine politics of Latin America but also accord them with the power of political choice. As we choose our favorite characters, we find ourselves sympathizing often with the politics they represent.
The second season develops a more advanced politics as the characters gain political consciousness in the wake of their first encounter with the injustices of the Process. The focus now shifts to the Inland, its conditions of life and resistance. One begins to see the cracks in the utopia of the Offshore in the way it is bound to the Inland, not only for new pools of young people to maintain its existing population, but also through a strong militarized presence in the region. From doctors to military personnel, the Offshore’s presence has clear resonances of a colonial occupation. The occupying military is rooted in strong nationalist sentiments hinged on the superiority of its own kind, and continues to secretly encourage lumpen elements within the Inland to subdue and inform on any insurgent activities. This revelation of the panoptic presence of the Offshore on the Inland clearly borders on neoimperialist American presence on Latin American soil, a dynamic that finds its full potential in the last season.
The second season reveals, too, the constructedness of the utopia of the Offshore by placing its origins in the underdevelopment of the Inland. Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, in his book The Open Veins of Latin America (1971), famously noted that “Development develops inequality” to explain the relationship of the Latin American continent with neighboring developed economies. We find that—spoiler—the Offshore was built off the labour of the original people of the Inland and was meant, over a period of time, to facilitate a complete migration of people for a better life. However, the capitalist class that funded the research and capital for the Offshore, disturbed by the increasing resource crisis, decided to sabotage the Inland and facilitate their own migration to the new, well-equipped land while leaving the less fortunate on the Inland. The founding scientists of the Offshore, in true homage to science fiction’s “evil scientist” trope, destroyed the power source of the Inland, consigning the land and its people to complete darkness and making it impossible to rebuild it.
Between these dichotomized worlds of the developed Offshore and underdeveloped Inland, the third season attempts to present an alternative in the “Shell.” True to its name, and the extended allegory that runs through the three seasons, the Shell is a protected community built by Michele a little way from the Inland, to create a better life for its inhabitants. The Shell is physically positioned between the Offshore and Inland, but also occupies the ideological middle ground between revolutionary and reformist politics, a historical tension all too familiar in Latin America. Joana and Michele embody this contradiction: while the former wants to destroy the unequal system, Michele wants to deploy its resources to create a better, more humane system.
The unsustainable nature of the Shell is apparent in its very origins. The resources for its construction arrive from the Offshore, and, while Michele intended it to be an independent project, it is prone from the very beginning to espionage from that quarter. “Sabotage” is the key word here: one hears it repeatedly, and the echo of the interventionist politics of Cold War America could not be clearer. Even the images and vocabulary are derived from the technologies of American neoliberal warfare. The Gardrone—the drone tamed for gardening purposes—is perhaps the most evocative.
From Guatemala to Chile to Venezuela, the season is an excellent rendition of the limits of creating a sustainable, self-sufficient domestic economy in the shadow of a powerful, imperialist neighbor. One is strongly reminded of Audre Lorde’s brilliant evocation of the impossibility of liberal reform. On one hand, the Shell provides a model for sustainable and just living amidst the ruin the Offshore helps to create, but on the other, like all utopian projects cultivated in the midst of a systemically corrupt society, it falls prey to the system it hopes to challenge. The source of the Shell’s water system is sabotaged, leaving its inhabitants with a severe resource crisis. Faced with debilitating scarcity, Michele embarks on another Process, a reproduction of the original status quo, meant to single out those who get to stay on in the Shell. Conflict ensues, leading to a protest, which is soon appropriated by the Offshore leaders. This third season enacts protest within the distinct representational politics of a coup. The clear juxtaposition between accelerated resource crisis and neocolonial governmentality, played against the backdrop of the windy, sun-scorched, barren desert, renders 3% even more relevant for our times. The corresponding ecology of the two worlds is unmistakable. While the Inland is framed against the backdrop of desert and barren mountains, the Offshore has large chunks of green, forested areas. Over the course of the three seasons, the various directors utilize this ecological contrast to create a narrative that is deeply embedded in the declining ecologies of the postcolonial world.
The show’s third season is by far the most arresting for this powerful representation of neocolonialism. For me, the season’s appeal lies too in its development of Joana’s character. An orphan in the Inland, she is a true archetype of the survivalist who manages to exist in a brutal world through sheer strength and force of will. Yet, the strength of Joana’s characterization lies in her dynamism. She grows from her former individualism to possess a strong political consciousness and a rare moral compass, something that is missing in Michele, who systematically betrays her friends in the service of her own interests. While 3% does not pivot on race relations in Brazil—which may have to do with the nation’s positioning of itself as a “racial democracy” despite widespread anti-black discrimination—the show’s choice of Joana—a queer, black character—as the focal point of revolutionary change is gratifying. She is the transformative locus of the impending revolution on which the third season ends.
Even as efforts are rife to categorize 3% as the “Brazilian Hunger Games,” a move that presumes the centrality of American science fiction, the show takes its place in the tradition of speculative narratives from Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East that increasingly push back against western SF’s colonialist utopias. Along with its excellent cast of characters and gripping storyline, 3% is a must-watch for science fiction enthusiasts.
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