Personal Space: Carole & Tuesday and the Charm of Quiet, Character-Driven Sci-Fi

Carole and Tuesday (5)

Often the most fun and fascinating worldbuilding details are the ones that come from very everyday situations. What do people do for fun, in this speculative setting? What do they eat? Where do they get that food from? What are folks buying and selling, and how are they going about this? What about all the background characters in those stories about saving the galaxy—what are those people doing day-to-day, what are they dreaming about, aspiring to, distracting themselves with to get by on their daily grind? While these are often incidental, extra details that pop up in (and enhance) the background of more epic adventures through space, they’re at the heart of Carole & Tuesday.

Sci-fi is a fantastic genre for big, high-concept, high-stakes plots that use the speculative elements of their worlds to explore big ideas. Action adventures and space operas tend to be what it’s most associated with, which makes this series stand out for its comparatively quiet, low-stakes story. Similarly to what I liked about Girls’ Last Tour, Carole & Tuesday takes a familiar sci-fi setting—in this case a colonised, terraformed, high-tech Mars—and instead makes it the backdrop to a more personal, emotionally-centred story about music. The result is refreshing, interesting, and quite charming, giving us a sweet musical coming-of-age story woven delicately through with sci-fi fun.

Carole & Tuesday is a rather down to earth—or perhaps down to Mars—caper in a sci-fi world. Tuesday is the daughter of a rich politician who runs away to the big city to pursue her dreams to make music, and Carole is a former refugee also trying to break into the music biz while scraping by on her earnings from various crappy part-time jobs. The two meet, serendipitously, at the end of what has been a horrible day for both of them, when Tuesday hears Carole singing on a bridge. The two become fast friends, Carole puts Tuesday up in her storeroom-turned-studio-apartment, and the pair start practicing music and writing songs together. What follows is their journey forward into the music industry… all of which happens to take place on another planet.

Carole and Tuesday (4)

It would be incorrect to say that it’s incidental that the story is set in space. It wouldn’t be the same story if it was set anywhere else. The sci-fi worldbuilding is woven through the day-to-day, grounded, personal story of the aspiring musicians, quietly filling the series with all those intriguing little details I mentioned above: front and centre, we see cafés with digital menus and robotic staff; electric billboards advertising all manner of Mars-specific snacks, events, and pieces of pop culture clutter the scenery; and the red-desert landscape so iconic to, well, The Red Planet, looms in the backdrop beyond the shiny futuristic cityscape that makes up the show’s main setting. The series works elegantly to build a sense that this a fully fleshed-out, lived-in, bigger universe, and this is just a small part of it—but reiterates that the small part is what we’re here for.

Carole and Tuesday go through various highs and lows in their musical storyline: they become viral internet sensations completely by accident (social media and smartphones are an integral part of the everyday landscape), they get scammed by an industry professional (in this case a tiny nasty robot), scrounge for side jobs to keep the lights on while they write new songs (it’s hard to find casual work—why would you pay a fallible human for a service job when you could get a robot or AI program to do it?), and they go for their big break in a televised talent show (called Mars Brightest). Their experiences are fairly universal and recognisable, and would be right at home in any “rising star” narrative, but their story is inescapably woven through with details and situations unique to the sci-fi setting.

Running parallel to Carole and Tuesday’s quest for success is the story of former child star Angela, who has sought out the best AI technician in the business to manufacture a stellar music career for her. As the technician explains, most pop music made these days is not written by humans but generated by computer programs that analyse the most popular and successful songs from the past. Given our current penchant for remixing and rebooting nostalgic pop culture and all those “I forced a bot to watch 1000 hours of X and this is what it made” memes, this genuinely seems like a viable future for creative industry. It’s especially interesting that most of the show’s music references are to hits from the 1970s and 1980s, implying that our fascination with that era will last (or loop back around) into a distant space-faring future… which, honestly, I can totally see happening.

Carole and Tuesday (1)

In any case, with music at the heart of this sci-fi story, and Carole and Tuesday as our passionate underdogs, this becomes an exploration about creativity and industry with that exploration propped up by the sci-fi element. Again, there is no planet to be saved, nor even a corrupt intergalactic megacorp to overthrow. Though there’s a shift in focus towards the social and political issues of Martian society as we head towards the mid-point of the series, it remains true that this is, first and foremost and always, a story about two girls’ love for music. This is, comparatively at least, a lower-stakes story than the space operas we might be most familiar with, to the point where it may feel “out of place” in the wider genre of interplanetary sci-fi. But Carole and Tuesday’s personal, emotional narrative is treated with heartfelt weight and never belittled.

This combination of quiet coming-of-age tale about making music with the futuristic alien setting is intriguing and very fun, and it serves to remind us that speculative fiction doesn’t have to be epic in scope to be resonant or interesting. Within every save-the-universe story world are a million smaller stories about more “everyday” hopes, aspirations, and struggles which are just as interesting. It gives you, as the audience, the chance to play around in a speculative world without the intensity that you’d normally expect from a darker, higher-stakes sci-fi. Spec fic can explore big themes—creativity, industry, identity, politics—without necessarily having to be big in scope, and this potential isn’t addressed as much as I’d be interested in seeing (that said, of course, if you have any recommendations for similar stories, let me know about them!).

Perhaps Carole and Tuesday will end up on a much more epic journey as their story concludes (the second half of the series hits Netflix in December) and they head towards the mysterious “seven minute miracle” that’s teased in the intro to each episode… but I’m going to say, at this point, that them suddenly saving Mars would be tonally out of step with what the show’s mission statement seems to be. The opening theme shows the two musicians dancing together among the watercolour streets of their Martian home, to a gentle, catchy tune about love. It lulls you, invites you in to join the dance and tap your feet and play around in this speculative world, and anchors its narrative around a relationship and a love of music. It seems more likely that Carole and Tuesday—and their music—will save the more focused, emotionally-centred, personal “world” of the story, and that will be just as rewarding to experience.

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Filed under And I Think That's Neat, Archetypes and Genre

2 responses to “Personal Space: Carole & Tuesday and the Charm of Quiet, Character-Driven Sci-Fi

  1. Pingback: Last Week in Geekdom – Your Weekly News Round-Up (11/11 – 11/17) | Bloom Reviews

  2. Pingback: Papers, Please: November ’19 Roundup | The Afictionado

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