COBRA-La

I’m watching The Rook, which is about a British spy agency staffed by people with superpowers. In the opening scene the protagonist wakes up surrounded by dead bodies and her memories wiped and has to rely on letters she wrote to herself ahead of time to get to the bottom of the conspiracy while pretending that nothing about her has changed.

It adapts a book series I liked and I’m rather glad of the changes made in the translation to screen. One of the things I found enjoyable from the book was the weird asides from the history of the spy agency, like the time they crucified one of their agents for betraying them to the French or when they were almost hunted to extinction by an angry vampire. 

However, that style of storytelling obviously wouldn’t work on TV, and of course the more flamboyant superpowers would get expensive for the special effects budget, so things get more toned down and the plot revolves more around spy versus spy in the 21st century. The show really gets into Britain as a panopticon state, but it shows this from the point of view of the watchers. The spies are literally a class apart from the people they spy on, living in expensive condos in the heart of London or old Victorian townhouses. I can’t imagine any of the characters ever watching Coronation Street or going down to the pub for a curry.

I’m reminded of certain criticisms of real world British spies, who tend to be recruited straight out of university and have giant blind spots regarding the people their work revolves around. I’m not sure if this class reading is something the show is deliberately encouraging or whether this is something that just inadvertently creeps into shows about the modern United Kingdom. I mean, I found class issues glaring in The Worst Witch and that show is supposed to be a lighthearted kids’ series about hijinks at magic school.

I do appreciate how much more accessible the show is to people not already fans of the spy genre. Being about a fictional spy agency, it doesn’t get deep into the specific details of the British state and governmentality. Here, for example are some real world British government things that have never been mentioned on The Rook, but do keep coming up in novels about British spydom and are essentially gibberish words for foreign audiences: GCHQ, Whitehall, the Official Secrets Act, COBRA briefings.

Anyway, that was just an aside. In the end, I find The Rook intriguing and am already up to the 4th episode.

After Trek

I recently finished reading Trekonomics by Manu Saadia. It analyzes the Star Trek shows and movies to discover what kind of economics exists in the Trek universe. I hadn’t realized how dorky the corner of the Internet I regularly traverse is but I was actually already familiar with many of the arguments the book puts forth, though there was less nerdy jargon being thrown around than online. The book takes for granted what the characters claim about the Federation’s society having no money and no want and teases out what that would mean as far as labour, innovation, psychology, and so on.

The end conclusion is that the Federation’s innovation is not technological, but political. It does present an interesting hypothesis for the Drake equation – that thing scientists and sci-fi enthusiasts use when they need to pull a number out of their asses for how many alien civilizations exist in the universe. The book points out that exploring space is inherently unprofitable and that space exploration means creating a society where massive resources are not wasted on convincing people to gamble on mobile games and suing each other over intellectual property violations. Perhaps the main thing preventing aliens from zooming around in space ships is that they never figured out a way to organize their societies around anything besides profitability, which is to say that capitalism is the problem.

It’s an interesting thesis and obviously impossible to test, but seeing as how space exploration stalled once it stopped being a dick measuring contest (i.e., stopped being possible to profit in terms of national prestige) it does make some sense.

Anyway, I found it an interesting read. And I suppose I should really get on with watching Discovery already.

Neverending 80’s story

Holy shit, was this the music video for the theme song of The Neverending Story?

The only thing missing is Bastian riding Falcor in the foreground. This video needs a goddamn albino luck dragon, by damn!

Down with politics

Elsewhere in the world I have been discussing the book Soonish, which is about incredible inventions that are on the cusp of making the world a better place. Some of the proposed technologies were interesting, some were ho-hum, and some were completely pie-in-the-sky. The thing about the book that most leapt out at me, though, was the politics that it was uncritically espousing.

Several times the book discusses how the inventions will be used by the American military, which made me pull back with some befuddlement – how, I asked while reading, is improving the way people kill each other making the world a better place? What I found especially striking was that it was clear that the authors took it for granted that supporting the US military was an unqualified good and most likely didn’t even consider it as a political act at all.

The other thing that struck me about the book, which shouldn’t be surprising considering its “science fuck yeah” tone, is that it insisted on technical solutions for political problems. The section on housing goes on about how outrageously outmoded the current construction model of building houses is, and what with the housing crisis in America today the best solution is some kind of modular houses that assemble themselves or some shit (I read the book months ago so I don’t remember the specifics).

In fact, the book argues, with the rising homelessness crisis and unaffordability of housing in places like San Francisco, it’s practically a moral necessity to get these robot houses approved and building themselves ASAP since they can do the job faster and cheaper than what we have right now.

That line of argument reminded me of how some people talked about fixing world hunger back in the nineties. If we could just develop the right fertilizer or right GM crops or whatever then we could increase crop output and famine would forever be eradicated. Of course, this ignores the fact that the world hunger crisis exists at the same time as the world obesity crisis. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough food for everyone – if that were true, it would be impossible to eat enough to become obese. The problem is that food goes not to who needs it, but who has money to pay for it. Which is to say that the problem is political, not technical.

It’s the same thing with the current housing shortage. If developed countries really, really wanted to, then everyone who wanted a home could have one. But a host of of political problems – baby boomers who want real estate prices to stay high because selling their houses is their retirement plan, developers chasing luxury prices for wealthy international elites who just want someplace stable to park their money, widespread societal aversion to the idea of renting, a regulatory environment that makes approval of new construction so arduous that it incentivizes developers into only focusing on the absolutely most profitable projects, and so much more – combine to stymie efforts for change.

So my expectation is that if self-building robot houses or whatever are approved, the savings in time and money will just mean larger profits for the developers and no meaningful difference will be made in the amount of housing being constructed. But woo robot houses.

Remember the Ides of November

Legends of Eisenwald looks to be a fantasy roleplaying and strategy game about leading a noble family in medieval Germany.

However, while researching it I found out about its standalone spin-off, Eisenwald: Blood of November, which apparently is about the 2016 US elections.

No, I have no goddamn idea why or how the game developers did this but almost every review on GOG states that Blood of November transposes the electoral showdown between Trump and Clinton into a fantasy version of medieval Germany. According to one review the story works like this:

The gameplay and the low fantasy medieval setting has all the qualities that made me love Legends of Eisenwald But this stand-alone spin off is also an absolutely hilarious rewriting of the recent american elections. Here it’s the Duc that died heirless, and the barons have to elect his successor. The 2 main contestant are a man named.. Dieter Horn , and a woman, Hanna Eisig , and you have to pick a side and help it win. The extravagant rumors about both candidates are offen medieval views of the actual campain events , and it’s amasing how medieval it does feel indeed ! The game is still great even if you don’t want to pay attention to that double entendre, but much funnier this way

So, uh, yeah. I bought Legends of Eisenwald but now I wonder if I should buy this spinoff as well, since it sounds either stupid or brilliant. I don’t think I’d be able to catch every in-joke since these days I avoid consuming too much news about the minutiae of US politics, but campaign season for the 2020 elections has already started so playing it almost seems topical. And it’s only like $3. Maybe I can buy one less coffee next week?

Kung fu TV

Warrior is the shit. It’s a violent kung fu spaghetti western that’s so very over the top. It’s set in 19th century San Francisco and I think is basically what Bruce Lee had wanted the original Kung Fu TV show to originally look like. The protagonist is literally fresh off the boat from China, but unlike other FOBs he knows kung fu and starts kicking racist ass as soon as he arrives.

The show has a lot about the politics around Chinese immigration at the time – the way politicians stoked working class racism at lost jobs, the way the Irish workers shat on those lower down the ladder than them, the way the rich businessmen gladly exploited the Chinese, the resentment the Chinese had against their oppression, and the gangsters and criminals who didn’t give much of a shit as long as they profited. But all this is expressed in modern-ish language (in fact, very hip hop language), and thanks to the magic of TV we hear English when the Chinese characters are talking all funny among themselves.

Did I mention the show is violent? Because it is. It’s what I wanted out of Into the Badlands and damn if it doesn’t deliver. If nothing else, just watch the opening, it’s stylish as hell. I like the whole 70’s kung fu movie poster thing.

Congrats to all nominees for the 2019 Hugo Awards

So the Hugo Award nominations have been announced.

I’ve never actually paid attention to these before, have they always been so expansive? I mean, there are awards for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form and Short Form which appear to be for adaptations of existing properties (Infinity War is in there, but otherwise the rest of the list is defensible).

Anyway, the only reason I checked out the 2019 nominee list is because I’m in there, under Best Related Work: Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works. In case you didn’t know, it’s an online database for fanfiction (the online database, really). It was made by fans for fans and it’s ridiculous how much better it is than anything else out there.

Apparently the tech behind it is quite innovative, or so I’m led to understand by various people who know more on the subject. Also they figured out how to do moderation right, and it’s basically the simplest solution: have actual knowledgeable people who care deeply about the product manually look over submissions. There’s more to be said about it – for instance, unlike the majority of large tech projects, most of its coders are women, many self-taught – but I really don’t know enough to speak deeply on the subject.

Really, I’m just mentioning this to toot my own horn. My fanfics about Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! and Avatar: The Last Airbender are hosted on AO3, meaning I’m technically a contributor to a Hugo-nominated project. You stand in the presence of a giant of literature! Also, I donated $10 to AO3 once so I’m also like a Medici, sharing my wealth to fund great works of art. So I guess I should add this to my resume.

Dragon’s Dogma coming

Well well, seems like Netflix is making an anime about Dragon’s Dogma. As might be gathered from my previous writings on the subject (and on the copious number of painstakingly composed screenshots that I’ve uploaded – seriously, you know how hard it was to reach some of those ledges?), I really liked the game.

Having said that, I liked the game as a game, not as a story. The plot itself was quite thin and not really that compelling (though the backstory was kind of interesting). To accurately reflect my own experience of the game, the show had better have extended sequences of the main character climbing up a cyclops to stab it in the crotch. Also it would need to have 20 minutes of catching rabbits and throwing them off a cliff, plus like 50 hours of trying on different outfits.

Still, the Castlevania show on Netflix turned out pretty good and it’s not like that franchise had an especially good story behind it. Of course, Warren Ellis was the one who wrote that adaptation and we still don’t know who Dragon’s Dogma will get. Fingers crossed the anime will be as fun as the game, though.

The angel of combat

I liked Alita: Battle Angel. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the original manga, and I was rather concerned that a sprawling story would end up condensed into an abbreviated mishmash of various plot points set up to justify gratuitous and boring CGI action scenes.

But Robert Rodriguez pulled it off. I’m please with the narrative choices he made in taking a comic book story that unfolded over years and turning it into a regular length movie. Apparently James Cameron’s original script was 180 pages.

From viewing the trailer I thought it might be odd to see a big-eyed manga character interacting with actual people, but I quickly got used to it in the actual movie. I can see why the character of Alita was entirely CGI because of the numerous action scenes of cyborg kung fu – any live-action actor (Rosa Salazar, specifically) would need to be replaced by a computer-generated model when the fighting started, but there would have been a noticeable transition between the real person and the computer one. Having the character be completely CGI prevented this uncanny valley-tude.

It’s disappointing but I expect the movie won’t see a sequel. It appears not to have been a gigantic hit with the US market, though it’s been doing gangbusters overseas, especially in China. It made money but not Avengers money. I’m not even really put out, since even though the ending of the movie calls out for a continuation, what’s there is still satisfying on its own.

And my take-away from the whole thing? Alita is a quite decent action sci-fi film that I thoroughly enjoyed. If enough of you watch it, we might see Ed Norton in the sequel.