Future Imperfect

I love point-and-click adventure games. I love walking around their worlds and clicking “look” on each piece of background scenery, I love talking to every character I come across, and I even love obtuse inventory puzzles that leave me wondering how the hell a rubber ducky is supposed to help me get on a subway train. This is not a rational love but one born from the nostalgia of a person who played a lot of Sierra adventure games as a kid.

But art does not exist in a vacuum. Audiences always bring their prior experiences with them when encountering a text. Keeping in mind my partiality toward its genre, I must say this: I like Technobabylon.

Said the cyborg bouncer with the mohawk:

Part police procedural, part conspiracy thriller, and wholly a sci-fi cyberpunk journey through a decadent city of sorrow and sin, Technobabylon is a pleasant return to the old adventure and puzzle gaming formula. You play as three main characters: a curmudgeonly police detective hostile to the newfangled AI that governs his city (like a white Bill Cosby, minus the rape), his younger and more enthusiastic post-op (actually post-genetic-engineering) female-to-male partner who’s down with the hacking and the tweeting and the bipping and the bopping, and an unemployed shut-in on welfare addicted to the Internet who subsists on protein sludge extruded from her shitty apartment’s food machine. Also there’s a murderous plot which could lead all the way to the top. Continue reading “Future Imperfect”

Back to the future

Screenshot of fake Amiga-style computer GUI circa 1988

I just finished Christine Love’s game Digital: A Love Story and now I just want to proclaim my enjoyment for that particular visual novel. The game and its interface are set up to look like a computer system from 1988, which initially made me think it was a hacking simulator like Uplink. However, the game itself is quite small and, mechanically speaking, is not much more complicated than a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Savvy players could probably beat the game over one weekend. It’s essentially a game of clicking a succession of different buttons on the screen.

Like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, the appeal of this game is not in the gameplay but in revelling in the aesthetic presentation. I never thought I’d feel nostalgic for the whine and screech of a modem connecting to another system, yet here I am in the 21st century deliberately seeking out such a thing. This is a cute little game that could and I’m glad Christine Love was seemingly able to follow it up with commercially-successful titles.

I’m certainly looking forward to playing more of Love’s work. You can even see for yourself if her stuff is for you without incurring even the most minimal financial cost – the game is free to download from Love’s website. If anything I wrote here even mildly piqued your curiosity then go right ahead and try the game out. I think you’ll like it.

The Angel of Future History

Alita, the cyborg angel rising from the scrapheap of history

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another new recommendation. This one isn’t very obscure but it’s rather old, so it might have fallen off the radar by now. The manga I’m talking about is called Battle Angel Alita. It’s about an amnesiac cyborg making her way in a post-post-apocalyptic world, which is to say a world where the end has ended and a grimier, crappier version of civilization has been cobbled together.

There’s a formula to this type of thing: mysterious hints at the origin of the protagonist, savage battles of survival rendered in loving detail, betrayals, reversals, friendships, death. Alita follows that formula to the letter.

Still, I only started reading Alita on the recommendation of the fellow who makes the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court – read that posthaste, by the way – so I knew there was something to the manga. And it delivered on that front as well.

Picture a murderous rollerball tournament played by cyborgs (and don’t overthink the premise). Picture our heroine fighting with gritted teeth and desperate urgency. Then picture genuine character growth in the midst of this frenetic shounen action sequence. Whilst reading I had to stop and take a moment to admire what the comic was doing.

There’s a reason James Cameron is making noises about doing a live action adaptation. I think the story is best early on, when its setting and its conflicts are smaller and more immediate. The latter portion of the series isn’t bad but by the end too many battles have passed by to give the climax its proper narrative weight. Apparently the author was dissatisfied with the original ending (something about being ill at the time) and has rebooted the series as Battle Angel Alita: Last Order. I’m only talking about the first series and have no idea if the semi-continuation is any good.

The English translation is from that older era when translators would put more of a stamp on the finished product. For example, in Japanese the protagonist’s name is Gally and the series is called GUNM. I prefer the alliteration of the alternate title, and honestly, what the hell is a GUNM?

Overall, I would suggest reading at the very least through the first four volumes. That’s what made this series one of the early seinen sensations in English. Give the manga a skim, let its images assault you, allow its battles to excite you, and imagine what it would have been like to see this kind of thing for the first time in translation. This series is remembered for a reason.

World without end

Cover to Volume 3 of Eden: It's an Endless World

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eden: It’s an Endless World is one of the standout manga in my many years of experience with the medium. I’ve wanted to write about this series for years. It’s just taken me this long to digest its ideas, as you can see from the meandering summary I wrote a while back. The story is so big and its scope so grand that I’m daunted at the idea of ever reading the series again, but it’s also so compelling that I know I will revisit this manga someday.

Eden is a science fiction story about a world where the apocalypse didn’t happen, which is to say that it’s a science fiction story about our world.

In this cyberpunk future the Closure virus has ravaged humanity, killing two percent of the global population (which, let us be reminded, means the death of millions). The old order is dead, and the new order – the New World Order of the conspiracy theorists – has descended upon humanity in the form of the leviathan named Propater. Opposing Propater are an eclectic mix of drug lords, terrorists, and gangsters.  Mostly they fight not out of ideological zeal but because they also want their cut.

The near-apocalypse of the setting invites millenarianism in its fictional universe, which the story covers extensively. In fact, the series draws heavily on Gnosticism, though not gratuitously and not gratingly. It’s possible to enjoy the manga without having any idea of the theological significance of aions, for instance.

The creator, Hiroki Endo, is an unrepentant leftist, and his politics suffuses every page. This is the only manga I know of which invites readers to check out Noam Chomsky in the appendix. The story is better for being overtly political. Otherwise it would be the type of reactionary fantasy that makes vague calls to fight for great justice while being so naive and so divorced from the everyday that it invites the opposite action. It’s heavily cyberpunk in that it’s a science fiction story distrustful of the establishment, but it also avoids the provincialism of much of cyberpunk. Be it New York, Los Angeles, or Neo-Tokyo, the classic cyberpunk stories are rooted in particular and specific urban geographies.

By contrast, this manga spans the globe, from brothels in Peru to private schools in Australia, with the story being the most compelling when it deals with the dispossessed. The manga even touches upon what the Zapatistas call the Fourth World, or the indigenous peoples so far out of the orbit of the powerful that they don’t fit into the totalizing categories of First and Third World.

As well, Endo is fascinated by the interface between humanity and its technology, personified in the form of the cyborg. He’s fond of images like the one above, where the hard and mechanical is revealed underneath the feminine and organic.

As you may guess, the subject matter guarantees that this manga is full of violence, but of the more grounded type. This is an example of the seinen genre, which is targeted at men. I guess it might be characterized as a thriller in the vein of a more leftist Spartan or Ronin.

This is not a story for everyone, but at times it felt like it was made for me. Perhaps I misspoke when I said that I’ve taken years to digest the ideas in this story, for I’m still grappling with them. Too many action stories and too many manga retreat into fantasies of empowerment and away from actual political engagement. It’s refreshing to read one that faces the political head on.

Tetsuo and Kaneda’s Excellent Adventure

Last weekend, I saw Akira for the first time in probably twenty years. It held up very well.

The film is essentially about Japan in the 1960s, complete with violent gangs, mass protests, and regular terrorist bombings. Despite that temporal specificity, it still feels timeless. This is impressive for a sci-fi film made in 1988, especially since a lot of cyberpunk from that era feels very dated. I think an American cyberpunk story from that time would probably be full of coded racial paranoia about the rise of Japan, or it would have embarrassing Orientalist stereotypes about honour or some shit. This movie, of course, avoids that.

Anyway, I’d forgotten that there are no heroes in Akira. Everyone is either an asshole, a fuckup, or both. The protagonists are violent bikers who gleefully engage in street duels that injure bystanders, while the climax involves a guy wanting revenge on his best friend. That best friend massacred hundreds of people and is about to kill an entire city, but as far as the participants are concerned their fight is about nothing more than their petty and personal grievances.

Plus the animation still looks incredible. A festering shithole has never looked this beautiful in cartoon form.

Overall, the movie was a worthwhile thing to revisit. I’m glad I saw it again.

That was it? (Ergo Proxy: A commentary)

Lil Meyer from Ergo Proxy

Seriously, that was it? I can’t believe I watched all 23 episodes of Ergo Proxy and by the end I was still waiting for the story to start. “Underwhelmed” would be the best word to describe my feelings.

All right, that’s unfair. The series was pretty interesting in the beginning and had great potential at successfully combining philosophical ruminations with narrative cohesion, like The Matrix. By the end, though, it turned into a mishmash of disjointed plot points pasted together with pretty visuals. Which isn’t to say that it was bad, exactly, but how could they have spent so much money on the visual effects and still not manage to make a satisfying climax for the story? Remember the structure of the three act play, people: Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, and Denouement. Yes, those four parts fit into three acts.

Continue reading “That was it? (Ergo Proxy: A commentary)”

Sin vergüenza

It’s amazing how having constant high-speed Internet and cable tv means that one no longer has to go out as much. I’ve been doing my best to get caught up on watching cartoons, reading comics, and generally lounging about in sybaritic fashion. For instance, I spent last Sunday afternoon eating grapes and watching the dvd boxed set of Season 1 of Carnivale.

It’s wonderful to waste free time. And yet, time is not wasted when one’s mind is productive. Even when I’m not thinking about my thesis, I’m thinking about my thesis, and connections spring up during my relaxation in many delightfully surprising ways.

In this case, I’m talking about Eden, another Japanese comic book series (also known as manga) that I’ve recently come to like (thank you MangaProject). It’s about a young man living in a world where a pandemic has brought the world to the brink of disaster, and where a new world order has sprung up as a result. I have to tell you, in the following discussion of Eden I’m going to dispense spoilers like crazy. So read on at your own risk. There’s too much stuff to cover in one post so I’ll revisit the series again later. If you want my thoughts on Eden in a nutshell: Cyberpunk, biopolitics, near-apocalypse — rock! Read it if you need something to flip through when you want to pretend to yourself that you’re working.
A recumbent android girl is opened up and examined by lab technicians.
Anyway, the new disease is called the Closure Virus, which has killed 15% of the world’s population decades before most of the story’s action takes place. Bear in mind that 15% may not sound like a lot, but that’s still hundreds of millions of people dead, not to mention the many more that are implied to have died from the chaos that erupted. Governments collapse and a new organization exploits the power vacuum to put itself in charge — the Propater.

In the book, Propater is a neoliberal theocracy of federated nation-states controlling what we would call the “West” plus most of the Americas. I know, “Propater” sounds made-up. The name actually comes from Gnosticism, a religious movement from the same era as early Christianity. In fact, if you’ve got some knowledge of the Gnostics and of early Christian theology then you’ll be able to appreciate better some of the references in the series. I feel embarrassed I hadn’t caught on to the Gnostic elements until I’d read the series glossary, where it was all spelled out. Gnosia and agnosia, the aeons, God as insane: these are all things that are mentioned in the book, and they’re all important in some way to the story and its themes. Actually, googling around reveals that the major characters are named after Gnostic deities and they all play similar roles in the story as in Gnosticism.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (take that Wikipedia) says this about Gnosticism:

The doctrine of salvation by knowledge. This definition, based on the etymology of the word (gnosis “knowledge”, gnostikos, “good at knowing”), is correct as far as it goes, but it gives only one, though perhaps the predominant, characteristic of Gnostic systems of thought . . . Gnostics were “people who knew”, and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know. A more complete and historical definition of Gnosticism would be:

A collective name for a large number of greatly-varying and pantheisticidealistic sects, which flourished from some time before the Christian Era down to the fifth century, and which, while borrowing the phraseology and some of the tenets of the chief religions of the day, and especially of Christianity, held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the Parent-Spirit, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour.

However unsatisfactory this definition may be, the obscurity, multiplicity, and wild confusion of Gnostic systems will hardly allow of another. Many scholars, moreover, would hold that every attempt to give a generic description of Gnostic sects is labour lost.

Oh, and apparently Christian Gnostics were responsible for early Christian fanfiction:

The Gnostics developed an astounding literary activity, which produced a quantity of writings far surpassing contemporary output of Catholic literature. They were most prolific in the sphere of fiction, as it is safe to say that three-fourths of the early Christians romances about Christ and His disciples emanated from Gnostic circles.

Setting aside the fact that this version of the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather old and it’s often amusing to read the snide jabs at other religions, it’s interesting that anyone would structure a manga around Gnosticism. However, Eden isn’t the only manga or anime to take its inspiration from Christianity and related religions. I’ve never read the manga or watched the anime, but I know Neon Genesis Evangelion also explicitly explored themes from Christianity and Kabbalistic Judaism, though its treatment of such was apparently problematic. I did watch two episodes of Ninja Resurrection, a godawful anime miniseries about rebellious Christians in feudal Japan and the rise of the Anti-Christ or something.

Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a widespread fascination with Christianity in Japan, perhaps analogous to the fascination with Buddhism in the reified West. Perhaps this fascination comes from a desire for authenticity, with that authenticity being searched for in the foreign. So foreign = Other, Other = authentic, and conversely, domestic = Same, Same = inauthentic. This BBC article on one manifestation of Christianity in Japan presents an interesting but somewhat exoticizing view on the topic.

However, it’s debatable just how alien Christianity really is to Japan. It’s been in the country for 450 years, meaning that Christianity in Japan is almost as old as it is in South America. Christians have played major roles in Japanese history, perhaps most famously in the rebellion of Amakusa Shiro (depicted in Ninja Resurrection), not to mention the extensive meddling in feudal Japanese politics that Catholic missionaries engaged in. And as the BBC article shows, certain Christian sects are quite popular in modern Japan. So just how Other is Christianity really?

Oh whatever, I’m hungry and my rice just finished cooking. I’m definitely coming back to Eden, but see you some other time.