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.

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.

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.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty

Just here to post an interesting little interview I found with Kim Stanley Robinson (author of one of my favourite science fiction books, The Years of Rice and Salt. I especially liked his observation on the cultural construction of beauty:

SP: I wonder if we would develop a different sense of beauty if we went out into the Solar System. When we think of natural beauty, we tend to think of gorgeous landscapes like mountains or deserts. But out in the Solar System, on another planet or a moon, would our experience of awe and wonder be different?

KSR: You can go back to the 18th century when mountains were not regarded as beautiful. Edmund Burke and the other philosophers talked about the sublime. So the beautiful has to do with shapeliness and symmetry and with the human face and figure. Through the Middle Ages, mountains were seen as horrible wastelands where God had forgotten what to do. Then in the Romantic period, they became sublime, where you have not quite beauty but a combination of beauty and terror. Your senses are telling you, “This is dangerous,” and your rational mind is saying, “No, I’m on a ledge, but I’ve got a railing. It looks dangerous, but it’s not.” You get this thrilling sensation that is not beauty but is the sublime. The Solar System is a very sublime place.

Somewhere Out There

I recently finished the visual novel Out There Chronicles: Episode 1.

Screenshot of the female spaceship captain Nyx and the dialogue responses available to the player

In case you’re unaware, visual novels are a game genre originally from Japan that are essentially digital Choose Your Own Adventure games. There’s music and perhaps some simple animation, but otherwise the game part is just choosing out of a short list of responses or actions.

Being from Japan, most visual novels use the same visual style you would be familiar with from anime and manga and Japanese video games, and being relatively cheap to make, the vast majority of them are shit. The creative outlay, after all, is just still images, music, and text. You don’t even need any fancy programming as there are game maker programs out there where you can just drop your files straight into a framework and then it’ll spit a game out right quick.

Of course, there’s no reason that visual novels must inherently suck or all be about who’s dating whom in a fictional Japanese high school. I liked this one that I played. You, the protagonist, wake up from suspended animation a million years in the future on the planet America, home of what may be the last humans in the universe. You make your way through this strange society to find out what happened to your own colony ship, the Europa, while trying to hide what exactly happened before Earth died and everyone ran for it.

Screenshot of a spaceship flying through the sky over a rocky alien landscape

What did I like in particular? Well, the visuals are arresting and distinctive, not just for the look of the characters but for the environments they move in as well (the void of space, a futuristic park, a giant restaurant tree). It’s obvious how constrained the choices were but I didn’t feel as railroaded as I should have – the narrative was compelling enough that the choices presented were the ones I wanted to choose anyway just so I could see what happened next.

Anyway, this is only the first episode. There will be more to come. As with all serialized storytelling, the makers may shit the bed in later installments, but for now I’m anticipating the next episode. Thumbs up from me.

The war of two worlds

I’m finally up to date on Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series. It’s about a hidden family who can travel between parallel universes – our world and one that’s still in a quasi-medieval level of technology. They use this power to smuggle drugs and shit and have become rich and powerful in two worlds.

The series was mostly written in and is set during George W. Bush’s War on Terror years, and it’s almost nostalgic to read paranoid descriptions of Dick Cheney’s secret intelligence empire. Old Dick is in the series as an unseen antagonist, by the way, though he is referred to by his Secret Service codename WARBUCKS (Dubya is BOY WONDER).

It gets pretty crazy by the end. Cheney was apparently in the pay of the worldwalkers back in the 80’s so when their existence is revealed, he moves to exterminate them to hide all evidence of his corruption. There’s blowback, the interdimensional narcoterrorists steal a backpack nuke, and the White House along with Bush II explodes in nuclear fire.

But the USA has unlocked the secret of worldwalking and retaliates by carpetbombing the other world with nukes. Some of the narcos manage to escape to a third parallel world, one where New Britain rules the Americas. The 44th President of the US is Dick Cheney, who dies of natural causes not long after taking office. The 45th President is Donald Rumsfeld. And thus ends the first series.

Anyway, the story had been on hold for a while, and I can see why. Where can things go from here? Well, in the first book of the sequel series, things have gone in a completely different direction. It’s now 2020 and the worldwalkers have ensconced themselves in the government of New Britain. They live openly as interdimensional travellers, occasionally returning to our world to steal technology. They’re frantically developing the industry of their new country as a bulwark against the coming of the Americans. The United States is now even more of a militarized panopticon society, a kind of digital age Soviet Union where smartphones occupy the role of Stasi informants.

And now the stage is set for the rest of the Empire Games series. Worlds collide! I’m actually rather interested in what comes next.

And on that note, happy Labour Day weekend, ye workers of the world.

Tales of the City

Book cover of Imaginary Cities showing a futurist rendering of a shining white city of skyscrapers with a crowd of tourist in 1930s clothing gaping at the panorama

I am in the midst of reading Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. The best description of it is one that it provides – a nonfiction version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It’s just as hard to describe as the latter book. Basically it’s a collection of short essays loosely grouped around certain themes regarding cities of fiction and dream and myth and architecture.

Well, perhaps “essay” is the wrong word as essays traditionally argue for a point of view, whereas in this book the pieces mostly wander back and forth through Samuel Coleridge and Le Corbusier and Judge Dredd and whatnot. Reading it is like reading Calvino’s book. I think my favourite piece so far is the one about science fiction stories of cities ruled by women – both the ones written by men that are panicked screeds about feminism and the smaller number written by women that seriously try to imagine egalitarian societies.

My biggest complaint at this point is that the book is quite Eurocentric. It would have been stronger if it at least included Asian notions of city building, as historically the largest cities in the world have been in Asia. If there’s a cyberpunk section later on that doesn’t mention Akira then I’m going to be disappointed.

Other than that, I like the book so far.

Korea in space

I started reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit because Ann Leckie said she liked it. So far, I like it too.

This Korean sci-fi novel most resembles for me a non-moronic version of Warhammer 40,000. You see, in the novel’s far-flung future, the repressive Hexarchate controls its vast territory with weaponized astrology. Through total obedience to the social order, devotion to a strict calendar of feast days, and ritual torture of enemies, the state can manipulate the very laws of physics. (And yes, this sounds like North Korea in a space opera setting, though the calendrical sacrifices as a means of controlling the cosmos also reminds me of the Mayans).

But like all empires, this one is obsessed with maintaining its power. Observing alternate calendars directly weakens the state’s power, and thus a vast military machine is tasked with destroying heretics. One cog in this assemblage is Kel Cheris: a captain, a footsoldier, and a literal brainwashed fanatic.

Having evinced an aptitude for heretical mathematics, she is charged with capturing the Fortress of Captured Needles lest the Hexarchate itself fall. Her primary weapon is an undead military genius and traitor who she probably shouldn’t trust.

In the backmatter copy Stephen Baxter describes the book as Starship Troopers meets Apocalypse Now, which so far in my reading seems accurate. He doesn’t mention that the book is also compulsively readable. There are some wonderfully inventive ideas all over the story, and even the names of the weapons are deliciously odd: the catastrophe gun, the neglect cannon, the abrogation sieve, the calendrical sword.

I hope I won’t stay up too late tonight reading this book, but it’s a very real possibility. If you want to try out a brand new talent from an underrepresented corner of the sci-fi world, I suggest picking this up.

Attack of the giant pile of bullshit

Remember that part in Ghostbusters where they’re spewing soft-headed pseudoscientific hogswaddle as they battle the fantastical and the supernatural? Imagine that in book form and you get the novel MM9.

The book is set in a world where giant monsters – kaiju – have always existed in human history. Big Ben and London Bridge, for instance, were destroyed by a sea monster in 1952 while the US Army fought giant ants during the Cold War (and yes, his kaiju are the ones from monster movies like Them!). The author is clearly a geek of the first order and gleefully mashes together various science fiction works in service of the story, as he explains in an interview.

Being regular creatures that are part of the order of the world, kaiju are treated as natural disasters. The study of these monsters falls under the discipline of meteorology, and it is the men and women of the Monsterological Measures Department who devise counter-measures for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in their fight against the kaiju. I rather like how the book makes clear that the anti-kaiju agency are merely public servants, who are eternally worried about getting receipts for their taxi rides and have to deal with dumb questions from the media while they’re desperately in the middle of the latest attack. It’s kind of like if Pacific Rim were about the scientists instead of the robot jocks.

MM9 is nothing but pure and excellent bullshit. It’s quite short and a breeze to read, so I most heartily recommend it.

Giant Robots and Why We Love Them

Originally posted by me on PodCastle in the Sky

A quick glance at the lineup of a typical anime season will reveal a large number of shows featuring giant robots. In the recent winter season alone we can count among giant robot anime the series Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded OrphansSchwarzesmarken, Macross Delta, and probably a bunch more I’ve overlooked. Point is, giant robot anime are like cockroaches and herpes – they keep coming back.

But what’s so great about giant robots? Yeah, I know, to ask the question is to answer it. Giant robots kick ass. I mean, have you seen Robot Jox?

Or Pacific Rim too, I guess.

Fine, but why giant robots? Why not, say, giant tanks, like in Heavy Object?

I think it ultimately comes down to power fantasies. A giant robot perfectly embodies the juvenile dream of invincible domination that a tank cannot. Realistically speaking, a tank is a better weapon. It’s smaller, so it’s harder to hit; it’s cheaper, since manufacturing tank treads is easier than a bipedal walking machine; and it’s safer, since it’s easier to knock over something on two legs than a machine that rides low to the ground. Tanks are pound for pound the deadlier weapon, yet they don’t feel that way.

Consider that riding in a tank is akin to being jammed into a broom closet. Who feels invincible when the walls are pressing in everywhere?

Michael Peña driving a tank in Fury

Even were they roomier, though, tanks are fundamentally more like a heavily-armoured house on wheels. It’s a place to hunker down and hide in. One feels safe by virtue of being enclosed.

Melinda of Heavy Object holed up in the perfect otaku bunker

Look at the image from Heavy Object above of a tank driver in her native environment. It looks like a shut-in’s dream room – no windows or doors and ample monitors to watch TV and surf the Internet. The outside world might as well be just another program on the computer screen. It’s a perfect metal womb to hide in.

Feeling safe, though,  is not the same as feeling powerful. By contrast, a mecha is more truly worn than ridden. It’s human shaped and therefore more of an extension of one’s self – like the perfect battle armour or a second skin, or a new metal body that replaces vulnerable flesh.

It’s also important to remember that the heroes in giant robot anime are all teenagers, even the ones who aren’t. The modern iteration of the giant robot subgenre tends toward the melodramatic and the angst-ridden (as opposed to the gleefully consumerist giant robot shows of the 70’s and 80’s). There’s usually a sense of persecution and oppression being unjustly visited on the protagonists, whether it’s the outcast mercenary troop of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans or the underdog defenders in Argevollen.

But who are the villains who bedevil our heroes so? The enemies are often generic imperialists who fight for poorly-articulated and nonsensical political objectives. They aren’t fighting for anything specific because ultimately their goals aren’t important to the narrative. They’re just there to be roadblocks, to harass and  obstruct the hero and provide them something to punch.

The enemies of giant robot anime are so generic as to be universal. Look at the nickname bestowed upon the protagonist of Valvrave: The Boy Who Fought the World. This says it all. The enemy of the giant robot anime is no one specific, but rather everyone. Parents, teachers, bullies, rivals, friends, classmates, adults – which is to say, the generic “they” that persecutes the suffering hero of the show – are all the bad guys. They’re who he’s fighting against.

The giant robot pilot is like the Incredible Hulk – he wields incredible power but is misunderstood by the world. In the end, Hulk, like a surly and emo teenager, just wants to be left alone.

The Incredible Hulk pursued relentlessly by the US Army as he punches a tank shell and screams about being left alone

And here we come to the ultimate answer. The giant robot anime is the perfect teenage fantasy, for it’s a metaphor for the teenage condition: an innocent hero is possessed of unwanted new abilities which cause him to be unfairly beset on all sides by powers desperate to control or crush him.

This is the secret of why giant robot anime is so eternally alluring. Even adults who have their shit together will still occasionally feel like the world is picking on them for no good reason, and wouldn’t it be great if you had a magic wand that could make everything disappear? That could stop the world from pissing on you for just one damn second?

Why do we love giant robots? Because we all wish we had one of our own.