The Golden Age

Haha, this is nuts. I had no idea mental illness played such a part in the development of science fiction:

In 1950 Horace (H.L.) Gold launched the last of the Golden Age pulps, Galaxy Science Fiction, with the deliberate intention of de-emphasizing technology and concentrating on serious sociological and psychological stories. Unfortunately Gold also suffered from severe agoraphobia, and many writers quickly realized that they could sell to Galaxy by writing fiction that catered to Gold’s illness, hence the large number of “domed city,” “underground city,” and “the whole world is just one big city” stories that dominated printed science fiction well into the 1970s.

Shadows of the black empire

Junot Díaz on the relationship between minorities and science fiction:

Look. Without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as people of color, nothing about fanboy and fangirl culture makes sense. What I mean by that is, if it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t make sense; if it wasn’t for the history of breeding human beings through chattel slavery, Dune doesn’t make sense; if it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense; if it wasn’t for the extermination of so many indigenous nations, most of what we call “first contact” stories don’t make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understand that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together. We’re the Prime Directive that makes Star Trek possible. We are… in the Green Lantern Corps? We are the Oath. We are all of those things. Erased, and yet without us? We’re essential.

That’s some good stuff. Maybe I should finally finish The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Four ways to forgiveness

There’s no two ways about this: Spirit Circle is a damn good manga. Unfortunately, it’s rather hard to discover this for yourself, as all the synopses I’ve read make it sound incoherent or unremarkable. Take this one, for example:

Fuuta Okeya is a normal 14-year-old boy, except for the fact that he has the ability to see ghosts. A cute girl transfers into his class one day, but acts particularly aggressive towards him. This girl called Kouko Ishigami is followed around by a ghost called East. Fuuta tries to get along with her but ends up failing after she sees the birthmark he usually keeps covered. She then declares him as her enemy, his birthmark as a cursed brand and claims they have a long history, while talking about reincarnation. Who is this girl and how are they connected?

“Oh, it’s another high school story,” you might think. “Is it like Bleach? I’m guessing from the art it’s a comedy-romance and the reincarnation angle is the only unique thing about it. Oh well, high school comedy-romances are a dime a dozen.”

A girl and a boy fighting in the present day, as two young people in the pre-Hispanic Americas, as an old witch and a young knight, and as a ninja and a feudal Japanese swordsman

Hell no. I would never have tried this manga out if I hadn’t known it was written by the same person as the one behind Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, but I’m glad I did. I think I have enough samples of his writing now to say without hesitation that Satoshi Mizukami knows how to write a moving story.

Basically, Spirit Circle is about the dispute between a boy and a girl that stretches backward and forward to the past and the future and back again, through different reincarnations and universes. In the present day, the boy searches through his past lives to find the reason for the girl’s animosity, while in each life the two fight and try to find a way to stop fighting.

Don’t get me wrong, this manga is definitely funny. There actually is comedy and romance in this series. But each reincarnation of the two rivals lives rich and full lives with their share of tragedy and suffering and peace and joy. Some heavy shit goes down, and not in just the past lives of the two.

The series is available on Crunchyroll’s online manga service. I do have to mention that I read it on my tablet and the app has the annoying tendency to occasionally show me a page that I’d already read. If that happens to you, I recommend exiting the manga and entering it again; that should make the proper page show up.

I’ve found Crunchyroll’s online manga offerings to be rather sparse in number and in quality. One might call it hit-or-miss but in my case I’ve found more misses than hits. This manga, though, is definitely one of the good ones. It’s also being simultaneously published, which means that it’s still not finished. However, from the way the story is going I think it’s almost done. If it sticks the landing then it’s going into my list of favourite series.

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 return of Haruhi Suzumiya

Spring is here and with it the new spring anime. Today I come to discuss one series in particular – The Disappearance of Yuki Nagato.

It’s been quite a few years since we saw anything related to Haruhi Suzumiya, so you might be forgiven for not remembering that Nagato is the anti-social alien android pretending to be a high school girl to keep a close eye on God (a.k.a. Haruhi Suzumiya, a Japanese schoolgirl unaware of her position as the Prime Mover and the source of all Creation). The original show had all kinds of crazy stuff – time travellers, psychics, dream projection, and enough sci-fi cliches for a Star Trek series.

However, The Disappearance of Yuki Nagato is about a parallel universe where those things seemingly don’t exist. Specifically, it’s about an alternate ending to the movie The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya where the protagonist chose to stay in the universe of the ordinary people. So without the science fiction elements, what are we left with? A rather ordinary slice-of-life high school story about a girl, the boy she likes, and the literature club they belong to. Watching this premiere, I realized that there was a good reason that Nagato was only a supporting character in the regular show. Quite honestly, a quiet and shy wallflower is not heroine material. The conflict and forward movement in the plot was only able to happen in this episode because of the actions of two other characters who were more outgoing than the supposed protagonist.

There are encouraging hints that all is not as it seems. Nagato experiences a moment of deja vu when she spots the alternate Haruhi Suzumiya on the street, while Asakura remains disturbingly skilled with a knife despite being a regular student. And let’s remember that this world conforms too perfectly to a happy and idyllic story of teen romance for one Yuki Nagato. Anyway, I hope very much that these oddities are explored more in the rest of this season.

This is only the first episode, so I’ll stick with this show a little bit more. If I see any pocket universes or sandworms later on I’ll let you know.

Star Trek + Facebook = Redshirt, the computer game

Remember that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that shifted focus from the high-ranking officers on the bridge to the entry-level schlubs doing the grunt work? Remember how those saps never knew what was going on half the time? Now imagine if those ensigns had Facebook.

This is the premise of Redshirt, the computer game. You create and roleplay one of the nameless crew members that die all the time on Star Trek (the so-called redshirts).

Spacebook page of Dirk Amazeballs, Maintenance Tube Wrangler

However, the game is not about meeting aliens and exploring space. It’s not even about cleaning toilets and fixing light bulbs, which are the only duties your fearless crew member is qualified for. It’s about playing the Facebook game.

There’s a disaster coming for your space station, you see, and your goal is to get promoted high enough to be evacuated along with the top brass (though the highest rank you can aspire to is the Commander’s Assistant). In the meantime, you have to schmooze with supervisors and keep your spirits up by hanging out with people on your friend list. Essentially the game is an RPG played through a Facebook simulator.

Thus are combined two obsessive activities: checking status updates on Facebook and grinding for incremental level gains on RPGs. I was up until 3 am playing this game and had to call in sick the next day due to sleep deprivation. It’s fun if you’re into Trek jokes and roleplaying, which yes, I am.

In conclusion, if you’re trying this game out for the first time, I recommend doing it on a weekend.

Plato, Buddha, and Jesus walk into a bar . . .

I’m reading 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights, a classic of Japanese science fiction by Ryu Mitsuse. It’s excellent. It’s one of those books that have so many big ideas, and happily it’s also one of those books that manages to do justice by those ideas.

Briefly, it’s about the universe, from the formation of the solar system to the heat death at the end of existence. In between, humans search for the cause of suffering and the solution to it. Humans like Plato, like the Buddha, like Jesus. They journey together and fight each other to find the righteous path and the better world of our dreams.

When reading this book I sometimes find myself agog at its breadth, its erudition, its cleverness, and its confidence. For example, when he is introduced, it’s revealed that Plato’s obsession with Atlantis is not some metaphor for the ideal state but a literal quest for antediluvian demigods. On the way he ends up debating philosophy with either a time traveller or an alien. This sounds very hokey in a postmodern reflexively ironic “pirates versus ninjas” mishmash, but somehow it’s earnestly un-ridiculous in context.

The book does presuppose a familiarity with the original texts it’s riffing on. You don’t need a degree in comparative theology, but knowing what Buddhist cosmological writings sound like helps in appreciating how deliciously inventive Buddha’s conversation with Brahma is, for instance. And having an ear for techno-babble does help, as well as some basic astronomy, though I understand the science in the book is out of date by now – not unexpected, for science has marched on since the book’s publication in the 60s.

Anyway, read it. I’m seriously enjoying this book. In a word, it’s mind-blowing.

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.

Two great tastes

You know, I like Orphan Black and I like Avatar: The Last Airbender, but I don’t really see why both series should be featured in the same fanfic. Also, good holy crap but there are already thirty-one pages of Orphan Black fanfics on Archive of Our Own when the show is only a bit over a year old. I’ve forgotten what it was like to be in an active fandom.