The Future at the End of the World

I just finished reading Legion in Exile, book 2 of the Imperium of Terra series by Evan Currie.

In terms of writing craft it’s fairly average, but it does scratch my space opera military sci-fi itch. The setting is somewhat unusual for the genre since it’s very much into about the world after an environmental collapse, whereas English-language military sci-fi writers tend toward various flavours of right wing (from liberal centre-right to full nutjob) and would be hostile against anything that smacks of environmentalism.

But you see, centuries ago various groups of tech libertarians looted Earth and escaped to the stars, leaving the poors to choke to death on a polluted planet. A strongman seized power from the collapsing governments of Earth, enthroned himself as Emperor of Terra, and brutally placed the planet on a crash course to repair the environment. In the present day of the series, Earth is an absolute monarchy ruled by an Empress with a global aristocracy under her governing the masses. The environment is on the mend but is still nowhere near what it was before things went to hell, and the descendants of the space colonists laugh at Earth for being backward yokels. However, most of Earth’s citizens have been nursing a centuries-long grudge against the space diaspora and are itching for revenge.

So book 1 starts and it turns out the Empress wants to resurrect democracy and give commoners a voice in government again. However, the nobles and the military object to this idea and enact a coup d’etat, killing the Empress and massacring her most loyal troops. The protagonist is a rookie in the Empress’ legion assigned to protect her heir, so he fights his way off Earth with the princess in tow and they escape to look for support among the space diaspora.

The plot itself is pretty standard space opera – political intrigue, aristocrats in space, battleships blowing up, etc. It’s kind of weird that an absolute monarch should try to just plop democracy back after like 400 years of their family being in charge, but the books absolutely claim that the royal family’s founder actually meant it when he said he was only abrogating democracy “for the duration of the emergency” and that somehow his descendants also kept this commitment to a defunct political ideology over the generations.

Anyway, the environmental collapse thing was the main thing this series has that made it stand out for me. The rest of it is the kind of quality that you can expect from a military sci-fi space opera self-published on Amazon. It’s okay if you’re into that kind of thing.

Mecha war

I am currently playing 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim and you know what? It’s so goddamn fun.

The thing that most impresses me about the game is that it does so much with so little. Your dumb AAA game will use a jillion teraflops to simulate the hairs on an NPC’s ass and put in so much work on stuff that doesn’t really add to the gameplay experience. But this game has the opposite philosophy: it pares down everything to the bare bones, which means at the mechanical level it’s actually a very simple game. However, it uses its very spare depiction of its world to make it feel like we’re playing in a much larger universe.

The game is about a group of high school kids who fight an invasion of kaiju by piloting massive human-shaped robots. You play the game in two different modes that you can switch between: a battle mode and a story mode.

Screenshot showing a simplified top-down map of a city with unlabeled icons and various information boxes overlaid on the map. At the top of the screen are six character portraits giving various statistics and in the middle are a list of various weapons: Rapid Cannons, Long-Range Missiles, Heavy Railgun, Stun Knuckles. At the bottom of the screen is a description of the effects and damage output of the Rapid Cannon and on the right of the screen is an illustration of a giant bipedal humanoid robot.

The battle mode is set during the climactic showdown between the kaiju and the robots. You pick six pilots and slowly fight through each phase of the invasion on a real-time strategy map. You can also switch your team’s lineup, upgrade weapons, pick abilities to use, and do general RPG stuff.

This part of the game is decent enough. There are little animations that play when you try to decide what weapons or abilities to use, but as you can see from the image above, the map itself is very simplified. I don’t hate the existing battle mode that we got, and even enjoy the fights, but with the addition of a little more flash, the play experience could have been upgraded for me from “fun” to “ecstatic.”

I want to see mechs wrestling monsters while around them a city gets blasted to smithereens. I want to see my giant robot get knocked through a building and then take cover in a crater formed by a missile bombardment. I want to feel like I’m in a giant robot anime, by damn!

Screenshot showing the hallway of a typical Japanese high school. In the background are two male students carrying some boxes and another male student walking in front of them. At the centre of the screen are three high school girls in uniform, with one wearing glasses and black leggings, and another dressed in a perfect and by the rules uniform. The last girl stands out for wearing a completely different black uniform and standing confidently arms akimbo. Over her is displayed the sentence, "Natsuno Minami's still out, huh?"

But the story mode delivers – oh, how it delivers. It’s what you should be playing the game for. The story mode is essentially a really simplified adventure game. You play through the recent past of each of the characters and discover the twists that their lives took which led to them piloting a giant robot on the day of reckoning.

The actual game thing that you do is essentially just pressing X. Your character is at a certain location and there are one or two people you can talk to and one or two objects that you can interact with. You progress through the dialogue and try out each conversation topic. Then you move on to the next location and keep doing that until you reach the end of the section you’re playing and decide if you want to continue with your current character or try someone else for a while (or maybe jump back into battle mode).

That’s how the story mode works, but that’s not how it feels. It evokes so much for so little. For me, it’s basically the world’s best anime protagonist simulator. I’m not a connoisseur of visual novels or dating simulators, but I’ve played a few, and in none of them did I feel like I was actually a student in a bustling Japanese high school like this game did. You walk down a hallway at school and there are other students passing you by, and in the background some of your classmates are chatting about the TV show they watched last night. You go with your friends for some ice cream after class and cars whiz by as you wait at the bus stop. Some jerks from the next school over try to start some shit and your friend steps in to back you up.

I call the story mode an anime protagonist simulator because it skips the boring parts of high school and just has the interesting bits in there. And what are those interesting bits? They’re mostly stories copied directly from science fiction movies and TV shows.

Yes, you’ll find that one character is living through the plot of E.T. the Extraterrestrial, while another is living through Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and yet another is experiencing the story of Total Recall. It’s not a simple one-to-one copy, though, and the stories make sense even if you don’t know what they’re referencing, but it’s fun to pick out what the original works were. And the characters’ lives are intertwined, so they get involved in each others’ stories, and a couple of times you even experience the same conversation again but this time you’re controlling the other person.

This game will not click for everyone, but it certainly did for me. Like I mentioned, it’s just so goddamn fun. I enjoy identifying the Robot Jox design elements and figuring out how the characters’ lives intersect with each other. I like feeling like I’m a kid in a Japanese high school anime and I’ve got an alien I need to hide from the Men in Black and also I have to stop the invasion from The War of the Worlds.

A couple of warnings, though. First, just like with many other adventure games, I got stuck a couple of times when I couldn’t figure out how to progress past a certain point. I say you shouldn’t feel guilty about just googling that shit. Keep that advice in mind if you play.

Second, and somewhat more egregiously, time travel is a very important part of the story, and since this is a Japanese story about using military weapons to fight off an invasion, there inevitably shows up two characters from Japan’s most infamous period of militarization. I guess the one guy is okay, he clearly doesn’t care about ideology and is just trying to get by, but the other guy is a true-blue patriot and he keeps shouting about defending the motherland and whatnot. Which would be okay if it was about almost any other country, but not when it’s Imperial Japan. The game isn’t a cryptofascist Trojan horse for Japanese imperialism, but this part definitely left a sour taste in my mind.

Anyway, keeping these things in mind, I would still heartily recommend this game. Like I said in the beginning, it’s great fun and I’m enjoying almost everything about it.

Looking back

Goodbye, Eri is a one-shot manga about a high school boy who is obsessed with making movies. The first film he makes is a predictably tearjerky documentary about his terminally ill mother. However, at the end he’s unable to join his mother for her final moments and instead runs away, but in his film he adds a special effect to make it look like the hospital is exploding as he flees.

The story begins as he shows his creation at the school festival, where it sinks like a lead balloon. Almost everyone in the school thinks the ending of his film is stupid except for one girl who insists that there was the germ of an interesting idea in there and he just needs to watch more movies to learn what works. Of course, he will be watching the movies with her, since she needs to make sure that his cinematic education proceeds appropriately.

A series of comic book panels showing a girl in a school uniform speaking passionately into the camera. "Your movie . . . was super awesome! But it was just as frustrating as it was good! I was the only person in the gym who was crying! Everyone else used it as material for their jokes! And that really pissed me off! That's why . . . you're going to make another movie! From tomorrow on, for the next year, you're going to increase your input by watching loads of movies. Then in the next year, you'll shoot a movie and show it at the school festival."
A series of comic panels showing a girl in a school uniform leaning back in a chair with her legs propped up on the desk in front of her as she gives instructions to someone off-camera. "During class, I want you to summarize the five movies we watched yesterday in only one sentence each. Once you've managed that, break their stories down into exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution, in a way you can explain them to me. I'll listen to your answers after school."

Voice from off camera: "If I do that I'll be able to make a good movie?"

Answer: "This is how they do it in Hollywood. Don't you trust Hollywood?"

The girl is not manic, but she definitely looks pixie-like and is certainly the kind of film buff a movie nerd would wish for (i.e., almost a full MPDG).

The boy eventually comes up with an idea for his next movie, which will be about a boy who showed a movie about his terminally ill mother which was received poorly by his fellow students, but who then met a girl who constantly watched movies with him and taught him about making a good film. Also the girl is a vampire who’s terminally ill.

Written out like that, the movie sounds earnestly dumb, but it comes across as rather sweet from the perspective that we see, which is entirely from the point of view of the mock documentary that the boy is shooting.

As you can guess, the story plays with ideas of the fourth wall, with unreliable narrators, with constructed images and artifice, and even with death and how the people we’ve lost are still alive and with us anyway. I don’t really want to spoil too much of the story, as it’s best enjoyed without too much foreknowledge, but I do recommend it as being a surprisingly deep exploration of a lot of emotional territory from the guy who wrote a manga about a teenage boy who transforms into a demon made out of chainsaws who uses his powers to hunt other demons (Chainsaw Man, though that manga was also a lot deeper than the bare description would make you think).

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been reading recently.

The Living Vampire

I saw Morbius. It’s actually not as bad as people say. I think the main issue is that audiences are approaching it as a superhero movie when it’s actually horror. I mean, a scientist accidentally invents vampires after trying to cure his rare blood disease, that’s a solid horror setup. And the parts where the protagonist goes nuts with his vampire powers are greatly entertaining, just tearing throats open and grabbing people from above and whatnot.

But I don’t blame people who expect a superhero movie because the movie itself mixes superhero stuff in, to its weakness. Yeah, okay, the protagonist is horrified by his monstrous transformation and tortured by the guilt of the lives he’s taken, that’s perfectly fine horror movie stuff. But why is he fighting a random counterfeiting ring he stumbled across? The movie is only 1 hour and 44 minutes long but there were scenes that still didn’t need to be there. I really wish the movie just unabashedly went full horror and gave up any superhero trappings. For example it had several Dracula references, but instead of only being cute little Easter eggs, I would have preferred that it really cranked up the parallels to the classic vampire story. Or just make it about a dumb smart guy who inadvertently unleashed vampires on the world. Mad scientist + vampires, what’s to hate?

Anyway, it was an okay movie, but I can see a much better movie hiding in there, and I wish they’d made that one instead.

The Dark Knight gets on TikTok

The Batman is good. Like damn, those 3 hours flew by. It’s nice that we skip going through Batman’s origin one more time, and it’s certainly novel that the first villain we get to in a Batman reboot is The Riddler, but it works in this movie.

Politically, the movie kind of covers the same territory as in The Dark Knight Rises since it’s about gross inequality and popular reaction to it, but it handles the issue a lot better than the earlier film since it actually has an idea of what it wants to say on the issue. Bane’s live action introduction had a confused and ambivalent reaction to the Occupy Wall Street protests that were ongoing when it was made. However, the world that created The Batman has had over a decade to think over the Occupy movement’s ideas, as well as a global pandemic and a summer of BLM protests. In fact, I would characterize this particular reboot as a post-BLM ACAB version of the Batverse, inasmuch as it can be in a fictional setting where the protagonist’s main problem with cops isn’t that they’re violent but that they’re not directing their brutality toward the right people (i.e., criminals).

The pundit Anand Giridharadas has a quip about billionaires and how they whitewash the terrible reputations they earned while amassing their wealth by giving back some scraps from their fortunes in the form of charity: “Batman is what all these plutocrats do. You cause problems by day, in the way you run your company, and then you put on a suit at night and pretend you are the solution.”

The movie is essentially that quote presented in dramatic form. The problems of Gotham are caused by Bruce Wayne’s family, by their peers, and by the people who enforce their rule – cops, lawyers, mobsters, and so on. Bruce Wayne, ignorant of the larger context, tries to fix things with a child’s understanding of the situation by beating up poor people who’ve turned to crime. It’s not even a band-aid solution, since the worst that a band-aid can do is be ineffective, whereas in the movie, Batman’s example inspires other people to fix their own problems with violence. Of course, socioeconomic inequality isn’t a problem you can punch into submission, and it’s striking how one of the takeaways from this superhero movie is that almost everything heroic that we watch the protagonist do is completely useless and ineffective.

But the movie can only go so far in this critique. The superhero story is rooted in private actors using violence to impose order on a chaotic society. It’s a worldview conducive to being “tough on crime” and unswerving support for the police. Fundamentally, a superhero movie is pro-cop. Which is why, after a supervillain-caused natural disaster, Batman ends up letting go of his original mission of cowing the people of Gotham into submission and instead helps in relief efforts with the US military.

In the end, Catwoman asks Batman to run away with her, but he refuses and instead chooses to stay and help Gotham. She notes that his mission will never end and she ends up walking away from the disaster of trying to save a city that’s actively trying to commit suicide. Batman’s decision is presented as a noble sacrifice, of placing duty over love, but ironically, Catwoman’s proposal that she and Batman spend their lives robbing hedge fund plutocrats probably would have done more to address Gotham’s fundamental problems than Batman’s idea of punching street thugs and the occasional crooked cop.

Anyway, it’s nice when a superhero movie gives you something to think about besides the fight scenes.

Enter the Matrix

I finally saw Matrix Resurrections. It’s a lot better than sequel #2 and 3, which I know isn’t saying much. It’s because it’s actually about something. While the first Matrix was about capitalist exploitation, alienation, trans identity, and escaping Plato’s Cave, Reloaded and Revolutions were about fighting killer robots with kung fu and machine guns (except those movies wouldn’t admit that they were shallower than they thought).

However, the thing that Resurrections is about is suffocating nostalgia for a time when the audience was 20 years younger and didn’t have as much grey hair and wrinkles. But it doesn’t examine this idea in any meaningful way and something like 20 percent of the movie is watching clips from the older Matrix films. It reminds me a lot of Trainspotting 2 in that it’s an unnecessary sequel about old people terminally obsessed with their youths.

Yes, I know this movie was forced on Lana Wachowski. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. But I don’t even hate it. I think Resurrections is okay. The fight scenes feel perfunctory and I never went “wow” like I did in the first movie, but I’ve seen worse on a Saturday afternoon.

However, now I’m curious how the studio-mandated sequel without Lana Wachowski would have turned out. I know that studio oligarchs are terrified of losing money and would probably have made a mediocre failure like the sequel to Pacific Rim, but there’s a non-zero chance something really dumb could have been produced. What if Warner Brothers just gave in to every filthy lust they had and created something of the purest, crassest commercialism, with the first Matrix only slightly updated for modern audiences? What if Neo teamed up with Spider-Man to fight Mark Zuckerberg, and as a sop to philosophy fans they have Slavoj Zizek in the lower right corner of the screen providing a running commentary on the action? Because I wouldn’t watch that, but I’d laugh my ass off at the headlines, so it would have at least been a worthwhile commercial endeavour.

Read any good books lately?

So, herewith is a recap of my summer (and now fall) reading history.

The first book I’m discussing is Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones by David Moscrop, a Canadian former political scientist and current op-ed columnist. It’s about the psychological short hand that people in Western democracies use to vote and the tricks that political parties and governments use to try to guide those same voters to preferred outcomes. The book is actually quite easy to read and replete with personal anecdotes and examples from psychological studies to demonstrate the principles being talked about, as well real world examples drawn from US, British, and Canadian politics. However, I can tell that I actually know more than the author about the psychological side of things (or he’s content to keep things at an introductory level for his audience), whereas I’m also something of a news junkie and a poli sci nerd and so am already familiar with what he’s talking about on that end. So the book is a good introduction on these topics but not really something I personally found educational.

The second book is one I really enjoyed reading, which is Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott. Scott is also a political scientist, but in addition he trained in anthropology and specializes in comparative politics, especially with regard to peasants and agriculture. The book itself is about the historical transition from hunting and gathering to state societies, as well as the people who refused to join the state (a.k.a. the barbarians). The whole thing is completely my jam. Scott is an anarchist, so he’s of course got a low opinion of the state, but his description of how human misery increased once people took up agriculture is old news among anthropology circles (and probably familiar to anyone who read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).

However, Scott goes quite a lot into the comparative details and argues that the state is inherently an unstable formation that requires incredible amounts of resources to keep going, but which is also doomed to fail thanks to the unsustainable demands it makes on the environment, the punishing taxes and labour it demands of its people (usually to fund wars to capture more territory where workers live which in turn demands more wars to capture even more workers in an endless race) which drive the citizens to escape into the hinterlands or revolt, and the regular return of lethal epidemics that are cooked up thanks to all the animals that agriculturalists live with and the cities and trade networks of a complex state society that concentrate and spread pathogens. Scott even argues that the collapse of a civilization might be better termed a reconfiguring, since it’s basically the people of a territory reorganizing themselves into a less precarious status quo.

Of course, preying on the states are the infamous barbarians, which Scott points out weren’t necessarily just alien societies robbing from the civilized. In fact, when the workers of historical states – the peasants, serfs, slaves, and everyone else who’s not an elite at the top of the social pyramid – get fed up with forever being drafted into wars and literally breaking their backs working the fields, they always had the option of joining the barbarians. Why bust your ass when you can have someone else do it and then take their stuff? In turn, a state had the option of repelling the barbarians or paying them off, but either way, it was another state expense. So a state inevitably had its barbarian “dark twin” (more than one sometimes) which grew when the state flourished and disappeared when the state did.

But alas for the barbarians, technological progress ended their viability, since you can’t exactly build Maxim guns out on the great plains, otherwise the Navajo might have forced the early US to cough up protection money like for example how the Uyghurs did to the Chinese or the Celts did to the Romans (though the Chinese usually called this tribute “gifts” and pretended that it was all from the emperor’s munificence).

Anyway, my one criticism of this book is that it just abruptly ends. It goes into the barbarian thing and then that’s it, no closing chapter, no summary, no discussion of the argument that was presented. But otherwise I’d say this is my favourite book of 2021.

Finally, the last book I’m covering is actually the first three books of the Giants series by James P. Hogan: Inherit the Stars, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, and Giants’ Star. I actually read the manga adaptation first and wanted to know how the original compared. Well, you can tell that these books were written in the 1970s because of the incredible amount of sexual harassment in them. I’ve read lots of Asimov and Heinlein and others of that generation – who all came before Hogan – and I don’t remember these other authors having this much sexual harassment in their works. I wasn’t tracking it, but I think every female character in the story is sexually harassed at least once, whether it’s the gals in the stenography pool being seduced by the married physicist, or the telephone operator being pestered for a date, or the secretary whose incredible ass the protagonist admires as she bends forward to look at a computer monitor.

There’s also a lot of smoking and drinking, which especially stood out in the scene where the protagonists are smoking some after-dinner cigars on a spaceship with presumably limited supplies of oxygen (and this is set in the near-future, not some Star Trek utopia with limitless energy and whatnot). So yeah, it feels very Mad Men. But whatever, I remember when smoking indoors was a thing, I can get past that. It really is the sexual harassment that’s the most notable thing about this series to me.

The story itself is about a mummified astronaut being discovered on the moon, the scientists investigating this mystery, and the interplanetary journey to find the truth behind all of the secrets hidden in the past. Anyway, the books are clearly from a certain old school style of science fiction writing because the characters have barely any personality and mostly just jabber about science at each other. Which is mainly why I kept reading, because sometimes I just want to read about nerds arguing over theories of human evolution.

But this paper-thin characterization explains the sexual harassment, which quite frankly feels jarring when it’s inserted into the story, because it’s a clumsy attempt to humanize the male characters. Yes, this was how Hogan thought he could bring his characters to life: by giving his readers something they could relate to. Obviously, he took it for granted that his readers were all men.

I did appreciate how much better the 2011 Yukinobu Hoshino manga adaptation was, not least for removing the sexual harassment, but also adding the worthwhile female and non-white characters into the story that a white British engineer from the 70s would never have done. It even fixed up some of the science stuff that the original books messed up and moved stuff around so the plot was more engaging.

So yeah, the Giants series. That was a thing.

The Future of Capitalism

Well, I’ve finally been out of graduate school long enough that I can read stuff related to my former scholarly interests again.

The first book I’m covering is Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World. Milanovic is a Serbian-American economist who kind of deals with similar global income inequality stuff as Thomas Piketty. I don’t know enough about him to definitely say what his politics are except that from this book I feel he’s a “reform capitalism with redistribution” type.

Anyway, the book is mostly about present-day capitalism, but it necessarily covers two older kinds first in its survey: the classic robber baron kind of 19th century capitalism and the post-war kind where the bosses and the unions made a pact to play nice for a bit. Of course, he then covers the breakdown of that unwritten agreement with the rise of massive inequality and the hollowing out of the state, which he calls liberal capitalism, though which many others simply call neoliberalism. This is of course the mode of Western capitalism today, but he contrasts that with what he calls state capitalism, which is of the type exemplified by China, where captains of industry are given some leeway so long as they never challenge the primacy of the state.

Anyway, I live in Canada and am already familiar with how our kind of capitalism is fucking everyone over, so I didn’t find anything revelatory in the discussion of the Western economic system. I suppose it’s somewhat novel that Milanovic discovered the term “assortative mating” from biology – it refers to a type of mating pattern where individuals tend to mate and reproduce with those who are similar to them more than otherwise. He brings this up to contrast the old capitalisms with the present kind. Specifically, he provides charts and stats showing that assortative mating was more common among high-income individuals in the past than now (he doesn’t mention what this actually looked like but I assume it’s bosses marrying their secretaries and such). This compares to today, where the university-educated tend to marry each other and where lawyers marry CEOs. Milanovic also brings up that while wealthy individuals in the past were mostly people who didn’t work (i.e., the owners of capital), today many of who we would point to as wealthy might only make money through work (see certain software engineers, management consultants, etc).

But what of state capitalism as developed by and exemplified in China? This part is what I found the most interesting since I never knew much beyond the broad strokes of how exactly the Deng Xiaoping reforms turned the China of the Cultural Revolution into the China of Alibaba and Tencent. The main thing is that economic growth became the guiding principle of the state. Local Communist party groups (and by that I mean extremely local) were allowed to implement practically any policy they wanted, and so long as it succeeded in driving growth then it was given the green light for other regions (and if it failed then the sponsors would be sacked). In theory the sponsors would need to make a case for the policy changes not conflicting with socialist ideology, but in practice the sponsors could just make up some bullshit and it would be accepted so long as it sounded vaguely like socialism, so long as it actually got results. Milanovic points out that China after market reforms somewhat resembles China before the Communist Party, with the very large exception that landlords have been greatly curtailed in the countryside.

Now, Milanovic makes clear that the capitalism of China is similar to ours in that there’s also shocking inequality. There are billionaires and there are oppressed workers, same as here. In fact, the National People’s Congress is the richest parliament in the world, with a combined net worth of $700 billion from all members in 2018. The main difference between their capitalism and ours is that theirs is more nationalist. The wealthy elites are not automatically hostile to the government and do not think of themselves as being separate – in fact, they consider themselves as being participants in the project of China (which may sound a tad megalomaniacal but vaguely resembles France in the 70s). The state is supreme and corporations and capitalists are allowed some leeway so long as they never forget that fact. Of course, when so much money is involved and when the regulators collude so closely with the regulated, corruption and abuse of workers naturally springs up. This is why the Chinese government regularly and publicly punishes various officials for corruption. It’s not a show, exactly, as real punishments are doled out (up to even executions), but one big reason for the punishment is showing the masses that the top 1% are keeping in check the 2-5%. Since the government is institutionally incapable of systematically preventing this kind of thing from cropping up, then it must make regular public demonstrations instead.

But I think the biggest thing Milanovic says, and the most controversial, is his argument that the biggest contribution that communism has provided to the world is providing the development to former colonies that their colonizers were unable to do, allowing the Third World communist countries to build themselves up so that they could effectively join the capitalist system as China and Vietnam have done. In effect, he argues that communism is a transition state to capitalism. It’s an interesting thought, though I would argue that colonizers weren’t incapable of developing their colonies but were uninterested in doing so, as the whole point of them was to transfer the resources of the colonial periphery to the metropole. Postcolonial states didn’t necessarily need to be communist to develop, they just needed to break out of sending their resources elsewhere and instead invest them at home, but seeing as how the leaders of non-communist postcolonial states tended to have strong ties to their imperial masters then we can say that it was probably better to go communist than not if you were in the Third World. And Milanovic points out that, Cold War 2.0 rhetoric aside, it’s a good thing that China is loaning development funds to African countries even if there are strings attached, since it’s not like anyone else is offering them any funds.

I do have to say that there are a bunch of things Milanovic wasn’t good on, especially when he tried his hand at sociology or literary theory. One thing that stood out for me was that he took it for granted that the populations of Western countries would inevitably be hostile to too much immigration, which despite being economically and demographically necessary is too much for domestic populations to accept culturally. The solution he proposes is to create tiers of citizenship, which sounds to me like existing systems of guest workers and temporary residents but perhaps he envisions more levels of participation and obligation.

The biggest thing that I disagree with Milanovic on is something that he implies by never mentioning it: he accepts that there is no alternative and that capitalism is our only option. I increasingly feel that anyone today who writes of capitalist development as an unqualified good without mentioning the hard limits our environment imposes on us – the negative externalities, in the language of economics – is doing us all a disservice. But perhaps that is a story for another day. As it stands, I feel Capitalism Alone was kind of an okay book to get back to reading stuff with lots of academic verbiage and statistics and shit, but I don’t think it was a banger. 7 out of 10, if I were to give it a rating.

King of the Hill

So Pathfinder: Kingmaker is actually pretty fun. I know that there were a bunch of bugs when it launched, but it’s been two years since then and I haven’t really noticed any so far. I think I may actually like computer role-playing game more than the classic Baldur’s Gate series (minus #3, which if I ever do get, will be years down the line).

The first reason I prefer this game to both Baldur’s Gate games is that I don’t need to install mods just to get it to look decent on current generation computers. I can read the text, I can zoom all the way in and see my characters clearly. I can actually see what they’re wearing instead of kind of squinting, and I can see the difference in clothes instead of the armour just looking like a slightly different shade. This is important to me since I like playing dress-up on these kind of games.

Second is that I understand the rules right off the bat. I’ve never played the 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which is what Baldur’s Gate is based on, so I had to do a bunch of research to find out what stuff like To Hit Armor Class 0 was, and even when I did find out it was usually needlessly arcane and over-complicated. But the Pathfinder roleplaying ruleset is basically D&D 3.75 edition, so a bunch of stuff has been improved in the intervening 20-something years.

I’ve played a bunch of tabletop Pathfinder games, which also helps, but the game itself simplified the rules even more. It doesn’t have a million different types of Knowledge skills, all physical skills such as acrobatics and swimming have been subsumed under Athletics, and so on. I think all the options available can still be a tad overwhelming to a rank newbie but that’s more on the Pathfinder system itself needing, in my opinion, a really drastic streamlining and reconfiguration  (note that there’s a 2nd edition of the Pathfinder system which may have done this already but I haven’t tried it out yet).

Third is the turn-based combat. I initially stuck to real-time battles because that was how it was in Baldur’s Gate, but after trying out the turn-based fighting I’m not going back. Pathfinder in real life is obviously turn-based – six people rolling dice at the same time would get chaotic – and the CRPG just works a lot better when you follow this format as well.

Fourth is that I get to try out a campaign that I’ve been interested in for a while. Kingmaker is an adventure path in the tabletop RPG that I’ve wanted to play but haven’t found a group to do it with. This way I get to actually experience it for myself. Plus Wrath of the Righteous is already being worked on and that’s another campaign that I’d also like to try out.

I’d like to note that in Kingmaker you actually build a kingdom – you get advisors, build infrastructure like windmills and watchtowers, slay monsters threatening your land, and so on. However, I’ve yet to reach that part in the game and am just directing a party of adventurers as we explore the countryside. So I can’t comment on the kingdom-building mechanics yet, but the classic RPG party thing is already pretty good.

Anyway, I’ve got a Chaotic Neutral tiefling Inquisitor of Calistria leading a party consisting of an undead elf Inquisitor of Urgathoa, a halfling bard, a barbarian from the Realm of the Mammoth Lords, a half-elf Wizard Rogue, and a half-orc Magus. There are a bunch more party members I benched pending their full recovery from being brought back from the dead or just plain because I don’t like them, but I think I like having a party where almost everyone is a magician of some kind. This is a pretty fun party to play and I like what I’ve seen of this game so far.

Kill or be killed

 I saw the Shane Black movie The Predator. It was a competently made movie that never rose above being mediocre. It can’t even dream of being as good as Predator 2, let alone the first movie.

I’m going to spoil the story because the movie isn’t good enough for anyone to care about being spoiled, but stop reading if this matters to you anyway.

So, in the movies the Predators are alien trophy hunters bagging human kills, right? And in this film, they’re stepping up their hunting trips because climate change will render Earth unlivable, so they’re taking the chance to harvest valuable human spines before the last of their cherished prey dies out.

One Predator wants to help humanity so it escapes to our planet with lifesaving technology to give us. It’s hunted by the other aliens as a traitor, hapless American soldiers get caught in the the middle, there’s lots of pro-military propaganda, a big shootout, and all the other cliches are as you would expect. So, in the denouement our heroes open the thingy the alien traitor was going to give us and what do they find? A high-tech cyber suit built for killing Predators.

So that was it? That’s what the Predator died to give humanity? It thought what our species needed the most in the face of mass extinction from anthropogenic climate change was a shitload of guns?

I mean, Jesus Christ but how many people does one of the Predators kill when they come by? A few dozen? Maybe a hundred? Is that even enough for insurance companies to adjust their rates to compensate for the increased mortality rates? I had thought we were going to get like cold fusion or something like that, but nope, the Predator solution to climate change was shooting it a lot.

Anyway, that’s it, that’s my main takeaway from the movie.