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.

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.

Let’s cyber

Cyberpunk 2077 just came out and I’m not playing it. After reading about its iffy politics and the awful working conditions of the people who made the game, I may never end up playing it.

That’s fine. There are other games. But I’ve also never been fully comfortable with cyberpunk as a genre. Besides the orientalism and the generalized ham-handed handling of race, there’s just something about cyberpunk that never fully clicked with me.

After reading this article, though, I think I’m getting a better handle on my discomfort. I’m not into cyberpunk because it’s basically just the politics of the 1980s rehashed over and over. It’s a paleofuture: a vision of what is to come that has already been superseded by what has already come. It’s the past’s fantasy of the future and it’s as dissociated from our real lives as Buck Rogers serials with ray guns and rocket ships.

Anyway, that’s how I’m feeling this December 2020.

The Emotion Engine

So Tales From the Loop is actually good. It’s set in a small town where everything is centered around a mysterious research facility. The whole thing appears to take place in the 1970’s, except there are decaying robots in the woods and inexplicable sci-fi encounters are a part of life. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but it looks like there’s a core cast of characters loosely intertwined in each other’s lives, but with the protagonists shifting in each installment.

Even if I hadn’t known already, I probably would have guessed that this was originally a Scandinavian property as its general tone is off-kilter and contemplative. I understand the concept books focused more on the kids, but the show probably didn’t want to come across as copying Stranger Things since they’re both science fiction period pieces.

However, it’s way different anyway, since Stranger Things is awash in nostalgia for a specific period’s consumerism and pop culture, whereas this show feels more like it takes place in a timeless 20th century of no particular decade.

Also, Stranger Things foregrounds its plot elements – stop the Demogorgon, the commies, the thingamabob – whereas this show is all about the emotional consequences of the sci-fi twists. There’s no technobabble solution for letting your best friend down or having your mother break your heart.

Anyway, this is a hearty recommendation from me.

After Trek

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

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

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

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

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 pleased 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.