I’m writing this in my study in the attic of my three story house atop a hill as Hurricane Sandy attempts to blow the whole affair down. It remains to be seen if she’ll be successful, but I expect the house to be victorious in the end. This house has been here since 1930, and it’s seen meaner storms than this (though not in the past twenty years).
Then again, maybe its time has come.
There is something viscerally terrifying about big storms like this. Unlike earthquakes and tornadoes and tsunamis – all of which can be just as destructive – we seem to establish relationships with big storms like this. They have moods, personalities, and seem to make decisions. We assign them names to make this process of anthropomorphosis easier to manage and watch their every move as they bear down on us, ready to potentially crush that which we have spent so long building. While other natural disasters demonstrate the fickle and unknowable hand of fate, there is something basically different about a storm; they suggest premeditation, aggression, malice.
There is no such emotion attached, of course – they’re just meteorological phenomena, and every bit as fickle and unknowable as any other disaster. Yet, given how long they last and how many they affect and how much time we have to consider them, they afford us puny humans and opportunity to have a conversation with the Great Unknowable or, as some folks call It/Him/Her/They: God. We shake our fists at the heavens and yell ‘God, why are you knocking trees down on my garage? Why you gotta be like that, dude?’ We ponder our sins, even if we do not believe in any such thing as divine punishment, because it is easier to look upon your faults if you can ascribe the universe the sentience sufficient to punish you for them.
When Lieutenant Dan, legless and angry, ascends the mast of Gump’s fishing boat and screams his heart out at the raging storm, we understand him. We, too, rail against the inevitable. We, too, rage against the mighty, inexorable power of nature. It is, as ever, all about us. How dare the skies seek to smash our dreams? How dare the seas rise up and drown our hopes and plans? We are humanity, supreme overlords of all that we survey, and it is an affront to our collective pride to have us thus neutered and abused. In the storm’s fury it is easier to mirror our own, and all the better for the storm to have a name by which we may curse it. “Sandy”, we say, “I am here, and you aren’t moving me. I matter. I am greater than you.”
But, of course, it’s just a storm. When we yell, we are not yelling at anything that cares to hear us. When we yell, we are only yelling at the doubts we harbor within ourselves. When we vent at the storm, we are only venting the energy and the fury of the storm that rages always without our hearts. The storm that drives us onward. The storm that rules us.
The storm that will, by and by, tear us all down.
I’ve discovered an odd trend in myself these days: I’ve been yelling at the TV a lot. Even more oddly, the things that make me yell at the TV the most (besides Scott Brown political ads…ugh) is the show Revolution. Now, I’ve already ranted a bit about how I find the basic premise ridiculous, but there’s more to it than that. There is a cynicism hidden within and behind the show that makes me pretty frustrated with what is, apparently, the writers (or perhaps modern society’s) attitude towards human endeavor. It isn’t just Revolution, either. I find this frustration present in most zombie franchises, too (another premise I find ridiculous) and, indeed, with much of the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic sub-genre. Again, it all has to do with what these folks think of human nature and human’s capacity to survive.
In my most recent yell-at-Revolution escapade, I caught an episode where Maggie describes how she tried to get home to her family in Britain after the blackout. There was lightning in the episode, too, which prompted me to yell “DO LIGHTNING RODS STILL WORK?”, but that’s besides the point. The point is that Maggie explains, tearfully, how she couldn’t find anybody to take her across the Atlantic. She meets a fisherman in a flashback who exclaims ‘there are no steam engines, no tall ships anymore, and those we had were broken down for firewood’ and basically explains that no one can sail across the ocean anymore. Even presuming the non-existence of tall ships (false) or assuming we broke them all down for firewood (though you would think having the only ocean-going vessel would be put to better use), I have this to say:
Do you know what you need to cross the Atlantic?
- A Compass
- A Sailboat that doesn’t leak
Given the number of fiberglass and aluminum sailing vessels in the US (in the millions), if even 10% of those are large enough to safely cross an ocean, that’s hundreds of thousands of potential boats. There are a lot of sailors, too, and it isn’t all that hard to learn, and you’d imagine if the power went out, sailing would become massively lucrative and important almost immediately.
These facts, though, aren’t what the purveyors of apocalyptic literature are interested in, though. That isn’t what the writers mean, precisely, when they tell us Maggie can’t cross the ocean. They’re trying to sell us on the idea that humanity is helpless without modern civilization and that only the very strongest of us can achieve anything without it. They’re trying to say that element #5 – guts – is a rare and unusual diamond among the detritus of humanity. This, right here, is what makes me start yelling at people.
Look at this guy:
If you think Felix Baumgartner is unique and alone, you’re wrong. For every person watching his jump on Youtube saying ‘I could never do that’, there were others who were saying ‘that is totally awesome’. Hell, many of the team that put him up there are probably cut from similar cloth, in that they invested time, blood, and treasure into this ‘ridiculous’ scheme – you don’t do that unless you admire it. Maybe they’re not likely to jump out of weather balloons, but they’ve got the desire to make their mark on the world. In Felix Baumgartner, we see the thing that the apocalyptics don’t seem to like acknowledging: humans do some pretty amazing stuff, no matter the circumstances. Ever heard of Shackleton? Hillary? Magellan? The Wrights? Eriksson? The Venerable-fucking-Bede? The Felix Baumgartners of the world would look at Maggie the English Doctor, crying for her children, and say “Sure lady, I’ll get you across the Atlantic. Might take me a little bit, but I’ve got a plan.”
Humanity is nothing if not adaptable. Even in our darkest times, we accomplished wonderful things. We, as a species, do not crumble in the face adversity; if anything, it makes us better. When I look at scifi stories that refuse to acknowledge the beauty and wonder of humanity’s potential, it saddens me. It reminds me of what Michael Dorn had to say about these days in which we live. To summarize, he thinks we need more Star Trek. We need more optimism. We need people like Dorn and Baumgartner and to remind us that, no matter how bad it gets, so long as there are people, we’ll make a comeback. And the odds are pretty good that we won’t run out of people.
Thank you for playing Planet: Earth. Thank you for sticking with us through the development process, since the game really is quite buggy at the moment. We promise to stop releasing new Errata and FAQ documents sometime in the next million turns or so.
Anyway, if you’ve gotten this far (turn 4.3 billion, or so), that means you’ve managed to build and sustain life on this planet despite numerous potential extinction events, including various meteor and asteroid strikes, pandemics, and so on. If you still have dinosaurs active in the game, congratulations! You earn +10 achievement points to be spent on new atmospheric events, including ‘fire rain’ and ‘rainbow lightning’.
The game, as you may have guessed, is nearing its final stages. If you developed Humans (which you should have, otherwise the odds of earning anything other than a draw are slim), they’ve now grown to the point where, within the next couple hundred turns, they will have consumed most of the natural resources left on the board. This, of course, is the Final Event. If you can manage to surpass this one, you will have won the game. There are, however, several victory options still available.
Option 1: Global War
For every space on the board occupied by humans, you may draw one card from the ‘Violence’ deck and remove a number of population tokens as indicated by the card. If you can draw sufficient cards to manage to remove all Civilization tokens, you win the game. Bonus Points: +0
Option 2: Environmental Disaster
Trade in sufficient human tokens to draw from the ‘Meddling Humans’ deck. Keep drawing until you get sufficient flood, wildfire, drought, and tornado cards to remove civilization tokens as described above. Do this, and you win the game. Bonus points: +25
Option 3: Pandemic
This works similarly to all Pandemics, however you must generate sufficient Virulency points to overcome all human population centers’ Resistance Rating. If you can manage to make humanity Extinct, you win the game. Bonus Points: +15
Option 4: Multiplanet Species
Generate sufficient technology tokens to purchase draws from the Breakthrough deck. If you can play enough ‘Space Development Cards’ to create a Mass Migration event sufficient to reduce population tokens below the number of remaining resource tokens, you win the game. Bonus points: +100
Option 5: Pan-global Utopia (Non-Human)
Invest sufficient improvement points in non-human populations (we recommend apes, computers, extraterrestrials, or dolphins) to successfully gain Breakthrough draws sufficient to play the ‘Self Awareness’ card. Then, follow the procedure for Global War, above, but with non-humans fighting humans. Bonus Points: +150
Option 6: Pan-global Utopia (Human)
Invest sufficient improvement points in human populations to gain Breakthrough draws sufficient to play the ‘Limiteless Energy’ card. Then proceed to spend technology tokens as indicated on the card to move the human race’s Psychology Meter to a rating between ‘Languid’ and ‘Acquisitive.’ Then reduce population tokens to lower than resource tokens to win the game. Bonus points: +250
We realize that this is a bit unbalanced and we promise to work out the bugs in the retail version. Thank you very much for playing the Beta-test version of Planet: Earth!
So, the other night I was at a party (for the release of Croak by Gina Damico) and I had a conversation with my friend, John Perich and various others about the portrayals of humanity in fantasy and science fiction stories and games. He brought up the whole trend that puts humans in the role of the ‘default’ race and that all other races (be they sci-fi aliens or the cohabitants of a fantasy world) have built-in qualities that define them somehow as ‘other.’ Dwarves are stubborn, Klingons are violent, elves are beautiful and noble, Vulcans are logical, etc, etc. Everybody’s got their schtick–everybody, that is, but humans.
The reason for this, as I pointed out in the aforementioned conversation, is that it is phenomenally difficult to portray alien species as anything other than slightly more specialized versions of human beings. This is because we have no other analog for intelligence or sentient beings and, even worse, have no way to think or conceive of things that are alien to our own way of understanding. Much as we might like to claim to ‘understand’ a dolphin, we do not and cannot. It’s thought process, no matter how advanced, is fundamentally alien to our own. Therefore, in order to get our head wrapped around it, we start with a human intelligence, remove some parts, add some other parts, and we get our dwarf or elf or Ferengi or whatever. Of course, such beings aren’t really alien in the same way that a 2010 Corolla isn’t a wholly alien object to a 2008 Corolla – same basic framework, but with a variety of cosmetic and minor functional differences. Even if we try really hard, the best we wind up with is a comparison between a Corolla and a Ford Mustang. If we really want to talk aliens, we’d need to find a way to compare the Corolla (us) with a blimp (them). Good luck.
Anyway, because humans are the default setting – where we begin, necessarily and ultimately, to paint our picture of alien life – efforts have been made across the specfic genres to give humans something special to make them unique. After all, if there’s nothing special about us, that means we aren’t awesome, and we’re obviously awesome, right? The trouble is, when everybody else is better at certain things than we are (Klingons are better warriors, Vulcans are better thinkers, Betazoids are better diplomants, Ferengi are better buisnessmen…), whatever are we better at than everyone else? Here are some of the more common theories:
The Human Spirit
Yeah, we haven’t got super strength or wings or ageless lifespans, but we’ve got spunk, dammit! Humans never give up. They are adaptable, optimistic, and have that special something that gives them the edge over the competition. They don’t believe in no-win scenarios, man!
In RPGs, this is often represented as some extra skills or a bump in versatility. Sometimes it shows up as a variety of bland special edges that give humans mild statistical advantages over their buddies. In general, this one always bothers me because it’s based off of the principle that humans don’t like to lose and adapt themselves so they don’t. This, however, is fairly common with all successful lifeforms, since you don’t survive in the big, bad world without some ability to Outlast/Outplay/Outwit.
Humans are always striving for more, see? They, above all things, desire power. Dangle a magic ring under their nose, and they grab it. They expand, like a virus, filling up their environment with all the stuff they accumulate and spread across the cosmos like a plague. They’re never satisfied.
This one isn’t bad, but it rather hamstrings the ability for humans to interact with other aliens, doesn’t it? Like, if none of them are as ambitious as us, then don’t they just kinda get pushed aside? In some settings, they do, actually (in my own setting of Alandar, in fact), but to rob all your aliens of the capacity to be equally ambitious makes it easy to either demonize or glorify humanity in a way that makes things unfair. In Avatar, for example, humanity’s ambition is demonized as destructive and cruel. In Star Trek, it’s glorified as the thing that makes us the leaders of the Federation. In both cases, we are seeing human uniqueness being used as a symbol for what the authors think of human behavior, rather than a realistic portrait of those cultural or physical qualities that make us distinct.
One of the other popular ones is to have humans be pervasive, hardy, and numerous. This is an easy trick – humans happen to be physically hardier than other species, or reproduce faster, or what-have-you. I use a version of this myself in The Rubric of All Things, in which humans are extremely tough and disease resistant (we do take our immune system for granted, don’t we?).
Of the three ideas, I prefer this one myself, since it’s the easiest and most plausible. I don’t think it needs to be pigeonholed into humans being ‘hardier’, per se, but if you are inventing aliens, you can pretty easily make them all so physically different that their uniqueness becomes clear. In order to do this, though, you’re going to have to think harder about how your aliens work. So, like, if humans are the only intelligent bipeds around, what does that mean for how all those aliens construct their buildings and castles and spaceships? Stuff is bound to get weird fast (which is how I like it).
So What if We Aren’t That Special…
Ultimately, however, all aliens are going to be versions of ourselves – distorted reflections, if you will – or otherwise will be the unknowable ‘other’. Middle ground is extremely difficult to establish (though I’m trying, believe me!), and is the subject for some really profound and interesting stories. Still using other species as metaphors for aspects of humanity has a long and colorful history, and I can see no good reason to stop, so long as it’s kept fresh.