Lately I’ve been trying out a variety of contemporary sci-fi authors that deal with various aspects of the Singularity. I think it’s sad to admit, but I have yet to be able to finish one. The last one I tried was Charles Stross Accelerando, a book which I recommend you do not read unless you find long strings of technobabble to be as hip and cool as Stross seems to. My current battle is with David Brin’s Existence, bought when I heard an interview with him online in which he had a discussion about the future of humanity that I found intriguing. I read the description of the book and it also sounded interesting. It is interesting. So was Stross, honestly. So what was the problem?
None of these books seem to have characters. If they do have characters, the characters exist primarily as mouthpieces by which the author can convey all the interesting thoughts they have and that they speak about at length in NPR interviews. The thing is, though, that such discussions, while interesting, do not make for a good story. At least, they don’t for me.
A story is about a person or, more rarely, as small group of people. They can live in as bizarre a universe as you please, but ultimately I, the reader, am interested in them only insofar as I am emotionally compelled by their conflict. The emphasis there is on their conflict – as in the character(s), individually. I am not really motivated by the plight of humanity in general. Am I interested? Sure. Believe me, I have many of thoughts about this myself, but I know that I can’t just write a novel that does nothing but talk about humanity at large without weaving such a discussion into the idiosyncratic problems of a specific individual. To do otherwise makes your novel didactic, preachy, evangelical. It wears on me when I feel that I’m reading a book that’s trying to do nothing more than engage me in debate. If I wanted that, I’d read non-fiction or attend conferences. When I’m reading a novel, I expect entertainment. I expect a protagonist with a problem I want to see resolved, not a series of placeholder people meant to do nothing more than paint a picture of what they think humanity is/will be like.
Now, this doesn’t mean I object to stories with defined and discernible points or arguments to be made (I prefer these to the completely ‘pointless’ stories that populate fantasy and scifi), but it does mean I expect your message to be a little more subtle. If I’m reading a book with a rotating cast of 6 main characters, none of whom have anything clearly to do with one another, and all of them apparently present to act as expository mouthpieces for your new universe, I am going to get frustrated. I am not reading speculative fiction for ‘slice of life’ scenes in imaginary worlds; I’m reading it for the exploration of character and conflict in unusual circumstances. This connects, if indirectly, to my frustration with certain long-running fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.) that have decided to put an emphasis on a persistent world rather than on the resolution of conflict. There is only so long I am going to wait for catharsis/denouement before I get bored, no matter how fascinating the subject matter of the fantasy/scifi world. If I suspect that there is no catharsis to be had because there is no dramatic tension to be released (because there are no characters that I am attached to or interested in), I am going to put the book down. If, however, you keep all that stuff in there and weave your issues into that conflict with a degree of subtlety, then you’ve just written a pretty damned incredible book.
Of course, I’m just one guy talking, here. I suppose there are a lot of folks (particularly in scifi) who really love those stories where all they really do is watch the world turn according to the author’s whim and various characters just kind of pop in and out. Come to think of it, I can think of authors who did this fairly well (Asimov and Clarke chief among them), but in all of those instances the plight of the hero was still central to the plot, no matter if the author was less interested in that plot than in the themes they were exploring. Anyway, I’m still fighting with Existence and, to its credit, it’s starting to improve a bit. If I have to keep sitting through radio talk-shows in the novel or attend conferences and actually listen to the speeches the guys are making, I don’t know if I’m making it through. If you wanted to publish a lecture series, Mr. Brin, you could just do that. I’d read it. Just don’t dress it up like an adventure story and expect me to applaud.
I’ve been thinking a lot about vengeance lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the poor 8-year-old boy who was killed in Boston in the Marathon Bombing. More accurately, I’ve been thinking a lot about his father. The family are neighbors of mine and, while I don’t really know them at all (met them once or twice, seen them around the neighborhood, etc.), their loss has weighed heavily on me. You see, I, too, attend the Marathon sometimes. I, too, have small children.
It is cliché, but having children changes you. It changes you in surprisingly odd ways, sometimes – things you just don’t anticipate. Prior to becoming a father, I could not imagine a circumstance that would lead me to such a passionate state where I might kill in a fit of rage. Now, I know it is a very real possibility for me. After Sandy Hook, I was a walking raw nerve if I was with my daughter. Not so much for her safety, per se, but I knew that I was not in complete control of my own rational faculties. I love her so much that, should some fiend harm her in even the slightest way, there would be no power on this earth that could prevent me from destroying them. This is a harrowing self-realization, and not one that I am especially proud of.
I have felt this surge of anger and anguish now in places I never knew it could exist before. I now find watching Aliens almost unbearable, as Newt looks a *lot* like my little girl, and the thought of her frightened and alone in a dark facility full of monsters is the literal stuff of my nightmares. I encountered it again in a movie I’d seen before but never been struck by. The movie is Minority Report, which tells the story of cops that can tell the future, but more importantly tells the story of John Anderton, a cop whose little boy was kidnapped right out from under his nose and who he never saw again. That scene in the public pool hurts even to think about. I empathize with the character on a deep emotional level.
Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but the man is a fine actor. For evidence, I give you this scene, in which Anderton finally catches up with the man who kidnapped his son (don’t worry–I’m not spoiling anything major here. Still, spoilers nevertheless):
This moment, ladies in gentlemen, is a heroic one. A heroic one on a scale I cannot wholly fathom – something that makes Liam Neeson’s murderous rampage in Taken pale in comparison. It’s a pity the clip cuts off where it does, because to watch Anderton Mirandize the killer of his son is magnificent – the moment where reason and civility overcomes emotion and barbarism. The triumph of human decency over all in us that is indecent. My God, is that hard. That is so, so hard. I cannot say that I would be able to do as Anderton does. I hope that I could, though I even more fervently hope that I never have cause to find out.
Minority Report is a lot about free will and about predestination. Science Fiction is, by its nature, awash in such stuff – we writers of SF/F are in the business of imagining humanity’s future and depicting what we believe humans will become (or are). We are usually wrong, thank God, as the world is a better place than we think. This, in the wake of last week’s bombing, is important to remember, so I will repeat it: the world is a better place than we think. We can prove it, too. We can choose.
Author’s Note: So, as the last time I did this proved at least moderately popular, here is the teaser for the second mission in my Shadowrun: Hong Kong RPG. Different fixer, different contact in the party, but hopefully still entertaining.
To the average work-a-day slug, the Matrix is something they can hold inside their lives; a sliver of experience they can wedge between ‘playing with the kids’ and ‘getting that report to Mr. Hito’. It is comprised of a banal series of bank nodes and entertainment vids; ordering groceries and indulging in porn and the rest of the boring, simplistic nonsense that, apparently, passes for existence for the balance of metahumanity.
That, though, is the shallow end. That’s the Matrix kiddie pool, complete with lifeguards and water-wings. Those who know how to swim quickly learn that there’s a whole new world beyond that little rope with the blue-and-white buoys. The deep matrix, the dark matrix; there be monsters.
Well, not really; monsters are rare. There be pirates, more accurately. Pirates like you. There are entire kingdoms of pirates down there in the deep Matrix, organized into little islands of hackers, runners, and other people of the shadows, lurking beneath the glow and bustle of the shallow Matrix like predators of the deep.
Your particular pirate island is a place called Inside-OS (get it?). It’s a hacker collective, a combination social group and non-profit criminal organization whose primary qualification for membership is finding it in the first place. The VR landscape of Inside-OS is a comical re-imagining of the Smurf’s village from antique 20th century animation, but infused with every geek reference from Wayne Manor to a TARDIS to the mighty throne of Neil the Ork Barbarian.
Here, you are a warrior prince, a noted member – Slayer of ICE, hacker of mainframes, He Who Must Not Be Dissed. When you stride among the many smurfs (the lowest ranking members – very limited access), they part for you like the Red Sea before Moses. You can, if you wish, behead any of them with your digital katana, banning them from Inside-OS forever (unless they hack their way back in, at which point they are immediately promoted to ‘member’ and can use their own avatar). All told, there are 352 members of Inside-OS and, of them, 278 are smurfs – eager to help, eager to impress, hungry for more respect in this elite pirate kingdom of the deep matrix.
You maintain a pagoda on the outskirts of the node. Surrounded by moat and drawbridge and guarded by stone lions that flank the entrance, this is ‘where’ you spend much of your time when jacked in. It is your electronic home, more personal to you than that hole of an apartment in Mong Kok where your meat-self is forced to exist.
You are in the process of meditating over the best way to hack into the Mitsuhama mainframe to send your mother a birthday card (just as joke) and yet avoid getting her in trouble when the lions out front roar out a challenge – you have a visitor. There, standing at the edge of the drawbridge, is simplistic stick-figure man wearing a hat in the style of a telegram delivery man from the early 20th century. He (though ‘he’ is a stretch – this is clearly a program) is holding a hypercard; its clean, and postmarked as being from Snafu, your fixer. You take the card, and you’re linked to a live-chat that’s being bounced through a half-dozen nodes from Hamburg to New Dehli.
Snafu’s face is an impressionist painting that shifts in color and hue as you look at it. Today, it’s a Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “‘Sup, holmes?”
“On the clock.” You respond. “Go.”
“Well, I got something for you that I think you’re gonna like. Deets are on the card, baby, but here’s the precis: Big deal set to go down between Hildebrandt-Kleinfort-Bernal and Renraku Computer Systems; big cheese at Renraku is set to have a face-to-face with big cheese at HKB at the Renraku corporate retreat – an estate near the top of Victoria Peak. Swank place, tight security – check the specs.”
“Okay, but what’s the job?”
You can’t tell, but you think Snafu is smiling. “Criminal landscaping.”
“Serious. Mr. Johnson wants you to bust in and move some shrubs around, mess with a few statues, replace a few rocks – shit like that. He’s got a whole presentation on the card, man – not making this up.”
Typically, in the rest of the shadow world, your fixer doesn’t know what the job is. Snafu is a hacker, though, and being nosy is his job, so you aren’t offended. You’ve known him for years and he’s a proven friend. If he says that’s what the Johnson wants, then that’s what the Johnson wants. “So, we break in, change around this garden…”
“…without anyone knowing. Best to do it just before the meeting starts, right, so they don’t have time to inspect and, you know, redecorate again.”
“Dude, don’t tell me how to do my job.” You scowl at Starry Night for a second, “So that’s it? Break in, redecorate so they don’t notice or don’t have time to change it, then get out. That’s it?”
“What’s the pay?”
“No shit. Betcha they don’t pay their actual landscapers half that.”
You turn the card over in your hands – on the back, the icon to connect with Mr. Johnson is there, glowing faintly. “Man, I’d be an idiot to turn this one down.”
Author’s Note: What follows is a bit of introductory text for a Shadowrun campaign I just started running. I’m placing it here because (1) I’m pretty proud of it and (2) I’m pressed for time and can’t post anything else just now. I hope you enjoy it!
Hong Kong has two seasons: dry and wet. During the dry season, it’s really hot and very humid; during the wet, it is somewhat less hot and, incredibly, even more humid. Monsoons batter the coastal city with driving rains, rains that seem to fall in not just one direction but all directions at once. The water is like human sweat, warm and a bit salty, and there is no escaping it, no dividing your own body from it. The rain covers everything in this town, merging it together in one slimy, sticky, foul-smelling slick.
Walking down the Golden Mile in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, you can tell the locals from the expat from the tourists by how hard they fight the rain. Tourists wear polymer fiber raincoats and brightly colored umbrellas, sweating and bumping along uncomfortably with the crowds. Expats wear simple ponchos of lightweight plastic and don’t bother to button them, which is still a step above the simple sampan hats of the locals, who take the rain as a gift from the spirit world, even if they don’t particularly like it.
As an ork, you’ve got a good half-meter in height on most people on the street. Ordinarily this gives you a good view of your surroundings, even in a crowd, but it’s night on the Golden Mile in the rainy season, and all you can see is Chinese characters in jarring neon beneath the non-stop spam in your AR displays – tourist shops, noodle stands, sex clubs, and even traditional Chinese apothecaries bombard your senses with ads, some even linked up with your hot sim. If you didn’t have it cut out as a safety measure, you’d smell the noodles and taste the tea while feeling the massages, both chaste and pornographic. Ordinarily you’d be running in private mode in this area, allowing you to see, but Chun Fa has his ways of contacting you, and it often involves enduring the spam for a while. So, you wash down the street with the river of humanity, bathed in the rain, the world nothing but a riot of neon color with the roar of the rain all around and a sea of sampan hats beneath.
It’s only about ten minutes of this before you spot the ad. It’s a picture of a pig on a spit being braised over hot coals with the words “Hot Times!” advertised beneath – no animation, no flair, it’s an ad that nobody would notice or even remember in the neverending sea of Golden Mile spam. You’re looking for it, though, and you know what it means. You duck into the next little cafe and sit at an open table in the back. The place is well lit Japanese sushi place with buzzing fluorescent light and decorated with cheap vinyl faux-wood veneers and imitation paper screens. You recognize the name – some chain called Magic Fish that’s been trying to get a foothold in Hong Kong for the past decade, with moderate success. You’re not really here to eat, anyway, but you order some tea to avoid arousing the suspicion of the dull-eyed teenagers behind the counter. They’ll bring it, but they aren’t rushing. Suits you.
Chun Fa shows up a couple minutes later. He’s a heavyset Chinese man with a face like a dumpling – round, flabby, and glistening as though coated in oil. His hair is a tight little copse of curly black positioned on the very top of his head with the sides shaved away, like he’s maintaining some kind of game preserve up there for whatever could survive in his heavy oiled do. He smiles, making his face undulate into a kind of cheap knock-off of the laughing Buddha. “You look sick. Eat something, my treat.”
“I don’t eat this crap.” You mean to be sullen, but it’s hard not to smile at Chun Fa, so you do. “How you been?”
“Better than you.” He grabs his belly with both hands and shakes it so it jiggles. “I eat. Hey, got something for you.”
“About time. You’ve been too busy eating and not busy enough getting me work.”
Chun Fa shrugs. “You have no face, my friend. No guanxi. Hard to get you work when most of your work is somewhere else.” You’re about to protest, but he cuts you off. “Please, I mean no offense. Besides, I have something – no small job, either. Big work – pull it off, and you gain a lot of face, make the right connections for even bigger work later. Okay?”
The rest is small talk. After a sensible period, Chun Fa leaves. You stay and wait for Mr. Johnson, who shows up just about the same time as you get your tea. He is thin where Chun Fa is fat, his face is pointed and narrow, like a knife. He is older than you and probably older than Chun Fa, but beyond that it’s hard to place his age. He’s wearing a western suit, which itself means nothing – this guy screams ‘Triad’, but you have no idea which one.
He slides a memory chip across the table to you beneath a napkin and starts talking. “There is a ship that will be docking in Victoria Harbor in three days, called the Aleutian Sunrise. This ship is not to reach the dock.”
A quick shake of the head and a cruel grin is the answer. “You will sink it. In Victoria Harbor, where everyone will see.”
You do your best not to whistle – a tough job, very dangerous, very complicated. “Pay?”
“Ten thousand for a retainer, fifteen upon completion. Plus, we will pay market rate for any cargo you recover from the ship prior to its destruction.”
Cargo – that meant illicit goods, obviously. This wasn’t a ship full of car parts and women’s underwear. These guys – whoever they are – are pretty pissed off at some smugglers and want to make a public example of them. You and your team are the implement of that example, and you’re getting paid peanuts for the privilege. “Okay, Mr. Johnson – let’s talk turkey…”
I have been playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown recently (great game, by the way – and damn you, Will, for addicting me to it!). It features your standard UFOs and bulbous-headed aliens invading Earth and abducting people willy-nilly from all over the globe, and it got me thinking about the whole ‘UFO’ thing again, specifically the idea of alien abduction.
First off, let’s get one thing straight:
- I find it unlikely that we have actually been visited by aliens from another planet.
- I find it extraordinarily unlikely that, even if we have been visited, that said visitors have actually abducted much of anyone.
- I find it even more extraordinarily unlikely that, even if we have been visited by aliens and even if they have abducted people, that the government knows anything about it, has anything to do with it, and has any plans to combat it. At all.
I have made these determinations with the liberal application of Occam’s Razor and my knowledge of how government works.
Just for the hell of it, though, let’s pretend that alien abductions are a real thing. If so, I’ve got a question:
What the Hell is Up With This?
Okay, so you’re your average, run-of-the-mill bobble-headed alien. You’ve got yourself this spiffy spaceship, complete with light-tractor-beam thingy and a whole suite of stealth technology. You find yourself in orbit around planet Earth and you figure to yourself “what the hell, let’s steal me a human.” Now, to my mind, there can only be three plausible reasons to do this:
#1: The Safari Theorem
The aliens are studying us in the same way as we are wont to study elephants and dolphins. Capture a few, perform some tests, observe, tag-and-release, dissect a couple here and there, etc. This, to some extent, makes perfect sense – I very much doubt there’s so much intelligent life out there in the vastness of space that a whole planet chock full of it wouldn’t be damned interesting to study. Hell, if our positions were reversed, I could see humans capturing and studying a whole range of little green men if the opportunity arises.
The thing is, though, that if this theory is true, then it doesn’t jive with the MO of our average alien abduction. For one thing, how many damned humans do you actually need to abduct, anyway? If Wikipedia is any guide (and I would think UFO enthusiasts would be keen on editing Wikipedia – just a hunch), then anywhere from 1400 to 5% of the total population have been abducted. That is an absolute shitload of specimens. Way more, actually, than they’d ever plausibly need in order to make a full study of humans. Hell, that’s more than enough to start your own little human community in your very own space-zoo. Seems excessive to me.
Plus, if they are performing a responsible study of the human race, then why are the vast majority of abductions purported to occur in English speaking countries? What, does their universal translator only work on English? Do they really need to talk to you, anyway, if all they want to do is pull out your digestive system and give it a good mapping? How will they know if the brown ones work the same as the pink ones if they don’t catch both in equal quantities?
Furthermore, a lot of reports insist that aliens have been kidnapping us since ancient times (flip on the History channel – I’m sure they’re showing a ‘documentary’ about it right now). How long does it really take to get a good idea of how humans work? Do you really need to nab hicks out of their pickup trucks on a regular basis to get a finger on the pulse of humanity. Hell, we beam half our culture into space, anyway. They could just watch cable like the rest of us.
The other possibility is that the aliens are prepping us for invasion somehow, and that these abductions are part of their plan. If so, then I really have to question the sanity of the alien plan. Presumably the idea would be to kidnap people and either replace them with aliens or somehow mess with them so that, when the aliens arrive, these people welcome them with open arms or otherwise inhibit their fellow humans’ ability to resist. If this were so, then, it would seem that they aren’t kidnapping enough people. Granted, 5% of the population ain’t hay, but it also isn’t exactly overwhelming numbers. Furthermore, consider who they’re kidnapping. It isn’t exactly a who’s who list of the influential, powerful, and competent. It reads more like a list of the disaffected, the run-of-the-mill, and the unstable. These are not really the allies you want or need during any kind of invasion.
I suppose we could say ‘but those are only the ones you know about!’, but, well, that sounds a bit crazy. Besides, if you’re going to go to all the trouble to kidnap a quarter of a billion people or more, aren’t you getting to the point where you should just invade already. You’re putting a lot of man-hours into this thing, Martians – shit or get off the pot.
#3: It’s a Cookbook!
Maybe, though, they aren’t here to study us or invade us or anything – maybe they just think it’s fun. Maybe some part of us is a delicacy. Maybe capturing us is a sport! Maybe they have these cyclical tournaments where one flying saucer sees how may goofballs they can suck up inside their ship and mess with within a certain timespan. They probably show it on alien pay-per-view. Hell, I’d watch that show. Of all the theories, this one sounds the most likely. Assuming, you know, that any of this is likely at all. Which it isn’t.
Personally, I think our first contact with an alien species is going to be a much more straightforward and much more confusing affair than a series of sneaky UFOs snatching cows and terrorizing rural truck stops. It’s going to be something large and loud and incomprehensible, something that makes the world stand still with wonder and no government on this Earth is going to be able to cover it up with some weather balloon story. Besides, we’re assuming that they’ll find us before we’ll find them – a bit pessimistic, don’t you think? I prefer to imagine it will be us beaming down, not being beamed up. That, however, is just me; I’m an optimist like that.
As a writer, there is an inherent risk in reading. It’s a risk you must take, of course, and risk you couldn’t avoid taking anyway, since all writers start as readers and remain such. The risk is reading a novel (or story or poem or screenplay or whatever) that you simultaneously love and realize that you, yourself, could never ever write it yourself. It is a moment that is both inspiring and disheartening; you see, with a clarity that is often unobtainable, the sheer heights you must scale to stand shoulder to shoulder with your would-be peers. If you’re like me, a book like that can put you in a writing tailspin for a week or more as you try to parse out how the author did it and what the magnitude of their achievement means for your own work.
There are a couple authors who do that to me. Ursula K LeGuin, for instance, has an easy, elegant prose style that I can’t quite wrap my head around. Margaret Atwood builds characters so real that it seems impossible that they don’t truly exist. Most consistently in my adulthood, though, the single author that has managed to flabbergast me most often has been, without a doubt, Neal Stephenson.
Now, I don’t intend to make this post all gushy and fanboyish, because in all honestly I am not a gusher or a fanboy over Mr. Stephenson. His books, as impressive as they are, aren’t flawless paradigms of narrative prose. They sometimes have pacing issues, sometimes they seem to end at odd points, and there are moments where Stephenson’s hyper-cool style lead the plot on tangents that, while fun, also seem to dilute the narrative power of the work. That said, they are still a million times better than anything I am likely to write, so who cares what I think?
The feeling you get reading a Stephenson novel is that you are in the hands of a storyteller both infinitely hip and monumentally intelligent. He manages to make Sumerian myth gel with futuristic motorcycle races all while actually educating you about the basic framework of computer science. If the purpose of reading fiction is to be transported into other places and other lives, reading a book like Cryptonomicon or The Confusion is like buying a ticket on Magellan’s first cruise round the world – it might take you years to complete, but oh the places you’ll go! The sheer density of information is overwhelming; the tangents glow as brightly as the main storyline, the secondary characters evoke your senses as much as the protagonist until, eventually, you have difficulty telling whose story this is and what it’s about. Weirdly, amazingly enough, though, you don’t care.
I’ve read five of Stephenson’s books; I find myself constantly recommending them to people. They baffle me at the same time as they impress me. How is this possible? How can a five-hundred page book that goes on innumerable tangents and deals with a half-dozen seemingly unconnected characters still be fun on every single page? How (and why) does he condense so much information about the real world into a single volume, even when very little of it seems essential to the plot? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out.
My Technology in Literature class is about to embark upon Snow Crash, Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic. Though they are bemoaning its great length, I know they’ll love it anyway (even if they don’t finish it). This will be my fourth or fifth time reading the book, and each time I’ve been able to unpack more and more of the dense story and apply it to a kind of thematic framework. It’s fascinating and so unlike so much other science fiction out there. What have I learned from it as a writer? Well, a lot of different things; a lot about how to weave humor into narrative, a lot about how to manipulate style to reflect character voice without speaking first person, a lot about how to show rather than tell. Most importantly, though, is this central lesson:
I will never write a book like Neal Stephenson does, and that is okay. That, ultimately, is the point. Neither I nor anybody else should tear themselves down over the achievements of another writer, because this isn’t ultimately a competition. We are joining a conversation in which writers like Neal Stephenson are part. Should we bring our A-game? Hell yes, but even more important than bringing our A-game, we should also remember to bring ourselves. So be like Stephenson; be your own original.
A lot of what goes on in a role-playing game is world-building. You, the GM, are trying to create an environment that the players will find themselves swept up by – you want them to feel like they know the place, like they understand it. This principle is essentially the same one as applies to good science fiction or fantasy or, hell, good fiction in general: people can’t get emotionally invested in a world they don’t feel comfortable in or that they cannot understand.
In fiction, the writer has more power over how this happens compared to a role-playing game - he or she can write in a style that evokes the proper feeling, they have greater control over dialogue, description, and exposition, and so on. Even if they screw it up the first time through, they get to go back and revise and adapt and improve. GMs do not have these luxuries. A GM has to make it work on the first try, he isn’t the one talking all the time, he can’t control player dialogue and, no matter how talented an improviser he is, there is realistic limits to the mood he can effectively create. That is why it is a beautiful thing when a player meets the GM halfway and begins to flesh out the world alongside him.
One such player was my friend Josh in my Battlelords campaign from about seven or eight years back. Battlelords is a kind of space opera scifi game
with ridiculous alien species all thrown together in a kind of incredibly fatal melting pot. This game had the highest character fatality rate of any I’ve ever run, and it wasn’t just me – the system demanded such things. The combination of the silliness of the aliens and the society along with the deadliness of the gameplay made a very darkly humorous game and into this environment Josh thrust the evil space-squid, Commodian Phentari.
The Phentari are a species of violent, brutal bipedal, cartilaginous cephalopods. Standing seven feet tall and breathing methane, their favorite dish is human and their favorite activities usually involve a kind of ritual dismemberment ideally after a nasty betrayal. They approach the world with an arrogant, barbaric aggression – they are going to take what they want, kill anyone who gets in the way, and have tons of fun doing it. Commodian fit right into the mold – he was deadly, smart, and cruel. That, though, isn’t what had this character make the list.
The actual background of the Phentari, you see, is a tad bit sketchy from the game material we had. I was improvising rapidly trying to fill them out into something more than just a blatant pander to the violent urges of your average adolescent teen male. I tried to make their society something that made sense, or at least on their terms. Josh, a skilled improviser himself and an experienced gamer, hopped right on board. He created new and interesting behaviors for Commodian, attributing them to ‘Phenatari culture,’ and made controversial in-game decisions sometimes for the sake of maintaining the cultural integrity of his character. If a fellow PC died (or was dying) he would eat their corpse, claim their stuff, and refuse to share (as was proper Phentari etiquette). During the party’s in-game poker nights, Commodian introduced a variant of the game called ‘Phentari Bluff’. It was five card stud, but the point of the game wasn’t to show your cards but rather to physically intimidate the other players into folding before any hands were seen. I believe a particularly heated game resulted in him shooting another player in the hand.
Commodian brought an enormous amount of dark humor to a game that, at its structural base, is an elaborate and indulgent D&D-meets-Shadowrun knockoff. He made the world seem real, detailing everything from Phentari banking (also known as ’grave robbing’) to Phentari mating practices (don’t ask). These details led to the creation of other details about other species, and the whole thing snowballed into a vibrant and fun world in which to set a game. Much of this wouldn’t have been possible if I was doing it all myself, but with Josh’s contributions (and everyone else’s, too!) the whole thing was a lot of fun.
I read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers when I was in high school. It was cool, but I remember thinking it had way too much political philosophy and not enough action. Then, a couple years later, Hollywood made it into a movie; the ads made it look stupid – no powered suits, for one thing – and I was going to skip it. Word got out, though, that the first teaser for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was going to be shown before the flick and, in that pre-online video era, that got me to go.
The movie sort of blew my mind.
What Paul Verhoeven had done was make a parody of a fascist propaganda film and nobody but me and a few of my friends watching the movie seemed to notice. I remember it even went over the movie critics’ heads – they saw it was a propaganda film and found it disgusting, failing to recognize what I thought was obvious satire. What was less obvious to me, however, was why Verhoeven would choose that book to make into a fascist satire.
So, back to the book I went. As I read it, my somewhat more astute post-adolescent mind began to notice things about Heinlein’s Galactic Federation that seemed…suspicious. One party rule, a glorification of violence, the constant state of war…isn’t that kinda like fascism?
Well, in point of fact, it is like fascism. It’s so much like fascism that, essentially, the differences between Heinlein’s ‘meritocracy’ and Hitler’s Third Reich are relatively few and far between. Now, those that defend the novel against claims of fascism insist that (1) Heinlein didn’t support fascism at all and (2) there doesn’t seem to be anybody in the Galactic Federation who objects to it or that we see being mistreated by it (there seems to be freedom of speech, there doesn’t seem to be Supreme Leader, nobody is getting put into camps, etc.). Both of these claims are, to some extent, true. Neither of them, however, adequately protect the Galactic Federation being identified as a kind of fascist utopia and the claims themselves belie a certain misunderstanding in how the process of literary analysis works. Let me take them in turn:
But Heinlein Wasn’t A Fascist!
Here’s the thing – nobody is saying he was. Heinlein was a libertarian; he wanted government out of his life, he wanted people to have the freedom to do what they wanted to do (no matter what), and the rest of it. That fact, however, doesn’t save the society he created from being what it is. You’ve got a world government in which the only voting citizens are those who have gone through a rigorous physical and mental training regimen designed to make them willing to follow the orders of their superiors and to whole-heartedly believe in the mission statement of the society itself. No one who does not go through this process may vote. Everyone, voting or not, must allow their children to be educated by a party member in school, in which they are taught of the importance of violence, of the glory and honor to be afforded those who sacrifice for the State, and about the evils of other societies and races. I could tell you that was written by anyone, and it would still be fascist.
What’s interesting to consider is whether or not Heinlein even knew he was creating a fascist state when he was writing the book. If he wasn’t, what does that say about fascism? It is worth noting that Hitler came to power in Germany during a period almost identical to the period described in Starship Troopers following the war between the Allies and the Chinese Hegemony that destroyed the democracies of the ‘XXth’ century. There was mass starvation, a power vacuum, criminals on the loose, hopelessness. Then (thank God!) a group of war veterans start cracking heads and restoring order and, next thing you knew, everything was peachy again. Whether it’s Hitler and his browncoats or a bunch of Scottish vets hardly matters – same thing.
But Fascism Is Evil and the Federation Isn’t!
Well, obviously it isn’t. What we’re reading is a fascist propaganda piece. If it’s Heinlein’s objective to sell us on this society he created (which happens to be more-or-less fascist), he isn’t going to spend pages and pages describing to us the times the system broke down. Hell, Heinlein is so sold on his idea, he doesn’t appear to be aware that his system can break down! Sure there’s freedom of speech! Why? Well, because the military allows it to be so. Why would the military restrict speech? But there’s no institutionalized racism, you say? Nonsense – the entire book is a love-story to the Master Race. That master race happens to be ‘Humanity’, so naturally we don’t see why we should object. The Bugs aren’t human, so killing them just to take their stuff isn’t wrong.
The thing is, though, in Nazi Germany, the Jews didn’t count as human either. None of the Arayans seemed to object when they got shipped off, either. When Hitler wanted to go to war with the inferior peoples of the world for the glory of the Reich, it seemed a perfectly reasonable and healthy thing to do. When we have the exact same process, however, in a science fiction setting where the ‘inferior races’ are giant arachnids, though, suddenly it can’t be fascism. It’s a ‘meritocracy’.
But who decides what counts as ‘merit’? Are we going to swallow the whole ‘he who places his body between his loved one’s and war’s desolation’ nonsense? That’s simply Mussolini’s glorification of the hero – you can’t disagree with the Galactic Forces because they’re protecting you, you lazy jerk, so just do what they say. Nevermind that their ‘protection’ of you involves wars of aggression with their neighbors. Wars that just happen to self-justify their policies. Policies that only they set, because only they can vote and only they can decide who manages to make it through to earn their franchise.
Sound a bit convenient to you?
This brings me back to Verhoefen’s movie and what blew my mind about it. While I was watching, I thought he was just using Starship Troopers to satirize fascist propaganda. What I didn’t realize at the time, though, is that Starship Troopers is, itself, fascist propaganda, no matter what Heinlein intended it to be. Granted, we don’t actually see or hear of a Supreme Leader (though the Roughneck’s Lieutenant, whose word is as that of God, is a pretty solid stand-in), and the action of the story only has good people doing heroic things for humanity. So does Triumph of the Will, though. We can observe the system as presented and, through simple analysis, recognize the potential for abuse in the real world. We needn’t swallow everything a storyteller tells us on faith – we’re allowed to be skeptical. Once the author puts it out there, the story isn’t his (or hers) anymore, anyway. It’s ours, and sometimes we’d like to know more.
I’m currently in the process of discussing Philip K Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep with my Technology in Literature course. In the book (which I highly recommend, by the way), human-like androids infiltrate society, distinguishable from ‘real’ humans only by some slight differences in the bone marrow and in their lack of any kind of empathy. In the novel, Dick is exploring exactly what it means to be human and, furthermore, contemplating the moral status of those things placed outside that definition; the decision to make the androids lack empathy is more an artistic than a technical decision.
Still, Dick is hardly alone in the presentation of robots and androids as being emotionally and emphatically inhibited when compared with humans. Star Trek’s Data, for instance, is constantly on a quest to understand the emotional side of existence as he, himself, is completely lacking in emotion. The Machines of the Terminator universe also lack any kind of empathy, as do the Machines of the Matrix, and any number of other passionless, emotionless iterations of artificial intelligence littering science fiction from here to eternity. We’ve almost come to accept it as a given – robots cannot feel.
But why the hell not?
I’m no computer scientist, so perhaps there’s something I’m missing here, but I don’t really see emotion as anything more complicated than having built-in, default opinions about certain situations and things. They are hardwired programming, basically – you fear the dark because you cannot see what’s going on and suspect something dangerous may be lurking. You fall in love because the object of your affection fulfills a variety of built-in criteria about a romantic mate that are the result of your life experiences, genetic predispositions, and evolutionary history. Emotions may not be fully understood, but it seems silly to consider them some how magical and unable to be duplicated in machine form.
If indeed we could design an artificial intelligence (and, keep in mind, we are a long way from that happening), it seems to me that they would probably develop emotions whether we wanted them to or not. Emotions aren’t just extra baggage we humans carry around to make us miserable; they are useful applications used in order to assist in decision making. That terrible feeling you get when you are dumped or fail a test? That’s emotion chiming in saying ‘what we just experienced was negative; please refrain from repeating the same action’. Are you trying to tell me that any intelligent being wouldn’t be able to do the same thing?
Part of the myth of the solely rational robot is one that says ‘reason > emotion, therefore we don’t need or want emotion’. Our robots (and those who design them) wouldn’t see any need for hardwired emotional content to enable them to make decisions, since their own rational faculties would be more effective at doing the same thing. This, to me, seems to be making a number of assumptions. Firstly, we have never encountered an intelligent creature (at any level) that lacks some kind of emotive response. We have emotions, animals have emotions, so if we’re just going off the available evidence, it seems likely that emotions are some kind of prerequisite to true intelligence in the first place. Even in the development of our own children, emotional response precedes rational response to stimuli. It is perhaps possible that we could do it some other way, but we really can’t be sure. Furthermore, emotion, since it is simpler, is quicker and more effective at making certain kinds of decisions than reason is. If you hear a loud noise, you flinch or duck – this is inherently useful for the survival of a species. Granted, we wouldn’t be constructing AIs so that they could avoid being caught in avalanches, but it stands to reason there would be things we’d want them to be hardwired to do, and emotion is born from such hardwiring. Their emotions might not be the same as ours, but they’d almost certainly have them.
Now, there are a good number of scifi authors who do have emotive AIs - Iain M Banks, in particular, springs to mind, but others as well. Much of my own scifi writing of late has been moving me in that direction: if our AIs will feel, what will they feel about us? How will we feel about them? What kind of emotional relationships can you build with an intelligent toaster or fighter jet?
If your phone can love you back, do you owe it a card on Valentine’s Day?