Category Archives: Science Fiction

In Which I Read Anathem

Neal Stephenson has become something of a nerd saint, penning Snow Crash, probably one of the most widely-read SF books of the last twenty years. He’s also a fiercely intelligent cataloger of minutiae, filling books such as Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle with the kind of stuff that will make you ridiculously good at Trivial Pursuit.

Anathem, his latest book, is not his best, but I still enjoyed it immensely. It’s not as weirdly creative as Snow Crash or The Diamond Age, but even then it’s immensely engaging- provided you have a specific personality type. If you are wondering about whether or not you should read it, ask yourself the following questions:

1: Do you like books where most of the action is taken up by characters having long discussions about philosophy, science, history, and math?

2: Do you enjoy books that take place on other planets wherein the social and governmental system is somewhat different than our own?

3: Do you like made-up words, most of which are tweaked versions of Greek and Latin terms?

4: Do you like books with explanations of geometry in the appendix?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, go ahead and read Anathem. In a nutshell, the book is about a bunch of cloistered monks devoted to science on an alien world. Then (and I don’t want to give anything away) stuff happens. Big stuff. Totally gonzo, wowzers sci-fi stuff. However, the book spends the first three hundred pages grounded in a hermetic, academic atmosphere, so even when the hugely epic world-shaking plot starts up, it still feels pretty grounded. With all of the philosophical exposition, the book acts as a sort of SF, grown-up version of Sophie’s World, and I mean that in a good way.

What makes Stephenson so special, though, is that you get a real sense of joy from his work. Stephenson isn’t just smart- he seems to jump for joy at all of the wonderful stuff there is in the world, and Anathem gives you a very real sense of that. After reading Anathem, Platonism seems interesting to me all over again.

Yes, it’s one thousand pages of alien science-monks and made-up words, but it’s also a very obvious labor of love. Stephenson doesn’t just know quite a bit about the history of philosophy, he also knows precisely why it’s so interesting, so wonderful, and so worth studying. That’s why Anathem‘s 900-plus pages go by so fast- the author is jumping up and down about how wondrous the world is.

One More Thing About E.F.N.Y…

The best part of the movie. It happens in the future! The gritty, dark, crime-infested future where America has become a brutal police state!

In other words, 1997. I cant’ wait until 2019 rolls around, and we finally get off world colonies, replicants, and umbrellas with LED handles.

An Interesting Idea From A Totally Badass Movie

A while ago I was watching Escape From New York, which I’d never seen. Short review: It was pretty good. But, that’s not what I want to rant about, really. At the beginning of the movie, Snake (Kurt Russel’s character) is being escorted through a prison office building, and a recording is playing over the loudspeakers. The recording says that before the prisoners are locked away, they have the option to be euthanized and cremated. In the context of the movie, it’s meant to seem creepy and sinister. However, I thought to myself, “How humane- that’s a pretty good idea.”

Really. I think that offering prisoners to off themselves would be a pretty good idea. What’s more, I think it’s the type of thing that both liberals and conservatives could get behind.

Liberals have a number of reasons to support voluntary criminal suicide. Physician assisted suicide is already in place (here in Oregon) and the option allows a greater degree of autonomy for people who are suffering. Those who are doomed to suffer ought to be able to take their own lives, be it because of a life-crushing disease, or a life inside the criminal justice system.

Conservatives ought to support voluntary criminal suicide as well. If someone supports capital punishment (as most conservatives do, and I, for the record, don’t) then they already have demonstrated that they are alright with criminals being killed via state-applied violence. They should also, then, be alright with criminals being killed via self-applied violence. While I can’t prove it, there’s also the possibility that prisoners killing themselves would save the criminal justice system a fair amount of money.

With this in mind, it’s ridiculous that criminals sentenced to death be put on suicide watch, or not allowed objects such as belts or pens. If anything, they should be able to say the guards “I would like to go now,” and then be allowed to press the lethal injection button themselves.

Not that I want to turn this into a rallying cry or anything, but in a sane society, I see no reason why criminals shouldn’t be given the very option that Snake and his fellow prisoners were. Turning Manhattan into a giant prison may have been kind of insane, but this detail was something they got right.

In Which I Channel C. Doctrow and Shake My Tiny Fist At George Lucas

In 1942 Isaac Asimov, in his short story Runaround, coined the term “robotics.” The word has since entered the lexicon, and people who know about such things are generally aware that Asimov was the first to use the term. He’s credited in the Oxford English Dictionary with being the first person to ever use it, and he is rightly respected and admired for inventing a shiny new word.

Asimov didn’t invent the term “robot,” though. The term that we use for our shiny metal friends was coined by the Czech playwright Carl Capec in his play R.U.R., a drama that featured (what else?) robots rising up and overthrowing their fleshy human masters. Like Asimov, Capec is recognized as coining the term. He gave us all a wonderful new thing to say, and for that we thank him.

Which brings me to George Lucas and the term “droid.”

I was extremely surprised to see, in an ad for the Droid smartphone, legalese to the effect that “droid” is copyright Lucasfilm and is used with permission. I don’t want to start sounding too much like Cory Doctrow here, but, quite frankly, Lucasfilm enforcing a copyright on “droid” is ridiculous. Utterly indefensible. Stupid. Idiotic to the point where it is pitiable.

Imagine, if you will, every commercial use of the term “robotics” appended with a note that the word was the copyright of the Asimov estate, and used with permission, or if each commercial use of the term “robot” cited Capec. It would be entirely stupid. Lucasfilm, though, seems to think that they are somehow more entitled than these two authors, and is apparently insisting on being credited with the term “droid,” a word that’s been part of the English language and science fiction since 1977 when Star Wars came out.

We don’t cite Asimov or Capec, though, because we expect authors to coin terms. There seems to be a part of the zeitgeist wherein terms that are coined by wordsmiths are completely okay to use and adapt. Quite frankly, this is wonderful. If I were ever so lucky to coin a term like “robotics” in my life, I would burst with joy and pride, and get a warm fuzzy feeling every time someone said a word I invented.

Other media, such as films, should not be an exception. Just as people freely borrow terms from books, anyone who wishes to should be allowed to borrow linguistic adaptations from film and television. It enriches the language, mixes up the lexicon, and generally makes the wordy landscape more colorful. I remember feeling a twinge of joy when characters in Battlestar Galactica referred to the human-looking Cylons as “skinjobs,” a term I recognized from Blade Runner. Use of the term was both homage to the original, and a reflection of the accumulation and adaptation of science fiction terminology.

Lucasfilm, in appending their name to the term “droid” is standing squarely in the way of this wonderful process. Lucas made a new word for “robot,” and he should be justly proud. Star Wars should indeed be cited as the source of the term “droid.” But to claim utter ownership, to demand permission for use of what has become a normal English word is utterly silly. I did not think I could lose further respect for the Lucasfilm empire, but I have.

In Which I Am Reduced to Screeching Fanboy Status by the Brilliance of BioShock

Of the various loves in my life, one of the most abiding and constant has been video games. I haven’t really blogged about video games at all. I never blogged about how much I love the Fallout series or how many hundred yen coins I spent in Japanese game centers. It’s a topic that I’ve avoided, semi-intentionally.

However, I’m compelled to gush about how much I love BioShock. Not that the series needs it- BioShock is a tremendously successful franchise and it doesn’t really need any more geeky adoration being spewed in its general direction. I can’t stop myself, though. I need to shout like a screeching fanboy. There is a big overriding reason why I love it so much, something utterly apart from the great gameplay, wonderful design, excellent writing, and creepy atmosphere. Those things are great. However, there is another, very simple reason why I love this particular FPS so much:

BioShock is a game about shooting Ayn Rand in the Face.

The original game is a refutation of Atlas Shrugged in video game form. Somewhat more importantly, though, it is also a satire of video games in general, and at the same time makes a point that could only be made in video game form. That’s what I really want to talk about. BioShock wouldn’t be what it is if it were a movie, book, TV show, or any other kind of media. It’s great because it makes the most of what it is.

Okay, spoilers ahead, everyone! For both games.

The First BioShock game is all about the hubris and failure of Andrew Ryan, a stand-in for Ayn Rand. Ryan built himself an undersea utopia that failed miserably. His vision was based on unabated individualism and constant nattering about “parasites” who spoil life for the shiny paragons of industry and brilliance.

BioShock is also all about the protagonist (you) gradually finding out about who the hell you are. At the beginning of the game, we see the main character in a plane that crashes into the Atlantic, and immediately assume that he’s just an ordinary, hapless survivor who happened upon the underwater city of Rapture. Much later, we learn that he actually hijacked the plan and caused the crash.

What’s more, we find out that the character has been manipulated the whole time. He has been under mental compulsion for the vast majority of the game, but you wouldn’t know it from the gameplay. At no time is control really wrested from you- you play BioShock as you would any other linear game. However, you don’t have any control about what the character will do. You do what you do because NPCs tell you to do stuff, and because you are led by the nose in a linear fashion.

It’s amazing because you are able to embody someone you know nothing about. You can’t see the protagonist’s face, can’t hear him speak, and know nothing, really about who he is. Yet you embody him and identify with him anyhow. Eventually you find out that what you thought was a bland, voiceless video game protagonist was actually a genetically manipulated zombie who had very little choice about his actions. The surprise of the big reveal could not have worked in any other medium.

BioShock 2‘s ending is somewhat less satisfactory- you find out that your daughter has been watching you the whole time, and that your actions have determined her character. I chose to be a nice, shiny paragon of goodness who helps people, so she, in turn, turned out to be an idealistic, sunny person. Apparently if you decide that you like killing and selfishness, your daughter turns out to be a kind of a bitch at the end.

I suppose that this is a pretty good approximation of parenting- you’re actually raising your kids all of the time, not just when you think they’re watching you. You know, like this:

Anyway, BioShock (both of them) are great video games because they take full advantage of the fact that gamers embody the protagonists, and don’t really think that much about whom they are embodying. At the end of the first one you get hit with “Guess what! You’re a juiced-up zombie bitch with no free will! How do you like that? Now, would you kindly kill Ayn Rand with a golf club?” The big surprise at the end of the second comes down to “I learned it from watching you!” wherein you discover that parents who mercilessly harvest Little Sisters have kids who mercilessly harvest Little Sisters.

In books, movies, television shows, comic books, or any other medium, the observer cannot slip into the protagonist’s shoes, cannot embody them. In video games, though, that can happen. BioShock allows you to embody characters that are not who you thought they were, or doing things that you did not think they were doing.

Gaming can put you in disorienting the position of not only observing actions, but doing them and not understanding them, with great emotional effect. It is something I would like to see more of. Rather than just games where players pursue goals for pasted-on reasons, I would like to see games that take advantage of this disorientation that comes from character embodiment. The only other video game that I can think of that has effected me as much as either of the BioShock games has been Silent Hill 2, wherein the protagonist wades his way through the shadowy world of love and uncertainty that is husbandhood. (Given that I was living with my girlfriend while I played it, it kind of hit a nerve.) In all cases, my emotional reaction came from the fact that I did not just watch the drama happening, but had to deliberately make it occur, had to move it forward via the character. I empathized more strongly, and felt more real fear, because of that. I do think that video games can be a powerful medium, and am happy to see that they have become more complex and emotionally charged over the years.

Also, more things should be about giving the finger to Ayn Rand. Just putting that out there.

Ferngully in Space!

I approached Avatar not only with skepticism, but with a certain amount of hostility. As pretty as the movie was, one could tell exactly what the plot was going to be just from the previews. It’s a tired, tired story that’s shown up in Dances With Wolves, Ferngully, Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, and, to some extent, District 9. Namely, a guy who is first pitched against an indigenous population joins their ranks, becomes their leader, and leads them in battle against his former comrades. (This excellent blog post talks about how steeped in white guilt this whole narrative is.)

Avatar’s story, sadly, is utterly predictable. At no point did I feel myself especially involved in it, or doubt how the movie would end. With the exception of Sigourney Weaver’s scientist character (whose Stanford tank top and attempts at empathy with the indigenous population recall Peace Corps volunteers) none of the characters were worth caring for. The soldiers were soldiers I had seen before, and the Na’vi familiar noble savages. The main character was far too much of an empty suit for me to care about him.

Fortunately, the movie is massively pretty. The animals and plants of Pandora abound in hallucinogenic beauty, trees and vines shimmering with a view that makes you realize what an amazing phenomena bioluminescence is. The scenes of the Na’vi riding through floating mountains on hippie-colored pterodactyl-dragons are amazing and exhilarating, and I confessed smiling immensely during the movie’s wholly satisfying climactic battle scene. Mech walkers, hover planes, guns, arrows, and exotic alien beasts all assembled to kill each other in what is probably the best action sequence in theaters right now. But, I don’t think it was enough.

Avatar has grand ambitions. It is clear that Cameron longs for it to be mentioned alongside Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, and The Matrix in the pantheon of great blockbuster SF movies. Because of its amazing visuals, it perhaps has a place, but it has no Han Solo or Obi-Wan, nothing as terrifyingly iconic as an Alien chestburster, no quandaries about reality or thought. As much as I enjoyed it’s action sequences and set pieces, I still wanted more. I enjoyed it, but do not admire it. It has beauty, that is all, and beauty alone is never enough.

Live, Real Star Trek

You know the whole phenomenon of Shakespeare in the park? It’s great. Basically a bunch of people do a free performance of Shakespeare in a public place. Last Saturday I went to something like that, but instead of “Shakespeare” it was “Star Trek.”

Live Star Trek. It was fucking fantastic. The actors were wonderful, the audience was massively appreciative, and geeky enthusiasm ruled the day. I was amused to see one of the actors from King Lear, which I saw earlier this summer, also in this. I suppose there’s a fair amount a crossover between Shakespeare and Trek fans. Also, the whole thing was accompanied by The Fast Computers, a band whom I’d seen a few times in Eugene, and were great in this setting, providing a retro-electro background.

The episode that they chose to perform was a nice one- Amok Time, wherein Spock goes into heat and subsequently battles Kirk at the behest of a sexy Vulcan chick.

The homemade props were especially good. Both of those polearm things ended up splitting in half during the fight, to great effect. All in all, utterly awesome. My geek heart was aflutter the whole time.

And, apropos of nothing, here are a bunch of kids splotching paint all over a car.

A Seriously Geeky Post About Star Trek

I saw the new Star Trek movie this week, and I thought that it was quite good. I’m not really going to write much about it, though. I’d rather talk a bit about Trek in general.

I have no idea when I started watching Star Trek. Sometime in middle school, maybe. Perhaps earlier. I don’t know if I saw the original series or The Next Generation first, but regardless, it had a big influence on me when I was young. I don’t just mean in terms of aesthetics or taste- I’m talking about my actual worldview with regards to politics and philosophy and such. Star Trek, in part, made helped make me the liberal humanist that I style myself as today. Yes, I really mean that.

Back before the horrible prequels, I remember constant debates among young nerds about which was better- Star Trek or Star Wars. I occasionally went back and forth in these debates, but I most consistently said that Star Trek was better. I didn’t think it was necessarily better because of the acting or writing, but because of its ideas. At the end of Star Wars, Luke turns off his computer and just “uses the Force.” He lets himself go and only uses his instincts. I can’t really see a Star Trek character doing the same thing.

As intuitive and gut-trusting as characters like Kirk and Riker were, they didn’t rely on pure emotions or suppositions. They thought about things, and characters like Spock and Data were often chimed in as the voice of reason. As good as Kirk’s instincts were, he was still reasonable and unimpulsive. He wouldn’t have turned off his computer while fighting the Death Star, and that’s why I always sort of preferred Star Trek- it was, as Spock would say, logical. The things that saved the day were always things like expertise, clever applications of technology, or diplomacy. There was no room for Star Wars‘ woo-woo mysticism. The very presence of Spock sums it up nicely- the character that served as the sage and voice or morality was also the most logical.

It’s easy to accuse Gene Roddenberry of being optimistic about all of this. His future is bright, shiny, and almost utopian. However, I have to give Roddenberry credit for this in a way. Not only did he believe that technology would advance, but that ideas and social norms would as well. So much SF simply maps on the values of the present to an imagined future. In Roddenberry’s view of the future, though, humans have gotten over racism given up smoking, to name two examples.

Yes, smoking. Back in the sixties, NBC thought it was odd that no one on the Enterprise smoked, like normal sixties people. There was a bit of pressure on Roddenberry to include weird space cigarettes in the show, but he refused, maintaining that by the 23rd century, us humans would know better. Not only would people of different ethnicities work side-by-side, they would do so in a healthy environment. Looking around now, we have a black president and smoke-free bars, only forty years later. Roddenberry’s optimism wasn’t entirely baseless, it seems.

Many of Star Trek’s episodes (both in the original series and the Next Generation) were basically geeky problem-solving sessions. The Enterprise would encounter something like an alien being, a machine, a new society, etc., that was hitherto unknown. The crew would scratch their heads about it and theorize about how it worked, usually while sitting around a table. After a bit of action and a few dead redshirts, there would be some kind of deunoument usually brought about by the ingenuity of one of the crew members. Kirk would would use his wits, Picard would flourish out some clever diplomacy, Geordie or Scottie would spout technobabble and make the ship do something impressive, McCoy or Crusher would make a startling biological discover. In any case, the crew would use their newly found revelation to get out of the jam, and then there would be a nice little meditation on the interesting scientific, social, or philosophical consequences of what just happened.

I loved this stuff. I still do, in fact. (Thinking about it right now, I’m struck by how much Trek resembles Isaac Asimov’s short stories. It all has this “Hey, guys! Isn’t this interesting!” quality to it.) It makes for fun episodic television and appeals to a certain kind of person who thinks way, way too much. It is not, however, “rollicking” or “fun.” The sort of speculation and head-scratching that happened on Star Trek certainly invited parody, and if it wasn’t done well it just came off as heavy-handed. More than heavy-handed. Leaden. William Shatner expounding on the significance of things in general can be just as easily tedious as it can be charming.

As the franchise regressed, I eventually get really, really bored of Trek. I didn’t really like Deep Space 9 or Voyager, and I actively loathed Enterprise. Insurrection and Nemesis were both sort of tepid movies, and I didn’t come to expect anything new or fresh from the franchise. When the new movie was announced, I just sort of said “meh.” I was very surprised to see that not only did it not suck, it was actually good.

The new movie succeeds because it seems to have the same kind of ideological underpinnings of the original Trek– Enlightenment values in space- but keeps them as just the underpinnings. The characters who save the day are still a diverse scientists, geniuses, and all-out supernerds, and the bad guys are a bunch of militaristic, tribe-like nationalists. The movie, though, doesn’t get preachy about it. The original principals are there, but it has none of the heavy feeling that seems to descend when William Shatner puts his hand on his chin and broods behind his eyebrows. Instead, it was really zippy. Zippy! It was a movie that went “Zoom!” in the best way possible. Watching a fun, zippy Star Trek movie is kind of like seeing a really geeky guy getting over his own awkwardness and start dancing. I like Star Trek again. This feels sort of weird, being all suffused with nostalgia. Zoom!