Thoughts on Grabthar’s Hammer

And the adventure continues in the third blog post of an unintended trilogy….

The critics panning Pixels lead me to reflect: Galaxy Quest would have failed if the main characters were the kids instead of the actors.

The heroes of Galaxy Quest know less about their own canon than their obsessive fans do. They find it easy to see everything bad about their work, and much harder to remember why it connected with people. The comedy comes from their not easily stepping into the fiction. They’re fish out of water. In Armada, apparently, the gamers find their favorite snack food waiting for them at their battle stations. In Galaxy Quest, on the other hand…

“Are you enjoying your kep’la blood ticks, Dr. Lazarus?”

“Just like Mother used to make.”

[blood tick, still alive, jumps from spoon back into bowl]
Continue reading Thoughts on Grabthar’s Hammer

“And Half the Seed of Europa”

In the previous post, I looked at one way to take the theme of geek-culture wish fulfillment and run sideways with it. Another tempting possibility is a more Evangelion variation: play all the genre conventions absolutely straight, and show just how psychologically damaged every character would be.

Say you’re one of those gamer prodigies who’s whisked off to fight a glorious war in which your mad skills are the key to Saving the World. What happens when the war is over? What happens when you get shipped home with a headful of PTSD? Everything you enjoyed in your old life now reminds you of ordering good men to their deaths.

When you were a child on Earth, you fled all your troubles by escaping into games of war. Then the war found you.

What do you do when you can’t escape any longer?

(Title based on Wilfred Owen.)

Starfighter 2015

Laura Hudson’s review of Ernest Cline’s Armada (2015) reminded me that I had my own idea for a “reimagining” of The Last Starfighter (1984). In fact, I’ve had this notion knocking around for a few years now, but I’ve never written down a synopsis in an easily accessible format. So, here goes:

Our protagonist is Alix, a young trans woman trying to make it in the field of video-game journalism. Tired of regurgitating press releases for ultimately forgettable AAA titles, she decides to delve into the mystery of Starfighter, a science-fiction action-adventure game that appeared on the net seemingly from nowhere. Nobody knows who wrote the code or even the IRL identities of the people who first noticed it, but once it caught a little attention, its popularity snowballed. Alix, a fiend at Starfighter herself, gets a lead on where it might have come from. The movie opens with her on her way to a big SF/gaming convention in some large city. At the convention, she meets a fellow we’ll call Greg, because he asked for it. Greg knows Starfighter amazingly well, not just its game mechanics and the design of its fictional world, but the details of its code, too. They joke around about Phillips-head sonic screwdrivers, reversing the polarity on the main deflector dish and so on.

Alix and Greg are walking back to the convention after dinner with some champion Starfighter players, when some ominous guys who have been skulking about the shadows burst out and instigate a fight scene. Greg snaps into action and fights them off, using martial-arts moves that escalate until they really should be impossible without wire work. Just when the ominous guys have been roundly trounced, their reinforcements arrive, and they run over Alix with a Humvee. Fade to white.

Alix awakens, floating in microgravity, wearing a jumpsuit uniform over skin that feels a bit too much like plastic.
Continue reading Starfighter 2015

Those Who Aspire to Solaria

A certain mindset sees the movie Aliens and thinks it would be awesome to be a Space Marine. Because it’s like being a Marine, but in space.

A certain mindset skims a bit of cyberpunk fiction and thinks the future will be amazing, because Ruby-coding skills will clearly translate to proficiency with katanas. You know, katanas.

A certain mindset learns a little about the Victorian era and is instantly off in a fantasy of brass-goggled Gentlemen Aviators, at once dapper and wind-swept, tending the Tesla apparatus on their rigid airship. All art in the genre carries the tacit disclaimer in its caption, “(Not pictured: cholera.)” In the designation steampunk, the -punk has nothing to do with anarchy (in the UK or elsewhere), the suffix having been conventionalized into a mere signifier of anachronism. A steampunk condo development promises units for the reasonable price of 2 to 7.5 million dollars apiece.

[To be fair, Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), which is in some part responsible for the whole wibbly-wobbly steamery-punkery, did spend some of its time with the run-down and the passed-over. It also, I’m guessing unintentionally, underscored the incoherence of the premise, when in its final pages, Ada Lovelace describes a fanciful notion of the late Charles Babbage, whose fictional version dreamed of doing computation with electricity. The fictional Babbage’s never-implemented plan relied on such hypothetical devices as resistors and capacitors. The book’s plot begins in 1855; the Leyden jar was invented 110 years earlier. Carl Friedrich Gauss built a working telegraph years before the historical Babbage even designed his Analytical Engine. But our aesthetic can’t allow that, of course.]

It is against this background that we should read “Silicon Valley is a Science Fictional Utopia,” a recent piece in Model View Culture. I have enjoyed and appreciated MVC quite a bit in the past few months, which is why I was rather flummoxed to find a statement in that essay that just refused to parse. The overall thesis sounds roughly right to me, but not all the examples seem to fit as written. Here’s the part that jumped out at me:
Continue reading Those Who Aspire to Solaria

Back in the Rotation

First they came for the Nobel laureates, and I did not speak out, because I was a new PhD with a handful of papers.

Then they came for the titled gentry, and I did not speak out, because I ride the bus.

Then they came for the millionaires, and I did not speak out, because I don’t have dental coverage.

Then they came for the bestselling authors, and I did not speak out, because I write fanfiction on my blog.

Then they came for the people with over a million Twitter followers, and I did not speak out, because I have 973.

Then they started to wonder what good it did to “come for” these people, since everyone they came for was still rich and powerful.

Then I spoke out, because, honestly… Phrasing!

Things I Don’t Get, Part the Eleventy-Billionth

It always baffles me when people think The Incredibles is an Objectivist movie.

It examines, under the surface of an adventure story, the psychological foibles which can lead people into Randroidism. That’s a very different animal. But some people seem to take “When everyone is special, no one will be” as the movie’s actual moral. Let’s unpack that.

First, who says it? 1. The villain. Yeah. That’s always a great place to look for the moral of a story. And, ironically, Buddy/Syndrome is special: he has the same superpower as Bat- or Iron Man. 2. A middle-aged man who feels unappreciated and projects his own troubles onto other situations. Again, yeah. Basically defines “reliable source,” I’m sure.

What’s the first event that sets the conflict in motion? It’s not the lawsuits against the supers. It’s Mr. Incredible failing to live up to a social obligation by brushing off Buddy.

What’s the first thing we see Mr. Incredible do in the present day? He helps a woman long past her productive years to loot a corporation. He doesn’t exploit his knowledge of the system for his own benefit; instead, he risks his own job, acting against his own self-interest, to benefit another person who can do nothing material for him in return. And the movie unambiguously portrays this as the right thing to do.

What’s the happy ending—or, rather, the coda? The supers learn to rein in their powers, to come in second best, so they can remain incognito and be there when civilization needs them. Again, the movie depicts this as a clear-cut good thing. But Rand had something to say about people who deliberately do less than their best in order to fit in better. When Dagny Taggart suggests she do just that, Francisco D’Anconia slaps her face so hard she tastes blood.

Stepping outside the text of the movie for a moment, does Syndrome’s “make everyone super so no one is” plan actually make sense? No. If you could buy rocket boots, they’d be, in principle, analogous to mountain bikes or skis or rollerblades. That is, they’d be a technology that opens up new kinds of activity: hobbies for some, pro sports for others. Saying they’d erase individuality is like saying camera phones were the doom of cinema, or that the mechanical typewriter was the end of literary genius. The plan doesn’t hold up, either within the movie or outside. But it doesn’t have to: it’s a fantasy from the mind of a maniacal supervillain.

The villain is a man who built his entire life around his grievances. The hero, as they do in many stories, has a few points in common with the villain. But the hero learns to see beyond, and rise above, the flaws they share with the villain. That’s what puts them on the hero side of the ledger.

On that note: the people who claim that Lois Lowry’s The Giver is an Objectivist novel. Yes, the quiet, emotionally intimate story about slowly learning wisdom through suffering, where a child risks starvation and freezing to death in order to have a slim hope of making his community a better place after he is gone. The story of how family is a matter not of blood but of love, how the flattening of natural beauty is to be mourned, how solitude can be joyful and loneliness painful in equal measure. The book that literally, not figuratively, says this:

“Giver,” Jonas suggested, “you and I don’t need to care about the rest of them.”

The Giver looked at him with a questioning smile. Jonas hung his head. Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.

But apparently for some folks, anti-authoritarian is automatically Objectivist. Because the world is simpler when you’re a misunderstood teenager.

Nixiepunk

A few years ago, my friends and I came up with the label “nixiepunk” for science fiction set in a world where atomic spaceships are navigated using slide rules. Nixiepunk would be analogous to 1930s–50s science fiction as steampunk is to Victorian proto-SF. Whereas classic cyberpunk projected a future, clock-, steam- and nixiepunk reinvent a fetishized past. Choosing the term nixiepunk over “atompunk” emphasizes the other child of the Manhattan Project: computation over raw destructive force. But to live up to the “punk” half of the name, the genre must concern itself with the preterite, with the “Left Behinds of the Great Society.” If Asimov’s The Caves of Steel or the Byron the Bulb excursus in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow came out today, they’d be nixiepunk.
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Less Heteronormative Homework

A few weeks ago, I found an old physics book on a colleague’s “miscellaneous” shelf: University of Chicago Graduate Problems in Physics, by Cronin, Greenberg and Telegdi (Addison-Wesley, 1967). It looked like fun, so I started working through some of it.

Physics problems age irregularly. Topics fall out of vogue as the frontier of knowledge moves on, and sometimes, the cultural milieu of the time when the problem was written pokes through. Take the first problem in the “statistical physics” chapter. It begins, “A young man, who lives at location $A$ of the city street plan shown in the figure, walks daily to the home of his fiancee…”

No, no, no, that just won’t do any more. Let us set up the problem properly:

Asami is meeting Korra for lunch downtown. Korra is $E$ blocks east and $N$ blocks north of Asami, on the rectangular street grid of downtown Republic City. Because Asami is eager to meet Korra, her path never doubles back. That is, each move Asami takes must bring her closer to Korra on the street grid. How many different routes can Asami take to meet Korra?

Solution below the fold.
Continue reading Less Heteronormative Homework

Here’s a Question for You

Did any futurologists from last century predict online harassment? All I remember is VR, full-body haptic interfaces, video-telephones that would translate as you talked…. It was all this kind of thing:

  • “Unused computes on the Internet are harvested, creating … human brain hardware capacity.”
  • “The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments…with full visual realism.”
  • “Interactive brain-generated music … is another popular genre.”
  • “the underclass is politically neutralized through public assistance and the generally high level of affluence”
  • “Diagnosis almost always involves collaboration between a human physician and a … expert system.”
  • “Humans are generally far removed from the scene of battle.”
  • “Despite occasional corrections, the ten years leading up to 2009 have seen continuous economic expansion”
  • “Cables are disappearing.”
  • “grammar checkers are now actually useful”
  • “Intelligent roads are in use, primarily for long-distance travel.”
  • “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) software”
  • “Autonomous nanoengineered machines … have been demonstrated and include their own computational controls.”

All of these are from Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), specifically its list of predictions for 2009.

The most insightful-in-retrospect predictions I recall were from Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to (Non)Communication (1993), but that book was about honest errors and confusion, not venom and spite. Surely someone speculated about the Net enabling new ways of making people’s lives miserable, but I’m having a hard time recalling examples which are really pertinent. I can’t help thinking that the downsides which people had in mind weren’t the ones we face now.

"no matter how gifted, you alone cannot change the world"