Archive for March, 2015

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Elite: Dangerous – Space Cowboys and Free Market Economics

My name is Adam Shaftoe, but some of you might know me as Commander Adam Shaftoe. I’m what you call a combat pilot. Politics and ideology don’t really matter to me. Show me the credits, whisper the target’s name, and I’ll get the job done. To date, I own two starships, including a brand spanking new Core Dynamics Vulture, and I have about 10,000,000 credits in the bank. I know I’m not the most successful Commander in the Pilots’ Federation, but I’m no rookie, either.

It’s fair to say Elite:Dangerous pushes a lot of my buttons. It lets me tell a meta-story with other pilots in a vast, online universe. For a few hours every week, Elite: Dangerous lets me climb into the cockpit of a space ship and live out my childhood fantasy of blowing things up in space. Rick Hunter, eat your heart out.

This alone is enough to keep me playing Elite: Dangerous.

Mind you, when I’m not tearing around the galaxy, I like to think I’m a reasonably capable critic. The critic in me wonders why I’m still playing Elite: Dangerous.

As much as I enjoy being a bad-ass space pilot, I’m not blind to some of the serious shortcomings in the game – notwithstanding the lack of ownership as elucidated in this piece.

About two patches ago, Frontier Developments introduced community goals into Elite: Dangerous. Players could now work together on large scale projects that would carry forward within ED’s persistent world. My favourite of these community goals are combat operations, which are a lot like fundraisers only with more murder. The game keeps a running tally of all combat payouts a pilot secures within a certain operation. As all players involved in the community goal meet an escalating series of milestones, they qualify for a final payout commensurate with said milestone and their proportional contribution to the goal.

Here’s where things get weird. I worked for the Federation in a recent combat community goal. I supported this particular government within Elite: Dangerous’ political triad because I knew they would send a capital ship to the warzone. I then switched from open play, where I can interact with other human players – some of whom might choose to work for the opposing faction – to solo play, where it was me versus the AI.

A quick FTL to the warzone, and I was in the thick of it with the Federation fighters, a Federal capital ship, and the soon to be dead opposing force.

Experience has taught me to hang close to the capital ship during these situations. Rather than engaging in ship-to-ship combat, I set my ship’s turreted beam weapons to fire at will on any enemy who crossed my path. Meanwhile, the capital ship hammered away on everything within its combat radius. At the time of this post, Elite: Dangerous’ combat system is set up so that AI ships can’t collect combat bonds. Meaning, all I have to do is tag an enemy ship to collect the full combat bond when the AIs/Cap ship eventually take it out.  This system doesn’t always work, but it works more often than not.

I devoted about three hours of play time to this scheme. For my efforts I scored roughly 2,000,000 credits in combat bonds, which amounted to two-thirds of the value of the ship I was flying at the time. No small sum of money. Here’s the best part, my contribution to the community goal put me in the 40th percentile of all pilots working on the mission. This earned me another 15,000,000 credits.

This seems excessive even by the Federation’s standards. Within Elite’s lore, the Feds are a bloated and often incompetent bureaucracy. Don’t get me wrong, the mercenary in me is more than happy to take the Federation’s money. Yet as a critic, I have to ask if this is the game functioning as David Braben and team intended. Should I really be able to cheese my way to riches on something that feels like a design oversight?

I suppose it could be some sort of commentary on the economics of wealth. If it weren’t for the fact that I already had a ship worth 3,000,000 credits, which is a long way off from the Sidewinder I started in – market value 32,000 credits – there’s no way I would be able to milk the Federation for an easy 17,000,000. My wealth, in a game whose economy leans toward lassiez-faire, put me in a position to make literal fuck-tons of more money.

There’s simply no way a poorer pilot could have pulled off what I did. I have the disposable income to buy and sell ship parts without consideration. I don’t have to worry about losing a significant portion of my net-worth on insurance claims if I get blown up. And more importantly, my money bought me an engine that gives me access to the entirety of civilized space. No new pilot can claim those things. In Elite: Dangerous as in life, my modest wealth put me in a place to earn considerable wealth. Even though “considerable wealth” will reach a point where its windfalls no longer represent a meaningful percentage of my net-worth, for the time being my money makes me more money than my combat skills.

Is this side-effect of unabashed, unregulated, capitalism meant to be Elite: Dangerous condemning the status quo? Shall we put in a call to Thomas Picketty and his observations on a return to gilded-age economics? Am I meant to reflect on the fact that as a rich player, I now stand to get richer so much faster than when I started? Or is this an exploit to be patched in a future update? My inner space pilot doesn’t care, and my inner critic refuses to give up the game until he gets an answer. Either way, I keep playing.

If nothing else, it’s a hat tip to David Braben and his team for creating a game that makes me want to keep playing, even when my critical instincts say I should move on to something else. More on this story as I murder my way toward an answer.


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Everything You Need to Know About Podcasting After Dark 2: Kaiju Boogaloo

Last year at Ad Astra 2014, I conducted an experiment.

My question: would people show up for a live recording of a podcast? More specifically, would people show up for my podcast if I pulled together a Voltron of talent and flouted certain rules about open beverages?

The answer was a resounding yes. Of course, anybody can do something once. The real trick is pulling it off a second time.

So what’s the deal with the name, Adam? Is this a Pacific Rim panel?

No. It sounded cool, and I don’t really do well with titles. Ask any of the editors who have rejected my writing over the years.

So what’s the panel actually about?

It’s what I would do if I had my own talk show. I round-up a bunch of people who I like, put drinks in their hands, and ask them a bunch of questions.

What do you ask the guests?

Mostly genre and writing related things. The format is a modified Inside The Actors Studio. I write some questions on index cards, and let the fates decide the topics under discussion during the recording.

What’s the deal with the “hashtag war” that you did last year?

I like @midnight, so I stole their gimmick. And I’ll do it again, too.

 

What could I do, as a potential audience member, to be a little more involved with the show?

I’m glad you asked, disembodied person who speaks in italics when I’m too lazy to write something in a proper narrative voice.

I have a name, you know.

Between now and recording time on April 10th at 10pm, you can tweet me, @adamshaftoe, any questions you want me to ask the Podcasting After Dark panel. Assuming your question isn’t patently stupid, I’ll put it on an index card. I can’t promise we will offer a brilliant answer, but it will, at the very least, be a funny answer.

This isn’t the kind of thing where I can expect a lot of salty language, is it?

I don’t fucking know. I have no goddamn idea what shit might fly out of people’s mouths.

Who have you blackmailed into being on your show this year, Adam?

Marie Bilodeau, Kate Heartfield, and Matt Moore.

Is there any truth to the rumours of a Derek Künsken cameo?

This interview is over.

Interview? Aren’t you basically talking to yourself here?

Shut up, other Adam.


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Adam at Ad Astra 2015

Adam leading a panel discussion (image may not be an accurate representation)

It’s that time of the year again. The time when a young writer’s thoughts turn to the brilliant (?) things he will say on a panel, the jokes (possibly terrible) he’s going to use on a live podcast, and the booze he’s going drink.

That’s right, dear reader, I’ll be at Ad Astra 2015 for another weekend of genre fun.

If, perchance, you’re interested in where I’ll be (when not at the bar) between April 10 – 12, here’s the rundown.

Friday

A Merciless Deconstruction of Things that Other People Like: The Panel

Time: 9:00 PM – 10:00 PM

Room: Richmond A

Panellists: David Blackwood, Mike Rimar, Simon McNeil, Me

Are you a sucker for punishment? Pitch a book, film or piece of media you love and watch as our panelists try to destroy it.

Podcasting After Dark 2: Kaiju Boogaloo

Time: 10:00 PM – 11:00 PM

Room: Newmarket

Panellists: Kate Heartfield, Marie Bilodeau, Matt Moore, Me

The sequel to Ad Astra 2014’s Podcasting After Dark, host Adam Shaftoe-Durrant is joined by a panel of writers to discuss anything and everything within genre and pop culture. It’s the comedy and irreverence of @midnight, the questions written on index cards of Inside the Actors Studio, and the scathing wit of the Graham Norton show. Viewer discretion is advised.

Saturday

Formatting, Style and Sticking it to the Man

Time: 5:00 PM – 6:00 PM

Room: Oakridge

Panellists: Ada Hoffmann, Mike Rimar, Me

Where do you draw the line between personal style and compromising? What is a “voice” versus “extraneous undisciplined spasms of words”?

Sunday

Summer Sci-Fi Trailer Park

Time: 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM

Room: Richmond C & D

Panellists: David Clink, James Bambury, Timothy Carter, Me

Which films are you looking forward to in 2015? Join our sensational panelists and watch the trailers for this summer’s upcoming blockbusters!

Intersection Between SF and Contemporary Issues

Time: 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM

Room: Markham A

Panellists: Cathy Hird, Charlotte Ashley, Derek Newman Stilles, Me

Panelists discuss SF stories that take on problems of the present, and old SF that has incidentally come back around to address what ails society today.

The smartest panel of my schedule is on Sunday afternoon at 5pm. I’m going prepared statements for that one.

At any rate, it should be a fun con. More on Podcasting After Dark 2 later this week.


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Game Review: Sid Meier’s Starships

I approached Sid Meier’s Starships with two distinct thoughts running through my head. The first was along the lines of, “this looks so good in concept. Please don’t suck.” The second, born of the first, asked, “When was the last time Papa Sid acted as lead developer on a game?”

A cursory Google search demonstrates there is a world of difference between Sid Meier the developer and Sid Meier the brand. As consiglieri, Sid Meier helped turn XCOM: Enemy Unknown into one of the best PC gaming experiences of the last decade. As a brand, Meier attached his name to the pretty mediocre Civilization: Beyond Earth and the divisive Civilization V .

After spending some time with Starships, I think I can safely say that Meier still knows how to assemble an enjoyable experience. However, there are also a few places where Starships falls well short of meeting my expectations.

Though Starships is set in the same universe as Civ: Beyond Earth, it’s pretty far afield of its parent game. Starships is best seen as a very complicated tabletop game translated into an incredibly accessible PC game (also a tablet game). Half of the game involves managing and growing a space empire. The other half is a hex-based starship warfare game. As I’m the kind of nerd who grew up with tabletop/pen and paper games like Renegade Legion: Leviathan while watching Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers in the background, the ship based warfare in Starships is the stuff of my dreams.

The game’s point and click battle interface is simple and reasonably effective. In combat, Starships mobilizes all of the tropes of space battles, including lasers, torpedoes, fighter squadrons, and cloaking devices. Players customize their flotilla’s weapons, armour, shields, and devices to suit whatever tactical approach they think is best. Does a would-be admiral concentrate their resources into one or two dreadnaughts, or spread the wealth around a half dozen smaller destroyers? There’s no one right way to play.

Gratifying as these battles may be, there’s nothing special to their visual elements. The weapon effects are average, at best, and customizing a ship’s appearance is entirely decided by which weapons and systems a player chooses to upgrade.

Starships doesn’t even offer players the ability to rename the ships in their fleet – something that seems almost sina qua non for a game of tactical starship combat.

Likewise, the empire management side of the game is all about function over form. The star map offers all the information a player would require to manage their empire without the need to drill down into individual star systems. The nuances of system management are a simple matter of prioritizing tactical improvements and planetary defenses for the front-line worlds and infrastructure improvements on the core systems.

In terms of scope, I finished my first game of Starships with a glorious victory in under two hours. So Starships gets points for letting me feel like I’ve achieved something without having to invest a full day of my life into a game.

My biggest disappointment with Starships came after I finished that first match. In the euphoria of victory, I wanted nothing more than to play against a friend. Alas, Starships offers no multiplayer component.

Papa Sid, I am disappoint – a little.

Normally, I’m the last person to piss and moan about a game lacking multiplayer support. But if there was ever a game that could be enriched through playing with friends, it is Starships. Granted, I can see how real-time play might make for a lot of sitting and waiting between short bursts of ship-to-ship combat. Even an asynchronous play feature likely presented a design challenge. Be that as it may, I don’t think it’s an insolvable problem. Multiplayer support would give Starships a greater shelf life than it is going to get as a purely single player experience.

In the final evaluation, Starships is not a bad game, but it’s not a great game, either. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a rushed production, Sid Meier’s Starships feels like something where little thought was given to adding bells and whistles to the core experience. I wanted Starships to be an inheritor to the likes of the Starfleet Command games. Alas, it falls short of that high-water mark.

While Starships won’t get the most mileage of all the games in my Steam library, I can see it filling a very specific niche for the days when I want to blast through an armada of starships without the inevitable defeat of FTL or the 10 hour investment of Master of Orion. Job reasonably done, Papa Sid, but I expect more next time.


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Movie Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction

Yeah, I’m doing this. I mean, how could I not review Michael Bay’s latest middle-finger to good taste, Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Ostensibly, there isn’t much to say about this movie. Transformers AOE clocks in at two-hours and forty-five minutes in length. About two hours of said runtime is actually about ethics in video game journalism a Fast and the Furious movie. The remaining forty-five minutes manages to string together some transforming robots, the same basic plot common to all these movies (good guys, bad guys, humans, world-shattering McGuffin), and a whole bunch of slow-motion, 180-degree, low-pan shots.

And on that note, I think it’s fair to say Transformers: Age of Extinction is the most Michael Bay movie Michael Bay has ever made. It is the complete and total apotheosis of Michael Bay. Entire scenes leap off the screen to scream, “Fuck you, I’m Michael Bay. I do what I want.” And what Michael Bay wants to do most in life, is be the best and most profitable Michael Bay he can be. For this reason alone I have to stand in admiration of TF: AOE as an absolute master stroke in self-indulgent, money-making, garbage.

Behold, the Citizen Kane of contemporary action movies.

Only Peter Cullen, as-ever the voice of a very tired Optimus Prime, and Frank Welker, the immortal voice of Megatron, serve as touchstones between this movie and the Shai LaBeouf trilogy. I do wonder if Michael Bay approached Leonard Nimoy to reprise his role as Galvatron from the 1980s animated feature.

Of course not, fuck you, and fuck the old Transformers IP. I’m Michael Bay.

Michael Bay? What are you doing in the middle of my review?

Fuck you, I go where I want. I can do anything. I am a god among directors. I made Frasier my performing chimpanzee. This movie made money before it was even out the door.  Do you think this is the end of me?

Well considering the movie literally ends with Galvatron saying, “You haven’t seen the last of me, Optimus Prime,” I figure you probably have another one in you.

Another one? Fuck you, I’m Michael Bay. I’m going to do fifteen more of these. I write the screenplays while sitting on my platinum toilet that flushes cristal.

And this is my point about the movie. Everything in this movie screams, “made by Michael Bay.”

His camera work hasn’t changed since Bad Boys, and he’s utterly shameless in stealing from Point Break. There’s a scene where Mark Walberg is one gun-firing-into-the-air away from being Keanu Reeves.

Naturally, it is the dialogue that makes TF: AOE stand out as Michael Bay at his most Michael Bay. It isn’t so much winking at the audience, as it is punching a viewer in the stomach and shouting, “It’s funny because it’s awful, get it?”

“I don’t know how I’m driving this well,” says the second male lead as he pretends to drive fast before the camera cuts to an aerial shot of a stunt man driving a rally car festooned with more endorsements than Captain Amazing.

“We’re making poetry,” says Stanley Tucci, who is in this movie for…

Money, fucking fuck tons of money, asshole. I’m Michael Bay.

Shut up, Michael Bay. Go blow something up.

Michael BAY, cock knockers!

Shut up and blow something up…an apt sub-title for a movie that still manages to be painfully boring despite explosions, car chases, and Optimus Prime riding a dinosaur.

Seriously, Michael Bay, what am I supposed to do with Optimus Prime riding into battle on the back of a fire breathing tyrannosaurus rex transformer? It’s so awesome and terrible as to be almost beyond criticism.

I can say Transformers: Age of Extinction is puerile, juvenile in extremis, and only exists as a three-hour monument to American consumerism and exceptionalism, but so what? The movie is never anything but honest about being all of those things. Even as Stanley Tucci swaggers about like a bad caricature of Steve Jobs, it’s still being honest with the audience. Transformers is shit, and it knows it is shit. Hell, Transformers revels in being shit. The fact that it’s the fourth movie to bear the Transformers name means nobody in Hollywood cares it is shit, because this shit makes money.

In the end, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a long, overly-wrought, and derivative exercise in a middle-aged man’s vision for swimming in a valut of money like Scrooge McDuck. From this dark void of hauteur and self-importance comes a movie beyond mere labels of good or bad. It is a monstrosity, at once brilliant and banal – simultaneously a trough and toilet for the masses.

It is Michael Bay, and he can not be stopped.


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Reflections on Homeworld Remastered

Rejoice, fellow PC gamers. No longer will you have to whisper sweet nothings to your modern operating system when you get a hankering to play Homeworld: the game-that-would-be Battlestar Galactica and a video game masterpiece of the highest order.

First, the good news – and there really is no bad news here – Gearbox didn’t cock-up its remastering of Homeworld and Homeworld 2. Well, they didn’t cock up Homeworld. I haven’t yet taken the remastered edition of Homeworld 2 for a test drive. Given what I’ve seen in the original game, I don’t think there is any reason to be concerned for the sequel.

Let’s go back to my use of the word masterpiece to describe Homeworld. Masterpiece isn’t a word I throw around willy-nilly when talking about video games. In Homeworld’s case, the accolade is well-deserved. Why such praise? Primarily because it is easy to forget Homeworld is a fifteen-year-old game. In the fifteen years since Homeworld’s release it has become a touchstone for all real-time strategy games. Yet Homeworld’s influence doesn’t limit itself to video games. It’s almost impossible to talk about the conceptual origins Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica without seeing and hearing Homeworld’s influence.

Thus, my return to Homeworld isn’t without some level of reverence. In this moment, I’m no mere critic and Homeworld is not some game on my review slate. For me, this is a pilgrimage. I am witness, guide, and supplicant for the Kushan on their journey from Kharak to Hiigara.

Homeworld is also a reminder of a time when video games demanded something more from us as players. Homeworld is content to let players fail, but equally inclined to let someone learn from their mistakes. Where modern RTS games like Starcraft II or Planetary Annihilation often come down to spamming units until the enemy falls, Homeworld offered, and continues to offer, no such luxury. Sparse resources mean every starship and starfighter is a valuable commodity. Each mission is a puzzle to be solved, demanding both wits and firepower from a player.

The biggest changes to Homeworld Remastered never extend outside the realm of how Homeworld 2 improved the on the original game. User interface DNA from Homeworld 2 has crept into the ship and research manager for Homeworld. Gearbox also saw fit to retcon away the fuel and range limitations on fighters and strike craft in Homeworld Remastered. Additionally, completing a mission’s objectives no longer heralds an hour-long hunt for every last resource unit on the map thanks to an auto-collect feature. While purists might complain about these retcons, I think they are necessary tweaks to preventing the game from becoming overly burdensome in its micro-management.

It’s also worth devoting a few words to Homeworld Remastered’s graphical facelift. These updated textures and animations provide Homeworld Remastered with the same sort of visual magic that flowed so easily from the original game. Both Homeworld and Homeworld Remastered present space as a gorgeous, terrifying, and imposing place. The design of the starships are always alien, often asymmetrical, but still gorgeous in their utility. Even the little touches, like a captured Taiidan ship being repainted with Kushan markings, make Homeworld Remastered feel like a game that’s been hand-carved and painted to the smallest detail.

Homeworld Remastered leaves me feeling like Gearbox has offered the first entry in what might become the video game version of the Criterion Collection. This isn’t simply a reskin of a classic, it’s a reminder of how Homeworld and Homeworld 2 hold a special place in the canon of digital narrative and medium. They provide a complex experience built around a simple premise: the desire to go home and the need to protect said home. Nostalgia for the games of days past is all well and good, but Homeworld Remastered rises above that. In terms of complex story-telling and quintessential game design, Homeworld is an important title. Gearbox has done an outstanding job in providing a point of entry into the game for people who might not yet understand why this game should be played.


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On the Importance of Escapism

A foreword for readers: this piece is going to be a little more personal than my usual fare. In fact, I think the words below might border on the realm of cheap therapy. Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a fuck.

You have been warned.

Ernest Hemmingway once said happiness is a rare trait among intelligent people. I don’t think my intelligence, per se, has made me an unhappy person. Intelligence, particularly in my childhood, has served to isolate me from a great many people, but people are monsters so no loss there. Intelligence does let me see the world in a slightly different, and often saddening, way. Most relevant to this piece, intelligence gives me an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

This desire to learn has generally served me well. It helps me in almost every aspect of my life, up to and including my professional life. On that note and through either the grace of the gods or the chaos of the universe, I have a job with a work environment very reminiscent of my university days. University was a profoundly happy time for me – possibly the happiest were it not for the fact I was paying to be there. Now, however, I get paid do research, write things, and give presentations. Not a bad deal.

The physical location of the job, however, tends to weigh upon my soul. When I began my job, it was located in downtown St. Catharines. Like most downtown cores, downtown St. Catharines is an odd mix of affluence and poverty. For every salaryman or government bureaucrat dropping $20 on an over-priced farmer’s market lunch, there’s a homeless person digging through rubbish bins. Walking to the one and only deli worth eating at in St. Catharines required passing by a methadone clinic. A person can find brew pubs within spitting distance of pawn shops and “cash for gold” operations.

Last year our office moved from the downtown core to a much more poverty stricken neighbourhood. I’m now within walking distance – not that I ever walk anywhere from my office now – of short-term lending operations, an abandoned bingo hall, and the lowest of low-rent, government-supported housing.

Oh, and I forgot to mention my job involves researching local labour market statistics. This means when people talk about the problems in the local economy, I probably know more than they do about it. I can tell you how many people are working in retail sales and tourism and hospitality in the Niagara region. I can tell you how many people are making less than $14/hour – the figure generally batted about as the living wage. I can tell you what rental prices are like for apartments in Niagara, and then show you the shortfall between median annual wage and cost of living in Niagara – apparent quality of life in the region be damned.

Every day I live with the numbers. Every day I see the face of urban poverty. Every day I have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Because if I don’t laugh, if I don’t find a way to wrap all the things I’m powerless to change in sarcasm and snark, then I might start really feeling the emotional weight of my knowledge.

Adam, you’re being a little melodramatic.

No, I’m being honest, something we’re only supposed to be within a specific set of circumstances. We’re supposed to blame people for their lot in life. Nothing happens without a reason. The language of bootstraps and self-reliance offers those of us not on the shit-end of the stick a convenient set of psychological and rhetorical tools for distancing ourselves from the privilege of birth and the vicissitudes of fate.

So when a person approaches me as I’m walking from my car to my office and says, “I’m handicap, can I have money for a coffee and a donut?” Am I supposed to have the dark heart to tell them that it’s their fault they are cold and hungry? Should I disregard what stands before me and embrace cynicism to the extent I write the person off as a fraud or a drunk or both? I’ll usually say, “I’m sorry,” and keep walking. Because I am sorry, despite the fact they can’t eat my apologies.

Once I’m at my desk I’ll make a joke about Niagara turning into Detroit and dig into the day’s emails and projects. Doing so is my only armour. What was Edward Blake’s line in Watchmen…once you realize what joke everything is, being the comedian is the only thing that makes sense.

This is the world we live in, Adam, nothing you can do about it, no point complaining about it.

Probably true. And at the end of the day, I’m the guy going home to a loving fiancée, an aloof cat, a nice apartment, all the “privilege” of being a white, het, cis, educated, male, and all the other things that set the difficulty for my life on the easiest level.

Then shut up about your life already, Adam, and get back to reviewing things. People come here to know what games and books they should spend their disposable income on, not to hear you pontificate about your bullshit, you self-pitying jackhole.

Fine. I will. Here’s the point of this temporary foray into feeling human feelings: in so much as our world produces a lot of shitty cultural artefacts, some of them serve the important purpose of giving us a temporary escape from the oppressive weight of willful knowledge and experience.

In so much as I like to bust on Star Trek for over-arching delivered with the efficacy of an undergraduate’s research paper – i.e. what’s said on in writing often falls well short of the intended message – Star Trek can give us a brief cognitive escape and hope for something conceptually, if not functionally, better.

I might be able to walk a Mk. III Jaeger through the plot holes of Pacific Rim, but for those two hours I’m presented with the possibility of humanity getting its collective shit together to do something bigger than any of us can imagine.

A jaunt through The Temple of Elemental Evil or Baldur’s Gate affords 30-60 hours of soul-warming heroics – or cathartic evil, depending on what a person needs.

Escapism is nothing new. Modern, city-dwelling civilizations go hand-in-hand with alienation and ennui. Though the form and medium of these escapes has changed from the early phantasmagoria shows of the 19th century, to the pulp adventures of Buck Rogers, to cock-cannons of Saints Row, these escapes are a pressure valve for those of us who see but are powerless to change. To dismiss them as frivolities in the face of grander works is akin to telling a person they  don’t deserve any safe haven from the creeping sands of the desert of the Real.

This isn’t to say every piece of shit is escapism, mind you, but such is an essay for a different day.

I know return you to your tonally appropriate Page of Reviews content.


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Deconstructing Star Trek’s Ban on Genetic Engineering

Like the poster? Buy it here - http://www.byebyerobot.com/posters/star-trek/unify-humanity

The other day I was watching the Deep Space Nine episode where we discover Dr. Julian Bashir’s true nature as a genetically enhanced human being. The episode includes a rather lengthy discussion on the history and apparent existential that threat genetic engineering presents to humanity and the Federation. This discourse can be summarized in two points:

Point 1: Genetic engineering is only permissible in the event of a “medical emergency.”

Point 2: Genetically “enhanced” people are forbidden from service in Starfleet.

Why should a genetically enhanced person be refused entry into Starfleet when species who enjoy genetic advantages over we lowly Terrans can freely join the service? Vulcans are smarter, stronger, and longer-lived than humans. Betazoids can exercise their ability to read minds without any sort of institutional control (e.g. Babylon 5’s Psi-Corps). Andorians possess a super-human resistance to harsh environments. All of these races can serve in a meritocratic institution where their natural gifts might make them more competitive for promotion than a baseline human – absent some sort of sliding scale to said meritocracy.

Since comparing a Vulcan to a human is an apples to oranges comparison, why not let humans tweak a few things here and there? Because the Eugenics Wars.

In canon, the Eugenics Wars occurred on Earth between 1993 and 1996. During this time a cabal of genetically augmented tyrants rose to power and conquered much of the world. Memory Alpha – my go-to research hub for Star Trek trivia states the death toll from the Eugenics Wars was between 30-35 million people i.e. less than World War 2 and far fewer than Star Trek’s World War 3. The latter accounted for the deaths of 600 million people across three decades. Bearing in mind the “post-atomic horror” of World War 3 lasted into the early 22nd century in some parts of the world, I can see why Earth’s Federation signatories would want a ban on genetic engineering in 2161.

The invocation of the Eugenics Wars in 2373, however, seems a bit of a stretch. In modern terms, a Starfleet Admiral lecturing Julian Bashir about the dangers of the Eugenics Wars and invoking the name of Khan Noonien Singh, would be akin to President Reagan using the Thirty Years War and Gustavus Adolphus to shape his foreign policy in Central Europe.

It doesn’t make sense. I suspect there has to be something more to the prohibition against genetic engineering in the 24th century than a hangover from the 1990s. Bad as the Eugenics Wars were, they an order of magnitude less severe than World War 3.

A potential x-factor dawned on me yesterday afternoon – due in part to a two-day long Facebook discussion on this very subject. So kudos and thanks to everybody on that front, you know who you are.

Replicators and fusion reactors would make Earth in the 24th century a largely post-scarcity economy. However, an abundance of food, fuel, and material resources doesn’t mean things don’t need doing on Earth. Notwithstanding enslaved holograms in the late 2370s, there’s nothing in Star Trek to suggest human labour has been replaced by machines. There are no drones or droids in the vein of Star Wars to do the dirty or dangerous work. This leads me to believe that human labour is still of value to Earth, if not the entire Federation.

I submit the reason Earth maintains its ban on genetic engineering is to avoid destroying its potential low-skill workforce.  Somebody has to shovel shit into industrial replicators – so to speak. And if Earth embodies the Marxist idea of “from each according to his ability,” for the betterment of the species and planet, then society would break down if someone with an IQ of 180 had to maintain and repair a city block’s worth of solid waste reclamation systems.

As ideas go, I’ll concede this idea might be a little to bound up to a Huxleyan worldview. I’m not suggesting Earth and the Federation would go out of their way to breed Deltas to fill the ranks of manual labour jobs with blissful idiots. However, it’s clear that the Federation could make a mechanical workforce if they desired one. The absence of an extensive use of robotics – setting aside budgetary issues in the various TV shows – leads me to believe their exclusion is a matter of the command economy.

So there we have it. If we take Earth’s ban on genetic engineering at face value, we must admit a near 400-year-old historical event is shaping the Earth’s and the Federation’s domestic policy. While my theory about the role of below-median people in the command economy might not be right, it’s certainly a more plausible explanation for the ban on genetic engineering than the looming fear of history. At the end of the day, if you use science to uplift all the stupid, lazy, and shiftless people on Earth, who will be left to do the planet’s  mundane jobs?


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Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I’m going to preface this review with a hard truth; I gave up on The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with about twenty minutes left in the movie. It’s not that the sequel to the remake nobody wanted is particularly odious, mind you. The movie’s biggest problem is it goes on for two-and-a-half hours. After getting most of the way through this picture, I’ve come to the conclusion that no half-baked super hero movie needs to go on for two-and-a-half hours.

As was the case with The Amazing Spider-Man, I went into this movie wanting to like it. I discovered Peter Parker/Spider-Man at the exact right age to have Spider-Man pluck my heroic chords in just the right way, even as a grouchy adult. Because of that, there are some moments in Spidey 2 that really worked for me.

The movie is at its best when Andrew Garfield (or rather his stunt double) is wise-cracking his way through a fight scene. In those moments, the dialogue is as sharp as the action sequences, themselves. We don’t see Spider-Man as a hero struggling with great power and great responsibility. Rather, he’s a kid having fun while saving the world, and that is exactly what I want from Spider-Man.

If the whole movie was Spider-Man doing his thing, I’d probably have made it through all of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Alas, the four side-plots contenting for the position of actual plot took the wind from my sails. Is this a movie about Peter and Gwen going along divergent paths in life? Is this a movie about Harry Osborne trying to cure himself of the monsterism of his genetic inheritance? Could it be a story about Peter Parker, spy-kid, and his mission to figure out the mystery of his spy-parents? Or at the end of the day, is this a movie about an insane Spider-Man fanboy getting super powers and doing what obsessive fans do best?

The screenplay desperately tries to weave these fraying plot threads into something cohesive. The attempt to do so has the effect of watering down any capacity for a single plot point to carry the movie. The Peter/Gwen arc is mostly weak sauce melodrama, absent any real sense of consequence. Jamie Foxx pours just enough humanity into Edward Nigma Electro to make him a potentially sympathetic – albeit totally unoriginal – figure. But rather than have his own story, Electro proves nothing more than a pawn for the Harry Osborne/Green Goblin arc, an arc so weak it was likely written on the back of a soggy cocktail napkin. Then there is spy-kid Peter. For the life of me, I can’t tell what this arc does other than serve as a call back to the first movie while giving Andrew Garfield a reason to be on camera in the second act.

All this, and a mountain of product placement. I can’t remember the last time I saw so much shameless product placement outside of a Transformers movie. Every character has a Sony phone. Every TV and monitor has a Sony label on it. The camera hangs on Sony ads during shots in Times Square. Even Peter Parker’s spy-parents are wrapped in the web of product placement as they use a suspiciously modern looking Sony Vaio laptop during a scene set in the late 90s. Not subtle, Sony. Not subtle at all.

Long and poorly developed as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can be, I suppose it’s still better than the Sam Raimi era Spider-Man – which isn’t saying much as those movies were absolute turds. While there are moments where this sequel finds its footing and, in turn, is quite enjoyable, those moments exist as oases between very long, very dry, scenes of angst, existential hand wringing, and product placement.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Director: Marc Webb

Writers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx