Archive for June, 2015

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Game Review: Warframe

My long-time readers know I’ve had something of an ongoing quest to find a free-to-play game that isn’t a complete waste of time. After sifting through pay-to-win games, skinner boxes posing as games, and general time sinks, the pickings have been slim. Along the way – probably while I was pouting about Destiny not getting a PC port – I discovered Warframe, a third-person squad-based shooter. Oddly enough, I don’t hate it.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say I actually like Warframe. I like it for the same reasons I like Diablo 3 and Borderlands 2. Even though Warframe offers only the slightest variations on the themes of running, shooting, and looting, it’s very good at what it does.

Warframe’s bread and butter comes through exploring/unlocking various locations in the solar system through 10-15 minute long battles. In the interludes between battle, players customize their equipment with a deep, but slightly fiddly, modification and crafting system. This is pretty much the game. It makes no pretense about being anything greater than the sum of its parts.

As for the action itself, I’ve often said that the mark of a game’s greatness is its ability to scratch an itch I didn’t know I had. In this case, Warframe lets me be a space ninja. The Tenno, the race of enigmatic beings under the players’ control, are experts in both firearms and melee weapons. Let me say this again, I play Warframe as weird looking, trans-human (probably), space ninja with a fire sword and laser rifle. I can also shoot energy blasts from my Warframe. I’m essentially the Guyver meets Tekkaman Blade.

I’ll give the anime fans reading this piece a moment to recover…

Where some developers might be tempted to over-complicate the sword/melee mechanics, Digital Extremes does a good job of keeping it simple and satisfying. Setting aside a few advanced sword maneuvers, Warframe is the sort of shooter/hack-and-slasher where any person can pick it up and feel like a bad-ass inside an hour.  Granted, Borderlands and its bazillion guns is a lot neater in terms of customization and personalization, but there’s no shortage of depth in Warframe’s ability to modify and super-charge equipment.

Let’s move on to the two elephants in the room of free-to-play games: the grind and the economy.

Warframe’s level grind primarily focuses on players levelling up their equipment. The higher a piece of kit’s level, the more mods it can hold. The mods themselves can also be leveled-up to become more powerful. On it’s own, this reward system might be enough to keep me playing for a few hours. However, about half of the game’s missions have a Press Your Luck nature to them.

For example, “defence” missions task players with holding a fixed installation against wave after wave of enemies. Every five waves the game offers players a reward and a chance to leave the map with loot in hand. However, if they survive another five waves they can get an even bigger prize and more loot. A glutton’s death before a milestone wave leaves players with nothing. It’s one of the oldest psychological tricks in the book, but it’s a strong enough risk/reward mechanic to keep each match exciting while forcing some real teamwork among players.

Between pressing my luck on loot rich maps, responding to one-off missions that offer bounty money, testing out my weapon customizations, and warzone missions that present as a tug of war between AIs and players, the game’s grind isn’t really all that intrusive. Sure, it’s there, but is it really a grind if I’m enjoying myself while engaging with it?

Which brings us to the game’s two-tier economy. For those less inclined to earn “credits” through slaughtering their foes, they can buy “platinum” with real world money. Pretty much every free-to-play game has some variation on this system. Unlike most free-to-play games, Warframe lets players earn platinum through taxed player-to-player transactions. I haven’t seen another free-to-play game that is willing to let players access the second tier of its economy through anything other than real world transactions. Conceivably, a player could reach a certain threshold of playing for free before buying into the game’s economy with nothing more than time already spent.

Ultimately, my assessment of a free-to-play game comes down to a simple question: is the game interested in giving me an experience or tricking me into buying something? Much to my surprise, Warframe hasn’t thrown up any roadblocks to my having a good time. Sure, it would be glad to take my money. But even if I did buy a few new toys with platinum, the fun is found in carving up and gunning down my foes with the new kit, thus making my guns and Warframe even more powerful. On that essential note, Warframe seems happy to let me play for free.

I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I think Warframe is worth checking out.


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First Impressions: Dark Matter

My week in review of middling TV science fiction continues with some first impressions of Dark Matter.

Watching the first episode of Dark Matter is a bit like going to the gym for a hard cardio workout. At some point I always ask myself, “Why am I doing this? Where is this going? Surely there must be better ways to get what I want out of life?” But by the end of the workout my tone changes to, “you know, that wasn’t quite so bad. I don’t really want to do it again right now, but maybe I will in a day or two.”

Even though Dark Matter offers a few interesting narrative tidbits, watching its first hour felt like work. Specifically, the work of not rushing off to rewatch Deepwater Black, a little known show from the mid 90s which, as far as I recall, did a better job working with the “crew wakes up in a space ship and doesn’t know who they are” gimmick.

Dark Matter is also exhausting for its attempt to be racially diverse while still catering to the stereotypes of racialized characters e.g. the Asian guy is a master of the Japanese sword.

And lo, the writers, lost for ideas on how to build a cast, did turn their eye upon the Big Book of Character Clichés. From within the pages of this most sacred text did they find the following…

The can-do lady boss

The rogue with a heart of gold

The weird teenager girl with brain powers

The asshole American

The Asian character who is an expert of every martial art ever

The black guy in a science fiction show played by Roger Cross

As it was in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, so too shall it be today. Blessed be the Book.

Even in the face of these issues, I remain somewhat interested in seeing where the story goes. As lazy as it is to give the primary cast amnesia, it does create some potential for a dialogue on who the characters are supposed to be versus who they want to be. The big plot twist (what a twist) revealed at the end of the first episode finds our crew of brain scrambled sleeping beauties as a gang of vicious murderers and thieves.

Despite hooking me for a few episodes – unlike Killjoys, which I now watch only out of a sense of critical noblesse oblige – I see Dark Matter’s greatest challenge in proving it is capable of finding its own direction. Rugged miner-folk trying to survive on the raggity edge of space with the threat of an evil corporation looming large in the background is about as well trodden as it comes. Moreover, I’m tired of science fiction setting up “the company” as the go to bad guy. It’s too easy and too much of an effort to pander to “main street.” At least the likes of Continuum took corporations as antagonists to an interesting place with corporations-as-government. If Dark Matter can humanize “the corporation” into something that seems even half legitimate, I think it will find some success.

Ultimately, I see Dark Matter as something that is either going to get much better or much worse in very short order. There’s a lot of promise, but the writing needs to get to a place where it can tell a story without all the foreplay. I’ll let forty minutes of hand wringing followed by five minutes of forward motion slide for the first episode, but the series had best lock its shit down.

Also, I’d be thrilled if the writing would ease off on the hackneyed depictions of people of colour.


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First Impressions: Killjoys

Yeah, I know. I’m reviewing summer television as if it was something someone put an ounce of actual, honest, thought into writing. Here’s the thing, boys and girls, I’m in a weird headspace of hating pretty much everything I write lately. The situation is not improved by the fact that I was approached by, and rejected, yet another writing gig where they liked my work but couldn’t afford to pay me. I’m left feeling wholly mediocre as a writer and contemplating if all of my “success” isn’t a pile of self-delusion. Until such time as I can write myself out of wondering what the point of me is as a writer, I’m going to let the world lob some softballs across my plate.

Now who wants to see me sock a few dingers?

 

If I could summarize Killjoys’ first hour in two words, I would use the words below average. The episode’s first act had some great momentum, but it quickly fell flat on its face. Part of this stumble is due to the writing’s refusal to trust the audience to figure out the in medias res cold opening. With the initial gusto of bounty hunters bringing space criminals to justice – not exactly a brain buster in terms of concept – giving way to back peddling and exposition, the episode got stuck in the mud of explaining things I already figured out. Killjoys doesn’t help its cause by offering some stunningly bad expository dialogue. For example, the ominous company that runs the “quad system” is actually called, “The Company”.

Or how about when the bad guy said, “That ship cost me 90,000 joy.”

Are you butt-fucking-kidding me?

Visually, the series looks quintessentially Canadian i.e. cheap. I haven’t seen this many green screen shots since Attack of the Clones. Likewise, the CG is on par with what one might expect from the early 2000s. When we are finally treated to some physical props and sets, the frame is usually jumbled with literal garbage. I’m not sure what sort of aesthetic the series is playing at beyond, the future looks like wherever we could get permits to film.

Add to this, Killjoys suffers from some truly terrible camera work. It’s as if the cinematographer and director, fresh out of their first year of film school, set out to capture the style of House of Cards. Alas, their attempts to be artful with the camera are weird and alienating. The style makes me acutely aware of the fact I’m watching a show that insists on trying too hard. Heaping insult upon injury, Killjoys embraces a love of J.J. Abrams’ go to move: lens flare. So much lens flare. Haven’t we moved past the age of lens flare being a cool? I thought Star Trek Into Darkness represented peak lens flare.

The really sad part about writing this review is it puts me in a place to take a steaming dump on a series featuring a “strong female characterTM” who also appears to be a person of colour. For bonus points, series lead Hannah John-Kamen is playing a character who isn’t a sex object.

Televised science fiction is notoriously bad at putting women in command roles. I salute Killjoys for being progressive, but good casting doesn’t mean I’m going to give poor writing and lousy technical values a pass. So help me I’ve seen dozens of web series with a better eye for production than Killjoys.

After one hour, the only thing the series seems to do well is convincing me it is set in an interesting world. There’s is a lot going on in the background of Killjoys, but the pilot episode hasn’t filled me with confidence in its ability to make the most of that world. Moreover, I doubt Killjoys has the chops to do well in the areas where it is wholly derivative of other works. Said works include Cowboy Bebop, Firefly, Space Rangers, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Mass Effect, Midnight Run, The Chronicles of Riddick, Freelancer, Wing Commander: Privateer, Hyper Police, and Battletech.

Out of the gate, Killjoys is a below average affair. It presents as the Jim Belushi of science fiction. It is common, run-of-the-mill, and rather uninspired. Though it is clearly taking its queues from the likes of Firefly, Killjoys doesn’t seem to be doing much more than the likes of Starhunter, yet another crappy Canadian science fiction show about space bounty hunters. Does nothing else happen in space?


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A Knight’s Tale – The After Years

After reflecting on my recent posts,  I realize I’ve been dealing with a lot of thoughtful issues of late on the Page of Reviews. As much as I like writing think pieces, they can be a bit exhausting for both author and reader. And in light of the way the world has been shaping up this week (i.e. one giant shit sandwich) I think we can all use a bit of a break from the heavy stuff.

To that end, I took it upon myself to dust off my screen writing chops – limited though they may be. Submitted for your entertainment, an epilogue to 2001′s A Knight’s Tale, titled, A Knight’s Tale – The After Years. That’s right, Square-Enix, I stole your nomenclature gimmick, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

My story offers a slightly more historically accurate ending to A Knight’s Tale. It also presumes the Black Prince bestowed some land on Sir William Thatcher along with his title. To head off the pedants, recall how Prince Edward said William was descendant of a long and noble pedigree. It’s one thing to knight William before an angry mob, but selling the lie in such a way as to prevent William from becoming a pariah among the gentry demands one additional trapping of noble birth: property.

So for the sake of this story, pretend Prince Edward seized Count Adamar’s lands or stripped property from some other low-life lord who didn’t pay his taxes, thus setting up William with a fief.

And now, without any further ado, I give you A Knight’s Tale – The After Years.


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The Rape of David Aceveda

Our world is an ugly place, and rape is a terrible part of our gruesome world. Perhaps, someday, people will move beyond this particular page in humanity’s book of horrors. Until then, fiction facilitates a place for collective reflection on this social ill, even if people disagree on the value of said exercise. As I do see value in talking about fictional depictions of rape, let’s talk about The Shield.

Early in the series’ third season, Benito Martinez’s character, Captain David Aceveda, was raped. Aceveda was jumped at a crime scene, lost control of his gun, and was told to suck his rapists’ cock or else he’d catch a bullet to the head. Since the scene was not depicted in a way that cared about making the audience feel comfortable, I chose my language in the previous sentence quite intentionally.

I was in my mid-twenties when I saw this particular episode. It would be an understatement to say the scene shocked the hell out of me. What I didn’t fully appreciate – at the time there wasn’t the same sort of ongoing discussion around rape in popular culture that exists today – is how brilliantly the series managed the fallout of Aceveda’s rape.

Though a person could argue that The Shield used rape to show the “grit” of life in south central Los Angeles, this assault was no mere one-off for the sake of set dressing. The lasting effects of the rape inform Aceveda’s actions and relationships for at least two seasons. In fact, it would be easy to make a case for this single act as Aceveda’s defining moment in the series. So even though the writing and camera work embraced the brutality of the act, both were mindful to show how deeply the series hurt one of its leading characters.

After failing to manage his post-rape life on his own, Aceveda’s pleas for help are met with victim blaming. He confides in two people about his rape, his (male) cousin and his wife. Both of them have the same reaction, “How could you let this happen?” In their eyes, Aceveda didn’t do enough to prevent the rape from happening. Despite having a gun to his head, he should have somehow found the wherewithal to resist…a bullet. Both interchanges come to a head with Aceveda’s near tearful admission that he “let” it happen because he wanted to live.

I have never been raped. The balance of probabilities suggest I will never be raped. I do, however, know fear. I also suspect most other people who haven’t been raped still know something about being afraid. The razor sharp narrative follow-up to Aceveda’s rape capitalizes on the commonality of fear. It uses this most primal emotion as its inroad to understanding how a rape stays with a person. The salient issue in reflecting on Aceveda’s situation is less about the moment of being raped, and more about living with the fear after the fact. Say nothing for the memories of how fear made Aceveda choose between death or personal violation.

This character arc is also a clear condemnation of society’s insistence on pinning blame for a rape on the victim. Even though David Aceveda walks the line between scheming shit-weasel and stock asshole, as a character, human decency demands the audience feel some level of sympathy for him in the wake of his assault. When other characters rebuke Aceveda for his weakness, The Shield demonstrates the monstrous banality of victim shaming. The audience demands justice and compassion for Aceveda, despite his faults. Collectively, we sharpen our fangs for those who would tell him that his desire to do anything to survive made him a lesser quality of person.

David Aceveda’s rape, “gritty” as it may have been, was very much in dialogue with the series. In turn, the series was in dialogue with stereotypes of masculinity, male power, and the inability of men to be anything less than ALPHA PLUS PLUS in police work – maybe even in society at large. Rape narratives with the nuance and complexity of this example are few and far between. However, those that do exist demonstrate how this type of upsetting story can, ultimately, become something to make an audience more understanding of the seemingly perpetual influence rape has over a victim’s life.

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Don’t Throw Out the Witcher With the Bath Water

Unless you’ve been living on Mars, in a cave, with your fingers in your ears while singing a merry little tune, you’ve probably heard about the lack of representation in CD Projeckt Red’s The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. On this day, I come not to make apologies for The Witcher in its video game incarnation. Like the most recent iteration, both the first and second Witcher games don’t score a lot of points on representing people of a non-white ethnicity.

As a result, I’ve seen a few writers/critics who are content to throw out the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the Witcher. From my point of view, this is a foolish tack to take. If holding The Witcher to task on its problems demands a wholesale dismissal of the series, then the state of criticism has fallen to dangerously poor levels. Have we become such angry and reactionary inquisitors that we believe the presence of a single sin taints the whole of a creative work? I should certainly hope not.

Though The Witcher may “fail” in its representation – scare quotes in play only because a lot of the lambasting is coming from North American writers offering a moral judgement on a Polish game (not to say morality doesn’t cross nationality, only that a presumption of pan-cultural norms could be an essay in and of itself ) – I do not accept that its shortfalls cancel out its successes in terms of grappling with complex political ideas.

The Witcher, regardless of medium, hosts the usual suspects of fantasy. Both the books and games depict a world largely dominated by humans, but also featuring elves, dwarves, hybrids, dragons, and an entire D&D manual’s worth of monsters. The relationship between Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster slayer, and his world, however, is never so simple as the hero going out to slay the dragon and mount its head on a spike. To compare Sapkowski’s vision of humans living with dwarves and elves to Tolkien – as some are wont to do – is to completely ignore the core conflict of Sapkowski’s world. Specifically, humans are a colonizing force that set up empires on the lands belonging to the elves and the dwarves.

Every major human city within the world of The Witcher is built on the ruins of the elven civilization. Even the word “elf” is positioned as the human designation for the people formerly known as the Aen Seidhe. To the North American audience, humanity’s arrival in this fantasy setting easily works as a parable to the European settlement of the western hemisphere. As it was between European settlers and North/South America’s indigenous peoples, humanity’s arrival to The Content of The Witcher was in too great a number and armed with technology that kneecapped the natives’ ability to resist conquest. Though the humans of The Witcher didn’t have the biological advantage of introducing new diseases to the elves, as was the case in North America, humanity’s ability to breed like rabbits, compared to the Aen Seidhe, stood as a considerable advantage. Say nothing for the internal dissent that humanity created within the elves when humans and elves began cross breeding and creating a sub-species loathed to both sides.

In both the novels and games, elves and dwarves are beaten people. Living on the margins of society, their businesses are routinely appropriated by local governments. Outside of city walls, non-humans are consigned to whatever poor-quality land humans don’t want – notwithstanding the forests of Brokilon where the dryads hold dominion as a race of fantasy Amazons.

Non-human resentment toward mankind’s brutality gives birth to an armed resistance movement, the Scoia’tael. Like any insurgency against the state, the Scoia’tael are seen by some as terrorists and others as freedom fighters. In the novels and games, alike, they are often the pawns of competing empires that would use the promise of a non-human homeland to leverage the elves and dwarves of the Scoia’tael as soldiers in proxy wars. Ignoring this element of The Witcher’s culture is akin to brushing off the significance of America funding the Taliban during the Cold War as little more than a historical footnote.

These politics, in my humble estimation, represent The Witcher at its narrative best. Humans who are sympathetic to the plight of non-humans are often those most powerless to affect change. The people who could improve the lot of non-humans usually cling to the prejudices or profits of their oppression. It is a world absent simple, righteous truths. Geralt, or the player acting as Geralt, must navigate a world filtered through the very real systems of power and control that shape our world. In The Witcher – and life – sometimes there are no good choices, only a choice between lesser evils.

While it is true that The Wild Hunt and The Witcher, as a whole, could do better with its representation of people of colour (and sex workers), it’s a simplistic nod to confirmation bias to write off an entire corpus of work because some parts fall short of an audience’s world view. Art demands better than such a juvenile approach to criticism. Indeed, it is a poor critic who puts their own desire to be right above a meaningful interaction with the subject material at hand. Common decency demands we not turn a blind eye to The Witcher’s problems; this same virtue holds us to a meaningful engagement with the series’ virtues.


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On Doom, Morality, and the Video Game Hall of Fame

On June 4, 2015, six video games were inducted in to the Video Game Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. A cabal of video games editors, scholars, and other notables selected this first wave of inductees, which included Pong, Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, World of Warcraft, Tetris, and Doom.

Before the dust could settle, the Christian Science Monitor reported on anti-video game activist Jack Thompson protesting Doom’s inclusion in the hall of fame. This from Mr. Thompson,

“It’s only a matter of time before Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty and Halo are in there. Obviously if they put Doom in there, morality is not playing a role in their selection process.”

Part of me wants to take this joker to task. I love Doom, and I won’t quietly abide somebody shitting on something near and dear to me. As a critic, I could argue for hours about Doom’s technical merit and the complexity of its level design compared to modern games (looking at you, Bioshock Infinite). Say nothing for its ability to spin-off mods and daughter projects from the fan base. If you’ve never played Brutal Doom, you should. Likewise, Doom is fantastic for its subversive use of Christianity imagery – something horror movies did for decades before I shot my first demon possessed UAC Marine.

There’s also the very simple fact of Doom being 22 years old, and we’re still having pissing contests about it. Do we need another argument in favor of this title’s significance beyond its ability to stay relevant for more than two decades? I think not.

Instead, I want to tackle the notion of morality that Mr. Thompson invokes in his criticism of Doom. The first and most obvious question, how is Doom an immoral game?

Asking the question invites a debate on the definition of morality, the likes of which could go on for pages, accompanied by endless comment threads of trolling and counter trolling. Who am I kidding, nobody reads this blog…except for you, mom. Hi mom.

Nevertheless, I’ll offer up a working definition of morality from Bernard Gert’s Morality: Its Nature and Justification.

“Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and includes what are commonly known as the moral rules, ideals, and virtues and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal.”

In order for Doom to be immoral by this definition, one would have to demonstrate that it has the effect of increasing evil and harm in society. Alternatively, we could call Doom immoral if, through intention or design, it promotes evil and harm through a set of values. Finding proof that Doom contributes to harm while working within the confines of a public system applying to all rational persons sets the bar high for those out to argue for Doom’s immorality.

First and foremost, Gert’s definition of morality rejects any religious argument against Doom’s morality; as I submit objections to Doom based on Judeo-Christian (or any other faith-based system) morality do not meet the burden of being public or applying to all rational persons.

At the risk of being glib, an impassioned belief in the supernatural to the point of allowing said supernatural being to proscribe corporeal behavior is not, in this critic’s opinion, a rational thing. Moreover, denominational religions do not meet my understanding of a public system. Religion, by its nature, is an exclusive system built around semiotics and metaphors. That sound you’re hearing is the god argument going up in smoke like so many plasma burned cacodemons.

With the religious definition of evil and harm taken off the table, we’re left with a question of Doom’s morality as it intersects with the physical world.

At this point, we could easily be drawn into a quagmire of trying to determine the intention of Doom’s creators. Though I doubt anybody at iD Software created Doom with the goal of producing moral rules for the promotion of harm – a point I will return to in a moment – let us suppose those desires were in play. Yet if Doom exists to promote harm and evil in the world, research from Rutgers and Villanova would suggest iD made a complete hash of their endeavour. Gamespot paraphrased the results of Rutgers and Villanova’s study below.

“Annual trends in video game sales for the past 33 years were unrelated to violent crime both concurrently and up to four years later. Unexpectedly, monthly sales of video games were related to concurrent decreases in aggravated assaults and were unrelated to homicides. Searches for violent video game walkthroughs and guides were also related to decreases in aggravated assaults and homicides two months later. Finally, homicides tended to decrease in the months following the release of popular M-rated violent video games.”

Even if Doom had the intention to create harm – a highly dubious notion – it nor any other video game has managed to bring about widespread immoral actions like assault or murder. For the record, murder happens to be the primary action available to players in Doom.

As an audience discussing morality as a public system applied to all rational people, does it make sense to interpret Doom as the spectacular failure of a group of black-hearted maleficarum intent to ruin the world? Is it not more sensible to presume the moral objections to Doom, like those witnessed from Mr. Thompson, are better seen as taste-based objections (e.g. I don’t like this and neither should you) or morality as defined by a religious dogma, which likely fails at least one test of being rational or rooted in public understanding?

Assuming no outward ill-intent on the part of Doom’s developers, we’re left with only one course in exploring Doom’s morality: taking the game at its face value. On this front, Doom’s message is as plain as a shotgun to the face. Only a critical tendency to over complicate matters obscures the fundamental fact about Doom’s moral compass.

In Doom, a player’s foes are the very embodiment of evil. They colonize humans, turning the living into zombies. These infernal forces are beyond reason or compassion. They kill everything in their path. Should this horde escape the confines of Mars, they pose a clear threat to life on Earth. Doom’s protagonist “aka Doomguy” personally resists said evil. Indeed, he quite literally reduces the evil threatening the Earth each and every righteous shot of his plasma rifle. I submit the game’s moral code is clear: resist and reduce evil in all its forms.

Doom is certainly a violent, possibly frightening affair for someone not disposed to science fiction horror. However, the challenging nature of any work of art, notwithstanding propaganda, does not amount to a code of behavior so much as an expression from the artist. Likewise, Doom has not had the effect of guiding people to harm through exposing them to challenging imagery. At its core, the game’s narrative is about the reduction of harm to humanity, using force as an absolute last resort against an utterly inhuman enemy. When individual taste and morality parsed through religious systems are set aside, Doom presents itself as a perfectly moral video game.


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A Thought on Japan’s Projection of Military Power in Anime

The other day I was watching Arpeggio of Blue Steel, a naval-themed anime series that leans a little too close to the tropes of school girl slice-of-life for my tastes. Between rolling my eyes at the bouncing avatars of sentient World War Two-era Japanese warships while they flounce about and lust after the rakish human protagonist – all the while wondering who the target audience might be for something so banal – I noticed something interesting. Amid an alien/sexy Cylon invasion set in the middle of the 21st century, Japan’s military power is represented by the Japanese Self-Defence Forces.

The JSDF is an interesting military institution. It emerged as a direct result of Japan’s surrender to America at the end of the Second World War. Like the name implies, the JSDF exists, at least on paper, as a localized military force. Japan, even to this day, is not permitted to project military power in an offensive capacity. Though the theory of this prohibition versus its realpolitik is somewhat more complicated.

The tl;dr version is as follows: If one compares the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army, from the Meiji restoration to the end of World War Two, to the JSDF, the latter presents as something of a neutered organization. Moreover, the JSDF’s very DNA is encoded with the geopolitics of a conquering nation. One would think science fiction might present an ideal place for Japanese artists to imagine beyond the JSDF. Yet contemporary Japan’s military present, something born on the deck of the USS Missouri, is oddly persistent within anime stories set in the near-future.

Arpreggio of Blue Steel, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Akira are each set in the middle of the twenty-first century. Despite the domestic and foreign upheavals depicted in each of these series, none of them imagine a Japanese military beyond the JSDF. Additionally, each series makes a point of depicting the tremendous power available to the JSDF, yet it still bears the moniker of a “self-defense” force.

In a series where Japan is called upon to project military power, it is almost always done under the auspices of a world government. For example, Japan saved us from the Zentradi in Macross, but only as a part of the UN SPACY. Likewise, Japan destroyed/saved (spoilers) the planet Gamilas in Space Battleship Yamato/Space Battleship Yamato 2199 as part of the Earth Defence Force/United Nations Cosmo Navy, respectively.

So, what’s the point of all this? Simply that I do not recall seeing a single anime series or movie where near-future Japan projects military power as something that isn’t a product of American geopolitical endeavours. Ether Japan flexes its military muscle in the form of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces – a product of Japan’s surrender to America – or it is working as part of the United Nations or some comparable united Earth government – likewise the offspring Franklin D. Roosevelt’s view for the post-war world.

My question to you, dear readers, is can you think of an example where Japan, as a nation, projects military power absent the JSDF or the blanket authorization of a world government?


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Book Review: Seveneves

“Choose Your Own Survival” – A Review in Stages, Depending on Your Taste for Spoilers

By Rollen Lee

When it’s a book of this size (only 861 pages) by an author who habitually puts out a new work every three years, there are many different ways to want to first encounter it, let alone to discuss and review it. To explain my choice here, a little background: I remember a professor recommending Snow Crash and The Diamond Age back in 1997, though I didn’t end up picking up either until 2003. Since Quicksilver, I’ve been picking up each of his books as they came out, and even reviewed the previous book, REAMDE (2012), for the Page of Reviews then.

So I decided that I wanted to go into this book blind, knowing nothing whatsoever of it. I didn’t look for pre-release extracts, like I did with REAMDE, and I didn’t look for reviews in advance, since I knew that I’d be buying it as soon as it came out and reading it. Not even looking at the flyleaf or the front flap of the dustjacket, I plowed into the book.

For anyone looking to read the book in a similar fashion, then by all means pick it up and read it. I recommend it highly, and put it up on par with my favourites of Stephenson’s – The Diamond Age and Anathem. If you’re considering this book in this fashion, you’re likely also an ardent reader of his books, or at least of hard SF. It is thrilling, but it’s by no means a techno-MMORPG-thriller like REAMDE. It’s a work of grand sweep and depth, but it’s not as dense with philosophy and neologisms as Anathem or with philosophy and theology and history as The Baroque Cycle. It has a diverse cast of characters, but it’s not a multi-chronological rollercoaster like Cryptonomicon. It has many strong female characters and plenty of science and robots, but it’s very different from The Diamond Age. And there are no samurai-sword-wielding hackers like in Snow Crash. (It’s also not like Zodiac or The Big U, though some of the horror and chaos of the latter comes through in this book, though not many have bothered to read his juvenalia.) It fits in with his other books well, as a sort of lost Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel modernized and given the Stephenson finish.

If any of that appeals, then pick it up. If you’d like more information, read on. In true Stephensonian fashion, there’s lots to consider.

AFTER HERE, THERE BE SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST HUNDRED PAGES OR SO, THOUGH NO WORSE THAN ON THE FRONT FLAP OF THE DUST JACKET

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”

In Seveneves, Stephenson opens with this arresting sentence. He proceeds to explore the end of the world as we know it. You can, however, feel somewhat fine because he’s given humanity about two years to prepare for it. He chooses not to dwell on the cause of the disaster – the earth’s moon is sundered into seven pieces by an unidentified Agent, as it’s termed in the novel. Assigning cosmic blame may be satisfying, but the task of survival at hand is more important than that search. This is perfectly reasonable, as, once the seven pieces soon become eight, multiple analyses by the scientific community demonstrate that the pieces will continue to collide, fragment, and steadily become more chaotic until they blanket the earth’s sky and then become a “Hard Rain” that will persist for millennia.

For about five to ten thousand years, actually. After that there’ll be some pretty Saturn-like rings, but that’s not important right now.

Some time is given over to the change of affairs on Earth as everyone has to face up to a definite end date looming: how does schooling change in such a setting? What do people do with their lives? How will governments come together or protest the situation? What becomes of euthanasia in such a setting? None of these take up substantial page real estate, but they do suggest the issues that most people on Earth would have to endure. The primary focus of the book at the outset is with the efforts of the world to prepare for a massive space mission, dubbed “The Cloud Ark,” to try and save humanity. From every country, a certain number of candidates are to be chosen for rapid training, and all efforts are to be directed towards preparing “Arklets” to share out smaller portions of humanity clustered in space.

By the way, the setting is in the near-future: some things are different or surprising, such as a meteorite attached to the end of the International Space Station as a testing site for different drone robots for mining, or the persistence of Sears and its Craftsman tools. Facebook and Skype are still part of people’s lives, but so are throwback communication forms like telegraphy and morse code for characters like Dinah MacQuarie, the geology/robotics expert assigned to the ISS, who uses them to stay in regular contact with her father at his mine site in Alaska. Television, of course, is also still an essential part of people’s lives: favourable notice is given of a Neil deGrasse Tyson-type science personality, Doctor Dubois Harris, who briefs the American President on the impending disaster and later becomes involved in the Cloud Ark, while some incidental remarks later note that the people aboard the ISS have become reality TV figures, to the disgust of some on board.

Stephenson explores many issues in the book, as he does in any of his novels. The key issue, of course, fits in with a common theme for him over the last decade – currently, humanity has not put enough attention into expanding our exploration and presence in space, with dreams focused more on software and miniaturized personal technology rather than hard sciences and engineering that can allow humanity to achieve more. The endless argument in Stephenson’s books between the perspectives of the “technocracy” and of the politicians or social critics continues here, as well, though issues like this will be taken up later in the “greater spoiler” section. Glimpses of possibilities for nuclear energy, the resources offered in near space, the future of genetic study and research, and the costs of flexible, risk-taking space exploration are all examined here, both for their positive elements and for their drawbacks. Any further exploration of themes here would start to crowd us into the realm of spoilers, though, so be warned.

The next part of this review has a spoiler from the front flap of the dust jacket – it gives away an important detail about the final third of the book, though not the resolution. (You may be able to guess the final result from reading it, though.) Trust me, if you’re happy with this level of detail in the review so far, then resolve to find the book and to either remove the dust jacket without reading it, or else put a cover over that inside flap when you sign it out from the library. (Or, I suppose, ignore the book altogether or just read the review since you don’t care anyhow.)

SIZABLE SPOILER, AND ONE I REALLY WISH I HADN’T ENCOUNTERED HALFWAY THROUGH THE BOOK

The result of these issues and devastations are explored five thousand years into the future, as humanity begins the gradual process of their return to the surface of the Earth. This portion covers the final third of the book. I foolishly looked over the dustjacket at a tense point about halfway through the book, and would have almost rather not known that. (I’ll get into that issue in the “greater spoilers” section. Trust me: that one is a much bigger spoiler than this is.)

Before going to that, though, I should summarize here: again, this is a very interesting and oddly inspiring book. As ever, it has many ideas explored well, several interesting characters to follow, and plenty of conflict to drive the action. It’s not yet fair to compare this to either Anathem or to The Diamond Age at this point since I’ve not read this one a half-dozen or more times yet, but it feels like it will end up closer to that level of achievement as I re-read it. It feels more substantial and essential than REAMDE did, although I did enjoy much of that book as well. At times, though, Seveneves may feel as though it shares the primary issue that I had with the previous book, in and that somewhat too much attention seems given over to “chase scenes” instead of ideas, though in Seveneves the chase is in the middle rather than at the end. One of the many quotes I treasure from Stephenson, after all, is from Snow Crash: “After that – after Hiro gets onto his motorcycle, and the New South Africans get into their all-terrain pickups, and The Enforcers get into their slick black Enforcer mobiles, and they all go screaming out onto the highway – after that it’s just a chase scene.” There’s times where the chase doesn’t need to be played out. Although it may feel like a tense chase sequence here, that’s primarily because of the high stakes and complicated technologies at play while other drama plays out back in the Cloud Ark. It’s not like the cross-country pursuit played out in the final hundred-plus pages of REAMDE.

The book feels like a thrilling chase, though, once all is in space and then once the final portion of the book moves to a close. Set-up and the doling out of information is always done judiciously, and though you may chomp at the bit as you will things to move along, wanting to know more, Stephenson blends character beats with the work of exposition effectively and well. Granted, there are portions where characters provide exposition in response to others’ explanations, though at this point with Stephenson and the genre of “hard” SF you should expect some degree of that as standard operating procedure. The exposition factor is just as notable in the future portion, which starts us with a character and adds on technology, setting, and connections to the past as needed, rather than as one long catalog of updates.

GREATER SPOILER WARNING SECTION – HEREIN THERE BE IDEAS, ISSUES, AND QUESTIONS WORTH MENTIONING OR EXPLORING BUT WHICH WILL GIVE AWAY PARTS OF THE BOOK AND PLOT

Are you sure you want this?

After all, the book’s still interesting and engaging enough without this up front before you read it.

Alright, it’s a free country and a free internet.

So: should we trust the democrats or the technocrats to save us?

In spite of all the good that governments do to build up the cloud in space, Julia Flaherty, the President of the United States, defies a global treaty banning government officials and leaders from going into space and avoiding death by escaping into orbit in a Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle, designed for maintenance of military satellites and other secretive missions. She arrives soon after the commander of the Cloud Ark declares that, with the Hard Rain falling on Earth, all people in orbit are no longer subject to the nationalities and laws of the destroyed surface. While people adjust to the new situation, the equivalent of martial law is declared.

Now, this issue can be explored in a few ways: yes, the commander moves quickly to establish order in the Cloud Ark, under the aegis of the laws prepared for the project. However, it can also be seen as a heavy-handed gesture rather than a measure to deal with future worst-case-scenarios. There is a definite divide between those in the centre of the ISS and those “Arkies” who live out in the Cloud Ark, who only dock with ISS for a tenth of their time while otherwise floating around in formation and waiting to be told where to go. The ex-POTUS goes out into the Arkie population, and very quickly works to galvanize a majority of them to set out for Mars instead, taking vital gear, resources, and expertise with them. It’s fair to concede that the population of the Cloud Ark think that they’re being neglected by the crew on the ISS, but at this same moment, the commander himself, Dinah MacQuarie, and two other experts are trying to bring in a comet that was steered to them on a suicide mission by a space mining entrepreneur. Rather than have the Arkies provide new organization or new ideas or negotiate for changes to the governance structure, the mutineers instead come off as petulant and impatient children by comparison. The President, typically, comes off as a manipulative, power-seeking dilettante without any skills to offer in space other than misguided and uninformed leadership. Now, many would make the same criticism of modern politicians in general, and I’m certainly not innocent of such statements. Most of the characters are shaded with enough strengths and weaknesses on both sides that it doesn’t prove to be too problematic overall, but to some degree the President is made out to be a straw-woman for this scenario. The argument, as usual, favours the technocrats, and the President comes in somewhere above G.E.B. Kivistik from Cryptonomicon and below Fraa Lodoghir from Anathem in the annals of non-STEM thinkers and leaders in Stephenson’s books.

Another issue: should we be more adventurous in space?

Under such a time crunch, it’s understandable that the careful testing, simulating, and reassessing of space missions and technologies would be compressed. Safety for astronauts and cosmonauts who are backed by many years of valuable training are not to be put into unacceptably risky situations, after all.  With such a limited time to prepare for millennia in space, many technologies are thrown up into orbit to be later brought together in a flexible and adaptive fashion. But the level of threats from space – small and large fragments from the moon, other space rocks, radiation, decaying orbits, among others – is daunting, and the deadline for all is spectacularly fatal.

A primary example is that of proposed efforts to capture asteroids or even comets for human use. The distances and forces involved are immense, and fraught with danger. The presence of an asteroid tethered to the ISS indicates that the ability is there, but its difficulties are made clear. Early in the first part of the book – the pre-”Hard Rain” portion – the space mining entrepreneur for whom Dinah works sneaks up into space in an experimental space tourism capsule, and is shortly followed by a private space vessel to allow him and a crew of five more to chase down a comet, break off a sizeable fragment, and steer it back to the cloud. The water in the comet, mixed with the heat from their nuclear reactor, provides enough propulsive force to bring it back towards the cloud less than two years later, but the accidents and failures lead to the reactor’s radiation – as well as those rays from space itself – producing enough damage to kill the entire crew before they can return.

A great many characters die because of space-related injuries and hardships in Seveneves. The first set of workers sent up by the Russians are not expected to even come aboard the ISS, but instead live in their suits and in onion-like air and plastic “lifeboat” bladders while they build up the exterior of the station. Only a few of these survive. For later members of the Cloud Ark and the crew of the ISS, many are wiped out by stray rocks, by accidents, and by cancers due to their proximity to nuclear and space radiation. The death toll for humanity in this book approaches Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy levels, though we come to know many more humans and victims than we did in Adams’ book (which was written for a very different purpose anyways).

Which leads to another issue: at what point does all society and humanity collapse?

(Incidentally, this was when I chanced a look at the dustjacket and discovered that the remaining 300 pages did offer something beyond the imminent collapse. I wasn’t exactly looking for reassurance of a happy ending – and, given the issues, I assumed that Stephenson wasn’t going to end the book on a note of hopelessness – but it still took the impact away somewhat.)

Cannibalism enters the picture in some of the Arklets. At first as the Mars mission fails due to blights and crop failures in their ships, a few self-cannibalize, arguing that their legs are relatively useless in zero-G. Later, several others are killed to become food. The gruesome advent of this moment occurs as the rebels against the President begin to strengthen themselves for the struggle to retake some of the ISS so that they can bargain from a position of strength. Most of the combat is with pipes and knives, or else with weightless grappling. The fight between the ISS population and the returning Martians ends with barely a dozen survivors from an initial orbiting population of nearly two thousand from a terrestrial population of over seven billion.  The survivors manage to take their ship (built out of the asteroid, the ISS, the Arklets that stayed, and the comet fragment) and successfully dock it in a larger chunk of space rock. Once there, the remaining population of men rapidly pass away from a range of maladies and injuries.

Safe at last, shielded from hazards, the remaining eight women have plenty of resources to support them, but any stored genetic material – other than digital records – were lost long before in an accident. One of the eight has gone through menopause, and so seven women remain to try and rebuild the human race. The technology, their geneticist is confident, will allow them to make enough changes to their eggs to allow them to produce a sufficiently diverse and robust population. A high-stakes debate ensues over the changes available and the likely benefits offered by depressive and bipolar personalities. This debate is pushed to a solution by an ultimatum, and is then capped with a curse by the surviving cannibal leader, who assumes that her descendants will be judged by what she had done in the name of survival. (I’ll come back to this in the next, most spoiler-intense, section.) This moment provides the title of the book, then, with “Seven Eves” who will become the mothers of a future humanity.

An aside before the big spoilers: What becomes of privacy in the future and in the Cloud Ark?

In the space vessels of this future, all your moments are recorded – unless you know how to counteract the surveillance. This is first hinted at with the reality show, but later it becomes a greater issue after the commander at the time of the Hard Rain promotes the assistant of the computer system guru to head up surveillance and systems rather than retain the original man, an obvious NSA-type whose allegiances the commander cannot trust.

Either due to this demotion or to allegiances, the President quickly prevails upon NSA-type to shut off surveillance in their Arklet while they plan for their Mars mission. He, in turn, had placed a bug in the command module of the ISS, and this sort of panopticon for those in charge gets a fair degree of mention. It’s never expressly brought up as a key theme in the first portion of the book, but it’s never elided, either. It’s treated as a fact of life in space, much as it is in this post-Snowden time – and as was fretted about in a different fashion in Cryptonomicon.

The surveillance records return in the latter portion of the book, as the files and pictures left in their computers, in their “Spacebook” and blog posts, and in the surveillance videos come to constitute “the Epic” which informs later generations of the formation of their future humanity. Scenes we have earlier read become cited episodes to inform everyday living later, or mines of information to be used by characters to control pivotal events later on. One can deplore the manipulation of these episodes by others, but one can also appreciate the endeavour to examine how history could be done in such a paperless milieu.

SPOILER ON SURVIVORS AT THE END OF THE FIRST TWO-THIRDS OF THE BOOK COULD BE INFERRED. ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO READ THIS IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE BOOK?

On reproduction, survival, and race: to what extent is it racial profiling when these are characters who have been cloned?

The front flap, again, spoils the reader to the development of “seven distinct races now three billion strong,” so if you read that, you knew this was coming. But again, this spoils you on the survivors of the Epic, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The women who survive to reproduce are generally from the global north, or acculturated to it. The balance is more skewed towards standard “white” characters, but only 4:3.

Each woman, essentially, becomes the “Eve” of the ethnicity that grows from them. Each, to some extent, bears a race of similar properties – determined engineers and operators, thoughtful scientists and organizers, tough and disciplined operatives, wise and wily figures, determined and amplified strivers, supportive and non-combative assistants, and, finally, individuals who are genetically unsettled such that they can change in response to trauma and challenges – particularly in response to the actions of the ambitious and unsettling. These properties become more important than skin tone, though some sequences at the end do rely on pigmentation to drive the action, too.

To some extent, each may well be considered to be a caricature, or even a stereotype, by some readers. Part of this issue must be considered in light of the earlier scenes and developments that were given to each of these characters, though. A couple are given a substantial amount of page-time; most of them are given much less time than these two, though consistently present throughout; and one is given very little time before the pivotal debate, though she speaks volumes in that short scene. Given what we are shown through the first two-thirds of the book, nothing which follows with their clones is too divergent from the characterizations already developed as they focus on traits necessary for survival and expansion in space, though some may be given greater portions of heroism or villainy in the descendants we encounter. In the truncated account of the history that follows from that debate, Stephenson details various stages and phases the re-populating effort follows, with some parts more inclusive, and others more focused on building up particular “racial” characteristics over time.

Some long-time readers of his works may recall the critiques that dogged earlier novels of Stephenson, whether related to depictions and discussions of race or to the primacy and privilege of male characters over female characters. Personally, although I may have seen how some could criticize such books through that lens, I never found myself losing interest in or affection for those works, seeing them instead as novels and explorations of issues rather than definitive statements on all problems. These are works of thoughtful fiction, not social tracts, after all. Making these novels into expansive templates for social order would entail a substantial amount of extra writing. Since Cryptonomicon, Stephenson’s novels have tended to reside in the neighbourhood of a thousand pages, give or take 10%, and although there are many words on the page, one doesn’t usually get the sense that he’s wasted words in his storytelling. Part of his style is a high-impact, high-use wordiness and referentiality, and although you could edit out certain asides or passages, something of the character of his phrasing would be lost in the exchange. Doing so to add in these supposedly missing statements to solve racial issues or gender representation would likely be insufficient or at odds with his usual style. To be honest, such an effort would likely lead to the application of the telling and new label of “mansplaining” to such attempts to “fix” this issue anyhow. I wonder if less literary and more “gripping yarn”-style SF is criticized for these issues as well? I suspect that there’s not the same level of expectation or attention given to them, though.

In terms of Stephenson’s intent, I believe that his level of interest and concern in people and the ideas that impact them has been steadily evolving, with focus gained without proving to be a “correction.” In terms of effect, though, Seveneves goes further in the development and presentation of these concepts. For example, in REAMDE, the strong and interesting character of Zula is somewhat too compelling for and beloved by every male character in the book, to the point where she seems close to pedestal installation at times. Here, both before and during the fight for control as the counter-mutineers return, it is noted – and made manifest as woman is tasered to keep her from returning to battle – that men are more expendable at this point, while women need to be saved so that they can restore humanity. Perhaps the argument can be made that this reduces female characters to a womb, but the stakes involved, the sacrifices made, and the dire numbers at this point in the story, the difference between Zula’s elevation and the issues in Seveneves is noteworthy.  (The situation is such that the victorious survivors don’t even eliminate some mutinous figures, as the greatest possible genetic diversity is needed at this point.) As a different example, female characters such as Nell in The Diamond Age and Eliza in The Baroque Cycle had to endure sexual degradation at various points in their novels, but such trials are absent in Seveneves. Whether the accounts of Dinah’s love life in orbit or of lesbian couples forming between different known characters count as a degradation of character or mere titillation is a question of personal taste; although the term used at times in the novel may be base Anglo-Saxon, the details of the act are generally lacking. When this is compared to the clarity of mind that the Waterhouses gain in Cryptonomicon after ejaculating – and the in-depth and hilarious detail of the senior Waterhouse conjures about the hypothetical Ejaculation Control Conspiracy which he needs make peace with if he is to advance in life – then Seveneves becomes a far more demure text.

The verdict

Even with all these issues in mind – and probably because of them – the novel is well worth your time. As a starting point for discussion of these themes and others, let alone for thoughts and questions about humanity’s destiny and place, its resiliency and its failings, or just as a gripping tale of survival and reconstruction, Seveneves is an informative and entertaining ride. I can’t wait to re-read it.