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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

BLAME!: The End of Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk is dead. Tsutomu Nihei's BLAME! is its bloating corpse. We're just living in it. 
This is very much a Part 1.








Cyberpunk probably deserves a look-in here, right? Fair enough.

BLAME! is the end of Cyberpunk, the final frontier, Peak Cyberpunk, the place where Cyberpunk and in fact all of us go to die.

This is true in large part due to practical concerns. BLAME!, to be clear, didn't kill Cyberpunk, it's just the graveyard where cyberpunk went to die after it bloated up massively and exploded all over reality. We lie in the exploded carcass of Cyberpunk. It's pretty easy to see that if you glance around. It's surely a cliche at this point to note that William Gibson went from writing the most formative works of the genre to writing stories set in the present day... but it's still a true insight. And it's easy to see why he made the switch. 

After all, there's been lots of big news lately about the swerving value of Bitcoin, a purely digital "currency" that does nothing besides "be scarce". This currency is "mined" using a bunch of pointless computations--literally pointless by design, mind--at a rate that has resulted in skyrocketing prices for graphics cards, absurd amounts of power usage (think: small country scales), and logically an uptick in pollution of all sorts. All this for something purely virtual! If that's not Cyberpunk I don't know what is.

White nationalism in the US is being propelled into power by the likes of Peter Thiel, internet billionaire, who funds everything from speculative AI Singularity research to immortality treatments that involve pumping the blood of young people into his body: in other words, nazis in the US are being supported by a cyborg vampire billionaire. It was recently revealed that all hard drives from the last decade or so have critical vulnerabilities where their speculative readings of possible future calculations can be read by malware and used to read deep into a computer's memory, and these critical vunerabilities were given branding, promotional logos, and names: "Specter" and "Meltdown". Cities across the US are competing in a kind of corporate hunger games for who shall host a new Amazon building, approaching Amazon CEO-Prince Jeff Bezos with all manner of secret promises, so secret in fact that some cities are willing to engage in legal wars with their states in order to keep their offerings under wraps. A mass data release from a fitness app company allegedly accidentally revealed a bunch of US military bases. And so on.

Meanwhile, there's at least three virtual reality cafes, each with their own aesthetic, within a five minute walk of where I live in Toronto. The teens seem to have adapted to cyberspace with gusto and now carry out the kind of sadistic games that we can see in things like Serial Experiments Lain. (Present Day, Present Time, [weird laughter] indeed.) Added together the furniture in my apartment--mostly culled from the street corner--is worth significantly less than the laptop I'm typing this on. The street finds its own uses for things! It's not a cyborg paradise, but well, it was never going to be, was it?

The grim truth about Cyberpunk's final apotheosis of course is that the bits people focused on--the trench coats and mirror shades and neural uploads--were never as important as the stuff right under the surface of books by Gibson, Stevenson, & al. Peel back the shades and underneath you get masses of decay, like someone's body mod implants getting rejected by the body. The Cyberpunk Future was always something on the verge of going septic, forming cysts. Gibson, for example, was well aware that alongside any glitzy neon future there would be a vast morass of people shut out of that future. At his best, he writes stories of people living mean little lives, inflicting petty cruelties on each other using The Power Of Cyberspace. (Check out "Dogfight" if you want a particularly nauseating example.) 

Oh, and then of course there's Phillip K Dick. We've all got Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep under our pillows, whether we know it or not, and there's another book that... well, look, the whole title is premised on the idea that people keep robotic pets to demonstrate both their middle class aspirations and their performative, religious "empathy". The real animals, of course, are mostly all dead, having gone extinct after a series of nuclear wars. We're not quite there yet, of course, but a world of performative compassion--of "virtue signaling" if I can be a bit dangerous--where the real and the virtual blur together and all are caught in the vice of economic desperation and ecological crisis... that feels very close indeed, to me.

It's not that everything has come true, of course. The utopian side of Cyberpunk vanishes from our senses like an implanted magnet slowly losing its charge, going dead. Maybe the vast body of Cyberpunk couldn't convince its immune system to integrate its new experiential horizons. Information may have wanted to be free but it was silly to believe there was no immune response preventing the kind of polymorphous, perversely punk future people dreamed about. What could you even say about Cyberpunk now? We live in the vast god's corpse.





BLAME! takes Cyberpunk's basic setting of mostly-empty apartment buildings and desertification and extinction and synthetic ecology and expands it to the size of the entire wretched solar system. The world of BLAME! is one where most humans have gone extinct, and all humans that have access to the Netsphere are extinct. This is something of a problem because the Netsphere is a virtual space that has read/write capabilities on reality itself. In the absence of any surviving humans with the capability to tell it to stop, the various systems of the Netsphere have harvested material from the galaxy on an unimaginable scale, converting the solar system into a dyson sphere the size of the Oort Cloud, and turning what humans are left into cosmic squatters in a seemingly endless decaying urban environment.

I think it should be pretty easy to translate between the archetypical cyberpunk stories and this rather bleak space. Cyberpunks and squatters feel like they're at least closely related socially, with cyberpunks simply managing to squat in virtual spaces that they don't belong in addition to physical spaces. And humanity really is explicitly, textually, squatters within the world of BLAME!--various murderous Safeguard exterminators refer to them as such, in fact. See, the near extinction of humans was a rather active process. After some series of unspecified catastrophes the Safeguard organization, a whole AI system dedicated to protecting the Netsphere, decided the easiest way to prevent unauthorized access by entities without Net Terminal Genes would be to just kill them all off--an immune system responding to the potential for that polymorphous punk perversity by going into a frenzy of cancerous, self-destructive purging.

The other reason that this is where cyberpunk goes to die of course is that it's The Most Cyberpunk. It is cyberpunk expanded out to the size of the Oort Cloud, scaled up beyond human comprehension. The tropes are all there, they've just taken on a kind of gigantism. 

Oh, the protagonist of BLAME! isn't wearing mirrorshades, I guess, but he's a dude who barely ever talks and dresses in all black with a bunch of indistinct pouches and shit full of random cybercrud, so I'd say that on the whole he's got the looks down. 

More importantly, he's got a gun. It's not just a gun, in fact, but a Real Cool Gun. It's called the Graviton Beam Emitter, or the Gravitational Beam Emitter, or whatever else various translators and scanlators have called it. GBE we'll call it. Or, no, we'll call it the Real Cool Gun, because that's, I say to you again, what it is.

How cool you ask?

Well on its higher settings it blows several kilometer wide holes in things and rips Killy's arm right the fuck off.

Hell yes.

If that's not cyberpunk enough for you consider that you can download specs to 3D print your own Fucking Cool Gun. I assume that the downloadable file includes instructions for how to create a gun that shoots localized black hole like gravity wells in the shape of glowing beams, but I haven't checked them myself to see.

The protagonist, whose name, delightfully, is Killy, wanders his way through an urban environment that is practically unending, blowing huge holes in all manner of things--cyborgs, robots, buildings, robot building cyborgs, and so on. He's accompanied by that most cyberpunk of all companions, a woman named Cibo who's a lot more interesting as a character than the male lead. Cibo's actually introduced, in both the manga and in the Netflix anime adaptation, as a rotting corpse, just a skeletal head and torso with the remains of some electronics, which wheedles and bargains with Killy to get him to take her to a matter generation center. In one of the more relatable things in the comic, she immediately gives herself a new high tech very tall female body filled with many cool gadgets, which she uses to blow up the President. Cibo's great.

The rest of the cast includes things like:

  • Davinelulinvega, a silicon creature who attempts to hack her way into the Netsphere, wanting only to see inside it, "no matter the cost," and who ultimately manages to pirate (Cyberpunk!), essentially, an entire Avenging Angel which she downloads into reality at the moment of her death
  • Maeve and Ivy, silicon creatures who claim it is their mission, and the mission of their whole race, to perpetuate chaos within the Netsphere by destroying all possible Net Terminal Genes. Maeve at one point comes upon a gigantic, monstrous silicon creature from an alternate timeline and, extremely relatably, immediately demands to be grafted onto it.
  • The mad AI of an autonomous megastructure called Toha Heavy Industries (Cyberpunk!) which decides to use the megastructure's reality-warping gravity engines to hurl the whole megastructure out beyond the boundaries of the Netsphere
  • A sub-AI of Toha Heavy Industries trying to protect the remaining humans, with her undylingly loyal knight Seu, who she continually restores to life at tragic cost to his memory.
  • A saved consciousness on a flash drive (Cyberpunk!) that Killy carries around with him for a while after Cibo turns into an angel, blows up everyone, has a digital kid with a robot, and dies.
  • Sanakan, Cibo's eventual wife (?), who is first introduced as an advanced form of the murderous Safeguards, then eventually switches sides for reasons I'm not going to pretend I fully understand. Anyway at one point Cibo takes over her body, then she takes over Cibo's body, so Cibo takes over the body of her dead alternate timeline self, but I guess retains some genetic permissions from Sanakan, which maybe end up combining together to form the Net Terminal Gene carrying embryo that emerges after Cibo downloads Davinelulinvega's pirated 9th Level Safeguard into her own body and--look the comic gets pretty bewildering by the end, ok?

This litany of characters and their circumstances should give you a sense of why I consider BLAME! the end point of Cyberpunk. Everything that Cyberpunk is bloats out to ludicrous extremes in this work. You like brooding black-clad protagonists with cool guns and names like "Neo" and "Hiro Protagonist"? Well here's a character who seems to simply extrude black pleather from his cybernetic regenerating flesh, with a gun that shoots linear black holes, and his god damn name is "Killy". You like hacking and cracking and making jokes about how you totally WOULD download a car? Well here's a story where people regularly pirate other people! You like your protagonists wandering through biomechanically accented urban blight? Good news, sometimes BLAME! has the protagonist simply brooding his way through such landscapes for entire chapters. 

At one point he comes upon a room that's literally the size of Jupiter. 

He walks through it.

Basically BLAME! is Cyberpunk ratcheted up as far as it can go to the point where it's no longer taking place on anything resembling a human scale. This is what happens if you take Cyberpunk out of the near future and extend it into the timescales that other science fiction stories employ--your Dunes and your Foundations and, in fantasy, your Silmarillions. It's still undeniably Cyberpunk, I think--the whole story is premised, after all, on the fact that there's an entire apparently edenic realm of virtual reality that the vast majority of surviving consciousnesses are cut off from because they don't have the right genetic passwords. But the scale is so immense as to be impossible to assess. At the edge of cyberization, the full leap into the transhuman, an elevator ride that lasts months through a decaying city the size of the solar system starts to seem pretty reasonable, while still not losing that edge of sheer bewildering lunacy.

Cyberpunk has already fully enveloped the world, the genre downloading itself aggressively into our reality. With our present fully colonized the world over, there's nowhere to go but out into deep space, and out into deep time. 





With a title like BLAME! you'd think we'd get some sense of responsibility here, some deep meditation on that question we keep coming back to, our titular question of Who Killed The World? We don't, though, because--joke's on you!--the title is apparently just an awkward transliteration of the sound a gun makes, more conventionally: "BLAM!" Oh well.

Except not "oh well" because by god if we're going to have postmodernism happen to us we might as well happen to it back. And there's plenty of reason, actually, to take the title completely seriously. If anything, the fact that it results from awkward translation makes it all the more resonant. The title of BLAME! is a glitch that reveals the strange absence at the bottom of this universe.

The truth of BLAME! might just be that no one is specifically responsible. Maybe things have gone beyond that point, to a point where the systems are so vast that responsibility becomes impossible to assess. I mean I say maybe but we are, after all, talking about a massive dyson sphere that is pumping in material from beyond the solar system, a city that extends from the sun to the Oort Cloud, an assemblage of mad buildings which contains rooms the size of Jupiter. 

So, this is a world of hyperobjects--things that, like global warming, are so vast in their systemic effects that they baffle our ability to process them. The architecture of BLAME! is sublime, and its treatment visually makes its scope tangible. It's not just the wide shots we get of impossibly vast megastructures embedded inside even vaster ones. It's the fact that the comic, for whole issues, might consist of a single lonely figure walking through these endless corridors and bridges and stairwells. Any shout of "j'accuse...!"--BLAME!--shouted in this dead world would be instantly entombed in its vastness.

Yet, there are those who bear some responsibility. We get hints in the comic itself, but the details of the Netsphere's creation get filled in through the single volume prequel comic NOiSE. Let's run through those details:

On Earth, long before the story begins, the world already seems subsumed utterly by vast, stacked urban spaces. These are spaces characterized by power and poverty. The development of a digital paradise--the Netsphere--which offers everything from immortality, to the ability to rapidly reshape reality through force of will, to the pure conversion of energy into any imaginable matter in nearly instant fabrication serves only to exacerbate inequality.

Susono Musubi is investigating the disappearance of a number of poor children who lack the new Net Terminal access privileges when her partner Clawsa is kidnapped by cultists. After the disappearance is covered up, Musubi tracks down the cult and witnesses them transform Clawsa's body into a murderous silicon creature, which she destroys using a mysterious safeguard sword--a totally badass blade version of the Graviton Beam Emitter Killy carries.

Eventually Musubi is assassinated by the satanic order, but the rising Safeguard system offers to resurrect her as their agent. And by "offer" I mean "state they will be brainwashing her and using her body as a living weapon against the Silicon Creatures." Oh, and against humans too poor to afford net terminal access. That too. Yeah, the Safeguard basically decides that the easiest way to keep the system secure now that cults are stealing their tech--oh, yeah, that's an interesting tidbit: silicon life is just pirated versions of the initial safeguard systems--is to just murder all the poor people.

Musubi has some reservations about this and, with the help of Clawsa's uploaded consciousness, escapes the Safeguard and launches a crusade against the new silicon life forms. It doesn't matter. Time distends at the end of NOiSE much the same way it does in BLAME! and Musubi announces, as we watch her make her way through the now uncontrolled city, that the takeover by the Safeguard was successful and silicon life was now rampant within the city. "3000 years has passed," she narrates flatly. "At one point, even the moon, which used to be in the sky above, was integrated into the megastructure." Musubi is left alone, wandering through the ever growing city, unable even to find other humans.

The Netsphere continues to expand.

From this summary it should be pretty obvious that there's folks responsible for the current suboptimal state of the galaxy. I mean this is a capitalist society, and its one where the ruling interests seem fairly indifferent to things like whether or not children are being converted into raw material for pirated murderbot hardware. It's notable that the Safeguard responds to the first sign of security concerns with "oh well, guess we'd better just murder everyone!"

This is obviously well within the realm of Rogue AI Sci Fi, but I think it helpfully emphasizes the bureaucratic expediency that underlies the decision. And notably, it's impossible to tell whether this is really a rogue AI or simply, you know, a bureaucrat. I mean the guy that talks to Musubi definitely has some transhuman qualities to him--the big glowing Safeguard symbol hovering over his forehead for example--but ultimately he's just a dude in a suit and tie who casually follows up the announcement that Musubi will be brainwashed by mentioning, by the by, that the Order has been pirating Safeguard tech. He "forgot to mention" it apparently. This seems less like a godlike AI and more like an officiator of a vast bureaucratic system. 

"But you can rest assured, because we will integrate the best technology into your body," he says, "I think it will be very good." 


If you want to imagine the world of BLAME!, the world waiting at the end of Cyberpunk, imagine someone from Silicon Valley announcing each new product with, "I think it will be very good," forever.

NEXT: The Street Finds Its Own Use For The Street, or, Jameson's Postmodern Hell

Coming soon to Storming the Ivory Tower, and even sooner to my Patreon backers.

4 comments:

  1. Skipped some sections of the post because I'm still reading Blame! (it's currently being released in my country, three volumes to go), and I don't have much background on cyberpunk, but I really like how you relate the work, the genre, and the now. It seems like there's a growing consensus that our technology-driven present has some flaws to it, but in art and in discourse usually that takes the form of Black Mirror episodes about how Tinder is bad or whatever. Recently I find myself gravitating towards more overtly apocalyptic works like Blame! because it seems like they have a firmer grasp on the scale of the matters at hand.

    One thing I love about Blame! is how... clueless Killy seems throughout most of it. As an example, there's a chapter early on where he hitches a ride with some dudes, almost without thinking fights the creatures that come to fight those dudes, later learns that the dudes are part of a corporation that is waging a war of aggression against those creatures, and shoots the corporation HQ a bit before going his own way. A similar thing happens with a labor revolt chapters later.

    Killy's like a deeply ironic, nihilistic version of a lone gunslinger, solving every problem through his cool gun not because the text believes that's the way problems should be solved but because the world is too tragically complicated and his mind is too small to deal with it.

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    1. This is awesome and I think if I return to this I want to touch on Killy's basic obliviousness a bit more (I think I did end up covering that sequence with the Dry Men in part 2?). But yeah he just sort of this this weird ambivalent force of nature just plowing through reality.

      And yeah I mean there's probably a place for social-media-as-skinner-box-for-sociopathy kinda commentary but so often it's just this vapid like oh no the teens are taking selfies shit. Like if you're going to do techno horror, why not, idk, every cell phone is the container for a massive ghost network of all the people who died mining conflict rare earth minerals? or something more like Snow Crash where the US has been totally broken up into these weird corporate autonomous zones?

      I also find myself gravitating more to apocalyptic works these days, suffice to say.

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  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating and the sort of wide scale stuff I love, I'm going to check it out and hopefully get a good ways in before the next post goes up.

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