The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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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.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

StIT Reviews: Like A Duck in the Rotors of your Flying Car

I anticipated having a bit more of a barrier between this set of reviews and the last one but what can I say? The other articles I'm working on are trickier than I expected for various reasons and I've had to push them back a bit. I'd expect the first one of those to hit next week, depending on which one is giving me less trouble in the intervening time. (If you want some hints as to where those are going, there's some information on my Patreon.)

Since I'm so plagued by the present being deferred into the future indefinitely, it seems fitting that the material I've cobbled together for this set of reviews all pertains in one way or another to the way futuristic science fiction visions keep kinda letting me the fuck down.

I mean I didn't set out to do this, it just sort of emerged naturally from the reviews I've written so far. I looked at one I wrote a few days ago about The Rapture of the Nerds, and said ok there's room here for a decent selection of science fiction themed stuff, and it turns out that one of the first things I wrote a month ago is pretty much tonally consistent. In fact, while most of what I've covered thus far tends to be more broadly fantasy-oriented, the things that have moved more towards science fiction all tend to have the same preoccupation: mainly that these supposedly futuristic worlds in which society has been radically altered still have the most banal neoliberal imperialist underpinnings.

It's impossible to ignore the confluence of this realization and my reading of Naomi Klein's recent book This Changes Everything. An attempt at critiquing the whole response to and coverage of global warming and the looming threat of planetary extinction, there's some striking parallels between the dynamics she describes and these texts that I'm analyzing.

I actually already have a response to some of the book's argument in the notebook where all these review type things have been shared with my patrons, but that piece is more attuned to horror than science fiction. No, the piece is good (I mean it contains the line "Global Warming is not an Outer God but a poltergeist," so I gotta be pretty proud of it) but it's not really in line with what I'm trying to cover here, since it's focused primarily on an affect of terror.

Here on the other hand I think the circuit is more one of interest and frustration of that interest, chasing around and around. This is a familiar dynamic for anyone familiar with the Silvan Tomkins model of affect, which I've talked about before elsewhere. For Tomkins, affects like shame, disgust, or contempt are characterized by a barrier or break, a point where a positive affect like interest is foiled or broken or made strange. Eve Sedgwich and Adam Frank describe this as the "duck to interest's rabbit," the flipped side of the optical illusion. For some reason I keep mis-processing this description as "chasing"--the duck pursuing the rabbit--which makes no sense if you're thinking in terms of the optical illusion but does kinda map onto the experience I get reading the following things. My interest is aroused, but the duck of annoyance comes quacking after.

This is the titular duck in the rotors, I guess. Or rabbit. Whatever.
And this is the relation I kind of have to the projects that you'd think I, as a transhumanist, should be really into. Stuff like challenging global warming by developing global cooling technologies, upper atmosphere reflective particles or space mirrors. But for a sci fi-minded reader I think Klein's coverage of such technologies follows an interest-fissure structure: interest might be aroused by her descriptions of these global projects only to turn to disgust or contempt when it turns out that the (white) scientists eager to spray reflective particles into the upper atmosphere don't seem to mind that much that they might cause massive droughts in Africa and South Asia.

What follows is a series of reviews that have this basic content then: the interest of someone who'd really like to be into science fiction, and the frustration of having that interest interrupted repeatedly by lazy bullshit.

Grant Morrison's Action Comics

Bluntly, there's a lot I don't like about Grant Morrison's Action Comics run. Some of that's probably because I picked it up at volume 2, stupidly assuming that the whole Nu 52 thing meant that stories were going to be a little more accessible. More fool me. Given a lifetime picking up anime halfway through a series and just sorta catching on to whatever was happening, though, I can be forgiven for assuming that I'd be able to pick things up reasonably quickly. Nope.

Anyway, there's lots of stuff like the weird four page stories that are sorta stuck in the narrative randomly, or the fact that there's not a lot of strong visual cues within the construction of the collection to show when a story begins and ends, and this kind of stuff is essential to the comics medium because it's part of how the huge dataspace of possible semiotic connections between panels is reduced down to something more cognitively manageable. And I've seen Morrison when he's being deliberately obfuscatory. This ain't that. This is just bad graphic design on the part of the book's construction. At least I think so. It's a tough document to pick apart.

But I'm way less interested in that overarching set of admittedly pretty big issues than I am with the fascinating kind of peaks and troughs in Morrison's own writing here.

One of the most acclaimed stories from Morrison's magnum opus The Invisibles (which I'll be covering eventually on here) is a story called "Best Man Fall". It’s a totally nonlinear exploration of the entire life history of some mook soldier whose head gets blown off by the hero of the comic in issue 1. It's grim, it's fascinating, and it's powerful in the way it dramatically undercuts the stark brutal badassery of anti-establishment superspy King Mob by revealing the human cost of the war the titular heroes are fighting.

At its best, this is the kind of thing Action Comics does. My favorite story in the entire volume is a solid little self contained work called The Boy Who Stole Superman's Cape. As the title implies, Superman is knocked off a building with a random missile early on in the story, and some brat steals his cape.

Of course the cape is basically indestructible, like the Man of Steel himself, and the kid uses it to protect his brother from his abusive father. Intertwined through this is the story of Lois Lane and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen trying to track down the early stories of the "midwest strongman" who's been sighted in the city.

And basically the story is ultimately about Superman as symbol which is really the realm Morrison seems to like best for Superman--Superman or indeed Clark Kent as this kind of inspirational force.

And yet the comic never quite signals that Morrison is interested in this in a more than idealistic level. After all, this is a comic where (an alternate Earth) Superman attacks a country named, subtly enough, "Qurac" for trying to create nuclear weapons, and then promises, nobly, that the country will be given the gift of "free trade." Once you get past the inspiration porn of Superman ushering a battered woman to a shelter, under the hood of the comic is kinda the same old familiar neolibralism and imperialism churning away. This from someone who wrote an entire comic about overthrowing the chains of corrupt institutions and then reality itself.

In that sense, Action Comics actually comes off as a weirdly watered down version of the webcomic Strong Female Protagonist. Whereas SFP continually attempts to address the realities of superheroes not from the perspective of deconstructive Dark Age ultraviolence but from the perspective of broadly progressive critiques of oppression, Action Comics seems happy to bounce off of the purely symbolic content of these things without addressing them at length. 

It feels like Action Comics is weighed down by the albatross that is DC editorial dictates. I mean I don't know how true that is, but there sure does seem to be a lot of irrelevant Nu 52 bullshit in this book, and it's frustrating because all this really interesting character work with Clark Kent, or stuff like the story described above gets shoved to the side, leaving just a milquetoast capitalist "save the world through teaching people to run tech startups" goofy ideology in between the big dramatic fights.

I guess all this is to say that Morrison here, as usual, seems to be at his best when he's wandering around chasing shiny interesting ideas, whether they be interesting symbolic gestures, or irrelevant side characters whose lives are touched by the ostensible main plotline, or simply just straight up bizarre shit. Those are the moments when he really shines, just through the simple fascination of a well told weird tale, taking full advantage of the serialized and potentially self contained narrative structure of the floppy comic book. I just wish that could be transformed into a meaningful political critique.

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow

Maybe it's just because I had a nasty headache coming on when I picked this up but man Brian Fies's Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow basically failed to click with me on almost any level. And I can't help but think that the headache is only part of the problem.

It's certainly not the form that's tripping me up. As a formal object there's some fascinating stuff going on here. The narrative, centered on a baby boomer kid and his father experiencing the leaps forward in technology over the course of the mid 20th century, moves back and forth between direct narrative, photojournalism of a sort, and facsimile versions of "vintage" comics from the periods, meant to represent a particular evolution in our conception of The Future. It's a good conceit, and I appreciate the fact that this is a kind of hapticomic--just as hypercomics can only really be experienced online, this comic takes advantage of different paper types to produce a real sense of different material existences for the different parts of the comic's narrative.

The issue is that I'm just not sure what the comic has to SAY with those haptic and narrative experiments is, well, all that interesting.

Look, there's no point in beating around the bush with this so I'll just be up front about my issue: this is a cishet white male conceptualization of the glorious march into the future and what our conception of that future means. And while there's a noble effort at points made to try to understand the "villains" of the narrative as working, fundamentally, towards the same goal, it has all the singlemindedness of the cishet white male bourgeois techno-utopian vision. Which is admittedly a lot of buzzwords but I think it's pretty easy to parse out the concrete examples from the text of places where there's these half hearted nods end up consumed by a vision of technological mastery leading to utopia apart from any social or political considerations.

Early on for example we get this statement that "forty-five million people entered [the world's fair] imagining forty-five million different tomorrows, and all left believing in the same one." I can imagine a lot of folks from a lot of liberal arts fields screaming right now. Personally, this sets my teeth on edge as an art historian because it captures, without seeming to really recognize what it's captured, the totalizing and colonizing nature of these mass public events throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The crude teleology of the "dude where's my jetpack?" understanding of the world assumes that the totalizing nature of this vision of the future is inherent, inevitable. This is why there's such a love of Moore's Law: nothing says "technological determinism" like a "law" seeming to demonstrate that processor speed increases are an inevitability. And it kinda makes sense from this perspective that all paths deviating from things like Moore's Law, or that vision of the world of tomorrow that "forty-five million people" all left the World's Fair believing in, are just distractions from the true march into techno-utopia.


I can't help but find this a bit exasperating at this point, just because it's this view that seems to be positioned as minoritarian and threatened by a culture of cynicism, but it's not like there's any shortage of this stuff. Tomorrowland is pretty transparently about the same shit (though I'm not gonna lie, I thought about watching it earlier, saw it was two freaking hours long, and decided to go read more Homestuck theory stuff instead). And is it a coincidence that both works are so deeply tied to Disney, Disneyland, and all that domineering vision? I don't think so.

I can already feel this bad, bad temptation to just compare absolutely everything even vaguely in this genre to Janelle Monae but it's ultimately a temptation precisely because she's so good at illustrating why so much other nostalgic sci fi fails. It's just fundamentally not written from a perspective that has much of anything new to say. Whereas Monae, in part because of her brilliance, and in part because of her basic positionality (black, female, almost certainly queer...) takes sci fi as venerable as Metropolis and draws it into a continuity with folks like Dorothy Dandridge. Her World of Tomorrow is a world where technology hasn't saved humanity from the deep problems of capitalist power relationships, exploitation, and bigotry, and yet it's bursting with hope, love, joy, and belief in a better future. Far from being cynical or lacking optimism, it earns its optimism through the conviction of Monae--and the conviction of the other characters, and the listeners--that there is something transcendent and beautiful about the central romance of her Archandroid storyline.

Like I'm sitting here listening to "Sally Ride" and crying for the sheer joy of listening to this amazing, multimodal, transcendent text. If you're looking for the World of Tomorrow as conceived of by white men in the 40s, yeah, this ain't it, but I know which one actually seems like a future that has any meaning for me.

A closer comparison, and maybe a fairer one since like is it really fair to compare ANYONE to Janelle Monae?, might be to Scott McCloud's pre-academic story Zot!, a comic that shares a lot of the same preoccupations as World of Tomorrow (and which shares many of the preoccupations and the tone of Strong Female Protagonist, coincidentally). Centered on the relationship between the titular hero and Jenny, the girl from Earth who meets him, Zot! constantly plays on the contrasts between our world--Jenny's world--and the utopian alternate timeline that Zot comes from. Zot's world is absolutely portrayed as a desirable future, but the most important decision McCloud makes is taking Zot and trapping him on Jenny's earth partway through the comic, resulting in a latter half of the comic that pits Zot, optimistic idealist from a real World of Tomorrow, against the actual problems of the real world, with sometimes disastrous effects.

What seems significant to me about Zot!, and about Monae's world as well, is that the Worlds of Tomorrow that we get to see, the optimism at the core of these works, feels earned in a way that here it simply does not. The self conscious asides about how white and male everything is, or the halfhearted attempts to explain just what it is that those crazy reds (who really are a threat even if Joe McCarthy maybe went a bit too far!) actually want, come off the way those forty-five million visions of the future do: as cul de sacs that get in the way of the IMPORTANT shit: building a moon base.

In Zot! or in the Metropolis Suites, it's understood that it's those alternate perspectives and experiences that make the whole idea of building moon bases or spreading through the galaxy worthwhile to begin with.

Not Sure If I'll Finish The Rapture Of The Nerds

I like this title because it makes it seem like I'm about to launch the Singularity but I can't quite fucking bring myself to finish the job, like I could upload us into a computer but I'm just not sure I can be arsed.

And that's kind of the attitude that I have about the book of the same title. I'm about an hour into the audio book and I'm just not sure it's worth continuing. There's lots of little reasons for this--like, the use of terms like memeplex and script kiddie feel tooth-grindingly 2012, for example, weirdly dated on arrival and bizarrely anachronistic for something set in a post-singularity reasonably distant future, and the "people's republic bla bla" jokes feel even more bizarrely dated for something written 20 years after the end of what I've seen some people call Actually Existing Communism (though I'm skeptical of that term). And going from a very good fantasy novel--Naomi Novik's Uprooted which was a sparkling delight on a textual level, full of the kind of beautiful setting descriptions that I've loved since even before my father read The Hobbit to me--to the sparse and functional descriptions of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross was a bit of a jolting aesthetic experience.

But really it comes down to the simple question of like how much benefit of the doubt does a cis writer deserve.

Because look this is a book that features a LOT of trans shit. An aggressive amount. A weirdly intrusive amount. But we see everything from the perspective of a technophobic cis man, and I'm just not sold on that as a particularly interesting perspective.

Now, not all of the issues come from the choice of perspective. There's a clear structural purpose behind the use of trans characters: they signal the strangeness of this post-singularity world. Like if you're front loading multiple trans characters in the same space as metamorphic toilets it's pretty obvious that they're serving a purpose, yeah? And it just keeps coming back throughout the text. Like I guess maybe the idea is to convey that in The Future gender transition is easy, common, and popular, but when you have repeated jokes where the protagonist has to loudly disclaim that he's not a transsexual it comes off way less as an exploration of science fiction concepts and way more like continual trans panic.

The lead character certainly spends a lot of time panicking about the fact that he's attracted to someone who keeps, throughout the early part of the story at least, switching genders. As far as I can tell what this means is "switching between cis male and cis female". Ok. The lead is at once attracted to and repelled by this entity who he initially chats up when they're a woman only to vomit when they're a man. Lovely. And the character is depicted in pretty unambiguously predatory ways, lusting after the main character aggressively.

So, at best we might say that all of this stuff which, as I type it up, is really striking me as appalling, is the product of a bigoted perspective from the main character. Maybe we can separate Doctorow and Stross from their narrator.

But even then, as I said earlier, I just don't find this to be a compelling head to get inside. I already know what cis people think of me. I don't need that mixed lust and revulsion laid out for me. What's the fucking point?

So I guess what I'm hitting at this point is the question of how much leeway do I want to give Doctorow and Stross as cis(het?) male authors writing from a cis male perspective in a setting that is aggressively trans. And while I feel like in spec fic spaces there's a sense of obligation to read the canonized authors, I'm just not sure I give enough of a shit to put up with what are, ultimately, pretty uncomfortable experiences just for the sake of being a Good Spec Fic Reader or being Fair or whatever. I'm not sure if I'm going to finish, and I'm not sure that this means I didn't engage meaningfully with the text as it's presented to me.

And beyond anything else, I'm just not sure what science fiction has to offer if its authors so often seem to just end up presenting a world of tomorrow that is really the world of today but with flying cars. I'm tired of chasing the duck around. 

Or maybe, I'm the duck, chasing the rabbit? Into the flying car?

Whatever, if my metaphor is slipping from my grip the worst anyone can say is that I'm having the same trouble getting a grip on my material as science fiction authors seem to have on theirs, and I can't help but feel that it parallels the way the promises of techno-utopian visions slip out of our grasp culturally not because of a loss of faith in symbols or because the Rapture of the Nerds is simply too alien but because the people defining the future just can't seem to bring themselves to look at the problems of the present, to perceive the rabbit of oppression sublimated in the duck of YOU KNOW WHAT FORGET IT.

Storming the Ivory Tower is produced because of the generosity of my patrons. You, too, can become one of these generous patrons by subscribing to my Patreon. For $1 you can read all the other reviews that I've written so far; while there is no podcast for this article I have uploaded the first of several podcasts for a future project, this one attempting to explain and summarize part of Eve Sedgwick's Touching Feeling, which you can listen to for $3. I have also uploaded the original Krita file for an illustration that I'll be using in a different future article which can be downloaded for $2. And don't forget that for $5 you can read my most recent article collection on My Little Pony, Neighquiem for a Dream, and will be supporting my next collection, A Bodiless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme
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