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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.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Freakangels in Arcadia: Jackpot

What happens when the Arcadian Utopia of Solarpunk fails?

Andrew Dana Hudson has a nightmare taxonomy to show us. It is a taxonomy of futures where Solarpunk (previously covered on this blog in posts you can find here) fails. This taxonomy, in the section "If We Fail" of Hudson's larger essay "On The Political Dimensions of Solarpunk", lays out the failstates like this:

  • Smogpunk. "A world where environmental protection fails... haze blots out the sun." 
  • Hazmat-punk. Our "degenerating relationship with nature" continues and "the human experience of the environment becomes a long series of mishaps, spills, contaminations, and outbreaks."
  • Sprawlpunk. The world as a scaled-down version of BLAME!'s endless city. Infrastructure with no purpose, the utterly empty cities that Jameson is so fascinated by, capitalism in its ultimate symbolic phase, no humans necessary anymore.
  • !Solar-punk. This might be seen as a variety of biopunk--organic solutions taking over for mechanical ones, but with a scarcity of resources and energy leading to continued suffering. Hudson references the novel The Windup Girl. We might look also to Repo! The Genetic Opera and the Super Mario Brothers Movie (yes really screw you) for a glimpse of this world.
  • Solarpunk-For-Some, or, Solar-!punk. The solarpunks get their farmers' markets and their art nouveau clothing. The rest of the world gets exploited, or gets to just die.
  • The Jackpot. Take that "you get to just die" option and expand it till catastrophe has slowly wiped out most of the population. If you survive, you've hit the Jackpot--you get to enjoy the resource wealth of a world suddenly freed of those pesky other people. Efficiency and progress are ours once more!

Let's take a moment to consider the aesthetic of Whitechapel in Freakangels. It's actually a damn cool aesthetic and something that I think a lot of Solarpunk folks pictur when they think of the genre. Oh, sure, people are into their art nouveau architecture and all that but I think some Solarpunks at least recognize that early, bottom-up solarpunk will be kludged together from whatever's lying around.

This is convenient for Freakangels, because it means that even the most Steampunk elements, like KK's helicopter, blend a bit into Solarpunk. The technology of both Steampunk and this version of Solarpunk is analogue, mechanical, physical, hard, salvaged, metal, often provisional.

Midway through the comic we get to see the freakangels beginning to build in earnest. Steam engineer KK constructs salter's ducks, machines designed to harness electricity from the cyclical motion of waves, from old oil barrels. Solar engineer Caz designs jury-rigged solar panels used to create hydrogen fuel cells. Gardener Karl leads the people of Whitechapel in clearing land for greenhouses. 

This is all extremely -punk, and extremely admirable, to my mind. I grew up in an era when global warming was openly discussed in kids shows on PBS. Maybe it still is, though I have a hard time imagining it after the full scale assault of the Right on both environmentalism and public broadcasting. Still, coming from a working class family, growing up learning about the environment, reading nature magazines... this shaped my sense that we can--we should--learn now to make do. Not to just accept the state of things, but to get the most of what you have, repair what's broken, find new uses for old junk. I wrote my first story--a picture book--when I was in elementary school. It was about a robot living in a junkyard who used the junk to build a rainbow making machine. In a sense, I grew up Solarpunk, always with an eye on sustainability-through-reclamation.

They are constructing a sustainable environment. They have to construct a sustainable environment, in fact, because if they don't, KK and Caz realize, they will succeed themselves to death. They stabilized Whitechapel, but stabilizing the area meant putting an increasing strain on resources as people stopped dying. Watching the growth of their technology is thrilling and inspiring, but it comes in the context of looming disaster. The fail states of Solarpunk are always hovering around the corner.

The can-do attitude of -punk can help alleviate some of the problems Solarpunk might face, and help us claw our way out of some of the states (Smogpunk, Biopunk, Sprawlpunk...) toward a sustainable future but they carry with them their own problems. Hudson points this out in the final part of his essay: it's hard to build solarpunk megastructures in the midst of a refugee camp.

The flip side of Waste Not Want not, Hudson notes, "is the false seduction of favela ingenuity as well, that charmingly rickety sweet spot where Swiss Family Robinson meets Nat Geo poverty porn." When I embarked on this project I talked about Steampunk aesthetics with Phil Sandifer and he remarked to me that you don't often see Steampunks dressing as homeless street urchins, no matter how properly Dickensian it'd be. Joke's on us, though; we gave people far too much credit. Shortly after we talked I stumbled upon a fashion outfit literally called "Workhouse England." Yeah. Turns out Zoolander's "Derelicte" fashion line wasn't so much satire as simple prediction.

This adoption of "favela ingenuity" as an aesthetic for the rich evacuated of all content is, ominously, something many of Solarpunk's precursors experienced. Art Nouveau and the closely liked Arts and Crafts Movement emphasized filling daily life with finely crafted goods, but ultimately their buyers were not workers in the factory systems that their proponents often opposed, but the petite bourgeois and aristocracy.

Beyond appropriation though the deeper problem the freakangels face is, as Hudson puts it, that "places that don’t follow fire codes tend to burn down." Can't get more direct than that.

The thing about the freakangels is that they didn't bother with infrastructure. They embraced provisionality in part because they didn't expect to stick around in Whitechapel, didn't treat it seriously. Make Do can become a kind of learned helplessness, as the state of my apartment with its many milk crates and street corner furniture and faulty electrical wiring and lack of a fire escape attests. It's all too easy to get something provisional set up that in the long term is not sustainable or stable and simply let it go because there's so much else to worry about. 

Like all that interpersonal drama you've got going with your friends, for example.

And meanwhile, the world outside Whitechapel, the little Solarpunk Jackpot favela chic paradise, continues to be and go to hell. The flip side of the aesthetics of Freakangels is its origins in other post apocalyptic fiction. This is a world that has already been broken to such an extreme degree that the ideal Solarpunk model we might hope for is impossible. Freakangels cannot, unfortunately, bring back the dead. And the dark secret of the Jackpot is that it can't last. Arcadia is built on the backs of a large surplus labor force, and while eliminating it works in the short term, in the long term the factories and power plants will start to shut down. 

"Without fuel they were nothing. They had built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered... and stopped."

About a third of the way through the comic, Whitechapel is attacked by a couple of dudes with mortars and they manage to hit the freakangels clubhouse. Most of the group is in agreement: they're under attack and they need to strike back at the threat.

Miki is the notable dissenter. Miki is Whitechapel's doctor, self taught with the aid of powers that let her read the innards of her patients and the advanced capacity for learning that the Package grants.

Miki really would like for the freakangels to stop destroying things.

The march of the freakangels on the encampment is portrayed in a fascinating way, in the context of the webcomic's serial storytelling. We get a panel of the freakangels striding forward, eyes glowing.

This could have been the end of the six page update, a dramatic cliffhanger. Instead, Ellis has this as the fourth page. The next two show the encampment itself and, extending into the early pages of the next update as well, the catastrophic conditions in which its survivors live. 

We are not permitted to get too hype for the freakangels laying down violence. We are granted excitement only long enough to feel guilt for our excitement immediately afterwards. (It's a technique I wish, frankly, the comic employed more.)

It's thus viscerally obvious, even without the capacity to read minds that the freakangels have, that Miki's next suggestion is eminently sensible and fundamentally the only moral choice.

The freakangels must take in the refugees, pushing forward their own abilities and the community in which they live in the process. They must become more than the Jackpot. They must mature into a true Solarpunk reality.

Everything that happens in Freakangels is a direct result of the kids running scared for their lives, hunted by their own government. This is horribly plausible, of course. Oh, sure, the Freakangels were manifestly dangerous. Would they have been, though, if they hadn't had so many guns pointed at them?

This is all going to get a bit Galaxy Brain for a second here but I think it's important to put this in the context of our cultural conversations surrounding People With Powers. See, the basic take is that, say, the X-Men shouldn't be persecuted just for being different. In this sense, they operate as metaphor--a persecuted minority hunted by a majority for arbitrary reasons. But then there's a level above that, responding to it. Why shouldn't the world fear these people? They literally have superpowers! Making this into a metaphor is absurd, because, to pick an obvious example, there's no such thing as "Black Superpredators."

I think there is a level above this, though, that sees a "mutant" or a "freakangel" as not an atomized subject that simply turns out good or bad through some kind of Karmic Magic or Calvinist Destiny or Bad Genes. People don't do good or bad things in a vacuum, and the consistent failure of superhero shit attempting to address supervillainy as a systemic problem is part of why I'm so down on the genre these days. 

A mutant is dangerous. So is any human with access to an instrument of harm. What if we conceived of a system where the image I so often have in my mind these days, of everyone, every human, pointing guns at each other at all times, is inconceivable and absurd? If a particular ideology is founded in the use of violence to respond to perceived threats, would it not make sense to go after the underlying causes making that ideology attractive, rather than just using our power on someone else's power, individually, when it arises, like plugging holes in a dam?

Miki's plan to adopt refugees into Whitechapel is opposed most stridently by Kait, Whitechapel's self declared cop. I don't like Kait. Sorry, I should probably be attempting to see her side of things, but I actually find her the least sympathetic character in the comic. Mark is driven mad by the recognition of his own violence. Luke is similarly broken, locked in a toxic cycle of deteriorating relationships with the only people who can understand him where his own miserable personality prompts steadily more abuse and isolation.

Kait's just a fucking cop though. She just gets off on locking people up and torturing them and pretending like she's the hero of some police procedural. Karl complains about KK being "raised on TV" but Kait's actually a much better example of someone whose morality has been warped by an unhealthy belief in the thuggish, authoritarian politics of cop shows. I simply can't find much good to say about her besides the fact that she does technically help foil Mark's plans.

And her failures as a freakangel correspond directly to the failures of the police state that persecuted the freakangels to begin with. Kait is capable of reading the minds of the refugees, to identify them as not a threat, only rendered so, as Karl points out, by the horrible circumstances they have been thrown into. And yet, despite the direct knowledge she has of their inner mental states, she still insists on treating them as "criminals"--a ludicrously bad faith attitude which Miki calls out explicitly.

Kirk doesn't come out of this looking great, either. Remember Kirk, the watchtower guy? Kirk's a bit more sympathetic because he doesn't have a secret mini-Gitmo like Kait does. Nevertheless, this sequence, in which he also argues for a security state approach to governing Whitechapel, reveals that part of "keeping Whitechapel safe with the watchtower" involves "policing the borders of Whitechapel from on high" and "establishing a panopticon for the community." Kirk and Kait--and, in fact, Luke with his individual exploitation of Whitechapel's people and Mark with his obsession with security and turning Whitechapel into a brainwashed fiefdom that can never be attacked by the freakangels' enemies again--have turned their mutant powers, in the face of state violence and exclusion, into a new state with its own violence, and its own rhetoric of the necessity of defending their way of life.

It would be all too easy for Solarpunk to manifest as a gated community, as the Purge. Solar-!punk, Solarpunk with its aspirations to save the world discarded for closed borders and protections for those rich enough to actually buy those solar panels and distill fresh water. "Go placidly amid the noise and waste, and remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof." This manifestation will assuredly appear if solarpunk embraces cops, the carceral state, and resolution primarily through force. Which, like, isn't to say don't punch nazis, but surely we can strive to imagine a system where punching nazis is no longer necessary. Dare to dream, kids.

In forcing Kait to back down the other freakangels, and Miki in particular, begin the work of dragging the abused child out of the basement in Omelas. The child might kick and punch and scream as they are drawn up into the light. It's a natural reflex for someone or something that has only known violence and can expect only more. The only path forward is to demilitarize everyone and help each other stagger out into the sun.

The argument of the comic, grounded in the growth of the characters toward maturity and coming into their own power, is one basically of solidarity. Solar-!punk and the Jackpot are fundamentally immoral, no matter how idyllic they may be. If right outside your Arcadia there's people eating dead dogs and drinking choleric water, your Arcadia isn't worth much. 

Freakangels is a valuable starting point for Solarpunk as a genre, a worthwhile keystone work, because it does not simply begin with Solarpunk already achieved but rather has Solarpunk emerge only as the characters become willing to put in the work to get there.

Freakangels is, in that sense, a narrative of how Solarpunk can grow up.

This Has Been

Freakangels Of Arcadia: Jackpot


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