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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, February 15, 2018

Freakangels Of Arcadia

Solarpunk already has some solid foundational texts. This might be a problem for Solarpunk, particularly since both sources--a classic short story and a decade-old webcomic--predate Solarpunk... and they don't exactly get along.

If Solarpunks (previously covered on this blog in posts you can find here) want full-throated support for their aesthetics of optimism, they can find it most easily in the late Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." (Here's a link to the whole text posted on Rap Genius for some reason.) In this narrative thought experiment, Le Guin imagines a paradise society, a utopia of equality and hedonic fulfillment. Except for one catch: there is one beaten and abused child in a basement somewhere in the city, living in darkness and squalor, counterbalancing the city's utopian beauty. For most of the inhabitants of the city, this is accepted as the contextualizing cost to their happiness, something that gives their pleasure meaning. For the ones who walk away from Omelas, this tradeoff is abandoned in search of a utopia more pure.

Folks familiar with my blog will remember the last time this came up, of course, in a discussion of Madoka Magica, whose world I read as a kind of Omelas. It's been four years since that article, and my tastes have shifted from the optimism of Madoka Magica to the bleakness of Rebellion Story, and with it I find myself more suspicious of Le Guin's deeper argument in "Omelas." 

See, her point is not so much to prompt debate about the nature of her utopia but to question the narrative need for utopia to have a cost: "[W]e have a bad habit..." she proclaims, "of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting." In some ways she's not wrong, though as someone whose aesthetic sensibilities increasingly gravitate towards "if it hurts, repeat it," I'm a little resistant now to her formulation (is Industrial music anathema to Utopian writing? Is BDSM? Is Halloween going to be around after the Revolution, as China Mieville once asked?).

Nevertheless, if you're looking for a defense of Solarpunk's aspirations, this is it. It's not a road map to a better future, it's not a bullet point list for getting to utopia, but it is a defense of the idea of utopia, and of creative projects that conceive of a better world without feeling compelled to add a counterbalancing child in the basement. Moreover, it feels to me, even more so now after her death, as a kind of thunderous ultimatum, a creative challenge that cannot be simply ignored. Can we really not imagine a paradise built on corpses? We've been putting tombs in the middle of our paintings of Arcadia for a long time. To banish the old memento mori and walk out of Arcadia takes a kind of gentle fervor, but Le Guin suggests that it is creatively speaking the moral path--a path where we don't cringe away from our own power to change things for the better.

So that's my objections to Solarpunk's optimism comprehensively rebutted in a way that requires no further analysis. 

All Solarpunk needs now is a major defining work and the movement is good to go.

And really, it's already got one. It's odd that Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield's "Freakangels" doesn't show up on lists of Solarpunk works, as it's arguably the first really masterful potentially defining text of the nascent movement. It predates "Solarpunk" to be sure but so do the works of William Morris. That hasn't stopped the TV Tropes page for Solarpunk from declaring his 19th century utopian fiction part of the Solarpunk canon. (The list also includes, as far as I can tell, anything that uses technology derived from any sun, so I wouldn't take it too seriously.)

Maybe it's the introduction of poster character KK's bike at the beginning. The first of the titular Freakangels to be introduced, KK is a mechanic and flies around on a helicopter bike that runs on steam power. That makes this a steampunk webcomic, I suppose, if we're rigidly sticking to the nomenclature of when it was published. Does it really make so much sense to stick rigidly to one form of technology, though? The world of the comic certainly uses steam--for the helicopter, and for steam powered dart guns, and other such things--but it also contains greenhouses, improvised solar panels, and the suggestion that eventually London's Millennium Dome might be converted into a vast solar still to purify water in the sunken city. London is underwater, did I mention that? The presence of steam power or a discussion of filling the water with salter's ducks to generate electricity don't seem all that contrary to Solarpunk's broad goals.

Maybe it's the whole psychic powers thing tripping people up. Oh, yeah, did I mention that? The freakangels are 12 kids with strange psychic abilities and purple eyes all born at the same time in a small English village. Some of what they accomplish is accomplished through these powers. The comic is a bit wobbly on how much of what they accomplish could be done without those powers, which give engineers like KK and the more solar-focused Caz a heightened ability to understand mechanical systems (and confer similar enhanced abilities on characters like Mikki, self-taught doctor, or Kait, self-declared copper).

I'm not too worried about the use of psychic powers to propel the comic's tech forward, myself. I did just get through explaining why we should introduce cryptids into Solarpunk. Eerie kids (in the comic grown into eerie young adults) aren't that far off from cryptids, and the freakangels are directly influenced by the Midwich Cuckoos and other such horror stories. We've got everything ranging from melonheads to His eminence the Jersey Devil to draw upon if we've already decided that, sure, cryptids are acceptable here. And really, this all makes plenty of thematic sense. You've got a bunch of millennials with the power to create an idyllic world of clean energy and permaculture, and their very abilities, paired with their naivety and youthful impulsiveness, make them threatening to some. Sounds like a pretty Solarpunk conflict to me!

The only hitch is that the conflict results, before the story begins, in the Freakangels causing the apocalypse. Did I mention that? Yeah, to get to their idyllic Solarpunk existence the Freakangels had to accidentally end the world first, breaking time and space and sinking London. Hunted and desperate and hurt and angry, they reached out with their powers together and, in an attempt to get the world to back off, accidentally broke the world instead.


This is their child in the basement. It is the motivating force behind carving out part of London, declaring it "Freakangels Territory," and making these solarpunk reforms. We're back to tombs in Arcadia again.

So, ok, this poses a bit of a problem. 

Granted, it's a problem I've sort of created for myself, and you could pretty much solve it by just ignoring one of my two suggestions. Toss out Le Guin as a basis for the aesthetic center and Freakangels works just fine with no complications as a source text you can point to and say "this is Solarpunk functioning narratively". On the other hand if you aren't particularly worried about having a larger scale text to work from, you can easily answer Le Guin's challenge by simply ignoring the problems of narrative and restricting things to a fashion aesthetic.

Neither of these strategies seems particularly productive, though, for a purported movement that has utopian political aims. Losing Le Guin, in particular, strikes me as outright disastrous. I don't think Solarpunk is likely to find an argument more incisive than "Omelas" and its urgent call for a different way of being. Keeping Freakangels (or any other literature that poses problems when viewed through Omelas's severe gaze) is certainly possible, but it risks losing the fervor of the Utopian, simply turning into another exercise in post-apocalyptic fantasizing. Wouldn't everything be so much easier if we could just drown it all and start over, with, like, all the idiots washed out to sea?

That's the ultimate power fantasy that the freakangels might represent, and in the hands of a lesser author than Warren Ellis they would simply be supermen fixing everything automatically. Ellis is part of the tradition of Alan Moore and his followers, though. Post-Watchmen and Marvelman many of us have come to be suspicious of superheroes swooping i to fix everything for us (though some of us had to be reminded of that in the ashes of the Obama Administration's moral failings, Syriza's crushing, the collapse of the Arab Spring, and so on). If you should meet Superman on the road, kill him! And Warren Ellis does: these weird young adult aren't saviors but depressed, dysfunctional, bickering, moody fuckups. The story opens with KK "peeling herself off some Lambeth Road boy" after a night of heavy drinking, for example. That's how Karl puts it--Karl's another freakangel, one who wears a tin foil hat to keep the other 11 out of his head, and tends strawberries to work off his guilt about having helped cause the apocalypse.

The rest are similarly messed up.

It's all top easy to imagine, though, how the world of Freakangels, or any Solarpunk setting really, might turn into a power fantasy. After everything falls apart, We/I shall finally be king! Without "Omelas" it's easy to imagine building up a solid tomb foundation for Arcadia, to start shoving kids into basements. The freakangels and their powers are real cool, if sometimes a bit unsettling... manipulation of time and space, telepathy, teleportation, cognitive enhancement... the "Package" as they call it is fun to imagine, just as it's fun to imagine oneself as a brave Science Hero rebuilding the world according to your specifications after the apocalypse.

That's not so much a blueprint for collective social betterment as it is a blueprint for Techno-Stalin, though. "The Midwich Cuckoos Join Their Local Worker's Council" might be a less exciting story aesthetically in some ways (though actually now that I've come up with the idea I'm increasingly falling in love with it...) but it might have more to say about Solarpunk as a practical project than Freakangels, or any post-apocalyptic survivalist fantasy, does.

You might be feeling pretty persuaded at this point that we should just go the other route and ditch Freakangels. Retain "Omelas," toss out Freakangels as a failed experiment. And, admittedly, Freakangels is much easier to lose. I'm not an impartial judge here of its merits--I like it a lot and to an extent I grew up with it as a webcomic--so it'd be dishonest to claim that in putting it forward as an option I don't have my own motivations.

And yet, I think maybe "Omelas" is not sufficient or perhaps even fully realizable as a blueprint for Solarpunk! It may be the guiding limit of the curve towards Utopia but a curve's limit is, of course, never reached, except at a point beyond all points. And ignoring the ways in which Solarpunk can never fulfill the challenge in Omelas has the same potential for some real bad political failstates.

The issue is that we are already living in a world with an established state--not like a government or a nation but a state of being, facts that are true, Objective Conditions if you will. These conditions include everything from Donald Trump to the Democratic Socialists of America to Elon Musk to Storming the Ivory Tower to the Arctic falling in the fucking sea. Time keeps accumulating the rubbish of history, a mountain of corpses that we're going to have to build our solar cells upon, float our salter's ducks over, sink our greenhouse roots into. ET IN ARCADIA EGO--the tomb is already built. We are occupied by mitigating actions. 

Ignoring that hauntological reality, the way these conditions are a ghost haunting our attempts at utopia, seems both impractical and unjust. For the former, it feels to me like the defanging of any -punk potential in Solarpunk, the conversion of Solarpunk into purely a game of dress-up. Solarpunk-as-cosplay, I fear, simply puts the abused child in the basement out of mind and carries on with aesthetic celebration. At this point it becomes impossible to ignore the pretense of Solarpunk's political morality. "Buy Local!" doesn't mean shit when your island's swallowed by the sea. As for the latter, well, that's what hauntology is all about, isn't it? Don't look at me, it's Derrida's idea--that learning to live (better) means living with ghosts and coming to some sort of justice with those ghosts.

Freakangels might offer an idea about Solarpunk that tries to take into account the fact that if we want to build Omelas we'll be building on architecture that already contains countless children in countless basements, and extracting them is going to be a real struggle.

The narrative of Freakangels begins, fittingly, with a kind of haunting. See, by the time the story starts, the freakangels have already set up camp in Whitechapel and built the sunken ruins into something of a stronghold, a Solarpunk encampment that hovers just on the edge of sustainability. The status quo of the story, in which the 11 freakangels in Whitechapel putter around doing the particular jobs they've claimed for themselves, trying not to think too hard about the apocalypse, bickering with each other, is disrupted with the arrival of Alice, a girl with a shotgun and a mission to kill some freakangels.

See, Mark, the 12th freakangel, went a bit crazy after causing the apocalypse and started creating an army of brainwashed drones. The others kicked him out. Karl, strawberry guy, and Kirk, the freakangel who mans the colossal watchtower they built to keep an eye on their territory, agreed to go after him and kill him. It didn't stick. And now he's sending people into freakangels territory like human missiles. Alice is the first.

The narrative gets going, then, with the various mistakes of the freakangels coming back to haunt them. There's lots of beautiful moments, of course, and sunken London as rendered by Paul Duffield is gorgeous, but these buried problems just keep coming back until the freakangels have to start actually growing up and dealing with them.

The best moments in the comic are those when they actually manage to start moving forward rather than just reproducing the violence they grew up with, had inflicted on them, and ultimately began to inflict on each other. Alice, for example, happily first points her gun at Connor, one of the relatively well adjusted freakangels, and he determines that they should clean out Mark's conditioning and take Alice in. Granted, this isn't quite as noble as it appears since Connor and the others did cause all the events that ruined Alice's life, albeit in a distant sort of way, but it's notable that  the first two major beats of the comic are Mark returning by proxy to haunt their Arcadia, and Connor responding by laying claim to the problem and trying to solve it, despite Alice trying to slice his throat open.

The freakangels aren't perfect technocratic supermen, and their utopian island in the middle of a sunken city leaves a lot to be desired, but there is a sense in which Freakangels fulfills the optimistic promise of Solarpunk: the narrative is fundamentally about these kids learning to fix things up and make them better. Part of that is acknowledging, first, that a problem exists, a problem that they have caused, or that they have exacerbated at least when pushed by outside forces.

Freakangels may fail Le Guin's literary challenge in the sense that it is often a story full of cruelty and violence. But our stories will probably inevitably feature cruelty and violence if we work toward a kind of Solarpunk Arcadia. This narrative presents the first steps towards that Utopia, toward "Omelas", away from Omelas.

And next time, we'll see how the story progresses further down the path.

This Has Been

Freakangels In Arcadia

NEXT: Freakangels in Arcadia: Jackpot

What happens when the Arcadian Utopia of Solarpunk fails?

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