Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Empires We Choose Not to See

I'm going to start with a statement: empires are bad.

This isn't something I would have expected to be controversial five years ago because I would have expected people to know, in the same way that pain hurts and fire burns, that empires are bad. There are plenty of people who are well aware of how bad empires are, of course, but they tend to be the victims of empire. The primary beneficiaries of empire -- for those of you keeping score, that's white people in the Western world -- tend to be ignorantly innocent about it at best, and willing participants at worst. It's true that the last five hundred years is in many respects a history of empires, because when you have these organizations exerting their will across oceans and continents, impoverishing some to enrich others, they're going to leave a mark in the historical record. The modern legacy of empire is like the iridium concentration at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary; a global reminder of devastation and destruction.

But you wouldn't really get that impression from reading science fiction. Space empires have been a fixture of science fiction for practically as long as there has been science fiction, and while they were often meant as enemies -- take the Eddorians in the Lensman series -- science fiction's origins in imperialist states meant that the influence of empire would always be there. The venerable RPG Traveller is anchored around empire, whether it's plucky Terrans fighting against and replacing the aging Vilani Empire or the star-spanning Third Imperium; literary settings like Jerry Pournelle's CoDominium fills the future with a hegemonizing empire that seeks to incorporate all human worlds into its authority, with no exceptions; and the play-by-mail games of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The May/June 1983 issue of The Space Gamer reviews three of them -- Galactic Conflict, Starlord, and Star Venture -- and imperialism is in their bones. Take Starlord, where the players' goal is "to capture the Throne Star and become the Emperor, after which you get to play for free." For everyone else, it cost $2.50 to submit a Starlord turn ($6.11 in 2016 US dollars), which may make Starlord one of the few games where the player had a real monetary incentive for imperialism.

"Yeah," you might say, "but those are just games." I'd argue that games can shape the way we think and view the world just as much as anything else, and that these play-by-mail games were the precursors of modern 4X games, a genre designation which itself seems pretty innocuous until you think about it.

Explore, expand, exploit, exterminate.

The standard playbook of the Earth-based empire, and there it is, copy and pasted into interstellar space, giving you opportunity after opportunity to commit atrocities in the name of winning the game. Practically encouraging you to do it, at times -- take, for example, the Stellar Converter in Master of Orion II. By the time you've researched this late-game weapon, you don't need it, but it lets you follow the example of the one science fiction empire everyone knows: it lets you destroy planets. Using it rewarded you with this video and nothing else. No political slaps on the wrist, no anger from the galactic community, just a fresh asteroid belt. I can't count the number of times I did it, because it was easy and quick and I didn't need that planet anyway. But that's the thing about empire: it compromises you. It whispers in your ears. Like Brian Aldiss said in his introduction to the 1973 Galactic Empires anthology, "morality is all very well, but give me luxury every time."

Which brings me to Stellaris. Stellaris is the most recent of the 4X games, released by Paradox Entertainment just last year, and may well be the most dense and complex computerized 4X game. As a game it has a lot going for it, but like everything, it has its own unspoken political assumptions. One of those is empire. Not in that the game allows you to build an aggressive, galaxy-spanning empire should you so choose -- but in that it uses "empire" as the default. No matter whether you're fanatic egalitarians running a space United Nations, materialist xenophiles advocating for the light of Science, or a pacifist spiritualist nation seeking to commune with the secrets of the mental realm, the game refers to you as an empire just as it does the xenophobic authoritarians who dream of galactic conquest. It's baked into the tutorial tips and even into the news updates that appear in Steam before you boot up the game itself.

Funny, I'd have thought an empire was scary enough on its own.

The concept of empire is further rooted in the way the game works, too. The best government building you can build, which you can have only one of, is called the Empire Capital-Complex. There's an Imperial form of government authority, but in structure -- life terms and hereditary rulership -- it's just a monarchy. Just because a state is democratic doesn't mean it can't also be imperial, but the way they're set up as orthogonal here echoes an idea that's been made to percolate in the Western consciousness for a long time now. Hell, even if you're a fanatically xenophilic democracy that has embraced interstellar immigration for decades, the game still requires you to research a specific technology to get leaders who aren't of your founding species.

It's not so much that this is outright nostalgia for empire, I think, so much as it is divorced from the actual nature of empire. Unlike hyperdrives and psionic realms, empires are real things, and yet Stellaris treats it as if it's as neutral as using "lift" instead of "elevator." But there's a lot of hidden nostalgia here, the sort that Aldiss meant when he wrote about luxury. Up until recently, the general public tended to remember empires more easily because empires were the ones who wrote the histories. When they did, they remembered the accoutrements, the displays of wealth and power, and didn't stop to think about where that wealth came from and what that power was used for. (For those of you keeping score at home, the wealth was plundered from other people using that power.)

What gets me about Stellaris is that to me, there's a fairly evident disconnect between what was put there consciously and what slipped through unconsciously. One event, for example, has your scout ship discover a planet in the grip of an ice age but with industrial ruins, with the event text commenting on how nobody could understand how a species could be so foolish as to alter their own environment to uninhabitability. Another is how the humans are presented: the default United Nations of Earth, the "hero" humans, begin with a Black woman as leader, and the default Human species portrait is of a woman when in every other game I can think of, it's been a man.

Fun fact: originally Humans had "Quick Learners" as a trait. They were only switched in a later patch to being Wasteful.

But you have to look beyond that to get to the unconscious choices, like the use of "empire" as something that's value-neutral. Take the in-game blockers; these are meant as stumbling blocks to your developmental aspirations, where mountain ranges, dense jungles, toxic kelp, or noxious swamps need to be cleared away with advanced technology for you to make use of the resources on the tile they occupy. You're trained for this by the inclusion of unique blockers on your homeworld. There are two kinds. One is industrial ruins, left over from "a past age of progress." This is the other one.

Yeah, nothing political in that choice of description, am I right?

You have to look at stuff like this to get a sense of the unconscious choices. You have to look at how Martin "Wiz" Anward, one of the people who built Stellaris, apparently saw nothing wrong with wearing a red "MAKE SPACE GREAT AGAIN" hat during the pre-release streams in early 2016, when the Orange One had already told us everything we needed to know about him. You have to look at the things that are, as far as the person who created them are concerned, are so obvious that they don't need any special attention drawn to them.

You have to look at the people who believe, uncritically, that empire is a good thing.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Star Trek: The Orville Quest

This past Sunday night I hunkered down and watched the premiere of The Orville, Seth MacFarlane's new sci-fi series, because I hate myself and believe I deserve to suffer. None of the trailers or previews led me to expect greatness, and it certainly wasn't great. I tweeted many of my impressions at the time, and if you're really interested you can do an archive dive, but I feel my first impression is the most critical - it's aggressively mediocre. Still, it's been nibbling at the corners of my brain since I turned off the TV, and it's at least worth talking about.

The Orville is a unique show in that it is so transparently a Star Trek parody/homage/ripoff. This isn't unique across media, with 1999's Galaxy Quest being the first thing that came to mind when I heard of it, but it's different here. First, Galaxy Quest was a one-off; this is a series, though at least it being live-action means it can't stretch across decades the way Family Guy has. Second, Galaxy Quest knew what it was doing. The Orville doesn't. The fundamental problem with the series is that it's too Galaxy Quest to be Star Trek and too Star Trek to be Galaxy Quest. Galaxy Quest is that it gleefully deconstructed trope after Trek trope, from the captain's penchant for losing his shirt to casual interstellar exploration to things that only exist to put the heroes in danger.

The Orville, on the other hand, is one of the purest examples of the second artist effect I've yet encountered. If you haven't run up against it before, it's a phenomenon described by Charles Stross: the first artist goes outside, beholds the landscape, and paints it, but the second artist goes to the gallery, beholds the first artist's painting, and paints that. It's the artistic equivalent of clone degeneration, and The Orville is shot through with it. Why does the Orville have a navigator and a helmsman? Because the Enterprise did. Why is the Orville's bridge at the top of its primary hull with a big honking skylight in the roof? Because that's how the Enterprise was. Why does half of the bridge crew go down on away missions? Because that's how things were done on the Enterprise.

The Orville isn't a parody of Star Trek, even though it has so many opportunities to be. The episode's climax has the Orville under attack from a totally-not-Klingon ship, and the daredevil helmsman flies the ship on a death-defying series of attack runs that look like the video half of a motion simulator ride, weaving around the enemy ship, blasting all the way. It's a lot like a scene that was the climax of a Deep Space Nine episode, where the Defiant makes a death-defying series of attack runs, weaving around the enemy ship, blasting all the way. It was ridiculous then, it's ridiculous now, and yet both series play it completely straight. But even DS9 knew enough to keep that bit down to twenty-five seconds. In The Orville, it went on for so long I'm surprised Seth MacFarlane didn't cut away to five minutes of Conway Twitty.

The Orville isn't a homage to Star Trek, either; from the look and feel of the sets to  the fades-to-black before commercial breaks to the same streaming-stars effect in quantum drive, it hews far too close to its source material to be called that. It doesn't poke at the structure it's built around the way Galaxy Quest did, and it wastes its advantage of being made in the future.

The future is of particular importance here. One thing I've seen again and again, both in official commentaries and in some reactions to it, was on the need for optimistic science fiction in this hellscape of a decade. But The Orville doesn't feel like the future because it isn't; it's the future of the 1960s. Sure, the chassis may be smooth and modern-looking, but under the hood there is absolutely nothing that 1967 would be surprised by. Hell, considering how much of the first episode consisted of Captain Ed Mercer, Seth MacFarlane's character, complaining about his ex-wife and his divorce to anyone who would listen, it sometimes feel like it is more honest to 1967 than to 2017.

For all its attempts at being not your father's Star Trek, with a navigator who cares a lot about being able to drink pop on the bridge and a helmsman who casually throws the word "bitch" around, the fact is that this is your father's Star Trek with its hat turned backward, earnestly willing to rap with you all in a most tubular manner. This attitude was made clear in the premiere's first scene, a place-setting shot of New York City in 2417. It's the standard sci-fi city, with monuments like the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge contrasted with supertall skyscrapers, flying cars, and so on.

What weren't there were the seawalls. You see, for the past while, my usual encounters with future New York have been through The Expanse, which is everything The Orville isn't. In that series, Manhattan is surrounded by seawalls the size of small apartment buildings. It's a stark image, but given what we know, it's a reasonable extrapolation of what New York might look like in 2350. The Expanse looks ahead with eyes open and unblinking and sees some pretty ugly stuff. The Orville covers its eyes, plugs its ears, and builds its optimistic future with fifty-year-old blueprints.

The thing about The Orville is that there are so many ways MacFarlane could have done it without being what it is. Something that took inspiration from, say, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor would play to his strengths, but The Orville is far too wedded to being Star Trek without being Star Trek that it couldn't go too far without falling apart. It's like the holodeck: one shows up in the episode, and it requires no explanation where Star Trek: The Next Generation took five minutes explaining it, because MacFarlane can rely on audience knowledge. It's also like the holodeck in that beyond the door, the photons and force fields that give illusions substance dissolve into nothing.

In the end, that's all The Orville is, really - thoron fields and duranium shadows.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Tailings of the Golden Age: The Goddess of World 21

"The Goddess of World 21," by Henry Slesar
Appeared in Fantastic Science Fiction, March 1957

She was a beauty, all right, by anybody's standards. They stood gaping at her, awed by both the superb contours of her body and by her incredible size. The sun etched her figure sharply against the morning sky. She was something unreal, something out of an alien dream, yet something as real and desirable as a man could know...

"She's coming for us!" It was a shriek from the first engineer.

Nothing like this actually happens in the story.

If there's one overriding statement underlying the vast majority of 1950s cultural artifacts, it's this: "uphold the status quo." Understandable, really. In 1956, the largest and most devastating conflict in history was only twelve years past and the Cold War was already warm to the touch. Throughout the West, marginalized people were fighting for basic rights. It's no surprise that 1950s cultural products aimed at the comfortable white majority, like Leave It to Beaver, depicted uncomplicated, anodyne worlds only faintly related to the one outside the target audience's window. In the 1950s world of cultural repression, political repression, and sexual repression, the unstated drive to maintain the status quo left its stamp everywhere, including the pages of science fiction magazines.

Fantastic was one of the more successful of the post-war magazines, running from 1952 to 1980, and had a reasonable circulation for its day -- more than 30,000 in 1962 and 1963, which beats out Analog's 2016 numbers. It also ran covers like this, in case there was any doubt as to its target audience. From 1958 it would be edited by Cele Goldsmith, one of the first woman sf magazine editors, but in 1957 it was run by men and it shows, especially in stories like this one.

One thing I've noticed in doing these reviews is the way short science fiction tends to predict concepts that show up shortly thereafter in far more visible ways. Take Tom Ligon's "Funnel Hawk," which is pretty much Twister with a high-performance airplane except made six years before Twister, or Robert Silverberg's 1995 story "Hot Times in Magma City," which did "a volcano erupts in Los Angeles" much, much better than Volcano would two years later. The 1950s was receptive to stories about huge things. With the theme established by the giant ants in 1954's Them!, giant women appeared in 1958's Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and 1959's The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock. With the March 1957 Fantastic showing a copyright date of 1956, "The Goddess of World 21" was well ahead of the huge-human curve -- even more so by not including nuclear mutation. That's right: compared to its contemporaries, this story is actually sophisticated!

Just think about that for a second.

So, the story. As it's a 1950s story written by a man, it shouldn't be particularly surprising that the protagonist of "The Goddess of World 21" is a man himself -- Stu Champion, syndicated feature columnist for the Universal Press Syndicate, resident of a retrofuture where photon-drive starships share space with typewriters, and where the interstellar media is dominated by newspapers. After writing a column about the spacer myth of Gulliver, a planet "eight times the size of Jupiter" and populated by giants, he meets a "space bum" who claims to have crashed on an uncharted world, only for a "sky-high dame" to literally bend his rocket back into shape. Intrigued, Stu's investigation takes him first to Damon Scully's Space Circus, where the sleazy Scully tries to hire him to find Gulliver so he can turn it into a circus exhibition, and then to Dr. Alvin Domino, pioneer of a revolutionary cellular regeneration technology.

I feel it's worth pointing out here that across this thirty-eight page novella, there are precisely two women with names, and one of them is Stu's secretary Claire, who exists mainly to be called "sweetie." I was honestly surprised the author even bothered to give her a name at all.

It turns out that the space bum's helpful giantess is actually Victoria Bray, the first human subject of the regeneration technique. At first it worked great, regrowing three fingers and a thumb lost in an accident, but then she started growing taller and taller, with no end in sight. To prevent "bad publicity" for the regeneration technology -- seriously, that's the argument, that and how "the Earth could only reject a creature such as Victoria had become" -- Domino loads the now 85-foot-tall Victoria onto an interstellar transport and dumps her off on World 21, an isolated planet where "she lives in dreadful loneliness... a forgotten martyr to science."

In what may be the most science-fictional aspect of this story, Stu -- who, remember, is a syndicated newspaper columnist -- hires a starship on the company tab to take him to World 21, where he meets Victoria herself. Her now-immense stature scares off the starship crew, but Stu chooses to stay. Their blossoming friendship is interrupted by the return of the starship and the discovery that Scully's Space Circus plans to make Victoria the centrepiece of its latest exhibition.

Where do I begin unpacking this story?

The first step is the obvious one -- its rampant sexism! Sure, there only being two female characters in a story focused around a woman is pretty bad, but it gets worse, and it's not just the garden-variety stuff that was more common than air in the 1950s. Take this line, for example: "Stu located him behind a beautiful receptionist, a beautiful secretary, and finally, a beautiful mahogany desk." They're certainly meant to be women, considering the "unexamined 1950s social assumptions IN SPACE," and not only do they represent fully half of the women in the story,  they are treated with less attention and respect than a desk. Compared to that, Victoria constantly being called a "girl" is water off a duck's back. As far as the magazine's cover copy goes, it's hard for someone to be "Hated By Women--Preyed On By Men" when there are no women of agency present.

This includes Victoria, too. For all that the story is centred on her, she doesn't do anything in it. If she had become, say, a telepathic statue instead of a giantess, the narrative would not need to change at all until the very end, and even then that's only because of the people around her. Throughout the story Victoria is acted on by others, and the only times any characters are ever reacting to her they are just reacting to her existence. When, at the climax, the protagonist Stu becomes a giant himself to defend Victoria against Scully's predatory space circus, she is firmly sidelined by the narrative and reduced to the distressed damsel archetype that filled '50s B-movies. I'm reminded in particular of the 1957 film Beginning of the End, which started out focusing on a woman photojournalist only for her to be shoved aside as soon as the top-billed man entered the narrative. 

The narrative is never kind to Victoria at all, especially considering how often she's referred to as "a creature" or "a freak," and you can practically see it build immense justifications for its twisted viewpoints as you watch. For example, when Dr. Domino marooned her on an uncharted world, he built her a small but reasonably comfortable house, a greenhouse, and a power plant. Stu's reaction to this, when Victoria gives him a tour, is that he "found his admiration for Dr. Domino increasing with every step." Admiration, for a man who exiled a woman because her presence would be inconvenient! It's like men who think they deserve a round of applause for meeting basic standards of human decency.

So much of the story is built around the concept of Victoria's desirability, too, if only because the narrative is so closely tied to its protagonist -- and even that is something that makes it stand out from its contemporaries. In Arthur C. Clarke's 1958 story "Cosmic Casanova," an astronaut is repulsed to discover that the woman he's been long-distance romancing is actually a giantess, and in "At Last My Eyes Have Opened" from Charlton Comics' Out of This World #8 in 1958, a man stayed in stasis for a 300-year eugenics experiment to improve upon his girlfriend, only to find... hell, I'll just show you, it's public domain.

The lesson here, presumably, is that men cannot be attracted to people who make them feel small. Baarrff. Also, you have to love how much deadline was obviously involved in naming a valley populated by tall people "Tall Valley."

There's more to it than this surface stuff, though, and I didn't realize it until after my second read-through. Strip the story down to its basics, remove the jerks and bastards and the "suicidal despair" that Victoria experienced, quite understandably, after having been abandoned to die alone -- an interesting thing emerges.

In the context of the story, Victoria is quite literally a self-sufficient woman. All of her material needs are met, she has books and music to exercise her mind, and she learned how to mix local clays to make paint and produces wonderful landscapes. She is a woman that does not need a man, and as soon as I made that connection, everything about this story made sense. My impression of 1950s culture is that it ranked "independent women" as only slightly less threatening than the atom bomb. That's why the story is about taking away her self-sufficiency and her independence. It's why it's about taking a woman who lived in primeval freedom and giving her two choices that both result in her subordination to a man.

"The Goddess of World 21" is, at its core, about the demolition of an independent woman. This is only reinforced by the climax, when a standoff between Stu and Damon Scully, who despite being a circus owner managed to obtain atomic artillery, is interrupted by a deus ex machina in the form of two giant alien astronauts appearing from "mythical" Gulliver. They're both male, of course. Their world is described as a peaceful utopia, sure, but look between the lines and you'll find a reassurance to the readers that it doesn't matter how big or powerful a woman appears to be; sooner or later some man will come around to put her in her place.

Would I recommend you read it now? Hell no; there's plenty of good work being done today that isn't focused on upholding the kyriarchy. If you feel you simply must, though, it's available as a double-novel with The Last Days of Thronas on Amazon.

Previous Tailings
#5 - "The Trouble With Telstar" (June 1963)
#4 - "Industrial Revolution" (September 1963)
#3 - "Next Door, Next World" (April 1961)
#2 - "In the Imagicon" (February 1966)
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tunnel Visions: The KC Streetcar

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

Cities aren't supposed to be hollow. Cities are meant to be vibrant places, full of people doing popular things - otherwise, what's even the point of the city existing at all? Nevertheless, over the last seventy years, North America has seen many of its cities hollow out. Some managed to hang on; some, like Toronto, ended the 20th century better off than they'd started. Some, like Kansas City, Missouri, are trying to climb back up.

Like other major North American cities, Kansas City operated a substantial streetcar network in the years immediately following the Second World War, at its height running nearly two hundred PCC streetcars on a system comparable in length to Toronto's, today. Also like most other major North American cities, Kansas City dismantled its streetcar system in the 1950s as suburbanization and ubiquitous automobile ownership demolished its foundation. Kansas City was especially vulnerable to this because, hell, look at a map - aside from the rivers that frame downtown, there are no appreciable geographic barriers anywhere around it. Kansas City had room to sprawl, and so it sprawled. Rapid transit was hard-pressed in dense cities; in the midcentury Midwest, it didn't have a chance. Some of KC's streetcars found second lives in cities like Toronto or San Francisco, but plenty of them ended up just being scrapped.

That was how rail transit in Kansas City stood for nearly sixty years, but it's different now. North and south, cities are rebuilding lines that previous generations tore out. As I write this, Kansas City is home to the newest streetcar system in North America - and it'll only be that way for another couple of weeks, until Cincinnati's starts running in early September.

I was in Kansas City to attend the 74th World Science Fiction Convention earlier this month, but I was sure to make time for a brand new streetcar.


KC Streetcar #804 pushes north at the edge of the Power & Light District.

The KC Streetcar is, thanks to its newness, a refreshingly uncomplicated system - it's a single line, three and a half kilometers (2.2 miles) long. It spends most of its time on Main Street, crossing over two highways - Kansas City didn't shy away from crashing Interstates through its downtown core - and diverging only to loop through River Market just north of downtown, with each trip beginning and ending outside Union Station. Again, "Tunnel Visions" is a misnomer because at no point does the streetcar's route take it underground; hell, aside from a couple of pedestrian overpasses, it doesn't go under anything. It's a downtown circulator more than anything else, which is understandable. To my eyes, downtown Kansas City is reminiscent of downtown Toronto circa 1975 with more artisanal coffee stores and BBQ restaurants - by which I mean it's full of parking lots where buildings once stood. According to the streetcar's official website, there are more than twelve thousand parking spots within one block of the line - which is one of the major reasons, I think, that the streetcar felt so empty when I used it during the weekdays; there are only twenty-two thousand people living in downtown Kansas City. I mean, this is a place where the downtown CVS closes at 7 PM.

What struck me as immediately unusual about the setup is how the rails were laid. In Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, and other cities I've been in where street-running streetcars have been retained, the rails generally keep to the inner lanes. In Kansas City, it's the reverse; by and large the streetcars run in the outer lanes. This does come with advantages and disadvantages over the usual setup, as where multiple lanes exist, automobiles can navigate around streetcars and passengers don't have to brave a traffic lane to board or alight. From what I'm told, it doesn't make the setup particularly friendly to cyclists, however; I know of at least one point on a bridge near Union Station where there is very low clearance between the streetcar and the pedestrian wall, and there's at least one sign along the route warning cyclists that if the bike's wheel gets caught in the rail, they may be thrown bodily over the handlebars.

Not that they're always on the outer edge; there is some weaving to accommodate turning lanes and on-street parking, and there are places where there's only one lane, so a streetcar taking on passengers can cause traffic to build up behind it. Just like home. But those cars are faster than the streetcar, they'll get where they're going sooner than anyone on foot will anyway, probably.

Once you're on the streetcar, it's very difficult to get lost. You can't stay on it indefinitely, though, since all riders are required to alight at the Union Station terminus - but nothing stops you from getting right back on. Opportunities for connections are limited, but they do exist; the MAX bus rapid transit system - which replicates some of Kansas City's former streetcar lines - has stops near the line, and the 10th & Main Transit Center permits transfers to some of RideKC's regular bus routes. Streetcar service is a bit limited, though, since they don't have many streetcars to go around; on a day like today (Saturday, August 27), when one streetcar is out of service, they can't run service frequencies better than 10-15 minutes.

During my first experiences with the system found it somewhat empty, but that may be because Kansas City isn't yet a public-transit-all-the-time city like Toronto is. I've seen reports that the KC Streetcar is already exceeding its passenger projections, and my experience at 3:40 PM on a Saturday bears that out; from Metro Center to Union Station, it was standing room only all the way, and even more people boarded there for a trip back north. Fortunately, the streetcars have articulated sections much like the ALRVs and Toronto Rockets I'm familiar with, so there was always a good place to stand.


Library Station on a weekday morning.

My first impression of Kansas City's public transportation system, in the form of an hourly bus that left from an unshaded shelter on a concrete median outside Terminal C of Kansas City International Airport, wasn't exactly the best. Some of the stops the bus passed during its forty-minute trip downtown stuck strongly in my mind, because of how unstoplike they were: just a pole signed "METRO STOP" with a route number, a phone number, and a website. No shelter, no bench, not even a square of sidewalk. If you're talking about Barrie, Ontario circa 1991, that's one thing, but it's pretty thin provender for 2016 Kansas City.

With that in mind, I wasn't expecting much from the streetcar. What I found is that its stations feel like a strange middle ground to me: they're not quite stations, but they're more than just stops. The ones that aren't in their own medians are smoothly integrated into the sidewalk, designed so that they're on the same level as a streetcar to allow step-free access, and built around a central t-shaped shelter. I say "shelter" because there's no better word, but with no walls and a fairly small roof, the shelter that many of them is theoretical at best. While waiting at Kauffman Center during a heavy rainstorm, I had to stand on the far side, off the actual platform, to keep from getting drenched by passing cars.

That's irritating enough, in August - but Kansas City isn't Los Angeles, or Houston, or Miami. For now, at least, it still gets cold in Missouri, and snow does fall. These stations don't have windbreaks. I wouldn't want to be waiting at one during a snowstorm, or even just a cold and windy day. Sure, if service was frequent there might be a tradeoff, but there are plenty of times where you'll be waiting ten minutes or more for a streetcar to roll by.

On the whole, there's not much eye-catching about these stations. Many of them don't even have advertisements. They're each equipped with screens that count down until the next streetcar arrival, and have posted streetcar route maps and hours of operation. There are bits of public art scattered here and there; the one that most caught my eye was a model perched on top of the Union Station shelter, at once a streetcar and automobile and jetliner. One would think the wings would make it a bit difficult to run something like that on the streets.


A closer look at the trailing end of streetcar #802.

As you'd expect for a 21st century streetcar system, the KC Streetcar has hit the ground running with modern equipment: it provides service with four (count 'em) CAF Urbos 3 Model 100 streetcars on their first North American appearance, though Cincinnati will use them as well and they're already in service in Edinburgh, Belgrade, and multiple French and Spanish networks. They have that clean, streamlined European design to them, with all the vital equipment hidden away from riders' eyes - it's almost as if they're whispering along on a cushion of air. I do mean whispering, too - these cars are quiet. Coming from Toronto, I'm used for the 1970s-era CLRVs to make my organs rattle whenever I'm sitting in a building next to the line; in Kansas City, it took me a while to realize that streetcars were going by, and I wasn't even noticing.

The streetcars are three-module articulated vehicles, rather like the new Flexity Outlooks running in Toronto, but a bit smaller; they're about 24 meters long, with a rated capacity of 148 when everyone's squeezed in. They're numbered 801 to 804, because this is officially the continuation of Kansas City's previous streetcar system, and the earlier numbers had been used already. It puts the smallness of the KC Streetcar into perspective, though. As I wrote this, at 12:49 on a Saturday morning, there were more than four streetcars running on Toronto's 509 Harbourfront line, and it's the shortest one on the system!

I found the streetcar interiors pretty spartan, and I'm not sure if this is a permanent thing or just an artifact of the system being so new. Except for the external "Sprint Wi-Fi" logo on the cars' middle modules, which also advertises the free wireless access that's been implemented along the line and will eventually be activated aboard the streetcars themselves, there are no ads. There was the Code of Conduct posting there to educate Kansas Citians on how to use their new ride, though: rules like "no smoking or eating" and "please let people off before you board" and "do not bring weapons onto the streetcar," because that is something that actually has to be spelled out where everyone can see it in the United States.

The streetcars have a few tricks I wasn't expecting, either. Digitized bells aren't anything unusual - bells and streetcars have gone together for more than a hundred years - but Kansas Citians haven't needed to look out for streetcars since 1957, so when necessary, the streetcars can sound more like oncoming freight trains. That gets attention: it made me jump the first time I heard it.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

Looking toward the unoccupied control cab in the trailing end of streetcar #803.

The KC Streetcar is the easiest system I've ever used, for two reasons: physically speaking, the no-step streetcar access makes it a breeze to board, and for all other respects - it's free. Absolutely, 100% no charge to the people who riding it, which is probably a big factor in why it's gone so far beyond its ridership projections already. Admittedly, that's a good way to get people thinking good things in what may be their first experience with fixed-infrastructure transit.

There's plenty of room to move around inside, and there are priority seats and wheelchair-friendly spaces as you'd expect for modern equipment, but it's honestly not that comfortable - not that comfort is that much of a problem, considering how quickly one of these streetcars can do a circuit. Besides, with the articulated sections and the hanging straps, there are plenty of places to stand if you can.

The stop request buttons were a little different than I'm used to, but I can live with that. They're only mounted on poles, which means that every once in a while, they're horizontal. What threw me about them was that it wasn't easy to tell whether or not they worked once I pressed them; I'm used to a stop request button sounding a tone immediately, but the KC Streetcar looks to have gone with waiting until the automated stop announcement has been made for the next station before sounding the request noise. I figure it's the request noise, at least, because I didn't hear it all the time - the only consistent one sounded more like the Sweet Cuppin' Cakes version of Strong Bad.

Since the system is so new, and there aren't that many in the area - St. Louis' MetroLink, clear on the other side of Missouri, is the closest - rider education looks to be one of the agency's big priorities. Still, it was a bit surprising when, before departing Union Station, the streetcar operator spoke to everyone aboard the streetcar, giving a brief overview on how to ride. Even if it made it seem more like a theme park ride than a legitimate piece of public transportation infrastructure, it was a welcome thing.


KC Streetcar #801. Look at all its majesty.

One of the big factors in early 20th century urban development was the streetcar suburb: a neighbourhood opened up by a newly-built or expanded streetcar line feeding into the central city. Hell, a lot of them were built by streetcar companies, to ensure future business. Since they were designed with the expectation that people would be making their way on foot when they weren't riding the rails, these neighbourhoods are human-scaled and many remain prosperous today; hell, in Toronto, most of them still have their streetcars.

What Kansas City is trying to do feels like a 21st century inversion of this - using a streetcar to rebuild a downtown, and why not? It's worked elsewhere. When I talked about hollow cities at the beginning of this piece, I was thinking specifically of Kansas City; a downtown doesn't feel right when it's got so many empty buildings, when it's littered with parking lots, when street life seems confined to a mere strip rather than something that spreads through the whole. It's not that surprising, though - look at a map; downtown KC has the look of a psychological island, surrounded by the river and the highways, and those highways weren't built on empty land. There are big rips in the urban fabric there, but the streetcar might be the thing to sew them together again.

Whether the streetcar's expansion plans reach fruition, or whether it never goes any further than this - that's always the struggle, isn't it?

Previous Tunnel Visions

Monday, August 22, 2016

Things You Should Totally Read #1

Recently I realized that I was only reviewing things so that I could criticize them. Not only is that unhelpful, seeing as how a lot of these things are works of short science fiction older than I am, it's unhealthy - constantly seeking out things you don't like only has negative effects, psychologically and physiologically. So in the spirit of being more helpful and more healthy, I've been inspired to start out this irregular series looking at current bits of fiction that I think are good and worth your time.

My own bits will be brief, because I'd rather you spend your time with the authors.


"Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses" by Mina Li

I'm not too familiar with Li's work. In fact, this was the first thing of hers I'd read, but when she brings skill like this to the page, I'm certain it won't be the last. This is a fantasy story that I felt did a thought-provoking job at not only inverting the typical fairy-tale-princess setup but weaving deeper meanings into it. I don't know if they were intended by Li or it's just a result of me bringing myself to the table, but good stories aren't inert; they start internal conversations. "Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses" had my brain chugging for a while afterward, so it's successful in that regard. Plus, I know things I didn't know before, like the notions of good fortune associated with peach trees and bamboo. It's a worthwhile story that broadens your horizons, and this is one of them.

It's free to read at Kaleidotrope, so I suggest you do it!

"The Last," by Premee Mohamed

When I was in high school in Central Ontario they made us read CanLit. So much CanLit. Stories about people in the cold north woods, in the windswept prairies, in the frozen Arctic, people alone and struggling with the angry environment at every turn. If I'd had stories to read like Premee Mohamed's "The Last," I would have enjoyed it a lot more. This story is so very Canadian - drippingly, meltingly so. I mean, it is a story about cowboys that wrangle sentient icebergs. I read this on my smartphone browser and couldn't put it down. It has a fine, polished edge and a cold heart - much like an iceberg, in fact! This will definitely be on my Aurora nomination list for next year, because it is that good. Mohamed is another author I expect to go far in the years ahead.

"Runtime," by S.B. Divya

Finally, people are realizing that novellas can stand on their own. "Runtime" is one of the first standalone novellas to come out of Publishing, and in the low-word-count constraints of the form S.B. Divya has created a future that feels real, alternatively gleaming and grimy, hopeful and hopeless. It pivots around Marmeg, an eighteen-year-old cyborg who upgrades herself with rebuilt parts rescued from behind dumpsters and can write fresh code in minutes, and her struggle to win a punishing rough-country footrace. It's rich with the technical crunchiness that you might expect from an Analog story, coupled with a good human core. The characters were well-built, and the world felt like a logical extension of the present day, rather than a logical extension of, say, 1977.

I read this one as a physical, printed copy, and I suspect that heightened my like of it even more, but read it however you want to! This one is definitely in the running for a Hugo, and it'll be on my nominating list next year.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Horizon of Desperate Events

Black holes are unpleasant things to be around, and that's not just because they're places so warped that mathematics means nothing inside them. All the familiar rules get twisted up around them, and if you're not skillful or you're not paying attention it's easy to end up getting your big, shiny starship trapped forever. Given the right black hole, you could cross the event horizon and the only indication would be all the light of the universe winking out behind you. You're perfectly fine, for the moment -- but you're always getting closer to the singularity, the ultimate destructor.

This is kind of how I feel about modern politics, specifically the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union. Seventeen million people decided it would be a totally rad idea to skim the event horizon, and come now, it couldn't possibly be as bad as the rest of the crew was saying. Except now the universe has gone out behind them, and every trajectory in spacetime leads closer to the singularity, and they're realizing that playing chicken with a black hole is, in fact, not the wisest decision anyone has made.

I'm seeing commentary pop up now -- Charles Stross, for one, has a good rundown here -- that the UK may not have crossed the event horizon after all, that there's still a way out of the situation and a way to stay in the European Union. Whether it's a second referendum to say "actually, about that, wasn't that a capital joke, simply capital" or clauses in the Scottish and Northern Irish constitutions that could give them vetos over leaving the EU if you squint, there's a lot of desperation out there to walk it back.

Personally, I think it's not going to happen. Things have already gone too far for that. A wound can be healed, but it can't be uninflicted. Words, once said, cannot be unsaid. Democracy is an axiom of the United Kingdom and the European Union, and saying "whoops, just kidding!" undermines that whole foundation. I know it would be better for everyone for the UK to stay in the EU; my personal preference is for them to stay.

But they can't, not anymore. Look at it this way: if you took a shit on your boss's desk, how well-disposed do you think she would be to your frantic, frenzied apologies, your begging to not be fired, when she discovered you wiping your ass with a dayplanner? We've all experienced times in our lives where we wish more than anything we could rewind time, use the Omega-13 to correct a single mistake, but that never happened for any of us and I highly doubt it's going to happen for the UK.

The EU is not going to take a punch to the face with a smile. They're going to break the UK to the greatest extent they can, pour encourager les autres. Even as someone whose background is English, who knows people over there who are already broken by this -- I honestly can't say I blame the EU, or that I would do any different were I in its place.

In their way, institutions can be as cold and as mechanical as black holes. We forget that to our peril.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Short SF Review #24: Perspectives

"Perspectives," by W.R. Thompson
Originally published in Analog, November 1983

"You realize how dangerously tense things are up here, don't you?"
Bob looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that this is the most stress-filled environment in which humans have ever attempted to live."

The 1980s were interesting times for science fiction. The gosh-wow-isn't-this-gadget-rad-as-heck stories and odes to pocket-protected engineers solving technical problems that had once dominated it were an increasingly smaller part of a larger galaxy. The Space Shuttle had begun to fly, and proved the 1970s dreams of two-week turnarounds and $10-per-pound orbital launch costs to be just that--dreams. The world was becoming more like science fiction every day, but to some science fiction writers, the world was always trying to take it away.

A lot of those writers ended up placing stories in Analog, and as a result, many Analog stories in the '80s are built around space boosterism and reflect the anxieties of authors that, just as it had been possible to reach for space, their hands were being slapped away by "budgets" and "physics" and "U.S. Senator William Proxmire (D-WI)," about whom they complained mightily. Stories that come out of this zeitgeist often look rather... warped to modern eyes.

W.R. Thompson's "Perceptions" is one of them. Set in the near future of 1983, so probably ten or fifteen years ago, the United States has set up a lunar colony as the core of a space mining operation. Buffetted and battered by its dependence on Earth and its politicians, a deep vein of uncertainty and stress is piled on to the ordinary concerns of space life--you know, that unless everything keeps working, everyone will die. Into this comes Charles Augustine Hacker, a psychologist sent up to study the effects of stress in the colonial environment. Makes sense, really; a lunar colony runs in completely different circumstances from anything on Earth, and you'd want to have an outside opinion on mission-critical things like psychological stability, for the same reason you'd want air traffic controllers or nuclear reactor technicians to be in good mental health.

But he isn't 100% on board with the idea of space colonization, so in the world of a 1980s Analog story, he is of course the villain.

Hacker has an argument behind him -- the colonists act weird to his eyes, beyond their general-but-understandable unwillingness to dwell on the hostility of their environment; they're as sober as a temperance convention, they're careful to a fault, they use jargon-filled slang that implies they'd rather think of themselves as machines. He also has a solution: for the colonists to return to Earth, before their society snaps. The colonial leaders, being the colonial leaders, don't think much of this solution, and when they discover where Hacker's coming from, they immediately make plans to resolve the situation to their benefit.


I'll admit that the execution of "Perceptions" may suffer from being, as best as I can tell, Thompson's first professional sale. I know that my first sale to Analog, back in 2012, doesn't match up to things I'm creating now. Still, readers can only engage it by how it was executed, and honestly, I still can't decide if the author *intended* the reader to look askance at the story or to take it at its word. When I first read it on the subway, I reached a point where I said to myself "oh, I see what's going on, all these expectations that're being set up are going to get toppled," right until I reached the last line and the tower of expectations stayed defiantly upright.

The story is built around the colonists' realization that Hacker has an ideological axe to grind: specifically, that technological advancement had made civilization more and more stressful, that "technology has destabilized the foundations of life" and "form[s] dangers to life and limb which are beyond human comprehension." The leaders decide he lacks intellectual honesty because he filters things through his viewpoint rather than theirs, and come to the conclusion that abandoning the colony would end up dooming all of humanity to a new Dark Age. So, being calm, rational individuals who are in no way suffering from severe psychological pressure, they decide to give Hacker a nervous breakdown.


That's pretty much how it ends. The colony's director wonders how long it'll be until he can sleep soundly again, even though he's convinced himself that he's saved the colony -- and there's a lot of convincing going on in this story. The colonists convince themselves that they're totally okay, that Hacker is full of shit solely because he has a particular viewpoint, and that all of their actions are worthwhile and justifiable.

The key thing that the story appears to gloss over, though? Hacker isn't wrong. The moon is far more hostile than any environment on Earth. Stress can be a real problem, and it can sneak up on you. "I don't feel any tension," says Bob Dubois, the colonial director, as if that settles things. But tension is funny like that, and it's something I can speak to. I've been working the same job for nine years now, but it's only fairly recently that the tension migraines started to appear, and even more recently that I discovered they were tension migraines. You can think you're calm, collected, and in control and be totally unaware that the dam holding back everything has started to buckle.

I thought that this story would end by, in part, vindicating Hacker. Much of the story's middle is a dialogue between two characters justifying the colony's customs to each other, which I read as the characters trying to convince themselves that they were right, that nothing was wrong with them. There's never any self-awareness, never any doubt; the colonists know they are the Good Guys Here. It's like they're terrified to interrogate their own beliefs, in case they discover something they'd rather leave hidden.

In their own way, the colonial leaders are no better than their villain -- but you could make an argument that they're worse. They barely bother seeing if Hacker can be swayed, with the doctor justifying the induced breakdown by saying that he can't be reasoned with. What's left unsaid is that, to all appearances, neither can they.

"Perspectives," to me, is greater than the sum of its parts. It's not many stories that leave me thinking for days after I read it, wondering whether the author was pointing to this thing or that one.

what do you mean i haven't used this category for FOUR YEARS woooooow

Previous Short SF Reviews:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

On a Rail to the Future

If you were to take a measuring tape to one of the many railways embedded in or buried under Toronto's streets -- not recommended, incidentally, because those tracks are heavily used -- you'd find something unique, if a bit pedestrian. Every railway has a track gauge, which is just how far apart the rails are. The miniature railways you'll find at certain tourist attractions may have only a fifteen-inch gauge, while the broad-gauge railways of India, Pakistan, and San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit are five and a half feet wide. In Toronto, you'd find that the rails are built to a gauge of 4 feet, 10 7⁄8 inches -- just slightly wider than standard gauge -- and nowhere else in the world will you find operating tracks built to that specification.

It's not because Toronto wanted to be unique and special. It goes back to 1861, when the first horsecar lines started operating in the young city; the rails were built with that specific gauge so that the carriages in use at the time could themselves take advantage of the rails. As the streetcar system expanded, the track gauge was maintained so that the same equipment could be used across the entire network, and as the Toronto subway was initially aiming to use streetcar-derived rolling stock, the underground railways use the same track separation because of one decision a hundred and fifty years ago.

Why do I bring this up? Because it's a simple illustration of how history echoes; not only can simple choices have wide-ranging consequences, but the past reverberates in the present.

These rails haven't even been used for fifty years, and yet they're still here.
This is not something a lot of people appear to understand. Case in point: Hillary Clinton, the presumptive heir to the Democratic presidential nomination because, well, her last name is "Clinton." Back in 2010, while she was still Secretary of State, she commented on the issue of African economic development, but in the sort of tin-eared way that only a Westerner who thinks history is "just a bunch of things that happened" could.

"For goodness sakes, this is the 21st century," Reuters quoted Clinton as saying. "We've got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago and let's make money for everybody."

Think back to rails for a moment. Toronto's unique track gauge is the result of a simple choice a hundred and fifty years ago, but it's not going away. To remove it from the face of Earth would not only mean tearing up eighty-two kilometers of streetcar lines, but the complete re-railing of nearly a hundred kilometers of subway and the retrofitting of hundreds of subway trains and streetcars. It would take a supreme effort to make the gauge go away.

The Western conquest and occupation of Africa lasted for decades. It carved scars that will never heal. Just as the outlines of the Roman Empire are visible in the shape of the world today, two thousand years later -- hell, there's a legend that says wagon wheel gauges go back to ruts cut by Roman chariots -- in the forty-first century, the damage that the West caused to Africa, and Asia, and, hell, anywhere that wasn't the West, will still be visible.

It will take a supreme effort to for the conquered and oppressed regions of the world to heal. It is not something that can just be "got over." To make a statement like that betrays not only privilege but unthinking privilege, and helps illustrate why Clinton is fortunate she's going against candidates as oozily unlikeable as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

History is loud, and we live in an echo chamber. The voices of the past still whisper today.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tailings of the Golden Age #5: The Trouble with Telstar

"The Trouble with Telstar," by John Berryman
Appeared in Analog, June 1963

These space-jockeys have their own vocabulary, and their own oh, so cool way of playing it during the countdown. I'm pretty familiar with complex components, but they were checking of equipment I never heard of. We had gyros--hell, our gyros had gyros. And we had tanks, and pressures and temperatures and voltages and who-stuck-John. It was all very impressive.

Analog doesn't have a reputation as a hard-science magazine for nothing. Open a copy from the 1960s: amidst the stories and John W. Campbell's angry denunciations of scientific orthodoxy, you'll find ads from outfits like Republic Aviation and General Dynamics and Allied Chemical. Analog gained a reputation as being filled with stories about engineers solving technical problem because, to a great degree, that's the audience it was aimed at in the '60s--and that's the audience that John Berryman's "The Trouble with Telstar" was written to appeal to.

Mike Seaman has a problem that, presumably for once, doesn't have anything to do with his name. He's one of the top men behind the communication satellites made by Communications Corporation--truly, a staggeringly inspired name, but I've seen ones in real life every bit as ridiculous--and these satellites are failing in a way that can't be pinned down. There's a lot of talk about busted solenoids and backroom back-and-forths about who's responsible, and the story takes its sweet time getting to the point: apparently, it'd be cheaper to send a man (because 1960s) into orbit to repair the satellites. Much of the story deals with Seaman training for his mission and dealing with friction from the established astronauts, who look at him as a jumped-up repairman. Granted, they're not wrong; he's flying the mission not because he's an ideal astronaut candidate, but because he came up with the idea for the orbital repair and his bosses volunteered him. Life in the private sector sure is grand.

Once in orbit, Seaman fixes the satellites and there's some brief peril, because there's always got to be some kind of peril. Fortunately, with the production of fresh space debris that totally won't come back to haunt anyone ever, the day is saved and Our Hero™ can claim his reward in the form of his boss's secretary, who only dates astronauts. ("If you haven't made at least three orbits, she won't even have dinner with you.")

Maybe this would be entertaining to an engineer in 1963 who has to deal with crap like this on a regular basis, but to a non-engineer like myself in 2016 it's just... boring. I can see why Campbell printed it, because John W. Campbell loves him his stories of engineers solving technical problems, but that doesn't change the fact that it's aggressively mediocre. I mean, there wasn't even any quote from it ridiculous enough to stick in my mind for use at the top of this post. It's just inert, but that didn't keep it from being on the cover of the issue it ran in!

Now, to be fair, there were some parts in there that struck me as interesting--but only in a historical context; had I read the story in 1963 they would not have stood out. Berryman did earn a nod in that he anticipated neutral buoyancy training for EVAs a couple of years before NASA picked it up. Seaman is launched to orbit in a Dyna-Soar spaceplane, which at the time would have placed the story in the late 1960s. In reality the Dyna-Soar program was cancelled six months after the issue disappeared from newsstands, so the story has an unintential alternate history vibe to it now. Berryman's frequent use of "telstar" as a standard noun for a communications satellite felt like a brush with a parallel dictionary, before the terminology of space had settled firmly down into what we have today.

As well, the story is only passively sexist, which practically feels like a victory for something printed by John W. Campbell in 1963. The secretary character has no character, is described little beyond "small, dark, intense... pert [and] lively," and the punchline of the story is her being dumped by Seaman: "no dame was worth that ride."

I will note that the John Berryman who wrote this is not the John Berryman who's listed on Wikipedia. Unless you're a weirdo like me reading old magazines for fun, there's no real reason for you to have heard of him; the science-fictional Berryman's career was dominated by short fiction, and trailed off shortly after "The Trouble with Telstar" was written; his last credit is 1986's "The Big Dish," which was also an Analog cover story, and he died in 1988.

If you're really interested, you can read "The Trouble with Telstar" for free at There's also a Kindle edition available on Amazon for $5.45, which is utterly ridiculous; the entire June 1963 issue of Analog cost $0.50, and even with fifty years of inflation factored in, that's only $3.91. But unless you have some specific interest in the history of the field, there's not much to recommend spending your time with it.

Previous Tailings
#4 - "Industrial Revolution" (September 1963)
#3 - "Next Door, Next World" (April 1961)
#2 - "In the Imagicon" (February 1966)
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)