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)