Of all the precursors to Twin Peaks this is probably my favourite.
Commentary is rendered as reality conspiracy. White-coated Scientists Sitterson (Jenkins) and Hadley (Whitford) preside over a team of underground technicians whose aim is to draw victims into a Godgame dedicated to satiating the appetites of chthonic entities who are the ages-old Secret Masters of planet earth. Similar danse macabre – the pope, emperor, king, child, and labourer archetypes of medieval tradition are here commuted to whore, athlete, scholar, fool and virgin – are carried out at other facilities around the globe according to local custom: this provides Goddard and Whedon with an opportunity to send up Swedish sobriety, Japanese schoolgirl tropes and so on, and thereby to display Whedon’s usual facility for ventriloquizing Fan Language through characters. As long as one of these global offerings to the gods (see Gods and Demons) of down below goes off, the End of the World is averted. American college students Dana Polk (Connolly), the “virgin” and, therefore, according to the rules of the genre, the “final girl”, Curt Vaughan (Hemsworth; the “athlete”), Jules Louden (Hutchison; the “whore” who dies as soon as she exposes her breasts), “scholar” Holden McCrea (Williams) and dope-smoking free-thinker Marty Mikalski (Kranz) – a character similar in register to that of Zeke Tyler from The Faculty (1998) and, indeed, to a great many similar characters in American high-school movies – all start the film by adhering to the clichés of the form but gradually begin to deviate from the railroaded idiocy of their roles as the Technology of the presiding technicians – a holographic containment field around the cabin, Drugs in Louden’s blonde hair dye that make her dumb, pheromones, trapdoors, surveillance and the like – begins to go awry. This is counterpointed with the failure of the corresponding rituals around the world, and a fair degree of Humour is derived from the interplay of filmography and Fandom, and from Hadley and Sitterson’s growing comprehension of impending doom, but the film never quite succeeds at being both scary and ironic. If there is any point to postmodernity (accounts differ) it is about who owns or delivers the constructed narrative and what they derive from it, and about what kind of moribund or frightening truth is revealed when that process is undermined. Sigourney Weaver is (as usual) convincing in her role as “The Director” – a kind of precursor to her depiction of the Villain Alexandra in the television series The Defenders (2017) – but the off-stage unknowability of the chthonic entities here arouses none of the intensely lyrical subjectivity of H P Lovecraft‘s protagonists in the face of cosmic time, or the connotations of Holocaust attendant to the appearance of the lost daughter in Hideo Nakata’s Ring (2000), or even the existential implications of Cube (1997). Dana and Marty share a spliff at the end of the movie and decide that humanity is not worth saving. Would that the vastations of planet earth were so easy to shrug off:-
Much of the bi-associative strangeness of the book’s descriptions of Area X is preserved: blossoming branches act as antlers on deer, human limbs are melded into the root systems of trees, concentric rows of teeth occur inside the crocodile-like Monster that attacks the women as they explore an orchard of humanoid bushes. “A religious event? An extra-terrestrial event? A higher Dimension? We have many theories and few facts,” admits Ventress. “When you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you,” says VanderMeer’s protagonist in the novel. “Desolation tries to colonize you.” This is, perhaps, the most important attribute of the New Weird – that it replaces human delusions of self-importance with deeper and more mysterious truths. From the Space Opera scope of M John Harrison‘s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy with its pointless repetitions of people and the monstrous haunting of humanity from the Time Abyss to the Drugs and crime (see Crime and Punishment) and photography sequence of the Cass Neary novels by Elizabeth Hand – both series of novels display their authors’ facility at counterbalancing Postmodernism with a deep comprehension of genre – the form must go beyond its delivery mechanisms to achieve its emotional payload. More often than not the weird does this by combining the real and the uncanny and making the uncanny seem more real than the everyday delusions of human assumption. Symbolism and surrealism is very often important to this process, as is a central scientific metaphor. In the case of Annihilation, this is cellular activity and its connotative capacity for communicating the implications of Evolution, Climate Change and Medicine:-
The best Villains make sense of the paradigms they oppose; that the major antagonist of Black Panther, now grown up to become US military intelligence operative Erik “Killmonger” Stevens after being abandoned by the custodians of his Wakandan heritage as a boy, expresses everything that has gone wrong with the world and, simultaneously, everything that might go right with it in the Near Future, gives him a moral force far beyond that of any of the Aliens, AIs or Gods and Demons that have previously served as signifiers of large-scale Disaster in the Shared Worlds of the MCU. That he is also the agency of the Conceptual Breakthrough that persuades the Pocket Universe of Wakanda to re-territorialize as a member of the United Nations recasts the Lost World trope as one of cultural elision and false consciousness. N’Jadaka speaks the truth about Race in SF that large parts of the SF Megatext has had trouble accepting:-
“I’m a man, okay? I ain’t no Weapon,” insists Chato Santana, or “El Diablo” as the pyrokinetic Los Angeles gang member is generally known. Assassin-for-hire “Deadshot” (Smith) soon persuades Diablo to employ his napalm-like Psi Powers on behalf of the nation whose system of Crime and Punishment so often informs the themes and character-arcs of its Superhero narratives, from the genesis of Batman in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) to the successful forays into on-demand Television on the part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Daredevil (2015-current) and Luke Cage (2016-current). One might argue that the entire genre is about turning oneself into the means by which Cities and communities are defended or destroyed, and that by combining the journey of the Hero from Greek Mythology with the trope of the Mysterious Stranger in Le Comte de Monte-Christo (1844-1845 18vols; trans Emma Hardy as The Count of Monte Cristo 1846 3vols) Alexandre Dumas laid the genre’s most important cornerstone: the confluence of a secret Identity with a thirst for revenge:-
A disquisition on traffic-flow soon gives way to descriptions of the behaviour of light under observation (see Physics) and these and many other explanations of everything-at-once to an analysis of the relationship of Money to Economics and of “rational self-interest” to the Metaphysics of everyday life: “Everything we eat has been stolen from the mouths of others,” says the character known only as “The Doctor” (Ruffalo): “If we rob them of too much, we are responsible for their deaths… in a way, we are all murderers.” Saramago takes care to distinguish the sudden irruption of his “White Signus” from known varieties of blindness (see Medicine) and thereby to identify it as a “blindness of rationality” on the scale of a Disaster: this is, in other words, the catastrophe of the twentieth century writ large and described in chatty, free-ranging and precise style at the scale of the human, sometimes from the point of view of a particular human being, usually that of “The Doctor’s Wife” (Moore), sometimes at the level of the pack of blind humans for whom she is responsible and sometimes, boldly, directly and with no loss of dramatic focus, at the level of humanity’s shared past, as “you”, the reader, or “we” who are reading this, the world-changing Memes of a variety of thinkers, such as Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) – “What is right and what is wrong are simply different ways of understanding our relationships with the others…” – or the critique by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) of the relationship between Identity and self-presence, or, indeed, the assault by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) on the ontology of Western discourse, part of which informed Derrida’s interrogation of “rationalist” thinkers and the French philosopher’s insistence on Linguistics as the best means of analysis of those cultures that define themselves by contrast with those they consider less “developed”, as in: “There’s no difference between inside and outside, between here and there, between the many and the few, between inside and outside, between what we’re living through and what we shall have to live through.” Every aspect of human behaviour is illuminated by the onset of “white” blindness, from the necessary delusions of human relationships to the deep-seated affiliation between fascism and the imposition of Sex on the unwilling: the breakdown of the social contract here reveals what the social contract was obscuring, a form of impaired vision from which we all, to greater or lesser extent, suffer. “It is beginning to emerge that this distinction between nature and society (‘nature’ and ‘culture’ seem preferable to us today), while of no historical significance, does contain a logic, fully justifying its use by modern sociology as a methodological tool,” Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949 trans James Bell, John von Sturmer and Rodney Needham as The Elementary Structures of Kinship 1969), but Saramago, like Derrida, goes beyond the convenience of this distinction to reveal how deeply human instincts are embedded in culture and now intrinsic cultural definitions are to descriptions of apparently natural behaviours:-
“Your parents threw you away like garbage and you can’t stop needing them,” Kylo Ren tells Rey, a prodigal son resenting his own oedipal impulses and able, as such, to perceive a similar Psychology at work in his counterpart. “I thought I’d find answers here,” Rey says of the cave she has entered on the remote island of Ahch-To, recalling the shamanic journey of her teacher Luke Skywalker on the swamp planet of Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. She has activated her most heartfelt desire to ask the smoking mirror therein for a vision of her parents – as, indeed, did Harry Potter of the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) – but instead of a buried family Memory or message of loving reassurance Rey receives a vision of herself, recurring without end in the darkness. “I was wrong,” she tells Ren: “I’ve never felt so alone.” “You’re not alone,” he replies. “Neither are you,” she says:-
I’ve heard people bemoaning the lack of a comprehensive science fiction roleplaying game and I see what they’re getting at – the epistemologies of roleplaying tend to underestimate the relationship between the capacity of the SF Megatext and the specificity of particular subgenres of science fiction.
Games that try to take on the whole shebang – old stalwart Traveller, say, or Ashen Stars from Pelgrane Press – benefit from a certain fixity of theme and narrative shape (Technology noir in the case of Traveller, the Television mystery procedural for Ashen Stars); games that, conversely, concentrate on particular modes or motifs of Genre SF, such as Psi*Run (strong on the emergent properties of a shared story arc) or Starfall (strong on the scientific and historical accuracy that underpins its 1950s alien-invasion theme) rely on “zoning in” on what they’re trying to do, very often over a single session or mini-season of play.
A great many science fiction games, however, fall somewhere in-between these two approaches, usually by (a) offering those playing the chance to “hang out” among familiar science fiction Clichés, or (b) adapting particular “sci-fi” properties, or (c) combining both; games like this find it all too easy to confuse their thematic delivery mechanism (Space Opera, Planetary Romance and so forth) with its emotional payload (a Sense of Wonder or Transcendence or some other group affect).
Even popular and deeply-examined themes such as Cyberpunk suffer from this misalignment of tone and ingredients, in part because (a) science fiction tends to inherit its narrative shapes from other genres and (b) cyberpunk takes a Postmodern approach to genre, mixing and matching the ways in which its tropes – Cybernetics, AI, and so on – interact with its story arcs, primarily as a means of interrogating the process by which our world is sold back to us in a diminished form by the corporations that define the terms of everyday lives. Here are two of the narrative modes most associated with cyberpunk:
- Noir: nothing is clear and everyone’s motives are murky.
- Hard-Boiled: the plot is constantly interrogated out loud by the characters.
These flavours are often combined to memorable effect – The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Rashomon (1950) are just two outstanding examples from the world of Cinema – but it’s all too easy to go wrong by trying to answer the questions posed by one approach with the narrative responses of the other. A Roleplaying Game with Gamemaster and players might waste a good deal of its time by allowing its player-characters to pontificate about “what is really going on” (a hard-boiled question) when what they really need to do is engage with the Psychology of the story’s characters (a noir response), whereas a story game might deliver a precisely-engineered structure whose mechanics elicit little or no emotional response from those playing due to its focus on delivery mechanisms over emotional payload. Narrative is transmuted into story when feelings are involved and feelings are better suggested or improvised than dictated or quantified.
By adding a hard-boiled voice-over to an essentially noir narrative, the first theatrical cut of Blade Runner (1982) obscured the much more interesting question of whether or not Rick Deckard was a replicant – and, therefore, of whether or not any perceived difference between replicant and human is simply a matter of who is interrogating whom. The who am I? character arc of Deckard is a vital dramatic corollary of the what is real? what is human? theme that underpins so much of the work of Philip K Dick.
Dick understood that any shift in Identity for his protagonists needed to apply at the societal level in order to function fully as science fiction: a character’s domestic dilemma was usually the solution for a world-sized threat in his stories and this – be it alien invasion, an all-powerful demiurge or an uprising of enslaved replicants – usually became the key to the personal dilemma of his main protagonist. One of the major disappointments of Blade Runner 2049 (a film I otherwise liked a lot) was its failure to (a) bring this implication of social change to the foreground and (b) examine the role of gender in the Slavery of the replicants. Deckard “retires” sex-slaves… until he learns to sleep with one. Blade Runner 2049’s focus on the subjugation of people due to their body-type implies that gender might easily be an important signifier of social change but the film’s screenplay allows none of the correspondents of Dick’s “dark-haired girl” archetype – K’s hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), corporate enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and virgin Messiah Dr Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) – to change themselves, their material circumstances, or indeed one another; the society-sized insurgency of replicants-in-the-bodies-of-commodified-women is almost entirely consigned to the background as a consequence.
New-Wave science fiction roleplaying game Dream Askew (a game in which plurality of gender and representation + white space = a brighter future with better Sex lives for all) is the outstanding exemplar of an approach that posits the free expression of gender identity as a possible solution for the false consciousness of a patriarchal society. There is every reason to apply the same principle to other subgenres of science fiction.
“Many cyberpunks defy binaries too,” says the introduction to volume one of the cyberpunk zine Resistor by Leslie Anderson, Banana Chan, Elissa Leach and Kira Magrann, “taking on complex identities that aren’t easily checked off in those info forms like M/F or Black/White or Straight/Gay or American/Other. Cyberpunks are also liminal, existing partially out of body somewhere in digital spaces, expressing those parts of their identities through words, sounds and images only interacted with on a screen.” Our everyday world is rendered as an incessant scenario owned by multinational corporations: games, flash-fiction and live action roleplay provide the means by which we might re-represent ourselves in order to be ourselves.
Kira Magrann’s solo-game Emoji Sigil Rose offers a player the chance a create a sigil for sympathetic magic by drawing a single, uninterrupted line between five-to-nine relevant symbols from the emoji on her phone; Leslie Anderson’s story Student – “Hey girly, need a job! Soft beds! Less hours than your factory gig!” – communicates the supply-driven onslaught of a dominant ideology that wants to reduce everyone to a product; Banana Chan’s live-action conspiracy roleplay Zero is played in an internet chatroom and is about an untellable text with a terrible secret: “It’s actually code for what is happening in the world now.” Diagrams by Elissa Leach of ID badges and other corporate paraphernalia connote the imposition of privately-owned space over public life: there are photographs of photographic equipment, games laid out as business presentations, drawings of outmoded pieces of technology ready to be re-appropriated from the overwhelming control and falsity of corporate life.
In Resistor (as in the best cyberpunk) the question of what is real? is everywhere enclosed by the simulated version of the world sold to us by corporations; what is human? are those acts of reterritorialization that allow a protagonist to represent herself, however briefly, as an avatar of self not yet owned by a corporation. “Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulation,” writes Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (1981; trans Sheila Faria Glaser 1994). Baudrillard goes on to outline a three-stage historical process by which any idea of distinguishing between reality and representation has become impossible:
- The image is clearly a substitute or representation of something real (e.g. painting).
- It is possible to distinguish image and representation despite the mass production of imagery (e.g. photography).
- There is no difference between the reality of something and the representation of it (e.g. social media).
This third stage of the precession of simulacra – what Baudrillard and other postmodern theorists term “hyperreality” – was allegorised in The Matrix (1999), and forms much of the dramatic action in many forms of cyberpunk, which is to say one in which real human experience is intermittent, transformative and meaningful. Liquidity of representation and identity is used to counter-balance an all-encompassing corporate simulation of human experience; it’s this metier that makes Resistor (in my opinion) thematically superior to many of the cyberpunk RPGs out there, the greater part of which tend toward a resolutely hard-boiled, masculine aesthetic in which players end up as unthinking reflections of the dominant ideology, festooned in guns, kit and cyberware. I’ve played these sorts of games quite a bit over the years – and hey, I like them a lot – but they form a fairly small part of the overall attitude and sensibility of cyberpunk.
The McGuffin in a fully science-fictional form of cyberpunk is very often a matter of unravelling the representation of something in order to comprehend its transformation into something unexpected; in both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 this is a Memory appropriated from a real person in order to be simulated which then again becomes real (and therefore meaningful); in Akira (1988), the transformation is between human and artificial life; Resistor’s untellable texts, cyberwitches and online avatars describe similar processes of self-alteration, mediated not only by cyberpunk’s dominant mode of action (transgressive violence = revolutionary transformation) but also by its creative agenda (revolutionary transformation = personal freedom).
Feminism functions so well as an operating system for cyberpunk because it is (a) an idea designed to produce a Conceptual Breakthrough throughout society, and (b) was there at the inception of science fiction, when Mary Shelley first dramatized the idea of a human constructed by human agency in Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831). By refusing to separate issues of gender and class, by setting its games amid the hyperreality of image-centric networks and by using feminism to inform the identity of its protagonists, Resistor succeeds in addressing both the specificity of cyberpunk and the capacity of science fiction to describe societal change, and in doing so describes a widespread impulse to resist being owned by people who have no interest in any living thing but themselves.
#Feminism, an anthology of 34 nano-games first published by Fea Livia last year, is available in a second edition from Pelgrane Press. I recommend that you buy it. The graphic design (by Shuo Meng) is the best of any RPG book I know.
Editors Misha Bushyager, Lizzie Stark and Anna Westerling have organised the games into nine sections – Romance, Women and the Media, Body, The Digital Age, On the Move, Playing Well With Others, At Work, Difficult Decisions and Violent Encounters – and refined the description of each game into its own marginalia, thereby communicating at a glance how many players each game requires, how long it takes to play, its emotional intensity on a scale of one to five, what, if any, supplies are needed to play the game, and a number of keywords that indicate the game’s theme. There is no way to open the book without immediately apprehending what it is for or which game might suit your particular purpose. It’s form factor – analogous to a glossy consumer magazine – is inviting, suits being laid flat on a table and subtly indicates its target market and creative agenda.
I tend to prefer those games that either, (a) overcome or undermine misconceptions about feminism by including some of the opinions of those that oppose it (a classical argument), or (b) include a range of inter-subjective opinions about feminism (a postmodern argument), over those that (c) communicate a single point of view with a single idea – but those are my own political sensibilities and I do understand that violence of expression creates its own affect. When I first started reading the work of Angela Carter and Suzy McKee Charnas back in the 90s, it was the violence that drew me in: I needed the dramaturgy of the forced sex change of The Passion of New Eve (1977) and the hybridogenesis of Motherlines (1978) to help me understand the nature and extent of my own false consciousness about patriarchy.
I’ve seen guys of my own age and ethnicity (I’m white and in my mid-40s) say that nano-games, or game-poems, or short games, or whatever you want to call them, aren’t really games in and of themselves, but just an adjunct or a bit of showing off on the part of people who may or may not be able to design a “proper” roleplaying game with mechanics and dice and a fully-realised imagined space. I do not agree with this assessment. Being involved in the 200 Word RPG Challenge taught me that small games reveal a lot about the connections between people and their craving for emotional intimacy. Their brevity is part of their agency, like poems or laughter or farting. I might easily sneak these games into the conversation on a long train journey or into the gaps between longer games at a roleplaying convention: as design strategy, #Feminism is pretty much perfect.
The fusion of Waititi’s aesthetic and Marvel’s story formula works – but the enjoyment comes at the cost of relegating Hela’s invasion of Asgard to a kind of sideshow to the boys-will-be-boys badinage of Thor, Loki and Hulk. Thor returns to Asgard after defeating the fire demon in the film’s prologue to find Loki posing as Odin (Hopkins): Thor – never the brightest tool in the pantheon, hammer notwithstanding – believes he has prevented Ragnarök by removing any possibility of anyone uniting the fire demon’s crown with the Eternal Flame that burns in Odin’s vault. This, in fact, is the deus ex machina McGuffin that affords the Marvel story engine one of its most basic and persistently useful moves: use one Villain to defeat the other just when all seems lost for the Heroes at the end of the movie, as, indeed, was the case at the denouement of the enormously-successful Doctor Strange (2016). Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) pops up here to direct Thor and Loki to their father in Norway, where Odin explains that his impending death will allow Hela, his first-born and general of the armies that brought him the Nine Realms, to return to wreak vengeance on the planet of Asgard. Hela (Blanchett, in a gloriously campy and vicious portrayal of the true nature of a people intent on the Colonization of Other Worlds) obliterates Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, pursues Thor and Loki across the Bifröst Bridge and exiles them into deep space before quickly establishing her rule over Asgard by destroying the Warriors Three, resurrecting her ancient army from the dead and appointing Asgardian champion Skurge (Urban) as her executioner:-