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 TheFaculty (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:-
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 (Technologynoir 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.
Vigilante lawyer Matt Murdock, protagonist of Daredevil (2015-current), persuades binge-drinking private investigator Jessica Jones (2015-current), former Prison inmate Luke Cage (2016-current) and billionaire martial arts expert Danny Rand from Iron Fist (2017), to combine their efforts against the perfidious Asian Crime syndicate “The Hand”, the Secret Masters behind a series of earthquakes that begins to afflict contemporary New York.
The original line-up of The Defenders from Marvel Feature #1 (December 1971) included the man from Atlantis Namor, the Alien emissary the Silver Surfer, and TheIncredible Hulk, central character of both the US tv series (1977-1982) and the film of the same name (2008); this was coordinated by Comic-book HeroDoctor Strange, most recently given the big-budget treatment in Doctor Strange (2016). The membership of the four-strong team of Superheroes changed frequently, however, over the course of its run in Marvel Comics from 1972 until 1986, as it did on a mission-by-mission basis under the name The Secret Defenders (1993-1995), and was always subject to the kind of contractual availability and convenience that made it suitable for current-day aims of the Television arm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
“Since being incarcerated I’ve developed empathy with those who’ve suffered at the hands of the law,” Wilson Fisk tells Frank Castle/The Punisher in episode nine of season two of Daredevil, inviting comparison with the character who may be the prototype of the modern Superhero, Edmont Dantès, the protagonist of Le Comte de Monte-Christo (28 August 1844-15 January 1846 Journal des Débats; 1844-1845 18vols; trans as The Count of Monte Cristo1846 3vols) by Alexandre Dumas. “Everyone warned me about Prison but I find it refreshing,” Fisk continues: “It’s the perfect microcosm of the animal world.” (See Social Darwinism.) What prison, in fact, reveals in both Daredevil and The Count of Monte Cristo is the dirty secret of free-market democracy: corruption. All four of The Defenders witness the effect of criminal exploitation on the Media Landscape of New York and the Economics of their local communities. “The City you’re sworn to protect is Ground Zero in a War it doesn’t even know is happening,” insists Daredevil’s mentor Stick (Glen). If the Pulp traditions of storytelling from which Daredevil and Iron Fist inherit many of their Clichés and visual tropes used Western Paranoia about the Yellow Peril to convey fears about the consequences of Imperialism in Asia, here the Secret Masters “The Hand” relay domestic concerns about the war on Drugs and the United States’ role in geopolitics since World War Two, albeit in a way that does not quite call the American way of life into question. Societal anxieties are instead called forth in the courtroom trial of murderous war veteran Frank Castle/The Punisher, who seems to epitomize everything the United States fears about its militarism and dependence on the family unit as the basis of social cohesion. “This trial isn’t about vigilantes, it’s about the failure of the justice system,” Foggy Nelson tells the jury. “New York needs heroes,” pleads Matt Murdock. “All I want is the truth about something,” says Karen Page, frantic about the impurity of the motives of everyone around her. “Kill your way to justice!” bellows Wilson Fisk:-
Already, during the first episode of The OA, one of the integral tethering points of Fantastika to a logic of sense – that events inside the fictive space should be read as literally happening – is disrupted. Transgression and Equipoise are put to fantastika’s traditional purpose of subjecting the fixity of the world to “fruitful instability” but there is little ontological framework by which to direct The OA’s system of Metaphysics: everything is diegesis and doubt. The fact the viewer does not know The OA’s true origin story means that we cannot properly invest in The OA‘s narrative arc; unless perhaps it is to question the very basis of consensual narrative. A film like Guillermo Del Toro‘s El laberinto del fauno [“Pan’s Labyrinth”] (2006) by contrast begins and ends its tale of a fallen princess oppressed by all-too-real forces in a Secondary World [see TheEncyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], making itself all the more concrete by turning its narrative full-circle. The OA‘s refusal to let its audience know where it stands complicates any attempt at interpretation, a decision accentuated by placing credit sequences at unusual junctures in episodes of unequal lengths, disjunctive pacing and switching between points-of-view and, most tellingly, by alternately supporting The OA’s version of events and throwing them into doubt. We are not showing you the literal truth, the makers of The OA are saying, because a human being literally does not know where she comes from or why she is here.
A science fiction story – even one written by a fabulist – would not play the game in quite the same way. Russell Hoban‘s Fremder (1996) uses a fictionalized version of quantum Physics to assert a subjective understanding of reality:
Centricity of event as perceived by a participant in the event is reciprocal with the observed universe: the universe configures the event and the event configures the universe. Each life is a sequence of event-universes, each sequence having equal reality subjectively and no reality objectively. Objective reality is not possible within the sequence, therefore subjective reality, regardless of consensus, is the only reality.
“Luke, I am your brother” may not have quite the same cultural resonance as “Luke, I am your father” but the former phrase, spoken to eponymous protagonist Luke Cage (Colter) in episode eight of this seminal Superhero series, performs a similar function to that of the famous line spoken by Darth Vader at the denouement of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980): it exchanges the Inner Space and emotional turmoil of its protagonist for the society-wide threat posed by a dominant ideology too pernicious to be left unchecked. Both Lukes, Cage and Skywalker, must decipher the buried truths of their family set-ups in order to repair the deep-seated divisions in the culture to which they belong:-
That the resulting series achieves this never-ending chain of referents without tiring its audience is a testament to its technical acuity: the hairstyles are spot-on, the social attitudes rendered as knowing Satire, even the acne is carefully rendered; there is an interesting tension between nostalgia and period piece throughout. Here are the Children in SF of the 1980s, say the Duffer brothers: remember them with us for we were they. Devotees of Genre SF may soon be aware that Stranger Things alludes to the SF Megatext without really understanding its conventions: the human-sized world of the townspeople and their children does not cross-pollinate meaningfully with the “Upside-Down” Dimension beyond the town, plotlines are left to wither once they have done the job of reminding us, and there is little or none of that exchange of outer reality and Inner Space prevalent in the increasingly popular New-Wave writings of Philip K Dick and J G Ballard. If there is a literary antecedent to Stranger Things, it is the oeuvre of Stephen King: a decent but morally-compromised sheriff, a dangerous pubescent woman, a somnambulant town encircling the heart of darkness. There is none of the supercharged existential awe of the brothers Strugatski‘s Roadside Picnic (1972; trans 1977) or the arresting emanations of the strange and unknowable from Jeff VanderMeer‘s Southern Reach trilogy (2014). Stranger Things is all storyboard and no theme. As such, it is better television than it is science fiction:-
Inland Empire differs from Lynch’s previous films Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) in that it does not divide – albeit confusingly and possibly only in retrospect – into sections of fantasy and reality. Those movies marketed themselves on there being a solution embedded within their nightmarish Möbius strip narratives. The structure of Inland Empire is more akin to that of the metaphorical web from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to which Lynch himself referred, one supporting a network of hyperlinks to the repeating themes of Lynch’s career, the process of making films and the city of Los Angeles, “Inland Empire” being a named suburb of the City that conquered the world by commoditizing its dreams. From Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet (1986) to Laura Palmer in the Television series Twin Peaks (1990-current) and its feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), the key to the lurid and surreal world of David Lynch has always been sexual abuse. Lynch shot Inland Empire without a script, handing each actor new dialogue each day on set. “I write the thing scene by scene and I don’t have much of a clue where it will end,” he said in a 2005 interview. “It’s a risk, but I have this feeling that because all things are unified, this idea over here in that room will somehow relate to that idea over there in the pink room.” Lead actors Laura Dern and Justin Theroux said they had no idea what the film was about while they were shooting it: a sentiment echoed by many viewers who have seen it since. Monologues delivered by Dern’s character towards the end of the movie strip away some of the artifice of filmmaking to disclose the sex-work that Lynch seems to feel underpins the Hollywood dream and the damage done to those sufficiently mesmerized to enter the dangerous alleys and backrooms behind its marketplace.