“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 Cristo1846 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 Kinship1969), 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 (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.
Certain games from the Old School Renaissance connote a class sensibility by moving beyond the sometimes-cosy constraints of modern fantasy and into what critic John Clute calls the “armamentarium” of fantastika – an imaginative space that interrogates the impact of human-occupied processes such as ruins, industrialisation and imperialism.
This sort of roleplaying game very often puts its players in the position of being the looters of treasures, the bearers of new technologies or the foot-soldiers of a colonial power. Fond as I am of those “story games” that seek to correct the European attitudes that have played such a large part in devastating the planet – often by taking the part of protagonists who have been brutalised, or by playing people of different ethnicities or genders, or by de-centralising the authority in the game – I think it is sometimes instructive, as well as fun, to play as one of the aggressors. It is easy to forget that they are as poor and desperate as the rest of us.
Portal Rats (2017) by Tore Nielsen and Neal Stidham – “rats are riff-raff… hardscrabble ne’er-do-well[s] from a tough background found anywhere there is a portal that allows escape from hardship, oppression, a dead-end life…” – is based on The Black Hack by David Black and describes via random tables comprised of pithy and easy-to-combine prompts the kind of high-octane space fantasy found in Thor: Ragnarok(2017) or the Planescape campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1977; rev 1989).
Into the Odd (2015) by Chris McDowall rewrites the industrial hubris of the Western world as a game of survival horror: the precision and brevity of the writing makes it all the more suggestive of a fallen world hollowed-out by human appetites. Bastion Ein Sof (2017) by Joe Banner – “you are a hunter, deemed fit (or expendable) enough to serve the greater cause” – functions as a kind of operating system for Into the Odd by extending the implication of the game’s demiurgical theme into a literal evocation of the terrestrial desolation described in the Book of Enoch, a form of mythology utilised in works of fantastika by authors such as John Milton (1608-1674) and Doris Lessing (1919-2013). Giants and Angels rule a post-apocalyptic earth in which humans must do the bidding of global developments they barely understand.
The aesthetic of Into the Odd brings to mind Pandæmonium (1985; rev 2012), a compendium of first-hand accounts of the machine age between the years 1660 and 1886 that conveys both the heroic promise and the dehumanizing waste of industrialisation. Games like this describe the world we live in rather than the world we want and are all the more effective for using the codes of escapism to do so.
It’s easy to criticise the war-party style of play for its simulated violence: I’ve done this myself on a few occasions. I don’t think the behaviour this style of game describes is a lie, however; rather, a difficult truth that we must face in order to overcome. These are the people too poor to hide away at home while someone less fortunate does the fighting for them.
And… what would you do in their shoes? I speak as a wannabe pacifist who has punched Nazis and committed acts of violence to protect those he loves. “When is it necessary to kill?” asks a victim-aggressor in José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness (1995; trans Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa, 1997), before answering her own question: “When what is alive is already dead.” “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity,” wrote Herman Melville (1819-1891), “nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”
Two men are holed up in a motel, watching an amber alert on the television news (see Media Landscape) about the abduction of eight-year-old Alton Meyer: Meyer sits on the floor of the room the men occupy – its windows are blacked-out with cardboard – reading Comics. These men turn out to be Roy Tomlin (Shannon), Alton’s biological father, and Lucas (Edgerton), a state trooper and Roy’s long-lost friend from childhood. The pair has abducted Alton from “The Ranch”, a quasi-Christian Religious cult based in rural Texas that has been worshipping Alton’s ability to speak in tongues (see Linguistics) and emit beams of pure blue light from his eyes: the cult sees the boy’s Psi Powers as the harbingers of a forthcoming Rapture-like apocalypse. Cult-leader Pastor Calvin Meyer (Shepard), the boy’s adopted father, is interviewed by NSA Communications expert Paul Sevier – played here with some Humour and panache by Adam Driver in the wake of his portrayal of the Villain Kylo Ren in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) – and pointedly asked how streams of numbers from encoded satellite transmissions have found their way into Meyer’s sermons; Pastor Meyer insists Alton received them as revelation from a holy source:-
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:
“Am I the only one who can see the fucking sense, here?” asks K’s boss at the Los Angeles Police Department, Lieutenant Joshi (Wright): “This breaks the world, K.” “The ancient models give the entire endeavour a bad name,” says Wallace’s corporate enforcer and later-model replicant Luv (Hoeks). This is the way mid-twenty first century Earth is organized: cops, renegades and production units. Any production unit that goes renegade is “retired” (i.e. murdered) by a Blade Runner, itself a production unit of a system of Crime and Punishment that exists to protect the commercial interests of the Corporations. The tripartite power structure mirrors the Subhuman/Protagonist/Übermensch methodology of mid-era Philip K Dick, which Dick himself laid out in a long letter to fellow sf writer Ron Goulart in the summer of 1964: “The entire dramatic line of the book hinges on the impact between [the Übermensch] and [the Subhuman],” Dick is quoted as writing to Goulart in Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989), “…the personal problem of [the Subhuman] is the public solution for [the Übermensch].” Here, the “miracle birth” McGuffin of Rachael’s lost child Messiah – a common motif in the work of Philip K Dick, whose dedication to a Drug-fuelled Jungian version of the Gnostic Religion only intensified over the course of the 1960s – is used to relate the domestic concerns of K, and those of the protagonist of the first film, Rick Deckard (Ford), to the world-sized problem faced by Niander Wallace, the Übermensch who replaces Eldon Tyrell in Dick’s schema from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968):-
“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:-
Where stories on a planetary scale might reveal the magnitude of human folly, Cities obscure the private degradation of human motives; both venues, however, allow for the interrogation of the relationship between Identity and civilization. Rosemary’s Baby is in many respects as New Wave as anything that appeared in sf magazine New Worlds or any of the Original Anthologies of the 1960s: rarely can have the mutual indebtedness of the nouvelle vague in Cinema and the new wave in Genre SF been so clearly demonstrated. That the film also reveals the continuing importance of Horror in SF to the emergence of Fantastika as a cornerstone of popular culture is instructive: there is little so cathartic to the human imagination as watching one’s unspoken fears about the malevolence of human society rendered as entertainment.
Rosemary’s Baby achieves this by the way it merges its slow, almost predatory, portrayal of human Psychology under supernatural pressure with its mastery of surrealistic filmmaking techniques: here the razor from Un chien Andalou (1929) by Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí is exchanged for the kitchen knife in the hand of postpartum mother Rosemary Woodhouse (Farrow), the keyhole voyeurism of Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) by Jean Cocteau repurposed as the neighbourly manipulations of Roman (Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Gordon) and the clandestine marital set-up of Les Diaboliques (1955) by Henri-Georges Clouzot recycled as the selfish ambition of Rosemary’s flaky and avaricious husband Guy (Cassavetes). Les Diaboliques, released as Diabolique in the United States and sometimes translated as The Devils or The Fiends, also influenced the Freudian terror of Psycho (1960). Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho (1959) on which Alfred Hitchcock‘s seminal thriller is based, cited Les Diaboliques as his favourite horror film. It is the way director and screenwriter Roman Polanski fuses the oneiric force of Rosemary’s inner life to the interior of the New York apartment block to which she and her husband have moved that causes the viewer to identify so closely with her predicament: