The Cabin in the Woods

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:-

 

The Cabin in the Woods entry

 

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Annihilation

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 EvolutionClimate Change and Medicine:-

 

Annihilation entry

 

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Black Panther

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 AliensAIs 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:-

 

Black Panther entry

 

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Suicide Squad

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“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:-

 

Suicide Squad entry

 

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Monte Cristo

Blindness

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:-

Blindness entry

 

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The Last Jedi

“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:-

 

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi entry

Resistor

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).

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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.

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Photo: Kira Magrann

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:

  1. The image is clearly a substitute or representation of something real (e.g. painting).
  2. It is possible to distinguish image and representation despite the mass production of imagery (e.g. photography).
  3. 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.

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Pandæmonium

 

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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.

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Into the Odd double spread

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.”

Midnight Special

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:-

Midnight Special entry

Midnight Special Poster

 

 

The Defenders

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 The Incredible 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 Hero Doctor 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:

The Defenders entry

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