Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

So, up front:

1. This is a very funny and charming movie, in a broad-brush banter-driven general-audience kind of way.  I had a lot of fun; I laughed much more than I cringed.  If you’re willing to put up with Hollywood-style jokes as a general matter, you’ll probably enjoy yourself.

2. In addition to being a funny and charming movie, this could have been a genuinely deep and interesting movie, with something worthwhile to say.  It wouldn’t even have had to be very different in order to accomplish that.  But it botched certain key narratives enough that the chance for serious quality was completely lost. 

I’ve felt this way about a few other comedies, notably Simon Pegg’s The World’s End.  It always bothers me tremendously, more than it probably should.  I understand that the writers are trying first and foremost to elicit the yuk-yuks, that no one really expects Guardians of the Galaxy to function as Literature, but — you had all the pieces in place, people!  Why wouldn’t you make good art, real art, when the opportunity is right there lying in front of you? 

I’m going to need to spoil major plot points in order to go into this further.  If you care about Marvel movie spoilers, read on at your own risk.

Continue reading “Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Advertisements
Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

“Book Review”: Terra Ignota

This is a discussion of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders, which are the first two novels in a sci-fi series called Terra Ignota.

I’ve put “book review” in quotation marks because I cannot pretend that my essay is meant to provide useful information to people who are considering reading these books.  It’s not even really meant to discuss the books’ artistic qualities at all, although in fact it does that thing, in the process of getting where it needs to go.  It is a philosophical complaint that happens to have their text as its substrate. 

I am writing this for an imagined audience that has already read Terra Ignota.  Not even because of spoilers — although there are some spoilers, at least in a plot-structural sense — but just because I’m trying to grapple with the implications of a complicated thing, too complicated for me to be able to reproduce it in summary at the level of fidelity that would be needed. 

If you’re interested in getting a more normal sort of book review from me, all I can provide is the following:

1. For various complicated reasons, there is no way in hell that I can be remotely objective about Terra Ignota as a piece of literature, and you should probably turn to someone else if you want sound analysis of its artistic merit. 

2. That being said: the critics all seem to be describing it as a beautiful jewel of a series, and as far as I’m concerned, in this case the critics are completely right.  The prose is clever, and intricate, and manages to remain fun despite its incredible density; the best of the characters are refreshingly individual, original, and bizarre; the author’s chops as an intellectual historian shine through, and she takes a contagious delight in treating serious ideas with the seriousness they deserve; and yet, in the end, all of these are garnishes beside the real feast.  Given the values her own writing espouses, I can pay Dr. Palmer no higher compliment than to say that she channels the sensawunda of Golden Age sci-fi, in a pure way that we haven’t much seen since the Golden Age.  She dreams up weirdness after weirdness that can be dropped upon the world, and asks “what if?,” and then takes the time to explore all the answers to that question.  I want to call it “great worldbuilding,” but in so doing I would mislead.  In this fallen age, “worldbuilding” is a term that has come to mean something less remarkable than the thing these novels are doing.   This is not RPG-sourcebook material — this is not “check out the clever rules of my magic system!,” or “look at all the heraldry and politics I made up for my feuding noble houses!,” or anything so common — this is imagining substantively different ways that reality could be.  It is good.  You should read it.

Continue reading ““Book Review”: Terra Ignota”

“Book Review”: Terra Ignota

Book Review: Portal of a Thousand Worlds

This is a discussion of a fantasy novel, which ended up being weird enough in an experiential/literary way that I thought it worth some extended thought.  Quite apart from anything else, it’s a pretty fun read, as fantasy novels go.  Good prose, engaging characters, etc.  If “magic assassins and court intrigue in fictionalized Qing-era China” sounds appealing, well, Portal of a Thousand Worlds will probably appeal.  It will also be a bit disconcerting, for reasons that constitute the topic of this review.  But overall I probably recommend it.

That said: I cannot talk about the things that make this book noteworthy without spoiling it in a very substantial way.  I am not holding anything back.  So, uh, don’t look below the cut unless you’re OK being spoiled.  Go and read Portal of a Thousand Worlds first, if you think you might be interested.

Continue reading “Book Review: Portal of a Thousand Worlds”

Book Review: Portal of a Thousand Worlds

Reconcepting the Bleak Academy

Somewhere, beyond the boundaries of all we know, in a terrible and alien realm —

— or perhaps it is actually hidden somewhere very close, nestled away from the prying eyes of heroes and saviors —

— there is a school that will make you into an enemy of existence, and train you to build monstrous wonders that stand defiant against the order of the world.

For the sake of my own health and happiness, for the well-being of my soul, this thing must be true.  Even if it isn’t.

*****

This idea has haunted me for a long, long time.  Bits and pieces of it, anyway.

The whole enemy-of-the-world, pitting-your-creation-against-reality thing is a power trope for me; it’s lodged good and deep in my psyche.  I’m not sure how it came to be quite so important, so defining.  Maybe that’s just what happens when you grow up alienated and bellicose and obsessed with genre fiction — you become hostile to the things that surround you, which might be hard to maintain if you felt totally immersed in those things, but as it is you can’t help thinking about alternatives.  And then you start self-identifying as “the guy who’s invested in the alternatives-to-reality that dwell in his heart,” and by that point the path before you has been prepared.

Anyway.

It probably wouldn’t have stuck, for me, if there hadn’t been so much good literature I could use to build on the idea.  The Cthulhu Mythos first and foremost, of course.  I started reading Lovecraft and Chambers young, and from the first I had the distinct sense that — contrary to the authors’ desires — I was supposed to be cheering for the aliens to tear down the world and replace it with something strange and wonderful.  Why else would it be so goddamn easy to identify with Wilbur Whateley?  Why else would the eerie discomfort of Carcosa and its King be so cool?  Lovecraft himself was obviously terrified of the monstrous weirdness he was depicting, and fine, that’s an author’s prerogative, but he sure did make it appealing.

(The Dream Cycle complicates this dynamic a lot, but I’ll just say…I would ride into Celephais, in a heartbeat, even if Kuranes ultimately wished that he hadn’t.)

(Like every young Sondheim fan, I get misty-eyed over the song “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods.  My mental version has slightly different lyrics, though, and it’s about a very different breed of “giants.”)

And then there was the contemporary stuff, more narrowly-focused on demiurgery and blasphemous personal vision, less defined by a fear of seafood.  The witch-labyrinths from Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  The Infernal Exalted, and their demonic patrons, from Exalted.  The Excrucians from Nobilis, by Jenna Moran.  The lamia and their “songs” from Dreaming Waters, also by Jenna Moran.

Consume enough media like that, and you’ll start to think that maybe you can create something that will stand defiant against the order of the world.

*****

School is also a power thing for me, albeit in a sort of twisted way.

I spent twenty of my thirty years of life as a student of some sort.  Many of my friends are academics.  My wife is a schoolteacher.  My mother is a professional school-admissions counselor.  I make money on the side tutoring people for school entrance exams.

There has been a lot of school in my life.  School has a kind of resonance for me that basically no other setting does.  Office work, court intrigue, quests to travel across the continent and defeat the Dark Lord — who can take such ephemera seriously?  They don’t have classes, or curricula, or reading assignments, or anything.

And yet, as it turns out, I’ve always been kind of unhappy and uncomfortable in school.  Certainly I was never very good at using scholastic infrastructure to learn.  Explaining that in depth would require more text, and more personal revelation, than anyone really wants…let it suffice to say that I’ve always been too prickly, too reflexively unwilling to work with authority figures, for standard-style instruction to work super well.  There are some bad memories, and even more, a lot of memories of wasted time.

I could get resentful, and write off the whole idea of schooling as a thing-to-which-I-am-opposed.  I’ve done a lot of that, in truth.  Disgruntlement comes naturally.  But there’s still a part of me that really wants to make it come together somehow.  I would like the glories of my youth, the ivied halls and the “life of the mind” rhetoric and so forth, to be redeemable within my own ideals and my own aesthetic.  Even if I’m notionally aligned against the schools that I actually attended, some part of them seeped into me, and…if I could find a way…I would be happier to honor that part than to cut it out in the name of consistency.

*****

So yeah.  A school for world-destroyers and blasphemous demiurges.  That’s the ticket.  The notion came together in my head a few years ago, and I got really excited about it.  I figured I could do something really cool with it.

Then I learned that there was one small problem with that project —

— someone had already done something really cool with it.  Jenna Moran.  Of course.

Here I’m referring to the Bleak Academy from Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, an institution that is basically “Excrucian college.”  It is a thing of grace and beauty.  It is a place of slice-of-life school stories intermingled with existential horror and really wonky philosophy, all presented in standard-issue gorgeous Moran prose.  It’s the sort of place that would undoubtedly have comfortable resonances for me, and the sort of place where I could feel like I was genuinely taking the enemy-of-the-world thing seriously.

Even the actual schooling part reads like it was designed to appeal to my sensibilities!

“I assume it’s sort of like a school campus. It’s probably in the model of a European campus or monastery, complete with ancient architecture and mad-eyed scholars hiding in the stacks or labyrinths. There are grad-students chained to their cubicles as they process ancient, blasphemous texts, because that’s the place where their nightmares led them. There are god-students in their onmyouji hats floating amongst the clouds, exchanging thunderbolts, because that’s the direction of their dreams. The place pulses with a sense of hidden marvel but also of delirium. Its curriculum focuses heavily on independent study as each person builds a Hell or godhood for themselves.”

Jenna Moran, Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine

Yeah!

(And the most me-appropriate sub-college, the one where I’m obviously supposed to map myself, is “full of bleak wizards” but in fact structured around the study of law and moral philosophy.  Which feels…especially resonant.)

I saw that, and I put my project plans down.  I mean, what would be the point?

*****

Except that I think I’m going to pick them back up again.  On a trial basis, at least.

Because the Bleak Academy, as stunning as it is, isn’t quite right.  Not for my purposes, anyway.

…in that the whole thing is organized around the traditional Nobilis Excrucian sub-categories, which always seemed kind of hollow and arbitrary to me.

…in that the Headmaster of the Bleak Academy is Death, or at least “the lord of Death’s domain,” which strikes me as monstrously inappropriate for an institution with this purpose.

…in that the entire Chuubo’s universe is narrative, and the narratives surrounding the Bleak Academy are all about its being the Terrifying Other, and that’s the opposite of what I want.  I mean, yeah, OK, I kind of do want to be the Terrifying Other — but not from my own perspective, and it’s my own perspective that I’m trying to build up here.  I want to know, not how to stare into Excrucian eyes, but how to see through them myself.  And Moran’s characteristic brand of pop-mythic numinous hand-waving doesn’t really give me anything to work with.

…in that the thing that matters about a school, above all else, is what is learned.  The Bleak Academy is too Other for anyone consuming the text to get to sit in on the lectures or read the textbooks.

And, well, creating something from yourself is sort of what this whole thing is about —

*****

So I will try to conjure up my own school for demiurgery and blasphemy and world-breaking.  Maybe it will be too derivative to stand on its own.  Maybe my complaints about the Bleak Academy, my points of desired divergence, aren’t substantive enough for it to be worth the effort.  I could believe that.  But I’d rather give it a shot then sit here looking awkwardly at this lovely-but-not-quite-perfect toy that I’ve been given.

I’m really not sure what I’ll do with it.  Maybe it will be a short story, or a novel.  Maybe it will be a funky indie super-niche tabletop RPG; “watch yourself go from student to cosmic horror, from the inside” seems like a fun story for people to play out themselves.  I feel like it probably isn’t meant to become a LARP, although given my history, I suppose one can’t ever be sure.

*****

What do I know about it, at this juncture?

Very little.  Mostly there are a few scattered thoughts on curriculum.

  • Probably the whole institution is built around independent study, much like the Bleak Academy.  I wouldn’t be able to deal with it otherwise.  And normal classes don’t feel like they’re good enough at differentiating people to produce demiurges.
  • Probably there are two basic classes that you have to take early: some sort of practical physics-like principles-of-existence class that teaches you how to break down the world and replace it with your own stuff, and some sort of moral philosophy seminar that cements your resolve and helps you grow into your nature.
  • After that…I imagine a lot of small specializations, more like merit badges than like majors.  Meditation and practical psychology for the students who mostly want to change themselves and turn into monsters.  Developmental psychology, and something vaguely like bio and vaguely like Paracelsian alchemy, for the students who want to fashion demons.  Cosmology and metaphysics and architecture for the students whose visions are the broadest and least personal.  Rhetoric, and warcraft, for the students who intend to tangle with heroes and saviors.

*****

Your thoughts are very much welcomed.

Reconcepting the Bleak Academy

Something Close to a Stream of Consciousness Regarding Magical Realism

I have a lasting long-term disagreement with my wife over the value of magical realism, and of the many branches of fantasy literature that are sort of like magical realism — you know, Borges, and K.J. Bishop, and pretty much everything ever directed by Ikuhara, and suchlike.  All the fantasies where the weirdness is essentially symbolic rather than systemic.  I’m very fond of this stuff.  She really doesn’t like it.

(Although she does seem to like Utena, or at least to be willing to tolerate it…)

(…there’s a lot of local cultural pressure in that direction, though.)

ANYWAY.

This makes me sad, because it prevents me from sharing stuff I care about with a person I care about.  That happens sometimes.  Right now it’s making me particularly sad, because I’m currently a bit obsessed with Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine — an innovative and brilliantly deranged tabletop RPG system by the innovative and brilliantly deranged Jenna Moran — and I find myself wanting to set up a game that borrows a lot of bits from it, but a lot of the bits I like best are sort of magical-realism-flavored in the relevant way (I think), and it seems like that might be a serious drawback for at least one of the players I would most want to be involved.

It’s possible that there’s just nothing to be done about this.  But it’s also possible that if I can defend my taste well enough, if I can explain what it is about magical realism that I think works so well…or, at least, what it is that’s capable of working so well…that it will be compelling.  That I can inspire an appreciation of the subgenre even within someone who’s inclined to be deeply skeptical.

That sort of thing works sometimes, right?

*****

My wife’s core complaint, as I understand it, is that the settings and narratives of magical-realism stories make no sense.  That things just happen, for no reason.  That there’s no system determining what’s possible and what’s not, making all outcomes equally meaningless.  That you, the audience, are not allowed to understand what it is that’s going on.

There’s clearly a direct sense in which this complaint is very grounded in reality.  I’d be hard-pressed to dispute any of the actual claims in the above paragraph, except for the value judgment that is “making all outcomes equally meaningless.”  Not having a system, and not really understanding what weirdnesses are and aren’t possible, are pretty much the concepts that define the subgenre.

Nonetheless the objection rings hollow to me.  The literature I love isn’t being nonsensical for the sake of being nonsensical, and it isn’t even being nonsensical for the sake of being cool.  It has a real and powerful logic behind it, and the choices that are made are made for reasons that the reader can comprehend.  Just…not if he tries to comprehend them in the same way that he would comprehend the magic of a Brandon Sanderson novel.  It’s a different logic, with a different set of operational rules.

There’s a cop-out answer here, a false path, which is meta-narrativity.  It’s about making a statement, or developing a theme.  The author is making trying to convey something meaningful and important to you-the-audience, and the important question is whether or not it does that successfully.  It is of no consequence whether or not you can build a canon or a continuity to explain it.  And if you don’t believe that, you should be satisfied with the midichlorian theory of the ForceMy wife would be very irked with that explanation, I believe, and rightly so.  Stories are meant to immerse you in their events.  That is what the art form does.  By telling a story at all, you are implicitly making a deal with your audience: care about this thing I’m making up on its own terms, let some part of yourself pretend it’s for real, and you’ll get something out of it.  If you’re willing to betray that deal just to make a point, you have no business telling a story in the first place.  Write an argumentative essay or something.

But there’s also a true answer, a valid explanation of the logic behind magical realism.  Or so I posit, anyway.  And, in its shortest possible formulation, that true answer is this:

Magical realism reflects the world, not as it exists within a techno-sociopolitical model of reality, but as it exists within your ordinary subjective anagogically-reasoning mind.  Then does whatever is necessary to inject magic into that world. 

*****

The universe is many different things, all at the same time.

But “the universe” is really big and hard to talk about.  So let’s try again, going with something much simpler.

An apple is many different things, all at the same time.  On the very most fundamental level, the “truest” level, it’s a mess of quantum foam or 1-dimensional superstrings or sub-elementary-particle realities of some kind.  It’s also — simultaneously — a bunch of quarks, and a bunch of atoms, and a bunch of organic molecules.

(…except that none of those things is true, really, because physics and chemistry don’t recognize concepts like “apple.”  When you model the universe at quark-granularity, it’s going to be very hard to find the boundaries where apple becomes not-apple.  But in theory you could, if you were Laplace’s Demon or some comparably omniscient entity.  You could extrapolate the workings of a human mind, and figure out how to express the human-formed apple/non-apple distinction in terms of stupidly complex quark arrangements, presumably working through a succession of quark-based models of atomic physics and chemistry and so forth.)

And that apple is also a biological entity, of course, with cells and an ecosystem and a genetic lineage that you can talk about in the language of evolution.  And it’s a commodity subject to the laws of economics.  And it’s a powerful cultural symbol with unavoidable connotations of knowledge and sin.  And it’s a deeply personal mnemonic trigger with equally-unavoidable connotations of romance and innocence and joy, at least to someone with wistful memories of going apple-picking with his college girlfriend.

All those things are true, all at once.  And we can understand them all, to a greater or lesser extent.  But we can’t understand them all simultaneously.  Our ability to work with our own simplified models of reality isn’t anywhere near good enough to do that.  Talking about the apple in a way that expresses both the truth of its quark-nature and the truth of its commodity-nature might well require more computational power than exists in the universe, and certainly requires more computational power than exists in anyone’s head.  I, Balioc, am a mighty demon indeed…but I can’t even count how many orders of magnitude there are between me and a guy like Laplace’s Demon.

So fine.  Our models are limited.  We focus on one “level” of reality at a time, zooming in and out as necessary.

*****

These levels-of-reality are stacked, with some of them being “deeper” and “more fundamental” than others, such that you can completely derive the less-fundamental ones from sufficiently complete knowledge of the more-fundamental ones.  Something like that, anyway.  It’s probably not actually a single ordinal column — I don’t think you can perfectly model economics by using the rules of poetic metaphor, or vice versa.  But there’s a rough sense in which sociology is derivable from psychology, which is derivable from biology, which is derivable from chemistry, all the way down to the quantum foam or whatever.

This is important.

*****

What is magic?  Magic is changing the rules of reality.  It allows for new rules, different rules, added by the person laying out the fantasy.

But at what level of reality are those rules applied?

There are a lot of answers to that question that totally fail to work, at least if you want a story that feels like a story.  “Oooh, ooh, I’m going to create a magic system where gravity causes particles with mass to be repelled from one another instead of attracted towards one another!”  It’s not clear to me what world you end up with there — I know very, very, very little about physics — but I’ll bet money that it doesn’t contain many events that a human would regard as narratively worthwhile.  Things get almost as wonky if you futz around with the core rules of chemistry or biology.  Or even with the rules of economics or psychology.  That’s not how you create a functional fantasy.

The standard fantasy story starts by modeling the world on the level of society, politics, and technology.  There are people who have techniques for doing stuff, and those people interact with one another.  The reified objects of this model, the irreducibles, are “people” and “techniques.”  The magic, the new set of rules, generally takes the form of modifications to the technology.  People have different techniques for doing stuff than the ones we’re familiar with, and the techniques need to be used in odd-seeming ways, and maybe people get access to them in odd-seeming ways.  A wizard can throw a fireball, or see distant events in a bowl of water, instead of not being able to do those things.  And maybe he can do those things just by saying just certain words in a certain order, or maybe they also require him to be in a specific psychological state, or to be born of a certain bloodline, or something.  These truths have to be taken as brute fact, in the context of the story — they can’t be derived from any underlying rules of “physics,” because the narrative isn’t modeling things at the level of physics, it’s modeling things at the level of technology.  If any actual causal explanation is provided, it’s almost certain to be a phlogiston-style explanation that doesn’t have any moving parts / predictive power / broad applicability.  Like “elemental spirits” or “mystic energy” or “mind-power.”

(NOTE: This is true even of very sophisticated and high-complexity magic systems like Brandon Sanderson’s.  Allomancy provides an excellent example here.  There are lots of rules explaining exactly what allomancy can and can’t do, and exactly who can do what with allomancy, and exactly what allomancers have to do in order to achieve the effects they desire…in other words, Sanderson goes into tremendous detail explaining the specs of the technology that he’s provided, all the things that a clever and curious user would want to know.  But there’s no underlying science.  No way to model the process that goes [eating tin –> heightened physical senses] in terms that can be understood and applied elsewhere.  It’s just a thing that’s true.  If you try to label the causal arrow that connects the Shards of Adonalsium and the effects they have on the universe, you’re pretty much reduced to calling it “magic!”)

(Which is fine.  Better than fine.  I’m glad that Sanderson gave us a story, not a bizarro-world physics simulator.)

Some fantasies also mess around with the rules of sociopolitics directly, usually by creating sapient nonhuman species whose normal behavior is somehow weird by human standards.

Now, the thing is…when you model reality on one level, you’re also modeling everything that can be derived from that level.  The more-fundamental levels don’t even exist — if you ask about the traits of an individual atom in Gandalf’s hat, the only coherent answer anyone can give you is “it’s not there” — but the less-fundamental levels will arise emergently.  When you set up a bunch of rules about quarks, those rules will determine in what ways the quarks come together to form atoms (or fail to do that), so your rules implicitly contain atomic physics within them.  And so on.

Changes to your model will ripple upwards, affecting your universe in more and more drastic ways.  Tinkering with the rules of atomic physics makes biology look completely fucking different.  As in, “the concept of biology is not even coherent anymore, we need wholly new mind-structures to incorporate the wholly new words we’d need to describe the things that are going on instead.”

The level of individual personal narrative is above the level of techno-sociopolitics.  So when you tinker with the techno-sociopolitical rules, individual personal narratives become completely fucking different, at least when the individuals in question have any contact with the changed rules.

A lot of bad fantasy just sort of ignores this, and tries to pretend it isn’t true.  (“Yeah, my world has teleportation magic that allows wizards to travel to pseudo-China and back in the blink of an eye.  But the culture is still pseudo-medieval-England with no real trade or foreign influence, because…look, Kings of Leon!”)  A lot of good fantasy does exactly the same thing, only with better execution.  The Lord of the Rings, for example.  (“…explain to me again how all the life-changing elvish technology somehow hasn’t spread to anyone else?  How it is that Gondor, nestled up against Mordor as it, has no contact whatsoever with Harad?”)

There’s also a lot of good more-realistic fantasy that treats this thing like a feature rather than a bug.  Here I’m talking about narratives like LeGuin’s Earthsea and Bakker’s Second Apocalypse.  They feature societies that look exactly the way you’d expect them to look, given the magic they have — and some of the people in those societies have lives that are really bizarre, because that’s where the logic of the worldbuilding leads you.  If you’re willing to count sci-fi tech as “magic,” Bujold is a great example of this; technologies like the uterine replicator and Jacksonian cloning generate pretty much the same usages, and the same conflicts, that they would in “real life.”  And thus you get, uh, things like the Durona Group and the ridiculous mass-reproduction plot from A Civil Campaign.  At the end of this path lies Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, where you devote yourself entirely to unpacking the crazy ramifications of your techno-sociopolitical-level rules changes.  It can be a lot of fun.

But this approach has costs.  In particular, when it comes to personal narrative, it leads you inexorably to an uncomfortable trilemma.  You can

(a) have magic totally absent;

(b) have magic that’s present but is lame enough not to do much; or

(c) have magic that warps everything around it, so that the narratives become freaky and unrecognizable, totally in thrall to their own internal logic.

If the thing you want is one of those things, that’s fine.  But maybe it isn’t, always.  Maybe you want a story about magic that feels interesting and important, but doesn’t warp everything around it.  Maybe you want to consume a text about something that’s discernibly similar to your own life, but with magic in it, so that you can imagine how it might feel to engage with that magic.  Maybe you want to imagine how magic might change the rules that seem to govern your actual day-to-day existence.

*****

Magical realism models individual personal narrative directly.  It doesn’t talk about the broader effects of technology or society or politics, in the same way that conventional fantasy doesn’t talk about covalent bonds or superstrings.  It just asks you to think about life as you ordinarily perceive it, with your ordinary everyday consciousness, not trying to encompass abstractions.  And then it changes the rules.  With magic.

The rules of your ordinary everyday non-abstract life are unlikely to be anything particularly abstract themselves.  They’re probably things like “wanting something really really hard doesn’t mean that you’ll get it.”  Or “the popular crowd is intimidating, but it doesn’t actually have any real power.”  Or “even the most extraordinary-seeming people turn out to be just regular old humans in the end.”

So you introduce some magic —

— and you get a world where wanting something really really hard does mean that you’ll get it.  Like Utena.  And then you have to play out the consequences of that being true.

— or a world where the popular crowd actually has terrifying levels of power over life and death.  Like Yuri Kuma Arashi.  And then you have to play out the consequences of that being true.

— or a world where the extraordinary people can turn out to be numinous monsters with incomprehensible appetites.  Like The Etched City.  And then you have to play out the consequences of that being true.

And, like…if you try to apply these rules on a techno-sociopolitical level, and build a whole techno-sociopolitical world up from them, it quickly becomes incomprehensible and absurd.  But you don’t have to do that.  The narrative is not modeling anything techno-sociopolitical; it is modeling individual people and their private worlds.  Within its confines, technology and society and politics (in the broader sense) don’t exist, any more than individual atoms exist in The Lord of the Rings.  And the individual people, and their private worlds, are real and important.  They deserve some magic too.

*****

Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine has a really cool way of approaching this idea.  Several really cool ways, in fact.

It presents you with a variety of sub-settings.  And within those sub-settings, it presents you with these really broad-brush narrative-level rules that are metaphysical truth.  Like, in the glitzy neon Tokyo-esque retail wonderland of Arcadia — a place specifically designed for shopping adventures in the classic slice-of-life anime mold — there are defining principles that state “You will spend more money than you intended to.” and “Boys have to carry bags for girls.”  Those are, according to the game mechanics, actual laws of the universe in Arcadia!  Like gravity or natural selection!

And, to me, this seems like an incredibly powerful and useful thing on a narrative front.  It represents a small piece of the universe the way it actually feels, from the inside, in some minor but telling ways.  It manifests, as game truth, some things that have all the perceived reality and perceived weight of natural law (like “you always spend more money in this place than you intended to”).  It externalizes some aspects of PC decision-making, in ways that parallel the ways in which actual day-to-day decisions feel somewhat externalized.  It’s clearly magic.  There’s no place on Earth that has that effect on everyone.  But it’s magic that changes the rules in an understandable, meaningful way.

It makes no bloody sense, if you’re modeling the universe techno-sociopolitically.  The Arcadians, if they are anything like actual humans, would ruthlessly exploit these features of their terrain in all sorts of weird ways; before long, Arcadia would bear no resemblance whatsoever to a friendly little shopping arcade.  But who the hell cares?  Our techno-sociopolitical models aren’t anywhere near granular enough to produce effects like that.  And they’re good effects.

Similarly, Chuubo’s reifies specific kinds of genre expectations and narrative arcs in a way that pushes PCs down certain coherent character-development paths.  Sometimes this gets so magically-realistic that you can feel your brain dribbling out through your ears — your PC can become a world-shattering god without actually shattering the world, or even changing much of anything for anyone else, just because his own personal story is about that kind of apotheosis.  It’s a weird, mind-bendy, non-systematic way of looking at existence.  But the things it’s talking about, and playing with, aren’t actually any less real than the things that conventional wizards-and-empires fantasy talks about and plays with.  They’re just…less atomic.  Less abstract.  More rooted in the little details of life.

And I think that’s pretty neat.

Something Close to a Stream of Consciousness Regarding Magical Realism

The Un-Topia, Interlude: When We Are All Kings

Before I move on to the criticisms…I’d like to talk a bit more about the un-topian model of society and its benefits.  In a slightly-more-concrete kind of way.

*****

When I was a kid, I read Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun, a sci-fi detective novel set on a planet called Solaria.

As I remember it, on Solaria pretty much every human lived like a futuristic version of an English country noble, ruling over a barony “populated” by robots.  All the big, high-coordination, hard-labor jobs — agriculture, resource extraction, manufacture, etc. — were done by vast armies of faceless state-owned robots toiling somewhere out of sight.  Personal services and small-scale crafts were done on the estates by privately-owned robots with better UI.  If you were like most Solarians, your “work” consisted of telling your robots what you wanted them to do for you; you could devote yourself to whatever you wanted, of course, and everyone had his own pursuits and passions, but no one worried about economic productivity.  A few people had to do high-level management for the armies of state-owned worker drones, which entailed a certain amount of “real” work, and the people who took up this burden were honored as civic heroes…but other than that, it was (in modern terms) leisure time and consumption all the way down.  When a new person was born, he was automatically set up with enough robots to maintain him in the lifestyle of his elders.  For society to do otherwise would be considered impossibly barbaric.

When I read this, in my artless youthful untutored way, I thought: Okay.  So it’s pretty much paradise.

**********

I was, of course, wrong about that.  And not just because Asimov, for ideological/narrative reasons of his own, decided to make the Solarians miserable by saddling them with an unnecessary suite of crippling social phobias.  Luxury and convenience and freedom actually aren’t everything, and it was entirely realistic that the Solarians should have been neither superlatively heroic not superlatively happy.  We can do better, if we’re already in the business of imagining pie-in-the-sky fantasy fulfillment scenarios.

But.

I don’t think it was an accident, or an idiosyncrasy, that my initial reaction to Solaria should have been so overwhelmingly positive.  I believe that most people in my cultural circles would react in much the same way.  And, indeed, even now, my own views on the Solarian model of civilization are pretty damn rosy.  It may not be paradise, but it’s good enough by any reasonable standard; if we had what the Solarians have, we should possess no cause for complaint.

After all, in Solaria, the following two things are true:

(1) Everyone has all the service, luxury, and convenience that he could possibly want.

(2) Everyone is free; no one is compelled to do anything he doesn’t want to do.

If your blood has any classical-liberal in it — as mine does — you’ll have some instinctive sense that those are pretty much the only things that matter.  When a person is rich and unbound, he has all the tools he needs to live the good life.  Beyond that his well-being is on his own head.  And if a person is either materially deprived or rendered unable to do what he wants, then in the great Maslow Hierarchy of life, dealing with those problems are very likely to be his top priorities.

*****

There are some value systems under which the Solarian situation is actively bad.  Some people really care about certain power hierarchies, for example, and those are very hard to maintain in a world where everyone has the wealth and freedom to say “fuck off.”  Some people really care about hardscrabble personal virtues like courage and endurance, so much so that they’re actively opposed to making life too pleasurable or easy.  Those are coherent positions, and we should respect them as such, even if we oppose them bitterly.

But for the rest of us — for people with value systems that look at all like mine — Solaria may not be the terminal goal, but it’s pretty much a necessary step on the road to that goal.  Whatever we want the future to look like, we all want it to involve us all living like kings.  And if you don’t want that…if you actively prefer that people be deprived of things they want, if you want people to be constrained to do things they don’t want to do…you’d better have a damn good explanation to give those people.

There are plenty of problems that won’t be solved even by Solarian levels of wealth and liberty.  We will still live on a fragile planet with a fragile ecosystem.  We will still be innately driven towards status games and dominance-seeking, in the course of which we will hurt ourselves and one another, because that’s how status games and dominance-seeking work.  Sometimes those things will go far enough to produce actual violence, which means that we’ll need some kind of potentially-abusable monopoly on force, because we don’t actually have a legion of Three-Laws-compliant robots who will nip that kind of thing in the bud.  We will still be floundering around when it comes to self-actualization, which is my personal hobby-horse.  But, well, none of those problems will be solved by people not having wealth and liberty.  Their solutions will involve complicated cultural memes and lots of coordination — which will only be easier to create, and easier for people to swallow, when we are kings.

For that matter, there are probably many ways in the Solarian model just isn’t attainable, certainly not anytime soon.  We don’t actually have the technology to equip everyone with armies of cheap machines that act like personal servants.  (Even the actual Solarians in the book based their system on positronic robots, which are less “useful appliances” and more “full persons who can turn out to be Jesus,” so their world is not so much a techno-utopia as a slave state.)  Lacking that technology, we are faced with a very basic problem, namely “there’s lots of unpleasant drudgery that has to be done if we want to maintain a high standard of living,” which is the central hard problem of collectivist economics and can’t be handwaved away.  Some valuable goods, like Manhattan real estate, are unavoidably scarce and can’t just be duplicated for everyone.  All serious issues that require serious consideration.  But concrete difficulties don’t change our abstract preferences and aims.  Instead of “how do we create Solaria?,” we may have to wrestle with the question “how close can we actually come to Solaria?”…while still trying, as hard as we can, to create the civilization where we are all kings.

It all converges on a very simple thesis: If you want a better world, aim for Solaria, and remind everyone else to aim for Solaria too.  Most of our most pressing problems, as a species, are caused by deprivation or dependence or both.  We will still have problems, when we are all kings, but they will be problems of a different and more abstruse kind…and, in the meanwhile, everything will be much better.

I feel weird saying this, because I spend a lot of my time thinking about all the ways in which the un-topian model of society is too limited and insufficiently ambitious.  But, good God, it is so much better than most of the things for which people actively advocate these days.

*****

This is not a fun-and-games, science-fictional line of thought.  Not entirely.

In many ways, we’re already nearing the point where we can start moving in the direction of Solaria.  We’ve got way more than enough food to feed everyone, which was the big obstacle for most of human history.  We live more and more of our lives online, which means that more and more of our goods are genuinely non-scarce.  We’ve developed the power to automate many tasks of many different kinds, which means that we’re edging closer to the Solarian situation where everyone’s got an army of robot servants.  And on the darker side, as the automation gets more efficient, ever more of us are proving unable to pull our economic weight.  Even if everyone had the skills to be super-valuable enough to earn the super-abundant rewards that our age has to offer — which is manifestly not the case — there are only so many super-valuable things to be done, and we’re starting to bump up against that limit.

(That last, I understand, is a seriously contentious economic point.  I’m not going to dive into it now.  If you don’t believe me, just let it go for the nonce and move on.)

In other words, capitalism is starting to hit its high-productivity failure modes.  Which means that, real soon, we’re going to have to decide whether we want to find some alternative way of distributing our giant surplus of stuff.  If we decide that we don’t, or if (as seems likely) we ignore the question and let it get resolved by default, then most of us end up unnecessarily deprived and unnecessarily bound to toil that doesn’t even benefit anyone very much.

It doesn’t have to happen.  We can work towards an age when we are all kings.  That is an option.  Spread the word.

*****

My impression is that the political left is going to have to take the helm on this one.

That feels weird to me, and always has.  At least in my own mind, there’s some sense in which the vision of the Solarian-style aristocrat is a fundamentally conservative vision.  Isn’t it the left that wants to hover over us, making sure that we share our toys and give everyone a turn in our games?  “Every man, woman and child can follow his own conscience, and live secure in his own castle, and tell the rest of the world to go to hell” — is that not an ideal that resonates with conservatives?  Something something live free or die?

But it doesn’t matter.  The right is going to fight against Solaria until the bitter end.  The libertarians will hate it because they’re allergic to giving things away (even if there are enough things to go around).  The plutocrats will hate it because they don’t want wealth to be decoupled from power.  The traditionalist conservatives will hate it because it’s not traditional; the religious conservatives will hate it because it’s not religious.  And of course the chain-of-hierarchy conservatives will hate it because it totally destroys most personal dependencies, and therefore most hierarchies.

Of course, for the left to do the work of pushing for a more genuinely utopian (or un-topian) future…it would have to drop its all-consuming obsession with hashing out group grievances and small-scale injustices, in favor of pursuing a dream that lifts everyone pretty much equally.

The group grievances and small-scale injustices really shouldn’t matter much, when we are all kings.

Somehow I don’t think that will help.

The Un-Topia, Interlude: When We Are All Kings