In other slow news, Sluglips favorite eccentric artist and oddball games auteur Osamu Satu has released an art book and a photo collection as a pair of new ezines; check them out below. I rather like (the aptly titled) Symmetric.
If you live on any of the same internets that I do, you’ve seen Brianna Wu’s piece on iconic Metroid protagonist Samus Aran being a transgender woman. To be brutally honest, it isn’t very good. The evidence is scant, the argument is problematic and the insistence of Samus’ transness as established canon is a bit of a pickle. Of course, if you live on any of the same internets that I do, you’ve also seen an angry pitchfork-and-torch-bearing mob rise up to tear down the article, and Wu, and the notion of Samus possibly being trans. Lots of grumbling about, “SJWs,” “Tumblrinas,” and other cute ways of announcing that, yep, gamer culture sure does have some problems with women and trans people. Wu wrote a follow-up piece on that, specifically, which is the considerably better and more nuanced piece.
Thing is, there’s an interesting thought experiment being buried in overly literal interpretations of “canon” and GamerGator outrage. The key problem with the original article is in its initial assumptions and framing. No doubt that sounds like a tone argument’s on the horizon, but bear with me.
Since Wu asserts Samus’ status as a trans woman as canon, she needs some evidence that some of her creators intended her to be trans. Unfortunately, all that exists is a transphobic joke by developer Hirofumi Matsuoka implying non-seriously that she is trans (because wouldn’t that be hilarious), and another transphobic comment* by longtime series director Yoshio Sakamoto jokingly stating that her trans status is unlikely (but wouldn’t it be hilarious). We can argue over etymology all day long, but context matters and, in context, the phrase used in both instances is a slur. This is an incredibly shaky foundation stone to build an argument on.
Conversations responding to the piece also tend to have a thread woven in about Samus’ past depictions leaning toward a more masculine presentation that gradually becomes more traditionally feminine as the series progresses—which, firstly, yuck, and secondly, the Sigourney Weaver influence is fairly obvious. The presence of some masculinity, the lack of some femininity, neither robs a woman of cisness nor adds the status of transness. Some variance along spectrums of gender presentation is generally a good thing, and in that sense I like pre-Zero Suit Samus.
All of this is unnecessary, though. We’re talking about a character whose womanhood only exists as an afterthought to subvert young players’ expectations in the 1980s. Kids thought all that time they were controlling a man or a robot—but there was a lady in that cool suit all the while! This in mind, entertaining the possibility of Samus being transgender—since there isn’t really any evidence for her cisness or transness—fits neatly within that tradition. A female protagonist isn’t nearly as shocking in 2015, but a female protagonist who incidentally happens to be trans?
One need only look at the backlash the article inspired to see that that’s an incredibly controversial and uncomfortable possibility to entertain for many gamers. Had Wu framed her original article more carefully as a, “What If?”…it probably wouldn’t have done a single thing to stem the tidal wave of transphobic, misogynist negativity.
What’s important here is to let go of “canon” and play with the idea for its own sake. “Canon” doesn’t matter. Consider another beloved Nintendo character: Birdo. Birdo’s transness is well established, even celebrated in some corners of the internet. Except…the supporting evidence is exactly the same as with Samus Aran: a single transphobic joke made some twenty years ago. As far as I know (please leave a shout if you can think of more!), Captain Rainbow is the only game to ever acknowledge and explore Birdo’s identity as a trans…um…dinosaur girl monster thingy.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Birdo is a delightfully weird looking pink dinosaur thing that vomits eggs, plays tennis, drives a little pink go-kart, etc. Birdo is the best no matter how you shake her. She can be cisgender, she can be transgender, they can be agender—it really doesn’t change the character in any way, so while it’s important to remember the unpleasant origins of her transness and to take something like Captain Rainbow more or less for what it is, there’s no reason not to simply play with the idea of this character’s gender.
Likewise, Samus. Instead of getting hung up on “canon” (is one even possible?), it’d be a positive thing to start drawing, writing and talking about Samus as trans for no reason beyond the fact that it’s a fun, interesting and provocative thing to play with. Why not? It’s something that doesn’t affect her character in any meaningful way; it’s just a fun possibility, and the outrage over it indicative of some deeper problems in gamer culture. Lord knows, Samus could use some positivity. She already rewards skilled and speedy players with various states of undress, gets held up as a Great Female Protagonist for embodying feminine stereotypes and everybody just wants her to shut the hell up whenever she says anything.
A little dose of harmless fun that broadens diversity and makes people feel good is long overdue.
* Note: The primary English source is a pro-GamerGate site we won’t be linking to; however, the comment in question is in #21 of the linked FAQ, and the English translation circulating around looks fair.
Femhype’s Sheva has a great piece up on violence in videogames, and how masculine fragility stifles creativity. There’s a lot in it that resonates with me—the dream of games diversifying, and violence being only one mechanic to choose from, has long been something that keeps me engaged with the medium. More recently, it’s felt as if big budget games have shriveled up in variety; the games we would have called “AAA” if we had hated ourselves when we were young came in quite a number of styles and flavors, even if the problem of violence as a rote mechanic was still present. “AAA” games today are so intrinsically entangled with a kind of infantile pseudo-masculinity that those I have loved (Fallout, Skyrim, Bioshock) have taken me years to discover, because they send out such a strong vibe of, “Not For You.”
Of course, not all games need be nonviolent. But violence being just one set of mechanics to choose from among many seems much healthier than the state it’s long been stuck in: as the central set of mechanics chosen by developers without any thought. The appeals to preteen masculinity also greatly hamper games aesthetically, limiting color palettes to a sludgy grey-brown mess, and chaining games tonally to a kind of unintentionally humorous self-seriousness. Games have immensely more potential than that, and it’s no accident that those that catch my eye tend to be more colorful, more artistically rendered, more thoughtful and just a little bit…different. Unique. Innovative. Creative. Fresh. Diverse.
I grew up playing Japanese RPGs. One of the most frequent criticisms lobbed at RPGs is their tendency to fully segregate components. You’ve got your cities and your dungeons, where you explore—that happens on one screen. You’ve got your battles (which tend to be too abstract and streamlined to be perceived as “violence,” and which mechanically lend themselves to all sorts of scenarios not involving cute dwarves bopping little goblins on the head) happening on their own screen. Inventory management all happens on its own screen. Travel tends to take place on a scaled-up special map lacking small details. And so on.
These kinds of games captured my imagination with their stories and settings—it was Secret of Mana‘s open world that drew me into games in the first place. I could happily spend hours wandering the back alleys of Midgar or making idle small talk with my party in Grandia. The actual “gameplay” portions of RPGs were certainly an acquired taste. It wasn’t until Final Fantasy X that I really enjoyed combat in a Final Fantasy game. Most of the 32 bit RPGs I grew up alongside were sluggish and unengaging when it came to combat; the only reason to get into fights was to see what new enemy designs would pop up. No, although violence was a prominent part of their design, it wasn’t a very compelling reason to play them at all. It was the worlds that drew me in, the characters that peopled them, the stories they told, the art direction, the music, the immensity and the wide variety of emotions and moods that could be found in individual games. They came closer than games before them to touching what J.M. DeMatteis in Farewell, Moonshadow called, “The misery, the ecstasy, the infinite restlessness and the infinite calm.” That is, life.
A funny thing about Japanese RPGs that gets obscured as English speaking gamer culture becomes more openly Japanophobic (definitely a larger, complex and equally important conversation in itself, and one less commented on) is that for every common complaint against the genre, there are at least half a dozen games addressing the question before it was ever asked. Kenichi Nishi in particular stands out as especially relevant to modern writers wondering about nonviolent games—Nishi’s Moon: Remix RPG Adventure (1997) was conceived mid-90s by imagining what an RPG without violence could be like. Set in a Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy style world (with perhaps a touch more surrealism), the protagonist is tasked with winning the affection of the game’s huge, diverse cast. Instead of grinding for greater heart points, the player engages people to win greater love. Love, rather than EXP, is the key growth factor, and the mechanics are not as abstracted as typical RPG violence. It makes a little bit more sense that people will like you if you help them, than that slaughtering waves of hapless animals can make you stronger.
Moon is not entirely absent violence, but it is the antagonist—Siegfried, a typical knightly RPG adventurer, seen from the outside as a dangerous psychotic—who inflicts harm upon the largely peaceful inhabitants of the world. Your involvement is to clean up after Siegfried, reuniting the souls of the “monsters” he’s slain with their bodies, chasing after him and seeking a peaceful resolution to his rampage. Nishi’s other games are typically designed in a similarly nonviolent style, although his 2000 Dreamcast collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, LOL: Lack of Love, is a bit more nuanced. An evolution game similar to Spore, LOL depicts a natural world overflowing with both strange beauty and violence necessary to survival. It nonetheless sets a somber, meditative tone, forcing the player to reflect on how she engages in game violence (or doesn’t). Kindness and love are still possible in this world—if one chooses them.
Nishi is a genius, but he’s hardly alone. There have been enough “nonviolent exploration/social RPG thing”s to make it a small genre: the Wonder Project J series, Nanatsu Kaze no Shima Monogatari, the Animal Crossings, Rune Factories and Harvest Moons of the world, to some extent games like Legend of Mana and Fragile. Even Nintendo’s flagship series frequently demonstrate that cartoon violence can be engaged in in more healthy ways (as in Mario or Pikimin), or mostly-or-entirely absent (as in Animal Crossing, or Eiji Aonuma’s Marvelous). Fumito Ueda’s games come to mind, as do Jenova Chen’s. Panzer Dragoon Saga, although mechanically revolving around violence, also merits mention: the gameplay-violence there is often just an excuse to showcase strange organic beauty, and the cutscene-violence is more stark and unpleasant than games usually allow. In European and American games, the adventure genre has led to wonderful nonviolent (or intelligently violent) works like Machinarium, Dreamfall and Grim Fandango. Contemporary indie games are leading the way with the Nishi/Monogatari-esque Shrug Worlds, Beyond Eyes and Morphopolis offering experiences outside of rote violence.
All of which is to say that numerous games, largely Japanese or European, have been aware of and grappled with the problem of rote violence for decades. Even if violence is technically present in some of these, it is not a thoughtless automatic addition or the primary reason for playing. Games with well realized narratives, aesthetics and nonviolent interaction can be just as—often, more—rewarding as games which treat violence as a given. The diversity and potential of the medium is not just in a vague yet-to-be-realized future, but also in the very real past and in the immediate present, just outside the focus of the mainstream. It would be good not to forget that, and to do more to champion or at least be aware of titles leading the medium before they become museum pieces or obscurities. Beauty has always been something we’ve tried to express as a species. Games are no different than any other medium in that regard, and beauty abounds outside the terrible turbines of profit. It’s long past time to stop giving big budget games all the attention, and start being inspired by the past, present and future of those who have truly interesting things in mind for the medium.
The pace is always relaxed over here, but I’m reading and writing as much as I ever do and should have some fun things to share soon enough. In the meantime, here’s a wonderful piece by Ashley Gallagher on Steven Universe and real masculinity.
I was concerned, before watching Steven Universe, that it would disappoint me – that a show about a little boy at the center of his own universe would end up following the familiar frightening paths and byways toward a narrow and troubling version of masculinity. Instead, I’ve found that Steven Universe is a show dedicated to showing that our lives don’t have to be ruled by rigid hetero- and cis-normative gender roles. Steven reminds me that not only can people in general, and men specifically, be good and kind and powerfully loving, and not only should expect I that from them, but that goodness is also right in front of me and all around me. I’m extremely fortunate to have many people in my life, including men, who are as caring and supportive and gentle as any of the literal light beings from space in this cartoon.
If there is ever a competition for most misread authors, William S. Burroughs will be the leading contender. Famous (or infamous) for a comedic, surreal un-novel and unsavory biographical details, Burroughs is often admired (or despised) for somewhat misguided reasons—that he wrote a whole lot about hard drugs and gay sex didn’t exactly hurt his reputation as a shock artist, either.
Yet underneath that sordid surface is surprising complexity and depth; an artist with a singularly unique vision and out of this world personal mythology crafted from sci-fi castoffs for Space Age castaways. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan noted:
It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction. It is a little like trying to criticise the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home.
It isn’t quite right to treat Burroughs as a satirist, though he wrote some of the finest satire of the meanness inherent in American culture, a great deal of which is still relevant. No, a little bit of digging will reveal that, rather than a novelist, poet or satirist, Burroughs was primarily an occultist, and his art charged with magical intention. It’s an important detail. Awareness of his obsession with ritual magic makes Burroughs’ work appears considerably less chaotic—the famous cut-up method employed in the Nova trilogy is not a stale stab at fresh storytelling structures by a talentless hack, but a practical method for shifting the reader’s awareness. Whether or not it’s effective in that endeavor is more important than its literary merit (though I admire it on both counts).
Even viewing his work from this lens, the Nova trilogy can be fairly dense. Part of this is Burroughs’ use of imagery and writing techniques; but part of it is simply his writing style, which favors conversational prose littered with criminal slang (good rule of thumb: read Burroughs with a cartoon mobster’s voice in your head). Luckily, his later work became much clearer about its intents and is written much more lucidly.
Few of Burroughs’ books are as upfront about their status as handbooks of practical magic as 1981’s Cities of the Red Night, the first in a later trilogy continued in The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands. Few of Burroughs’ books are as narratively straightforward as Cities, either, lending it extra significance as a generalized Burroughsian reading guide. Let’s touch on that first.
A synopsis of the plot: A 20th century private eye investigates the disappearance (and occult-related murder) of a young man, while several centuries prior a young gunsmith falls in with pirates and revolutionaries hoping to rewrite history into an individualist-anarchist utopia a la the debatably quasi-historical Libertatia. As the U.S. and Spanish empires are written out of history in the last third of the book, the action shifts to the titular, hallucinatory future-past Cities themselves. Eventually the cardboard sky caves in and all is revealed to be a performance: pain and death and fear are simply illusions wielded by a character who wants to keep all actors playing parts it’s written for them, a demiurgic figure so lost in-character it’s forgotten the world is a stage and life an act of play.
That last sequence aligns with Burroughs’ Gnostic/Manichean worldview of spirit caught in a web of degrading matter pulled on all sides by competing powers. No matter; that’s been documented better elsewhere.
As for the pirate utopia, Burroughs takes inspiration from Captain Charles Johnson’s (possibly a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe) account of a 17th century Madagascar community founded by Captain James Misson, which may or may not have historically existed or matched Johnson/Defoe’s descriptions. In the novel, autonomous utopian colonies in close communication form fortified city-states using a strategy for success that combines advanced technology and cooperation with indigenous peoples. Each is allowed full autonomy, but follows a set of Articles laying out Burroughs’ ideal of liberty (religious freedom, sexual freedom, freedom from slavery and violence, and so on).
While the Articles colonies seem intended more as an ideal to take inspiration from than a practical social model, Burroughs continually returns to and pokes at various aspects of their development in this thread of the book. There is a chapter devoted to the underpopulated colonies’ encouragement for children, including a long section detailing courting rituals and a brief but memorable aside by a woman living in the colonies who is critical of the way women are not-quite-coerced into bearing children. Another chapter covers government, and includes an interesting passage on an authoritarian method of control used by the colonies’ enemies: to brutally oppress minorities, thereby granting relief and catharsis to majorities and rendering them easier to manipulate under implicit threat of violence.
The fairly (for Burroughs) straightforward plotting and traditional storytelling allow the book to do something quite interesting: explain, plainly, frequently used symbols in Burroughs’ work, and the methods to read them, as well as numerous specific techniques such as the famous cut-up method and exercises meant to be practiced by the reader. One such symbol, grotesque at first glance, is explained thusly:
Death is enforced separation from the body. Orgasm is identification with the body. So death in the moment of orgasm literally embodies death.
This can also represent immortality, or eternity: the overlap between conception into life and death’s cessation of life—the finite on the cusp of the eternal. A simultaneous entering/exiting from being suspended in a transcendent state accompanied by descriptions of luminousness. This ecstatic death is something coveted, desperately sought but also feared, by the nebulous, sinister, largely inhuman denizens of the weird Interzonal vistas Burroughs catalogs. Nowhere else in his writing is this shocking imagery explained so plainly.
That carries to a number of other symbols, techniques and exercises. Another passage describes in detail the tape recorder variation on the cut-up method, which is treated as a form of divination. Inspector Snide records ambient sound—empty room, toilet flushing, footsteps from a room above—in the hotel where his missing person was last seen. Then recordings are played back and interjected with short sentences, continually transforming the audio into new sequences, listening for any patterns that might emerge.
Another passage describes something much like Guy Debord’s concept of the dérive: in order to locate a point not on any map, Inspector Snide sets off on an aimless wander through Mexico City, allowing the aesthetic exploration itself to lead him in the correct direction.
Yet another passage details a meditation for banishing verbal thought—the concept that verbal thought conceals reality appears consistently throughout Burroughs’ work—and so on. Numerous rituals and exercises for affecting consciousness find their way into the narrative, as Burroughs doesn’t even bother to conceal his interest here. This proves valuable in understanding his entire body of work, and especially those that appear jumbled and incoherent. Lest his obsessions with symbol and techniques for altering consciousness (whether for authoritarian or individualist aims) seem too odd, let us remember Burroughs’ fascination with Korzybski’s general semantics and relation to “founder of public relations” Ivy Lee.
One comes to understand several things through exposure to these explanations of symbol and naked discussion of ritual. First, that Burroughs writes in a kind of hieroglyphic. Images evoked as symbols are arranged as words in sentences: as longer chains of meaning aiming at expression beyond verbal capacity. Secondly, that this method of writing is at odds with the Western literary tradition.
English authors typically describe events, plots and characters rather openly. Exceptional writers are clever about suggesting ideas without overtly stating them, but this is still usually framed in fairly exoteric description. In Burroughs, meaning is more often conveyed esoterically through strings of symbols and parades of imagery that one is meant to allow to wash over themselves and process more subconsciously. One’s initial exposure to this style often feels cacophonous: too many simultaneous conflicting events, too much overlap between beautiful and ugly imagery, characters who exist as cartoons to be subsumed back into the larger wild tapestry.
This is why Cities is such a valuable novel; it contextualizes Burroughs’ style, presents his favorite themes and obsessions more gently and offers a traditional narrative to enjoy as one would any other writer. Of course, the rug does get pulled in the last act, but by that point the reader is in on the joke and ready to punch holes through the cardboard desert sun.
As an addendum to my review of the Southern Reach, here’s a great piece Jeff VanderMeer wrote expanding on his thoughts and reactions to David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, a nonfictional account of Victorian explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsession with and disappearance into the Amazon in search of a legendary ancient city. VanderMeer’s piece covers many of the same themes touched on in the Southern Reach, particularly the way our biases shape the limits of our understanding and the way our minds create patterns when confronted with randomness. Grann’s book itself seems an interesting thematic companion to VanderMeer’s trilogy, as a historical narrative of a place that eludes study, which is inexorably tangled with a person whose methods may be to blame.
Area X. It has a proper name―or it used to―but you aren’t allowed to know that. It’s to the south; don’t worry about where, exactly. You aren’t allowed to know that. It may be the future, or it may be the past, or it may be another world, or it may be a dream but―hey, you’re catching on!
There have been eleven expeditions. Officially. “Officially.” That may or may not be true―you aren’t allowed to know that. None of them came back; even the ones that went home didn’t come back. Not really. What came home weren’t really people: just outlines, like an image that’s been photocopied multiple times. They talked about how nice it was in Area X. Stressed how ordinary it was. Puzzled over the most mundane details like strangers to their own lives. Then they died―massive, unnaturally rapidly metastasizing systemic cancers. No meaningful information came back with them―they seemingly knew nothing.
Knowing less can protect you. This is one of the central ideas in Jeff VanderMeer’s latest, the alliteratively titled (in order: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) Southern Reach trilogy. VanderMeer is often compared to Lovecraft, and often responds to the comparison the way the child of a famous parent does, but the Southern Reach books are the first where I’ve recognized any family resemblance. Even leaving aside all the wonderful star-flung monsters (and there are many), “knowing less can protect you” sounds just like a coda of cosmicism, Lovecraft’s pessimistic philosophy which posits an indifferent universe where ultimate meaning is out of reach, and personal meaning is too small to matter. Lovecraft’s oeuvre is full of brave explorers who flew too close to the sun, ending ruined and mangled by the crippling cosmic knowledge they sought so desperately.
Rather than a paean to ignorance, this forms in Lovecraft a tragedy about the limits of human knowledge colliding with our need to know more (as well as a critique or lamentation of the cultural shift after the Industrial Revolution which began to seek meaning exclusively in the objective, where it always eludes us; but that’s a whole other subject). VanderMeer’s trilogy addresses the same premise, but slips out from underneath its constraints and goes off-script as soon as the reader looks away.
Initially, at the start of the first book, the reader knows as little as the narrator. We know none of the characters’ names. We’re given some sparse background information, but it’s safe to assume most of it is false. It’s safe to assume we know less than we know, already. This tone helps temper the initial disappointment that Area X is surprisingly mundane; whatever we had imagined before going in is so off-track we abruptly stop imagining and start watching uncritically. This is a neat trick, and mirrors how Tarkovsky introduces the Zone in Stalker, one of the books’ more obvious cousins. Our first contact with the lush, colorful Zone is so overwhelming it has a hypnotic paralysis after the bleakly industrial, monochrome world outside. Area X, also an uncanny garden ringed by the detritus of civilization, stuns by being so disquietingly unremarkable.
As the series goes on, the narrative perspective switches (from first, to third, to second person) to characters more and more deeply knowledgeable about and personally invested in Area X and the Southern Reach. This makes for a satisfying mystery, but each protagonist is successively more frustrated and impotent―the more they know, the more tangled up and incomplete their knowledge is and the less they’re able to comprehend. Meanwhile, the earlier, more ignorant, uncritical protagonists’ knowledge and comprehension expands at out of control rates. This is perhaps assisted by whatever entity or force is central to Area X (if there is an entity or force central to Area X); though they know nothing about Area X, Area X has some unique prior context for recognizing them.
It may be worth laying out one character’s given conditions for an Area X:
- a context we do not understand
- an attitude toward energy we do not understand
- an approach to language we do not understand
In other words, the oft-scoffed “unknown unknowns.” What we don’t know we don’t know; even guessing at the possible shapes in that murk are shots in the dark. Those conditions state little beyond: “We don’t know anything about what we don’t know we don’t know.”
If there’s a clear thread here, it’s that preconceptions poison genuine understanding: we are so in the habit of seeing what we look for that we don’t see what we look at. Throughout the series, a number of objects are presented to us with the implication that they are not what they appear to be. That isn’t a thistle―that’s only what you want to see. That isn’t a cell phone―that’s only what it means to you. This falls into a kind of general semantical science-fiction, recalling Korzybski’s, “Whatever this is, it is not a table!” and encouraging the reader to first question the presented reality, then to simply see it.
Coupled with this is recurring imagery of perfect mimicry, doppelgangers and simulacra. In Annihilation, the narrator notes that “pretending often leads to becoming a reasonable facsimile of what you mimic,” while her double in the second book becomes fixated on the idea of mimicry, and in the third abandons the idea of pretending to be “herself.” Environments and entities blend, disappear into one another, and the initially mundane appearance of Area X is revealed to be a facade we want to see.
Whether there is any substance underlying our preconceptions is left deliberately vague. Often what lies underneath a mask is another mask. This process of continual unmasking, infinite revelation, is perhaps the superior path to comprehension. Understanding may be acquired by letting go of the idea of absolute knowledge. Area X annihilates Aristotelian “either/or” thinking, can only be perceived through “both/and.” Our descriptions and preconceptions of what things should be obscures our vision of what they are. I’m not writing on a “keyboard.” You’re not reading on a “screen.” These don’t matter to, in fact hamper, comprehension.
A few brief notes on the physical formats of the books before moving on: they make excellent use of “blank” pages. The second is structured into sections following a creepy title scheme. Preceding each section is a “blank” page. Except they’re not blank—they’re shaded, and gradually darken as the mood becomes more oppressive. It’s a great, subtle way of affecting atmosphere. The third follows the same pattern in reverse, and manages to make that just as spooky. The dimensions of the copies here on my desk also do a fun thing. Authority is a half-inch shorter than its siblings. I don’t know if that’s deliberate, but it is cute.
One of many haunting images: a secret compartment containing journals and records. More journals and records than any of the various presented chronologies allow. An accumulation of too much knowledge, by too many people, left ritually abandoned. Knowledge beyond human capacity to process, and so perhaps best left out of human hands. From a recurring surreal passage, a sermon of sorts:
“…the shadows of the abyss are like the petals of a monstrous flower that shall blossom within the skull and expand beyond what any man can bear…”
We can only know so much. There isn’t room in that for knowing what we don’t know. There isn’t room enough even for comprehending all of what we do know. Reality is too vast and weird to fully take in. An ultimate picture always eludes us; there are always things in the margins of vision, often irrelevant to our experiences. Occasionally of fatal importance.
Reading these books, jotting notes here and there, and organizing my thoughts in writing has helped me reach a personal realization. I like weird fiction (and strangeness generally) because it often depicts a chaotic world, or a world whose order transcends mundane and human meaning. This has a stronger resonance with me than traditional science fiction or mainstream literature, which tend to depict highly ordered, sensible worlds, because my perception of life and the world fundamentally does not make sense. While I can take meaning from literary works exploring the human condition, I can’t get fully on board with something premised on life making sense; it doesn’t make sense. It’s nice to read literature that affirms that, and the Southern Reach trilogy perhaps reaches a little bit farther by presenting a universe that is chaotic, nonsensical, un-understandable―but comprehensible, so long as one stops clinging to rationality, ego, individuality. To sense. A conditional clause both chilling and beautiful.
You might have noticed how tight-lipped I’ve been about the more monstrous, mysterious, fantastical elements of the books. It’s not just an effort to avoid spoilers; it’s that discussing them isn’t conducive to understanding them. You have to see them for yourself.
In the end, it isn’t that there are things you’re not allowed to know, but that there are things you cannot know. Accepting this is the only way to overcome it. Pay attention to the immediate. Disappear into it. Expand throughout it. Become nothing; witness everything.
This is incredibly late, but my contribution to Bogleech’s overwhelmingly huge and fun annual Creepypasta Cook-Off, “A Synopsis of David Cronenberg’s Neuromancer,” is online now. The premise is exactly what the title suggests: “What if David Cronenberg had directed an adaptation of Neuromancer?” The answer to that question will not surprise you. It is very gooey.
Please note that this version of the story lacks formatting, something that may or may not get fixed at some point later on. In lieu of actual emphases, it is recommended to read the entire thing as if it were all in italics.
Brittany Vincent has written a great narrative interview with cult artist Osamu Sato, creator of much-beloved oddball psychedelic games LSD and Eastern Mind over at Vice: The Elusive Creator of the Most Terrifying Video Games
You should probably read it. Instead of a pull quote about Sato himself, here’s her completely accurate and mundane description of Eastern Mind:
In [Eastern Mind], you’ll become acquainted with a being who possesses three minds, then commits suicide within the span of ten seconds; you’ll collect important key items like the “Eyeball of Dreaming”; and you’ll visit the Helix Palace, where you could be force-fed until your body explodes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It may only display 256 colors, but it’s a veritable hallucinatory rainbow of iniquities. Ever wanted to meet a creature that “dines on its own legs?” You can in Eastern Mind.
Nickelodean’s The Legend of Korra has given me a lot of joy to follow. Not being familiar with its predecessor (something that has been fixed now!), I went into it blind with minimal expectations, and the style and quality of writing were a pleasant surprise. Not only is it good on its own terms, but it shares a certain je ne sais quoi with works of standout adventure fantasy that have made a strong impression on me like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Final Fantasy. It’s a new generation’s Star Wars, and (I humbly opine) significantly better than the galaxy far, far away in many ways (hint: let’s hope the lack of commercialization stays that way).
While waiting for Korra’s final season, I managed to catch up on Avatar, which I enjoyed although I have greater affection for Korra’s cast, having met them first. While obviously very similar, Avatar often felt more like a prototype or template for greater things to come than anything else; the Evil Empire plot and frequently goofball characterization lended the series a certain cartooniness that allowed it to fit more comfortably into already established tropes. Something that did manage to get my attention and make the first series stand above its younger sibling was its ending: having Aang either befriend or nonviolently defang his enemies elevated what could have been merely an entertaining adventure story into something a little more resonant.
So, it’s been a point of recurring disappointment for me that for three seasons Korra never did this. Each season’s plot arc introduces a villain with mostly-reasonable, noble ambitions (in contrast to the Saturday morning cartoon antagonists of Avatar) who takes things a little too far—and then gets their teeth kicked in by Korra. Season three in particular ended on a sour, bitter note. Zaheer and his cohorts had so much barely explored depth, and their reduction to Bad Guys in the finale felt hollow. Everything about the ending felt hollow: Korra survives, but only that. She does not grow, or “win” anything in any meaningful sense, and the parting mood is one of emotional desolation.
Season four had its own ups and downs, and took a bit longer to hook me than previous plots. The jump ahead a few years is both interesting and perhaps unnecessary; the establishment of background felt both brilliant and a bit clumsy, depending on the scene; and we won’t even discuss That One Episode, You Know Which One I Mean. Yet for all the rocks in its road, it remained a thoroughly enjoyable ride through a well-realized fantasy world, and it did what it could to address the cognitive dissonance set by the pattern of “reasonable villains defeated through violence.”
Of note: Toph’s lecture to Korra on the ambitions of her enemies reframes their achievements and legacies in positive terms. Ryo’s canned tour speech mentions season two’s antagonist only as the man who realigned the spiritual and mundane worlds. Korra’s visit to Zaheer in prison depicts a man repentant and horrified by the unintended outcome of his actions, one who is multifaceted enough to provide sincere advice while still being a violent criminal. Small nods like these remind the audience that the antagonists in the series actually achieved their goals, and will be remembered for their various impacts on history rather than as stock villains.
Just as in the final episodes of Avatar, Korra seeks throughout the season alternatives to violent conflict; unlike Aang, solutions aren’t simply handed to her, and her attempts at pacifism are often swatted down. Initially, this disappointed me, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense: Korra is renowned for her martial ability and symbolic status, but she is a poor diplomat. These are her first real attempts, so it’s only natural her success rate is low. Moreover, she is stuck in an identity crisis: she can’t achieve balance without knowing who she is, and her sense of self, and the world she inhabits, are constantly in flux.
It becomes clear as the plot nears its climax that Korra is intended as an avatar of change. She was born into a time of huge social upheaval and reorganization—democracy, socialism, anarchism, emerging technologies and new ways of life define her era and the city she calls home. Throughout the series, she has typically represented a conservative view: she resists the change sought by the antagonists, even though none of those changes are inherently negative. With each major storyline, she fights the direction of the wind, failing to hold it back with increasing severity. Yet the outcomes remain largely positive: non-benders become as respected and prominent as benders; the spirit world realigns with the material; the Earth Kingdom becomes an independent republic freed from caste; the Air Nation is revived. None of these are negative changes.
The development Korra’s character undergoes is one of learning that change itself is not bad; that the appropriate response to change is temperament and guidance rather than resistance and denial. Each of the antagonists reaches their extremity by being so thoroughly pushed back against, and for most of the series Korra is blind to that because she’s a teenager. She wants to defeat problems, but the challenges facing her are all things emerging in response to deeper issues.
The ending gives the impression that she’s starting to realize that. That, as an adult, she’ll work mindfully to facilitate compassionate change rather than continue trying and failing to kick its butt. In this light, the bisexual romance between Korra and Asami serves as a nice real world thematic parallel: social attitudes toward nonhetero sexualities are becoming more positive in much of the Western world (while largely eroding globally). We have a choice to acknowledge those turning tides with acceptance and compassion, or to deny them with hostility and ignorance.
It’s a great note to end on.