torstai, 20. huhtikuu 2017

Nostalgia backwards-forwards

I feel sort of up-side down nostalgia, caused by a book set in here and now. This book is in Finnish (Rakkaus niinku, Johannes Ekholm) and not been translated to other languages yet. It is about a thirtysomething designer/writer guy, who records his everyday discussions with his friends and family on his cellphone. This guy Joona has been fired from his job and had to move back with his parents, he suffers from feelings of anxiety and meaninglessness, and his most meaningful relationship is chatting with a girl he has never met. This book is in no way speculative fiction, due to being composed of real-seeming discussions, phonealls and chats. Maybe it's even anti-speculative, if such a category exists. It is very much the 21st century urban Finland reality: meatspace and social media existence similar in importance. Social wrongs so huge they inspire self-centered apathy instead of action. Everyone agrees that glaciers are melting and the Earth is nudging closer to destruction every day, and yet they are unable to escape from this economical system which compels people to do work they know is harmful. All very real, nothing made up. I know these people very well (although my social circles are about 5 years older, have more kids and use less drugs or hide their habits from me).

The speculative part is in my head. I'd love to send this book back in time some three or four decades. I'm imagining how Joona chatting on Google hangouts with Sadgirl91 would come across in 1987 or so. I'm imagining myself sitting in my room as a kid, maybe 1989 or 1990, window facing dark fir forest, www still an unherad-of invention, new third channel on television still mostly seen as unnecessary luxury, cell phones something maybe seen on James Bond, and then! How it would have felt reading about a world where people live their lives as much on portable computer screens as in the real world, dropping half-digested sociological theory buzzwords with the ease only available to people who can and do Google them instantly and speed-read through half a dozen blog posts about any subject while tapping their messages with their thumbs. It's a strange hybrid of utopia and dystopia. Information utopia bubble in a sea of suffering. I've experienced this lost in time sensation with other books too. Gibson's Spook Country, which is not speculative fiction, made me want to read it back in the eighties as near-future cyberpunkish SF.  And it feels somehow like a waste and a pity to read it here and now, where it is lifted right off the life so familiar to me. A couple of decades back I would have read with eyes wide in wonder and shock and amazement!

I've experienced this lost in time sensation with other books too. Gibson's Spook Country, which is not speculative fiction, made me want to read it back in the eighties as near-future cyberpunkish SF.

maanantai, 10. huhtikuu 2017

Jacqueline Koyanagi: Ascension

Have read the first polyamorous SFR story, here is the report, might have some spoilers so watch out!

Screen%20shot%202017-04-10%20at%2018.09.Humans live on several planets and have space travel technology to transport themselves from one planet to another in time measured in weeks. But it's not all plasma and copper in Ascension world – there are also spirit guides, who facilitate their clients' mystic journeys and have supernatural skills. Protagonist Alana is a spaceship engineer, a "sky surgeon", who's slowly going out of work, as completely different technology is making her and her kind obsolete. This new sort of technology comes from a parallel universe, whose inhabitants can do magical things: heal incurable diseases, make people grow new limbs, change their appearance with fins and third eyes and shimmering skins. All that comes with a hefty price tag, and money seems to be hemorrhaging out of Alana's universe into the Otherside, causing widespread poverty and some hotspots of wealth for those doing business with the othersiders. (This scenario perhaps inspired by what may happen with AI and increased robotization; those who own these superior technologies have an economic super-advantage comparable to having magical powers from another universe, and end up leeching all the money, since most people's skills and time are no longer worth anything in the market. There is no mention of AI or any kind of advanced computers in the book at all, so the technology is something out of pulpy SF in the 50s or 60s.)

Alana sneaks into a spaceship after the crew of that ship comes looking for her sister, who is one of the mystical but professional spirit guides. She also has an instant connection to the ship, Tangled Axon, and hopes a bit irrationally to be accepted as one of the crew in exchange for locating her sister. This stow-away thing is stretching credibility a bit far, like how can it be this easy can it be to sneak and hide into a spaceship! Everyone would be doing if it was that simple. But to get the story started, she needs to end up on that spaceship, so what can I do but swallow this tedious plot device?

Alana and her professionally succesful sister Nova have a difficult relationship, maybe due to Nova's snobbish ways, maybe something else. If the Nova character seems exaggerated and grates on your nerves, just please keep going, it'll get better. To make matters more complicated, Alana suffers from a painful illness, and she needs constant medication to function, or an othersider cure, which is too expensive – in contrast to Nova, who is healthy, but treats her body as an annoying inconvenience to her spirit guide activities. Alana's resentment at this is understandable, if unfair.

So where's the romance? It's on its way, for the ship is owned by cool and sexy Tev, to whom Alana is instantly drawn, even if the situation is hostile. But this book is ultimately more a novel about family than about romantic connections. This would perhaps be less obvious for me, if I had picked the book up without knowing it is going to be about polyamory. Lots of emotional suspense is drawn from Alana not knowing her love interest Tev is polyamorous, and wondering about the mixed signals she's receiving from Tev. But since I knew from the beginning how that's going to work out, there was no mystery except why didn't Tev or someone in the crew explain earlier what was going on. The withholding of information even gave the story an eerie, horror-like vibe, as if the spaceship was some kind of Christine the Killer Car, moulding her crew into a hive-mind of sorts without them even maybe knowing it was happening. Luckily – for romance – the explanation was more benign, though now I'd like to read something about a half-sentient spaceship invading the brains of the crew!

However, the biggest emotional change has to do with how Alana views her sister Nova and how their strained and distant relationship is healed. Biggest losses have to do with family, and family relations make the plot move. The relationship between Alana and Tev comes as a nice bonus. Of all the characters, Tev is the most likable and solid. The crush Alana has on her feels very understandable, if a bit sudden – but people's emotions probably go double speed in those cramped spaceship quarters and under threat.

Ascension is written in the first person, which I didn't like since it obscured much of the worldbuilding – best parts of the book were those where Alana listened to the stories of the crew she was getting to know, which was near to having third person narrative. Writing was at times really nice and at times basic minus, it would have benefited from stricter editor work-out. And the plot overall was holey, although the big reveal was satisfying, but otherwise people's actions just did not make much sense (like why destroy that planet, I just never understood that). Ascension is Koyanagi's debut novel, I hope she writes more books, since I feel she has a lot to give to SFR, if she'd just keep on writing. Wonderful cover art btw!

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As a side note, at times I'm reminded of how SF-y our age is. In the book a huge gas giant planet suddenly disappears, and I started to wonder would it not upset the orbits of the other planets, messing up the whole system, so I switched from iBooks to Safari on my portable information device, and wrote "what would happen if Jupiter disappeared", and got an answer in 2 seconds. That's future yeah! So cool! I almost pity the kids these days since for them this is all normal.

torstai, 6. huhtikuu 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

An American movie dream

I believe popular movies are the subconscious of societies, that nations are literally dreaming through their movie industries: going through past event and trying to come to terms with them, fulfilling wishes, battling fears. USA dreams in Hollywood and India in Bollywood and so on. The more driven by a single person's artistic vision a movie is, the less it channels these subconscious themes, but movies where every decision is made by a committee with money in mind, ar the purest as national dreams. I have just woken up from Hollywood live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell anime and I'm in need of a book of dream symbolism.

Everyone has probably heard about how the movie was cast with western actors instead of asians or specifically japanese. The only big role in the movie filled by a Japanese actor is Mr Aramaki, Section 9 boss, played by super cool Takeshi Kitano. Even Togusa is played by a Singaporean actor. As if there was a shortage of Japanese actors and actresses...

The problem is not that Major is played by Scarlett Johansson, a western actress. It totally makes sense someone would build a robotic body with her features – I would, wouldn't you? But it just drives me nuts that in the movie a remarkable portion of US populace has immigrated to Japan, as refugees probably, but the situation is not elaborated at all. In the movie there are at minimum as many western characters as there are asian, and English has become the main language of Japan – only old people speak Japanese anymore. Major can't even pronounce her original Japanese name properly. The Japanese culture is being swamped by American culture, up to the point where gravestones are written in alphabet instead of kanji.

In the original anime, one of the major plot-driving forces was political strife between countries. In the new movie, we hear that a political entity called African Union exists, so nations have not disappeared, but the political relationship between US and Japan is left completely vague. This lacuna is so conspicious it must be important.

Is this movie an American dream or a Japanese nightmare? Is there a nagging feeling in the collective American unconscious that occupation of Japan and restructuring the nation after WWII should have been more thorough? Some kind of irritation that Japanese reamined so Japanese instead of becoming Americans? Or is it a nationalistic warning about allowing "too many" refugees to your country, lest they take over, inspired by recent real-world events? I am confused.

Defining ourselves through memories
Uncovering mysteries in one's past is such an archetypal plot motivation in American pop culture, I wish I knew why! It is said in the movie that "memories don't define us, what we do define us", but this is revealed to be a lie or a misstatement – memories end up being the most important part of humanness. I don't remember anyone in the anime having families, but it was admittedly a long time ago that I saw it. In the movie Major re-connecting with her mother provides emotional closure, in a touchy-feely way at odds with typical cyberpunk mindset. Now that I come to think of it, the public hug Major gives to her mother is a very un-Japanese thing to do, underlining the fact that even if her daughter's "ghost" is returned in humanoid form, her mind and spirit are irrevocably American.

Scarlett Johansson looks throughout the movie as if she was only 90% there, which makes her character appropriately distant – although everyone is too emotionally expressive for my tastes. The part where she went into a brothel to fondle a human woman was aesthetically a very pleasing moment, but seemed quite purposeless except as fan service. But yeah, good-looking scene, as was the whole movie. The cityscapes and all the design was awesome, I'd watch this movie again just to properly appreciate the visuals.

Romance-wise, Major's colleague Batou has still an unrequited crush on the Major, very touchingly expressed. "You never ask, I always come [to the resque] – resignation to the facts, not as a complaint. Consent is one of the main themes of the movie, as well as violation of the body and mind. So Batou, who keeps his respectful distance is the perfect relationship for Major, whose body is continuously ripped to pieces and regrown, yet does not feel anything and whose head has been completely messed.

Final verdict: Gorgeous-looking movie which dregs up some weird stuff in American unconscious about relations to Japan.

maanantai, 3. huhtikuu 2017

The Science Fiction Love Story I Want to Read

There is a school of thought that recommends visualizing what you want in order to achieve it, and I'm going to visualize the book I'd love to read – a science fiction romance like the Universe has not yet seen. Maybe I can will it into existence if I describe it?

***

The best sort of romance for me is a really *really* speculative romantic story, where not only the participants are something not possible here-and-now, but the concept of love gets some prodding. What exactly does love mean, if lovers are bodiless entities in cyberspace, able to copy and modify themselves as they will? Could you love a truly alien alien, not one of those four-limbed humanoids with corresponding pleasure parts – and why would you? How would someone explain to themself what they are feeling if in their society there is no word for love nor a concept of romantic attraction?

Emotionally my dream story would be intensely heart-wrenching and sad. It would have a bittersweet happy-sad ending, the sort there often is in Asian movies – lovers die or are separated forever, but they maintain the bond of their love until death and beyond. (Wait a second please, I need to dry my tears here.) It has to be a bit obsessive and over-the-top, not the least bit sensible and not something you could use as a real-life relationship manual. I want to live in balanced, mutually satisfactory, happy relationship, but while laying on the sofa with my love and a cup of tea, I want to read about destructive and borderline crazy love stories – much as I want to travel comfortably in a bus following traffic rules going where it is supposed to go, but want to read about an exploding spaceship plunging into a raging black hole formed by two violently colliding galaxies.

That being said, it would still have to be ultimately life-affirming and not nihilistic, in the end it has all been worth it despite all the suffering, soul-tearing heart-breaks and happiness being only something fleeting and fragile.

The science fictional element would be strong, not just some random spaceships and ray guns sprinkled around to spice a society similar to which we live in (or think we used to live in). There would be enough thought-out and well-fleshed ideas to entertain a reader not particularly fascinated by the romance plot. Especially I'm looking forward to reading about how human or – just to be on the safe side – sentient relationships are formed and maintained in a society which has a different level of technology from ours. It just feels extremely unlikely and hard to maintain suspense of disbelief, if there are ftl and immortality technology and AI and gigantic space robots and yet this level of technology has not made any impact on relatioships between people. 

And finally... in my dream story, textile & clothing technology is congruent with the general technology level. For personal reasons, these things really stick out and annoy me. It is totally fine just to ignore what exactly people are wearing, but I will not accept that for example people living in a technologically advanced space culture would wear cotton clothes. Where would they get their cotton? Would they grow it in tanks and then go to the whole hassle of carding and spinning? If it was wholly synthesized, why not make it something else than cotton, which has many good qualities but is hardly the ideal fiber. Just ruins the world building! It's also irritating when writer name-drop textile materials they don't know anything about (woven neoprene, in a cyberpunk story I recently read). A minor thing to most, I'm sure, but it bothers me and in my dream story such annoyances don't exist!

tiistai, 28. maaliskuu 2017

Speculating about polyamorous romance

The most common romance set-up is no doubt the love triangle, where happy end – or any sort of end – demands the hinge character to choose one and forsake the other. The emotional plot consists of finding out through various trials and situations which suitor is The One, or if the right choice is obvious, the right suitor character and/or the hinge coming to terms with his doubts and suspicions. (This type of plot, which depends on poor communiction between the lovers, and them jumping to nasty conclusions about the person they are supposed to love, usually based on minimal evidence, are among my least favourite romance plotlines. General life experience makes me strongly doubt the happily-ever-afterness of any union built on such shaky ground.)

But what if the dramatic triangle were to be solved not by eliminating one of the suitors, and instead forming a relationship with all three in it? How would that work out – in the context of romantic literature?* Monogamy by its very nature forces a romantic plot forward, obstacles forming as fast as they are overcome, until a definite end-point is reached, where all two pieces of the puzzle are finally and unquestionably in place until forever. What would be the central questions of a polyamorous romance story and how to define the end point? Monogamous romance gets much of its energy from the contrast of 'He is the only one that can make me happy and I'm the only one that can make him happy' and 'if I can't get him, I'll be alone and sad forever'. These are strong sentiments which provide fantastic plot fuel.**

If we remove the idea of One and Only from romance, what would be the central conflict? I haven't gotten my hands on proper polyamorous romance books yet, apart from some fan fiction, so this is pure speculation so far (I'm browsing Goodreads for recommendations, but 'menage' erotica seems to be way more common than polyamorous romance with central focus on the emotions). Obvious conflict would be between societal expectations and unlearning them, so that hero(ine) could in the end be happy and secure in a more-than-two relationship. Or the handling of emotions and personal growth to make room in a previosly two-person relationship for a new person. But both of these conflicts seem a bit... sensible. Even dry. External conflict can of course be wrenching, if the character has to choose for example between romantic love in their own way and the approval of family/friends, but there has to be some satisfactorily resolved internal conflict as well, otherwise it ends up being social commentary, or, for heavens' sake – "real literature". And in sci-fi setting, the external conflict can be done away with entirely, if the writer so wishes.

Jealousy can be a red-hot emotion, and resolving it by dissolving it in boundless love ("her love for me is not lessened because of her love to another") instead of external factors proving it unnecessary ("it was just a misunderstanding and she only truly loves me") could be a plot core.

Now I'm off to download a few recommended polyamorous romances and see if my speculations line up with them at all!

* I'm not questioning if or how polyamory works in real life, obviously!

** – Although current society and it's increasingly liberal attitude to sex without commitment, and ending relationships if they are not satisfactory, waters down this potent mixture. As much as I prefer to live in these times compared to earlier ages, where ending up in the wrong marriage was a mistake with lifetime consequences, romance literature has lost the credible threat of ruined life and certain seriousness because of it. Not a bad trade-off, as trade-offs go, but that's the reason I'll pick a hundred years old romance to read rather than a current one, or go for speculative romance altogether.