perjantai, 16. maaliskuu 2018

Altered Carbon (both book and TV)

So much sf content in Netflix! I've abandoned Star Trek for now to watch Altered Carbon, because ooo high production values cyberpunk in my tv! It makes me happy jut to type that.

It's based on a book of the same name, which was quite a fun read. Hard-boiled and fast-paced and Altered Carbon is such a cool name for a book. (The sequel's title, Broken Angels, is so cheesy I found myself embarrassed reading it in public, even though I consume all kinds of low-value manufactured entertainment shamelessly and without blushing. Also, it was a much less engaging book – the vitality and pep and adrenaline rushes of the first book were missing even if complicated thriller plot and violent action were there. Third in the Kovacs series, Woken Furies, remains unread but perhaps one day if it falls on my lap I'll give it a chance.)

Much of what made the book enjoyable has been successfully translated into a tv series. It is infinitely satisfactory when our (anti)hero Kovacs kills all the torture corporation bad guys and coolly exits the building, pink backpack slung on one shoulder, against a backdrop of explosions. A sort of visceral pleasure of justice done + something even more instinctive, a deep-seated feeling of … how to call it? Being on he same side with the winning guy, the obvious leader of the pack, the strongest, the most assertive, machoest macho of them all. The opponents don't stand a chance, they get just the bullet or fist they deserve, and isn't that just glorious. Sometimes they don't even deserve what they get, but haha it feels good nonetheless because it's our guy dishing out the violence he's the toughest yeah. As entertainment goes, this is the hi-fructose maize syrup. Intoxicating and addictive.

And good grief, the concentrated masculinity. Maybe that's the MSG, makes all the flavors more intense. Or salt? Whatever. Just sprinkle it on, please! Altered Carbon is all about joyfully getting swept along with the testosterone wave, no nitpicking about gender roles or dissecting what it means or doesn't mean to be a 'man'.

Another book by Richard Morgan, Black Man (2007), which has a similar extremely violent, super-low-agreeableness protagonist, probes the concept of masculinity and that ends up being one of the main themes of the book. So Morgan can use the macho tropes to his advantage but also cut them open to see what makes them tick.

Not only the protagonists but also the romantic plots are interestingly close: in Altered Carbon, female lead Ortega has to deal with her lover's body being inhabited by another dude, Kovacs. Kovacs and Ortega end up falling for each other – familiarity, novelty and danger, a perfect romantic recipe. In Black Man, female lead Sevgi Ertegin (a tough cop, just like Ortega) used to have a genetically engineered super soldier ("variant") lover, who was then killed (I've forgotten the details). Protagonist Carl Marsalis is also a "variant" super soldier and as he and Ertegin develop a relationship, he has to deal with the possibility she just has some sort of obsession with variants and he's just a placeholder for the deceased lover. The central question appears to be 'does she really like me for me, or just this body?'. No that it's vocalized at any point. Morgan's protagonists deal with problematic emotions by sitting on them until they asphyxiate. Because that's manly.

In Altered Carbon world, bodies can be switched at will, although they are expensive and only the very rich can afford to live forever. Some of the implications of this technology are discussed thoroughly, some skimmed over (like to what extent gender and attraction are based on personality vs body – it amazes me someone can write a several hundred pages book about separating mind and body and not engage in the tiniest bit of speculation about this! It's of course not an obligation but feels like a wasted opportunity).

When bodies can be grown to exact specifications, regular pretty would lose almost all value. Having all your teeth and several changes of clothing would have distinguished someone in the 17th century as a rather attractive romantic opportunity, while these days hereabouts it is such a baseline thing no-one pays any attention to it. The same thing would happen to beautiful/handsome features, were they easy to purchase. After something like that is (near-)universally accessible, fashion becomes the important force. Laurens Bancroft acknowledges this, by using an exceptionally old body – wrinkles, middle aged pouch, a touch of grey in his hair, it all gives a frisson of excitement to the society of immortal billionaires, who all can afford to have the most perfect, eternally youthful bodies. Carnage, who runs a fighting arena, uses a deliberately ugly synthetic body as a personality quirk.

Body switch technology would lead to situation where people with unusual bodies were in danger of body-hunting. Exceptionally colored eyes, rare birth marks, extra fingers or toes… just watch out! Someone out there wants to show up in a party in your unique body! Even scars and burns, when healed, would be desirable. Body leasing requires great trust in the client, but perhaps it would then be priced accordingly.

For lovers it would be a great experience to switch bodies every now and then, if not for anything else then at least for learning about each other's pleasure points. But do Ortega and Kovacs ever think of doing that? No. How can they lack curiosity and imagination so badly? Why are they so boring? Is there any fan fiction available on this theme?

lauantai, 24. helmikuu 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Go watch it first, there's spoilers here!


So the movie is called Black Panther, but Wakanda might have been a more fitting name. In a year or two moviegoers have forgotten all about T'Challa and Nakia and Killmonger and Shuri and the queen mother and so on, but we will remember Wakanda. It's already a place among other mythical places that can't be located in the real world, but nevertheless make up a big part of our shared mental map.

It's got mountains and seaside and savanna and jungle, and a gorgeous capital city anyone would like to at least visit, probably also live in. Wakanda's capital has a distinct African architectural style, not universal copy-paste skyscrapers. It's got maglev trains and handwoven baskets, hi-tech dragonfly airships and street-food stalls, and it's so safe that the king himself can walk along the streets with just one or two guards. Well, he's a superhero with superhero strength, but still. It's an afrofuturist paradise – a through-and-through African nation, prosperous, never colonized, using their natural resources for the benefit of the whole population, tech-forward, stylish, everything. It's somewhat strange how it's taken so long to create this utopia on-screen, since it fulfills an obvious collective desire. But now it exists, at least in the minds of millions of people.

Utopian Wakanda is ruled by T'Challa, just as perfect and flawless a human being as his nation is. He is highly intelligent, efficient, nice, a good friend, a great big brother, a superhero, has a good relationship with his mother, and even though he has technically split up with his girlfriend Nakia over differing career goals, he remains fully committed to her (instead of for example going for a rampage of one night stands, which should be fairly easy for a good-looking young immensely wealthy superhero-king).

All in all, T'Challa is so well-rounded and balanced he resembles a slippery sphere, it's hard to get a grip on him. His buddies and adversaries have more rough edges and consequently are more memorable.

From a romance standpoint I would have loved more focus and screen time on Okoye's and W'kabi's relationship. Main couple T'Challa and Nakia are so obviously destined to end up back together, it's somewhat unclear why they have bothered to split up at all. There's a lot more interesting things going on with Okoye, general of the elite fighting group Dora Milaje, and W'Kabi, chief of the tribe responsible for protecting Wakanda's borders (and breeding battle rhinos!). Both are loyal to their nation, but have different ideas what it means, and it would have been so easy to milk a little more anguish out of it before the lovely reconciliation. But it was pretty nice as it was, Okoye willing to strike her beloved husband dead and him being convinced of the righteousness of her cause because of that. Apparently some really good cut scenes between Okoye and W'kabi are going to be on DVD, so I'm looking forward to that.

Now for the sequel, let's see how the Black Panther deals with all the superhero-strength giving herbs being torched. He can never again drink the potion to strip him of the powers for the ceremonial battle or he will never get the powers back, so how is this going to affect the Wakandan constitution? If the balance of power in the nation rests on the right of any royal-blooded man (?) backed by his tribe to challenge the king in a fair fight, should T'Challa step down from the throne since he can't engage in an equal fistfight? Maybe we'll see Wakanda moving from a monarchy towards hi-tech direct democracy…

Final verdict: A much-hyped movie which lives up to the hype (unlike recent examples Wonder Woman and Ghostbusters remake). Solid story, interesting characters, great visuals, good pacing, engages with heavy themes and yet maintains Marvel action movie feel.

keskiviikko, 17. tammikuu 2018

Enjoy or Die

Been pondering the extreme end of Wild-Animal Suffering interventionist theory (= it's a moral obligation to prevent wild animal suffering, eventually by changing whole ecosystems or wiping out wild nature altogether). I disagree with it, and I've been trying to put into words why exactly.

I haven't been able to find a more fundamental and universal basis for ethics than aiming at maximum self-determination for everyone (I've previously called this concept 'free will' but  I've come to understand that's unnecessarily pompous and also an exaggeration). Right to exert one's will, obligation not to interfere with others doing the same, unless they are keeping others from doing the same. In a limited resources situation it's a constant dialogue even in the best cases, but that's how it is. We must at least try.  
'Everyone' is a flexible and porous category, and obvs it's not clear where to draw the line. Humans? Humans and smarter animals, who have some concept of mind? All mammals, all vertebrae? All animals? Also plants? Bacteria? Viruses? Do non-living things, like landscapes or fine crystal structures have anything that could be construed as right of self-determination? I really don't know, and in any case at the moment we are seriously struggling with enabling the self-determination of just our fellow humans.

There's no need to make immediate decision about wildlife's right to exist vs right to not to suffer. But it's better to discuss all this well in advance. There is a very real possibility that the wild animal suffering exceeds not only wild animal pleasure but also all sapient pleasure (physical, mental, spiritual, whatever) – rigorously following WAS thinking, wouldn't it then be a moral obligation to destroy all life as soon as possible? Cause a total nuclear war, create a mini black hole and drop it at the core of the Earth, unleash an engineered virus that kills everything? It would solve the current imbalance of suffering/pleasure in the known universe and moreover, greatly reduce the chance of more suffering occurring ever again. All life has the capacity to suffer, and the longer it's allowed to go on living, the greater the risks of suffering grow. The cleanest solution seems obvious.

I find this concerning for reasons that are too large to be expressed as anything more coherent than a loud screech.

Even if the WAS folks calculate the ethics in some way that places higher value on protecting sapience, and are not going to sterilize the whole Universe if given the chance, I'm still nervous. Going into details: Exactly what is considered to be dumbly suffering wild life? How to prove necessary capacity for thought that overrides being humanely culled to reduce suffering? If it's for example the WAS people making the decisions, who tend to be at the extreme end of mathematical competence and capability for abstract thinking, do they deeply acknowledge the sapience of for example mathematically incapable and emotive, non-systemizing personalities? I have my own cow in the ditch here. I suffer from migraines and can't really follow maths – is the decision procedure perhaps calibrated in such a way that I end up being one of the many, many creatures that get the result "just put the poor thing out of its misery".

Wild animals suffer a lot of pain, fear etc and no doubt would prefer not to suffer like that. But would they prefer it at the cost of having their entire species wiped out, even totally humanely? There's no way to have a explicit dialogue with animals. So let's look at the actions and not what they are saying: they struggle to stay alive. Life could just give up and die if it wanted, and found suffering too much in contrast to what pleasure it gains. But it does not. It just keeps on living. I consider that an indication of living things' ultimate intention – which should be respected as much as possible.

All life is statistically more suffering and less pleasure, because suffering is a steerage mechanism which has developed to keep living thing from harm, and pleasure is a mechanism to guide the living thing towards what is beneficial to it. Of these two it is more imperative to keep away from harm, so that's what features more. WAS action, if it was gradual, would work as an evolutionary carrot of species benefiting more from pleasure than from suffering – forcing pain, distress etc out from the possible responses for external stimulus. This hypothetical world ruled by "enjoy or die" feels disgusting on an emotional level, but I'm willing to admit this might be just my personal irrational squeamishness.

All my reasoning might be tainted by subconscious desire to keep things as they are even if they'd objectively better be changed. But then so might the WAS ideology be tainted with subconscious desire to re-make the world in their own image. Seemingly well-meaning ethical framework construed carefully to hide a solipsistic desire to be the only existence in the universe…


Also, when a moral standpoint forces one to the same conclusion as Judge Death, it is a reasonable indication it might benefit from an extra round of rigorous examination.


perjantai, 12. tammikuu 2018

One Good Reason to Fight an Intergalactic War

What motivates warfare in a intergalactic civilization setting? It's always been a bit of problem for me. Like, why bother? If there's technology which allows people to travel relatively effortlessly across the galaxy (or galaxies!), fighting for resources does not sound plausible. Full-on interstellar war appears to be something that consumes more resources than could be gained by waging it, at least if the human scale is similar to ours.

Moral issues are a more … sensible? reason for such a troublesome endeavor. But what would be a disagreement worth killing and dying in an intergalactic scale? An evil overlord that just evilly wants to lord over all universe is an obvious solution. But it gets boring fast, and also it takes some convincing to accept 100% evil evillers whose only motivation is being evil. Monomaniac cult with a strong urge to convert or destroy non-believers falls into the same category as evil overlords. Both of those, if they really are just out to destroy everyone no compromise, not that different from a grey goo plague situation. It has to be dealt with but… ehh, there's just not enough noble tragedy. The enemy should ideally not be just plain stupid and evil.

Anecdotal space war causes
> Star Wars, natural Forces make some folks go Dark Side, can they even be held morally responsible for their actions? (btw it somewhat bothers me about new Star Wars is that we have Finn to prove New Order stormtroopers are individuals and can be rehabilitated, and yet no-one – not even Finn – considers them humans under their helmets. I'd think he'd like to capture and anti-brainwash some of them or at lest try some form of propaganda).
> Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie. This is interesting bc the protagonists are the monomaniac cult. They feel obligated to subjucate everyone.
> The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu. Resources are scarce, so war makes sense and does not require philosophical arguments.
> Commonwealth Saga, Peter F Hamilton. The enemy is an expansionist cult of one (and easily my favourite character of the series).
> Surface Pattern, Iain M Banks. Severe philosophical differences, but not satisfactory. I adore Banks but the pro-Hell enemy side is definitely just plain evil and stupid.

For a really fascinating space war story there should be a disagreement, whose both sides are somewhat relatable AND such a far-reaching and serious issue it would motivate people to do terrible things and put themselves into danger. And  think I've just bumped onto one! It's a philosophical issue, both sides make sense, and it can't be left unresolved. Perfect.

The big question "Is it morally imperative to erase suffering to the point of wiping out wild animals/wild nature?". I fall quite definitely in the camp of "life wants to live and self-determination of even non-sapient creatures is more important than erasing suffering", but I can totally follow the arguments of the other side as well.

Even if the nature wipe-out scenario does not concern me personally, I'd still take up arms to oppose it. And it's not an issue one can really be lukewarm about, should it ever come to be practical to actually end all mindless suffering. Really a good reason to get involved and gather armies and shed blood and explode suns etc! I'm so not going to write an intergalactic war saga, but if I were...

torstai, 28. joulukuu 2017

This is a dream I had last night

(In my daily life I'm a middle-aged and mild-mannered writer, but in my dreams I'm a police officer in a fantasy city. Or maybe it's the other way round. Who knows, really.)


It was me, Roch and Nehtë. Roch is big and burly and near-unstoppable in battle, but also an unusually conscientious officer. I like working with Roch. No reason to expect brilliant detective-work – that falls on me – but also never any nonsense.

Nehtë was the newest member in our infiltration team. Good with anything but guns, lots of street smarts, has a gift to sense even hidden augments. An unruly lick of hair falling over one eye, a lop-sided smile and a row of piercings on his long elven ears gave him an air of a cocky youngster prone to rash decisions – a carefully cultivated front to camouflage a competent officer. Although sometimes I do wonder…

We were supposed to just check out the mysterious new crime lord's headquarters, a simple intel gathering mission. Maybe gain some insight on the hitherto unseen boss. He, or she, was not an elf, not an orc, not a human or a fairy or a werecreature of any known sort, we had no idea really who we were dealing with.

It was a nasty part of town, smelling of rotting fish, buildings so close to each other there were no real streets, just back alleys and slimy ditches, and brick walls tagged from ground to as high as I cared to look. I ran my hand over one of the graffittis and licked my fingertips. Spray paint, made of ingradients with such beautiful and poetic names as Ethylbenzene and Acetone and Propylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether and whatnot. Should not be used here, some of that stuff is poisonous to fairies, but of course spray cans are way more convenient than scratching one's initials and protection runes with a dull knife. I signaled to Roch and she nodded, took a notebook from her pocket and jotted down a few notes. Environmental team needs to be alerted, and they will rush in to clean the harmful chemicals off the walls right after they have completed their more urgent tasks, so sometime in the next few thousand years. That's how this city is.

We were near to the entrance, just about to sneak in undetected, when Nehtë said, in tones of innocent curiosity, what was it with me tasting the wall. Then he looked appropriately shamefaced, as our invisibility glamour popped like a soap bubble. It withstands nearly anything but not words. But he got over his embarassment real quick, flashing a smile that said what was done was done and we had to make best of the situation as it was.

So, now it was a suddenly diplomatic mission, and I was wearing my ugly combat pants. Oh well. Roch made a frrhrrump-y sound and wiped her hand across her mouth, presumably to clean her tusks. Nehtë was already joining his palms in a greeting. Entry guards recognized us, but good manners compelled them to show us in.

The room we were led to was more a mixture of a barn, armoury and kitchen than a pristine show-off entrance hall, but in regards to personnell I've seen less organized princely palaces. Entry guards promptly handed us over to indoor guards, while someone went to inform someone else, all the way up to the secretary of the establishment, who arrived to greet us at precisely the same moment a receptionist walked in with a tray of refreshments. There were pieces of seaweed and some opened-up mollusks and glasses filled to the brim with a coral-hued spirit.

In tense mood of fake cordiality, each one of us took a glass. The secretary said some welcoming phrase. I lifted the glass to my lips, and enjoyed the delicious smell of the drink, even if I had to skip tasting it. Nehtë knocked his down straight, and I could not help hissing a little. That was the correct thing to do, according to Miss Manners, but even the strictest followers of rules of politeness would not expect anyone to eat or drink at his mortal enemy's lair. But Nehtë was doing his best dashing hero impression and he just had to do the chivalrous thing. The secretary was an elven lady, and Nehtë opened his arms for the ceremonial hug. Secretary did look quite charmed by his bravery. She gave him a proper elf hug, much like an aunt to her favourite nephew, and I noticed guards relaxing their stances. I made a mental note to seriously think about the practical benefits of Nehtë's approach, when he spoiled it all. He stepped back to my side, and whispered to me ”She has just one  standard weapon augment, nothing special, we could totally take this place down just the three of us”. Secretary's face froze back to the usual elven haughtiness. Of course there was a spell to catch whispers, and to whose ear would those be delivered if not the secretary's?

My attempt at laughter was caught in my throat, when Nehtë's eyes glossed over and he fell down. There had been something in the drink. Of course. Certainly I would have spiked the welcome drink if I were employed in a criminal organization and received uninvited guests from the police force. I caught the secretary's glance. She gave me a smug little nod.

I saw entry guards starting to push the front door closed, and other guards taking attack positions, and moving their hands towards their weapons – I can see real fast, in combat situations. And move too. The door, I yelled at Roch. She was already on her way to prevent it from closing. We'd never get out if it did, it was that sort of door. I threw a stunner spell at one group of guards, kicked a side table down to protect Nehtë, and then had to roll behind it myself too to not get burned by fireballs. I fired a round of shots, which should have hit someone, but did not – besides the whisper-catcher there was apparently a protective spell to make enemy bullets exceptionally unlucky. Roch was taking care of herself but could not move from the door. Nehtë was no longer breathing and his skin was going grey. The situation had turned ugly in less than thirty heartbeats. There was no time for regrets, or any thoughts not directly pertaining to what was happening, but there was an itch at the base of my skull to strangle Nehtë if I just first managed to get his body to safety and arrange him to be revived.

The secretary had run halfway up stairs at the back of the hall and I had ignored her. Only when she stopped and turned around I realized she was not escaping. She was searching for a better angle to use whatever weapons augments she had. I felt a crackle of gathering power in the air. Maybe it was a standard augment, but the secretary was using it to maximum effect. One straight hit would crisp me pretty badly. Even if I managed to get my shield up in time, I could withstand only three to four energy bursts. The outlook was not good. But to get to worry about third and fourth hit I needed to survive the first, so I concentrated my magical shield. I imagined it as a pretty purple mushroom, growing out of my heart, the cap turned towards danger. I screamed 'Ethylbenzene', to give the impression it was some exotic human magic, and let the shield blossom to full strength.

Flash, bang, ka-boom. Such a loud ka-boom I felt it in my bones rather than heard with my ears. The energy bolt had deflected from my shield, faster than even I could see, and exploded, tearing back wall down and setting the remains in fire. The staircase was a pile of rubble. There had been a door at the back wall, wide but low, and it was completely gone. I looked around cautiously. No-one was standing, except for Roch. Her hide is impenetrable. She made a go-ahead sign, and then a cutesy victory V. I got up. My skin was stinging and my ears were ringing. I hobbled towards the bac wall, just to make a quick check before getting the hell out of there. Something unusual had caught my eye. There was something reddish, orangeish, kind of long sticks sticking out at odd angles, and a weird, not completely unpleasant smell.

There had been a low-ceilinged but large room behind the back wall, half of it a swimming pool. Most of the water had evaporated when the energy bolt hit it, steaming the sole occupant alive. And if that had not been enough, a huge rock had crushed its main section, splashing entrails and shell shards around. Without doubt this had been the boss we had wanted to catch; a giant spider crab. One of the mysteries of the deep ocean, rarely seen, and never before known to show interest in criminal affairs.

Roch hauled Nehtë's body on her shoulder, and let me lean on her on our way back. She had a crab leg in her other hand, and while she thought I was not looking, took a nibble out of it. That would be tampering with evidence, but I could not get myself worked up about it. I was thinking about the crab. It had gathered a competent and powerful security team to protect itself. But it had not worked. Not the way the crab had intended. If the secretary's powers had been a little weaker, the crab would have survived. But was there any way it could have arrived such an unintuituve conclusion?

No doubt there's a lesson to be learnt from all this, but I'm not yet sure what it is.