I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative voice as a ghost (or awakening ghosts, or impersonating ghosts, or whatever) and so I re-watched Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell animated film in order to see how it approaches memory and identity through the lens of a type of ghost. Originally written and illustrated by Masimune Shirow, as a film it’s awkward – the animated characters barely move, and the dialogue is pretty wooden (perhaps it’s better in the original Japanese). Still, it’s a fascinating take on what now has become a ubiquitous concern – when we are living in the machine what will happen to our bodies?
- The plot focuses on an elite terrorist-fighting police squad located in a fictional Japanese city, roughly translated as New Port City.
- As far as scenery goes, that’s pretty much all we see – endless city. The last scene in particular links the city directly to a data core, as its indistinct lines in the artwork make it appear to look like a series of databases. The scenery constantly changes and exposes us to new parts of the city, but we see so little green that the world’s constant rain seems like a comment on our own desires to wash the world clean.
- Cyberpunk as relentless urbanity invokes what feel like modernist anxieties in this film.
- This world is relentlessly crowded, and the city has had to adapt to global warming, all key elements in the cyberpunk world.
- My guess is that part of the lack of movement among the animated characters can be attributed to the fact that they are cyborgs. The humans in the squad move a little more – still, the lack of blinking or breathing is unnerving, and helps me realize why avatars in games like the World of Warcraft appear to breathe heavily – they look more alive.
- The questions the film raises are fascinating – Shirow invokes Arthur Koestler (who I know far better as the author of a truly terrifying novel, Darkness at Noon) and his arguments about the core of identity. Koestler’s work deserves a much longer treatment, but broadly he argues that we are not simply souls inhabiting bodies but that our connections are much more complicated.
- Shirow calls the cybernetic soul a ghost, and the term becomes increasingly more complicated as the film (and manga) proceed. The protagonist, Major Kusanagi, struggles to figure out who she is, and the connection she finds at the end of the film to the Puppet Master (a rogue AI that to me is the kissing cousin of Wintermute in the Sprawl series) speaks to Koestler’s ideas of how we (whoever the ‘we’ is) are connected.
- The violence in the film is fascinating. The cyborgs are the only bodies we see destroyed, with wires and tubes hanging out of decapitated limbs. Still, those bodies (and they’re gendered very specifically as female) are not only alive but able to function – and the ghosts can be transferred.
- As one can imagine, the idea of sentience becomes up for grabs by the end.
Although I’m not exactly sure how the themes in this text connect to the ones that I’m trying to identify, I’m glad I re-watched the film. It clearly hits a cultural sweet spot, and as we find ourselves ever more immersed in screens we can probably learn a thing or two from it. The artwork is damn near hallucinatory at points, and I found myself glad that the film moved so slowly, as I could spend time drinking in the arcane and stuffed world that the artwork spends time developing.
I’m familiar with Drew Magary’s work from Kissing Suzy Kolber and Deadspin, both of which are gone*. Magary’s writing is beautifully brutal, taking on power by calling things what they are (see the footnote for more on that). That type of writing is why I picked up The Postmortal, and while the novel is different (a bit less manic, a lot less funny, a lot more thought-out), it runs on that same sort of desperate, wow-we-are-so-screwing-this-all-up energy, a power that feels absolutely spot-on at this cultural moment.
- This novel focuses on what happens when, once again, we simply introduce a technology without considering its consequences. In this case we get the cure for aging, and our government actually tries to hold back on it, but the beginning of violent agitations for and against as well as doctors who make a lot of money by providing the cure on the black market leads elected officials to throw up their hands and say go for it…
- Even this protagonist, someone who is at best morally compromised as a lawyer and then end specialist, can’t keep going forever…and it feels like the only folks who do are religious fanatics and zealots or completely amoral, narcissistic bastards…not exactly the kind of future where the arc of morality and social justice bends ever-forward…
- It’s interesting how some of the sharpest critiques of technology have come from folks who have used the Intertoobz to write about sports. They have done so in ways that we could never have imagined previously, and reached audiences that are far larger and smarter than any sportswriter could have hoped for.
- Young , woke white guys like Spencer Hall, Will Leitch, and Magary (esp. with his “Why Your Team Sucks” feature on Deadspin) were far more prescient than many of us in understanding the exact effects that these same intertoobz, augmented by social media and all the other crap, would have on us as a culture.
- I’m sort of obsessed with ghosts right now (especially of the narrative variety), and they appear late in this novel. After the bombs start dropping, a person trying to escape tells the narrator, John Farrell, as he has to do his end specialist duty on a bunch of folks who couldn’t afford the sheep flu robocure (called Skeleton Key)…
‘I know why they’re sick. I know why the world got sick. Do you know?’ I didn’t answer her. She didn’t need my approval to go on. ‘It’s the ghosts who did this. I hear them. I feel them cozy up to me when I’m asleep on the ground. The ghosts aren’t happy with us. They saw us grab more life than they got, and they raged. They howled and they shook their chains, and they swore they’d get back at us for being on the right side of history. It’s the ghosts who have made this world sick. You don’t shortchange the dead. There’s a whole lot more of them than there are of us, and there always will be. You watch. They’ll claim us all.’
- Ghosts, and the ways we write them into our culture as hungry for experiences that they can never have, carry all kinds of weight, and Magary’s use of them here – as a fever dream seen by someone who sees the end of the world directly in front of them – posits a future that simply can’t handle all that ectoplasm.
By the end I was reading furiously and had to slow myself down. One of the reasons that I read is to see what really smart people are thinking about huge social problems, and Magary’s novel does exactly that…
Black Leopard Red Wolf is the second novel I’ve read by Marlon James, and in it he crosses genres into fantasy, a land that I often think of as being inhabited by the sorts of true believers who resent those not approved by the Tolkien groupies. That’s not so true, as writers like Samuel R. Delany and Stephen Donaldson attacked the generic boundaries early in its incarnation as popular fiction, and BLRW continues the exploration that those two began.
- It took me longer than I expected to get into this novel. I’ve been excited to read it since I finished A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the sort of casual way that James introduces us to his characters felt haphazard, and the various plot threads felt way too spread apart.
- By the end, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t put it down.
- The narrative point of view is fairly amazing. We spend much of the novel inside Black Wolf’s head, a pretty unusual point-of-view from a fantasy novel perspective. At times he becomes so embroiled in his own rage and lust for revenge (his mantra is “fuck the gods”, if you are curious about his motivations) that he acts in ways that we could consider not all that heroic, especially if your definition of heroism includes piety.
- Curiously, James never apologizes for Tracker’s bloody ways, even in the ways that the novel ends. He doesn’t magically transform (although his motivations for revenge, the vampire killing a bunch of children whom the Tracker was a father-figure too, feel pretty primal and in some ways justified) into some sort of redemptive figure.
- In fact, Tracker does not even get the kill (you knew the evil folks were gonna die, right?).
- Black Wolf is a tracker (and he’s known in the novel as Tracker, not Black Wolf, in case Black Panther fans get too worked up), an archetype that does not constitute any previous fantasy hero’s identity as far as I can recall. For instance, Aragorn was often called the best tracker of his age, but that characteristic simply helped us understand how different he was from previous kings, establishing his worthiness.
- The general ways that James uses archetypes from African mythology is fascinating and really cool, and I am working on another project that attempts to map these figures onto to the deeply nordic base of most fantasy fiction.
- The setting is also intense – deep forests, ancient cities, sort of standard in interesting ways.
- I will need to figure out the boy who would have been king at some other time. Suffice it to say that patrilineage, matrilineage, and the increasingly chaotic nature of government by nobility is a backdrop to what is coming next.
- The novel also sets the next stage, with the appearance of the inhuman white scientists, and the god-killer figure warning Tracker that an entirely different threat is coming, soon. The threat looks suspiciously like colonialism.
I am looking forward to the rest of the series…
Jo Walton’s Necessity trilogy continues to delight me. The Philosopher Kings is book two in the series, and it starts twenty years after the final debate in The Just City, the one in which Athene, angry because she lost the argument and her Just City – based on Plato’s Republic – breaks up the experiment because the Republic was not working out as she imagined.
- Walton’s fiction experiments in interesting ways with all kinds of big ideas, and the factions that result from the end of the last debate (and Athene’s taking of all but two of the Workers with her) provide a glimpse at the drive to set forth and find lands of our own that motivated the continuous development of colonies that was ancient Greece.
- This set of colonies is imbued (burdened?) with the foreknowledge of what is to come, since in the original plan Athene simply plucked anyone who had thought of her out of their current time and plopped them as a Master in the Just City.
- Her portrayal of the gods is fascinating – she fully invests in the ancient Greek idea that gods have immense powers and yet are more fully realized humans. They can be capricious, loving, horrible, intensely empathetic, and a bunch more, and seeing how those characteristics play out in the mundane world is pretty cool.
- The consequences of time travel come into play here as well. The inhabitants do not want to destroy what is come because of what they know, and this concept gets really confusing with the advent of Christianity, since Christians still want to be saved and go to heaven.
- Walton does not give up what Hades is actually like in this configuration…no cheating I guess…
- There is far less dialogue in here, and a lot more action (of the traditional variety – I think dialogue is action, but I’m a nerd). I missed the dialogue, but I also miss Simmea.
- Oddly enough, she inhabits nearly the entire novel through Apollo’s love for her.
- As the inhabitants of the Just City leave to form new colonies, they come back for one thing – art. The potency and power of art in this type of city (which Walton sets up in direct contrast to Plato’s oft-expressed concerns about art’s power to invoke emotion in people) drives people to war.
- Some would say that anything drives people to war…
- I am really curious what the next novel will do with the notions of citizenship that Walton is just starting to explore at the end of this novel. In my reading of The Republic determining who is a citizen (and the whys and hows) causes a bunch of problems.
- I am also wondering about economics and material necessity. This series intensely examines what we think of when we think of the soul, and it gives us some looks at the material conditions that people face. As the material reality of the next landscape manifests itself perhaps we will see more of the economics of The Republic (esp. since Walton has effectively eliminated both slaves and Workers/robots).
On to Book Three…
Parasite (dir. by Bong Joon Ho) had me far closer to the edge of my seat than I would have imagined. It’s not billed as a thriller, necessarily, but I guess that the borders between classes are fraught with this if played right…
- These types of films are often used to highlight the inherent virtue of being able to obtain lots of money – Taxi Driver and Cape Fear are ancient examples that come to mind immediately, with the lower class guy who can’t get rich by legitimate means (define legitimate how you will). If you are a member of the one percent in this configuration, it’s because you deserve it.
- The rich family in this film – the Parks – are not evil, and they earn their money legitimately I would guess, but they are also somehow (perhaps if I understood South Korea better I would know how) to lots of money, while the Kims have a son and daughter who are college and art-school educated but who cannot find jobs, much like their parents.
- My guess is that this film condemns the crazy economic system that exists in South Korea – at one point the dad, Kim Ki-tek, says that 500 people with college degrees apply for jobs as drivers, like the one he used to have. I have no idea how accurate that is, as according to at least this site unemployment there is around 3.5 percent, but perhaps that rate hides a gig economy with insecure employment.
- The interaction between the Parks and the Kims is always fraught with danger. The Kims take full advantage of their scam and get all family members ensconced in the house, only to see things go horribly wrong.
- As a viewer, I get nervous for the Kims as I watch them flout class conventions. At one point while the Parks are camping they take over the house, drinking the good booze, eating their food, enjoying the view, only to have the night come crashing down on them when the Parks return early.
- The Parks will be able to bring the institutional power of the state on the Kims, and the narrative that will result will reify the power of wealth.
- The other theme is the blindness of the Parks, a blindness derived from their class advantages. Mr. and Mrs. Park have sex while their staff (having been busted in the house, and now hiding) lie silently under the huge coffee table, waiting for their chance to escape. Mr. Park talks about how Mr. Kim, his driver, gets too comfortable at times, and how he smells bad, all while the Kims are lying there trying not to breathe loudly.
- We know that the Parks do not have to live by their wits in the same way, as they are able to simply be blind. The film is not that simple – we see through the eyes of Kim the chaos that is Park’s workplace, and he seems stressed even if he is sort of bland – but the Parks have a lot more margin for error, and we know that the full powers of the state will be brought to bear against the Kims for their transgressions.
- The blindness even goes to the news media – we see multiple reports trying to explain what happened, and all of the official outlets say they are baffled as to what could have gone wrong.
- The final scenes, in which all the Kims are driven once again underground, make the class delineations visceral. These distinctions make the film a powerful one, and I’d happily watch it again…