I’m always eager to read the latest Iain M. Banks novel, especially if it involves the Culture, because not only is Banks a great writer but his ideas and settings are really good, and I think the Culture novels have made a significant theoretical contribution to science fiction. So they’re always a pleasure to read even if, like this novel, they’re too long, have unnecessary plots, and suffer from two significant flaws.

Surface Detail adds a new layer to Banks’s vision of the galaxy the Culture inhabit, this time by expanding on ideas about virtual minds, backing-up minds, and sublimation of whole cultures that he had previously only alluded to. The central plot of this novel concerns a war over the fate of a collection of pan-galactic hells, conducted in a virtual environment in order to prevent it spilling into the real world where it might actually hurt people. These hells represent the natural consequence of the development of technology enabling people’s souls or minds to be backed up – some civilizations provide an afterlife for those who have died and are sick of living; and some of these civilizations also provide a hell, where those who did wrong in life are tortured forever. The Culture, of course, being the most sanctimonious anarchists in pan-human history, object strongly to this phenomenon – even virtual torture offends them, though they might occasionally blow up a habitat containing billions of people, just because they have to – and this story concerns their non-involvement in this war. The idea is excellent, expanding on Richard Morgan’s ideas with a nice post-scarcity, space opera twist, and the idea of virtualized wars is also excellent. The novel also adds further detail to the growing description of the Culture’s place in the galactic order, the nature of civilizational sublimation, and of course introduces new tech, a wide range of civilizations, and some nice concepts about what happens when civilizations die and leave their tech behind. It also has an excellent character, the Abominator-class starship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints, whose personality matches its name exactly.

I like the way Culture novels work on a theme, so even minor plots match the theme, and I like Banks’s decision to take on the topic of personality back-ups, though I think the aforementioned Richard Morgan’s take on the consequences of this technology in books like Altered Carbon is more interesting. As other reviews I’ve read have observed, this book is a little too long, introducing unnecessary plots and characters (in my opinion 3 characters could have been dumped altogether along with their completely irrelevant plots) but Banks’s writing is so much fun and his ideas so intoxicating (if you like space opera) that this never bothers me. However, there are two significant flaws in this novel that I think have been becoming increasingly obvious in Banks’s Culture novels, to the extent that I can now safely say they are a developing pattern in his work:

  • Too Many Settings: Like the roof of the Cistine chapel, this novel is garish, with unnecessary colour. Every couple of pages there is a new setting, each one as luscious and extravagant as the one before it, and none of them playing any significant role in the novel beyond a few pages. The main story occurs against the backdrop of an essentially completely normal country estate (a common theme in Banks’s novels) but an encounter of a few pages only may occur in some resplendent and insane natural or artificial setting, that we barely have time to revel in before we’re flicked on to the next scene. Every one of these settings in itself is great but it doesn’t do any justice to the setting to flick it away after just a few pages. I remember the main settings of Consider Phlebas very clearly because there were only 3 or 4, but in this novel Banks has gone through 20 or more stupendous settings, and by the end of it I’m numb to their power. He could have spread them over several novels, and given me greater opportunity to enjoy each one. This book basically requires only three – a crazy opera house, an in-system underground city, and the mansion – with the subsidiary setting of a single GSV.
  • Deus Ex Machina: The entire plot involving the Quietus spy Yime Nsokyi was a deus ex machina, with her being spirited from catastrophic event to catastrophic event by the Ship she works with. At one point she is told bluntly: humans have not been able to contribute meaningfully to space battles for about 9000 years. Then she gets in several. There are multiple other points where the humans are basically rescued, dumped into a new plot or have their machinations revealed by Ships. The Ships are so omnipotent and omniscient that they are, to all intents and purposes, gods, and Banks seems to have lost the skill of crafting stories where he doesn’t use these powers. Earlier novels – especially Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons – avoid this problem by careful crafting and choice of setting, but in more recent novels he’s given up on the (admittedly challenging) task of setting up plots which don’t rely on the Ships just swanning in and fixing/fucking everything up. Don’t get me wrong – I love it when the Ships do this – but it’s poor narrative crafting and a writer who wasn’t so creative in other ways would be punished for it critically. Though I have noticed recently that this seems to be a bit of a phenomenon in modern sci-fi and fantasy – it happened a bit in the Stephen Hunt, Richard Morgan and James Butcher novels I’ve been reading recently, so I’m wondering if it’s a narrative trend in modern SF/Fantasy. In which case someone needs to point out how crap it is.

Despite these concerns with the novel I can’t say that Iain M. Banks is going downhill. Rather, I think he’s got a lot of creative license from his earlier success and is using the freedom this gives him to explore the Culture as a sci-fi phenomenon. The plot and the narrative detail are secondary to his prime interest, which is exploring the ramifications of his post-scarcity world. I think this post-scarcity concept is very important to sci-fi, and until his actual writing and characters lose their considerable power, I’m happy to go along for the ride with very few reservations, so I recommend this novel to anyone who wants a good space opera novel.

The issue of gender inclusivity in gaming has been around the traps for as long as gaming, and is something I’ve discussed on this blog before. One of the main reasons for this in both the computer and table-top gaming world is the images that are used, which signify gaming as a man’s world where women are not wanted; but another problem in the physical world has been the reception that women get, physically, when they enter a stuffy room full of fat, beardy men who haven’t had sex since they broke their blow-up doll a year ago. They tend to get stared at like freaks, and suffer a lot of unwanted attention related to their gender. One would think, though, that in a world where the player’s real gender isn’t visible, this wouldn’t be a problem, and that in fact online gaming would offer a way out of this problem.

Now, gay men and women in the military in the US are advised (in fact, forced) to get around this by means of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which enables everyone to keep pretending that there are no gay men in a largely male organization, and thus avoids requiring the majority of the group to avoid changing their behaviour (in this case, largely “worrying,” one imagines) to fit the minority’s presence. It’s good for morale, apparently, but has come under attack from Lady Gaga, who is apparently more powerful than Nancy Pelosi, presumably because she has nicer breasts.

But perhaps Lady Gaga should be turning her enormous temporal power to a much greater injustice – the exclusion of women from World of Warcraft. The Border House blog has a report on advice to a female gamer who has joined a guild with a don’t ask, don’t tell policy – about gender. That’s right, she’s meant to keep her gender secret from the other players. Apparently she’s lucky – according to commenters on the post, a lot of top flight raiding guilds are male-only. The presumed reason is that the male players start “thinking with their sack” (to quote a commenter) when they hear a woman’s voice. Which sounds a lot like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to me (and like all the previous eras’ unfounded concerns about women in the military, to boot). So this woman has to decide if she can hide her gender (which must be a little difficult, when you have to talk over a microphone – I’m not sure how that works), or tone down her raiding / move to a different guild – or be blamed for all the petty morale problems and fuck ups that affect the guild she’s in.

I’ve observed before that World of Warcraft seems to reproduce all the pettiest and most unpleasant parts of our normal world, and that its fantastic and escapist elements don’t seem to transfer to either the political, class or economic relations within the game. Gender, of course, can never hope to escape the constrictions of the real world in such an environment. Is this because of the conservatism of high fantasy, is it inevitable when a large number of ordinary men do a hobby, or is the attitude in the gaming world actually a notch more exclusionary than in the real world, because men are fragile about women intruding on their club – just as they were in the workplace 30 years ago? And can we as pen-and-paper gamers do better than this?

In reading this report I also discovered that there is a a semi-official “out” server for gay, lesbian and transgender players, “Proudmoore.”

It’s as if James Cameron sat down one day 10 years ago and asked himself (as everyone should!), “how can I make a movie that is perfectly designed to please faustusnotes?” and, before he’d even had a chance to put his hand to his forehead, out of the blue came the answer: combine Nausicaa, Last of the Mohicans and Aliens! A lesser director would probably balk at this plan, but not James Cameron! He managed to pull it off, and throw in more than a little Princess Mononoke while he was at it.

The result of any such attempt, if executed by a good director – say, for example, James Cameron – and including Wes Studi in the cast, would just have to be brilliant. And Avatar is brilliant. I really can’t understand what all the criticism was about, because on any of the points where it supposedly failed, it clearly didn’t – at least within the context of big budget hollywood – and it excelled itself on so many other levels that it thoroughly deserves praise.

In essence it’s a classic anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism story with an excess of noble savage imagery, in which a representative of a powerful culture invades a supposedly savage or less-powerful culture and attempts to destroy them in order to take their resources. Like most imagined anti-imperialism stories along this line, it throws in the standard elements of the plot, with a soldier going native and the noble savages being brave but ultimately hopeless, though unlike in the standard noble savage story, in this case they aren’t doomed at the end. The story does what a lot of previous iterations of the story explicitly refuse to do – it has used the medium of science fiction to grant the natives the power they think resides in their own myth, and thus enables them to emerge victorious. This fundamentally undermines the original racist underpinnings of the noble savage myth, incidentally, which is based on the assumption that the beauty or pride of the natives is full of pathos because of their inability to endure in the face of a superior western culture – they’re doomed to die out, and we have to mourn their loss but accept its inevitability, which may also be a reflection on our own fall from the state of grace we supposedly once enjoyed in our more primitive forms. This doesn’t apply in Avatar, because the Nabi aren’t museum pieces, but a thriving culture with special technology, and in the end they use it.

I should say at this point that, although I portray the tale as “a classic anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism” story, I’m hard pressed to think of many in the modern era. “Classic” stories of this ilk are actually few and far between. Sure, we have some stories that are anti-war, or anti-particular wars (such as Platoon, or Three Kings) and we have a few tales which tell the sad story of the end of an indigenous tribe (like, say, Last of the Mohicans) and we have a few that are transparently glorifying in the conquest of the natives (Pocahontas?) and even a few which just attempt to portray them as the mysterious other (Black Robe), but do we really have very many anti-colonialism stories floating about? Sure, there may be some in print, but I think in the movies they’re actually few and far between, which probably explains the visceral right-wing response to a movie which so transparently puts America, rather than 19th century Britain, in the imperialist picture. It does so, too, with all the button-pushing tricks which James Cameron used so effectively in Aliens, deployed viciously to get us to think both ways, and to see the humanity of both sides. No wonder supporters of wars of choice don’t like it.

So what does Avatar actually do? It gives us a disabled hero, Jake Sully, whose legs are useless, who has been dumped against his will into a role he can’t perform, surrounded by people unlike him, because his brother died back home and he has the genetic fit to replace his brother in a very expensive job. The job in question is remote-control driving an avatar, the body of a Nabi alien grown in a lab, and using it to engage with the local Nabi on the planet of Pandora. He doesn’t have much else to do, the pay is good, and the military pressure him, so he goes. And as soon as he begins remote piloting that body, everything changes. Then the plot starts and he ends up being faced with some difficult choices between the needs of the soldiers and the corporation who want to exploit Pandora, on the one hand, and the needs of the Nabi amongst whom he is (literally) going native, on the other. Unusually for a hollywood movie, too, there is no artificial resolution here – he has to pick sides, and it looks likely that picking the Nabi side isn’t going to work for him.

From the moment I started watching this, I was struck by the complex ideas the avatars can be seen to embody. I immediately thought of Thomas Covenant, who thinks he is dreaming but refuses at first to engage with his world because the moment he wakes up, he’s back to being a leper; better to hang on to his reality than allow false hope, which is a problem surely Jake is going to suffer when he spends half his days in a body he can’t own, able to run and jump and fly, but the other half in a body with no legs. I was also reminded of the very new ethical controversies surrounding our real life versions of these remote pilots – the people flying drones over Afghanistan and Iraq from safe bases in the UK or America, who are a million miles from the (usually incorrectly targeted) actual people they are killing. The thought everyone has about this type of war is that its remoteness prevents people from making accurate moral decisions, because there is literally no interaction between them and the target, not even at the level of risk. But Jake Sully, while he is remote piloting, does interact with his targets, and that makes the offer of treachery he so easily takes early on in the movie all the more callous when it comes to its cruel fruition.

This movie was very well crafted, from beginning to end. Of course the actors are great, especially Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington. The world is wonderful, though I understand its blueness may not appeal to everyone. It’s clearly modeled on the jungles from Nausicaa, though there’s a strong undersea influence that I really like, and which really suits its low-gravity physics. The flying scenes are also beautiful, and very very redolent of Nausicaa at her finest. Just when the tension and boredom of his daily life begins to get too much, Jake Sully thrusts us into a beautifully-rendered combat, chase or action scene, so the pace of the movie is good despite its length. The mecha are James Cameron at his best, and also (again) the comparison of Sully on his tiny flying thing against the great corporate machines is very close to Nausicaa on her Mehve versus the Corvettes of her enemy. The Nabi themselves are very similar to Native Americans, an image which must have offended all those many Americans who don’t want to accept any particular hard realities about the behaviour of previous incarnations of Jake Sully, or the moral culpability of those corporations which “explored” the “wild” west. This similarity reached its cinematic perfection for me when I noticed Wes Studi, of Magua fame, playing the Nabi chieftain – reprising his role of Magua on the side of the good guys! And there’s more than a hint of Princess Mononoke in the relative positions and roles of Sully and his lover (whose name I didn’t quite catch).

In many ways, too, I think viewing this movie is like watching a version of Aliens remade by a more mature James Cameron. Aliens is shallow in the very best of ways, an action movie which glorifies a bunch of macho soldiers while it glorifies in destroying them; but it is devoid of any cultural context, any sense of the soldiers as having a military past, or any moral questions about who they are or what they have done in the past. The corporate operative is a cardboard cutout wall street bad guy, who from the start has no humanity. In their new incarnations in Avatar, these characters are fully fleshed out and human. The soldiers hint at their pasts, referring to conflicts in trouble spots we know of – Nigeria or “the desert” – and though they are the same rich, interesting characters from Aliens, we don’t see them in this movie in the same sense as uncomplicated representatives of the human race. These people, the first ambassadors of humanity to the Nabi, have killed humans, and are proud of it. Their leader is a noble savage figure of his own, vicious and strong and proud of it, loving his men and ruthless in his disposal of them. The corporate rep is just as scummy as in Aliens, but this time he has a conscience, and we see him struggling with it as he acts in his own and his corporation’s interests in heartless and destructive ways. As the tension mounts and the cost to his humanity along with it, we see his rhetoric escalate through a pretense at callousness to outright hatred, but it’s impossible not to notice the occasional nervous gulps, and the uncertainty. This is a man who knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he doesn’t have to do it himself, and he knows where the benefits lie. To back it up we’re given regular hints that the situation on Earth isn’t so pleasant, and the mission to Pandora isn’t just a mission of enrichment, but that there may be an edge of desperation to it. No one on the human side in this story comes out unsullied, but no one goes into it a cold inhuman monster, either. James Cameron has attempted to construct, within the limited confines of an action movie, a real semblance of the moral and cultural imperatives of soldiers and corporates in a colonial administration.

This inversion and maturing of the Aliens mythos is beautifully represented in film through the reversal of some of the key images from that movie. In that movie the hive mind was undoubtedly evil and the soldiers good and helpless – in this movie the soldiers are not good, and in control of their own situation and the escalation of the conflict, while the hive mind is portrayed as good from the start. That movie finishes with a memorable final scene of the frail human in her mechanised cage, destroying the highest representative of the hive mind. In this movie the most evil representative of the humans is in that metal cage, and the good guy is the representative of the hive mind that is being destroyed outside of it. The figures in the battle are reversed just as the moral sides have been flipped. I don’t think any of these images arose by accident. This is masterful work by Cameron, renegotiating his own opus to represent a more mature view of war and soldiers and the Other.

I’ve heard of a few other criticisms of Avatar that I’d like to look at, both political and aesthetic:

  • It’s just another anti-colonialism movie: what are the other ones?
  • It’s anti-American: It’s anti-imperialistic, and the only way it can be therefore construed as anti-American is if we equate imperialism and America. Does America still have a policy of manifest destiny? I’m yet to see anyone who criticized Avatar on this basis make a coherent claim that America is an imperialistic nation, or that it is still following a policy of manifest destiny. So how can this movie be anti-American? If the problem is that everyone doing the bad stuff is American, well, I think that there have been many many movies made with Americans playing the roles of Nazis, Russian spies, super-villains, etc. that were not decried for their anti-Americanism. The essence of this objection is that the movie too closely resembles a critique of the formation of America; but most of the people objecting to the movie also simultaneously object to claims that America was a colonialist project, so how can they then claim this movie is anti-American? Only by studiously maintaining that any history lesson with America as the bad guy is wrong – and any such objection is unscholarly, anti-historical, in short just plain stupid and wrong.
  • The plot is crap: I don’t get this at all. The plot is very simple – soldier goes native, picks sides in a colonial war, helps the natives, the war unfolds, things happen. There is nothing complex in this plot, and as far as I can tell the only real holes in it are the usual action movie holes where people get away with things that in real life they wouldn’t (like refusing to fire on a sacred site, but not being punished; or running through a building full of cctv without being noticed). The plot of this movie is a third as complex as Last of the Mohicans, and I would say pretty much on a par with Aliens, so where’s the problem? Action movie plus simple plot, with a few minor slips to enable smooth flow of the action, is perfection, in my view.
  • The anti-colonialist ideals are ruined by the going native imagery[1]: under this criticism, it’s bad that Jake Sully helped save the natives, because in doing so he removed their agency and ability to control their own destiny, and weakened claims about their own power. This is a valid criticism, from some purist post-colonial perspective, but it fails on basic aesthetic grounds, and more vaguely on a post-colonial grounds. The aesthetic grounds is that, of course, you could make a movie in which all the people in the movie who are like the people in the audience (i.e. American) are bad, and all the people who are unlike the audience (i.e. the 10′ tall blue people with brains in their tails) are good; but good luck with that. You need a person to bridge the gap in the races to maintain the key ideas of the anti-colonial tirade, namely that we all share a common soul, and that the act of colonialism itself was not some kind of racial or cultural inevitability – it was a set of choices by people like Jake Sully who, like Jake Sully, could have chosen differently. And, more practically, you need the audience to be able to identify with the hero, while identifying with the Other through him or her. This is the radical threat of the soldier who goes native, and precisely the reason that such behaviour was so widely scorned in colonial times. Secondly, from a post-colonial perspective this complaint is overdone because colonialism usually requires interaction and interrelations between the colonised and the coloniser, it involves treachery and compliant local powers, and there is no simple sense in which the colonials and the colonisers are simply divided by a line that sets them apart. The idea of an anti-colonial narrative in which everyone amongst the colonised is pure, and everyone amongst the colonising is evil, is as simplistic as a 1920s cowboys and indians movie in which the indians are all savages who have to be wiped out[2].
  • The noble savage thing[see footnote 1]: the thing about noble savages is that they fit into action movies a lot better than if they were just noble and not very savage; and anyone who has watched Black Robe or Apocalyptica knows that it’s really hard to feel too much for a character who is just unremittingly savage. If your movie opens with you knowingly eating raw capybara testicles, things just are going to go downhill with your audience. If, on the other hand, it opens with the opening chase scene from Last of the Mohicans, we’re immediately on your side, and we don’t want you to die. The noble savage is an idea that rightly pisses off the people on the savage end of it, but when done well it is the main vehicle by which indigenous people are able to enter the consciousness of their western colonisers as real, worthwhile people while also retaining their difference. It’s also worth noting that the full and proper definition of “noble savage” requires a kind of acceptance that the “noble” part of the native character is an anachronism, and has to give way to the modernising influence of the white man; that the concept involves a fundamental assumption that this culture must pass, and that we should mourn its passing the way we mourn the passing of the dinosaurs, with a shrug of our shoulders and a guilty relief that they aren’t stepping on our car. This doesn’t happen in Avatar, because the sci-fi medium enables Cameron to imbue their “anachronistic” gaia-worship with a magical force which prevents their passing. So what we’re left with is more of a “noble warrior” or a “paladin savage” image which is not going anywhere, thank you very much (and is fun to watch in combat).
  • The deus ex machina ending: I have no problem with a deus ex machina that is set up in the plot and is a fundamental requirement of the narrative context. Joseph has to squish the Egyptians with God’s Help; Jake Sully has to have his moment with the birds
  • An action movie with a disabled lead: I think that not enough has been made of the fact that Cameron cast the lead character of an action movie as a person with a disability – a significant disability. I think this is quite revolutionary for hollywood, and should be used in all future conversations in which high-minded film buffs who think David Lynch is great tell you that action movies are shallow. Piss on them from a great height with the moral superiority of your equal opportunity action movie cred. But don’t mention the interesting and unresolved tension in the movie – the utopian society Sully wants to enter clearly has no place for the disabled, and as soon as you fall off a tree in Pandora that’s it, you’re deadweight on a very anti-disability society. I didn’t see many wheelchair ramps or braille signs on Home Tree.
  • The squishy ending: I really hate fantasy stories where the character goes into a world they love so much more than this one, but at the end they return to the mundane world – in this case returning to life with no legs. I am willing to settle for any kind of compromise in order to have them get their wish and stay in the paradise they want to be in. This is part of the reason I love Neil Gaiman. Also, I note that the ritual in which Sully achieves this goal looks very much like that weird dance-ritual thingy in Baraka.

I think it should be pretty clear from this review that I loved this movie. My partner first saw it while tripping, which I think she recommends; I don’t know about that, but I strongly recommend watching it, and if you like it but haven’t seen them already, check out its main influences too, because they’re great as well.  And if the supposedly rabidly left-wing anti-colonialism shtick pisses you off (because you, you know, like killing people and taking their stuff[3]), then just sit back and enjoy the awesome fireworks. Or take a chill pill.

fn1: what is it about the left that, when presented with a brilliant left-wing anti-colonial polemic, widely popular and brilliantly done, they have to bring up these second-rate, second-order nitpicks of the work? I don’t particularly care if there is some aspect of modern “ism” politics that it fails on, it still does a damn good job of attacking the thing it sets out to attack, and we should be happy about that and save our complaints about it for some more deserving project

fn2: in fact I suspect most early cowboy-and-indians movies were more sophisticated than this, portraying indians on both sides of the battle and giving them a great deal of agency, even if it simultaneously portrayed them as inferior and bad

fn3: which obviously all my role-playing readers do

Over at Terra Nova there is news of the release of a study conducted with the help of Sony, which is essentially a large survey of MMO users’ role-playing style, their attitude towards the game, mental health and degree of social exclusion. It’s an interesting attempt to characterise the qualities of MMO players by their degree of interest in role-playing and their sociodemographic and personal profile, and the first study of its kind to use data from the underlying game database. I have some problems with the statistics (outlined after my rant, below) which maybe will be clarified when the final version of the paper is released, but I have bigger problems with the interpretation of the results, and the view that the researchers at Terra Nova are taking of role-players as compared to the “non” role players in the survey.

Specifically, in the summary of the paper, the first author Dmitri Williams states that

Role players come much more often from offline marginalized groups, suggesting that some may engage in the practice to find acceptance or a safe outlet for their identity.

Role players engage in the practice for a number of reasons, but the standout one tended to be for creativity. Escapism was present, but was rarely the main reason.

which suggests a reasonably balanced view of gamers’ reasons for playing in the second paragraph (escapism is rarely the main reason) but a very blunt and anachronistic explanation in the first paragraph. It seems to assume that there is a higher level of escapism in these marginalised groups, which is supported only by a tautological hypothesis. The authors argue that marginalized groups would be more likely to role-play than the non-marginalised, because role-playing is a form of escapism, or a safe outlet for their identity. Having found this statistical difference, they conclude that escapism must be the reason for this higher representation. But the original hypothesis is untested. I see no realistic or reasonable link between marginalization and greater role-playing. It’s not like you get to be gay in an MMO, or your blackness becomes more acceptable, or your non-christian religion. You get to be an elf, or a magician. That there should be a relationship between taking another role in a computer world and being dissatisfied with your role in the real world is a highly dubious claim. The truth of this claim needs to be established before the next postulate can be finalised.

However, the claims get a little more disturbing in a subsequent piece on RMT (Real Money Transactions) by a non-author of the paper, Castronova, who states that this paper

shows pretty clearly that players who desire strong refuge from reality, the sincere role-players, are a distinct minority. My arguments were delivered with a background assumption that very large numbers of people were scrambling over themselves to get out of the real world. Not so. That doesn’t make the arguments wrong, it just indicates that any plea for the right to live in a deep fantasy is less socially resonant than I thought… I’m an advocate for a minority, a somewhat disturbed one at that according to Williams, Kennedy, and Moore.

So Castronova’s assumption is that role-playing is about escapism, and plain and simple – people want to “get out of the real world”. Note in this paragraph Castronova doesn’t change his view that role-playing is about escapism, he just discovers that most people in MMOs don’t role-play much and therefore aren’t doing it for escapism. He goes on to use the loaded language of the claim that they are a “disturbed [minority] at that.” Judging the loonies is always a good look in academia, I find.

My problem with this is that, as far as I can tell, all media are a form of escapism. You can’t run around claiming that only 5% of people who watch movies do it for escapism – they all do! So what’s different about MMOs? Why should it only be some select group of extreme role-players who are doing it for the escapism? Couldn’t it be that everyone is doing the game as a type of escapism, and role-players just have a different style? A style more suited to minorities, apparently, but so what? The assumption underlying the paper and Castronova’s further comments are that those people at the “low” end of the role-playing spectrum, grinding out the levels and the monsters, are not doing it for escapism. I’m sorry, but no matter what style of play you have, when you pay by the month to engage for hours in a computer game where you play an elf, orc or rogue, you’re in it for the escapism. The rest of it is just about style.

So no, role-players are not a “disturbed” minority (at that!) who want to escape reality. They are a small subgroup of a large number of people who play a game as a form of escapism, and do it with a particular slightly pretentious style.

Problems with the statistics of the paper are:

  • they claim the survey is a “stratified random sample” taken on 4 strata (4 different servers) but there is no evidence in the analysis that the stratified random sample has been taken into account
  • They don’t report a response rate for the overall survey or the servers. Maybe “marginalized” heavy role-players were more likely to answer the survey than the non-marginalized heavy role-players?
  • The differences in the groups are in some instances very small and only significant due to the large numbers in the survey, and Cohen’s D statistics don’t really give any additional weight to the results (there are significant problems with the use of these kinds of stats in my experience). Consider the loneliness scale: high role-players differ from the low ones by 2 points on a scale of 4 to 80 (about 2.5%), which is not a big difference no matter how significant it might be. It appears that there was only 1 woman in the High RP group (out of 300 or so people!) but the gender difference between this group and the medium RP Group was statistically significant! These are large-sample anomalies
  • There is no multiple regression analysis, so no adjustment for confounders. Given the supposedly significant demographic differences between groups, it might be wise to have done this. Particularly, adjustment for the 7 categories of education, and for social marginalisation, might have removed the mental health differences between groups
  • Mental health appears to be estimated by a form of self-report. This is always a dubious measure.

So the stats could probably have been better explored…

In my previous post I mentioned stumbling across an analysis of cyberpunk and orientalism, which interests me for a lot of reasons, and I’ve subsequently decided that since I’m living in the shadow of the zaibatsu without a job, maybe it’s time I embarked on a shady criminal information-hacking project, so I’m going to try and read through the thesis I found and draw together some kind of themes or conclusions from the tangled mess that is postmodern critique.

… So to start with I thought I’d do a survey of what is already available on the internet about cyberpunk and postmodernism. According to this (awesomely brief) description,

markers of postmodernism recurring in cyberpunk include: the commodification of culture, the invasive development of information technology, a decentering and fragmentation of the “individual”; and a blurring of the boundaries between “high” and “popular” culture.

which maybe helps to pin down why cyberpunk is considered to have such strong links to postmodernism, and also to nihilism – which, incidentally, I didn’t realise had a whole branch of academic theory devoted to it, primarily stemming from the work of Baudrillard. I don’t want to pursue the discussion of nihilism too far though because I find it seems to get incomprehensible very rapidly. Interestingly though, the intersection of cyberpunk, nihilism – which posits an absence of external morality – and postmodernism, with its reputed objection to “truth”[1], draws in a lot of young christians. For example, this blog describes some common misconceptions about postmodernism held by its christian critics, and maybe helps to show what postmodernism is not. Obviously, those whose religion is based on a single text are going to have some big issues with postmodernism, which is all about criticising the relationship between “the text”[2] and “truth”.

Modern feminism has also found an interest in cyberpunk, as a fictional representation of the liberating effect of technology for modern women. This is briefly discussed here, with again some reference to the Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway.  This could be interesting if it led me back to Haraway, whose work I struggled with many years ago with the help of a friend. I hope it doesn’t, though, because I’m largely not up to dealing with her language… But I don’t think I’ll be pursuing any further feminist involvement in cyberpunk in and of itself (though I may stumble across some in time), because I only have limited time and my main concern is the Orientalist part[4].

The thesis I have started reading states its perspective on the importance of cyberpunk for postmodernism in the introduction:

Cyberpunk’s postmodern scene, the flow of people, goods, information and power across international boundaries, is theorized in Fredric Jameson’s work on postmodernism as the cultural logic of late or third stage multinational capitalism, fully explicated in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism(1991). Importantly, Jameson finds cyberpunk to be a significant manifestation of this, the “supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself”(419). … Moreover, this postmodern scene, a global array of disjunctive flows, specifically encompasses Japan: the multinationals, for example, are depicted as Japanese zaibatsu.

I’m inclined to agree with most of this position, though I’m going to skip over the supreme importance bit to see what our resident theorist has to say about Gibson’s view of Japan from the perspective of Orientalism, which he goes on to say will try to

“get beyond the reified polarities of East versus West” and in a “concrete way attempt to understand the heterogeneous and often odd developments” (Culture and Imperialism 41). By exploring a number of particular theoretical positions and terminologies, my intention is to work toward highlighting the dynamic of reflexivity inherent in postmodern orientalism.

(The quotes here are quotes of Said). This paragraph is easier understood in the context of the abstract, in which our resident theorist explains that his view of “postmodern orientalism” describes

uneven, paradoxical, interconnected and mutually implicated cultural transactions at the threshold of East-West relations. The thesis explores this by first examining cyberpunk’s unremarked relationship with countercultural formations (rock music), practices (drugs) and manifestations of Oriental otherness in popular culture.

This distinguishes the modern cyberpunk narrative of the orient from that of previous centuries, described by Said, in which the imaginative process is entirely one way – western writers and academics taking parts of the orient that appealed to them to form their own pastiche of cultural and aesthetic ideals of the orient which suit their own stereotypes; and then using these to bolster a definition of the West in opposition to an imagined Orient. In the cyberpunk world, characterised by postmodern orientalism, the Orient is actively engaging with, challenging or subverting the images which western writers and academics form of the East, and importing its own distorted images of the West, in a form of postmodern cultural exchange.

This cultural exchange is very interesting to me, and has been a topic of rumination for me on my other blog ever since I came to Japan. It’s clear that the West “dreams” the orient[5], not seeing much of what is really happening here; but at the same time the Orient has its own fantasies of the west, which have become increasingly influential in the west as the power of Japanese and Chinese media enables them to project their own images of the West back to it[6]. Both parts of the world also have their dreams of their own identity, and often these definitions are constructed at least partially in contrast to their dual opposite; but recently, with increased cultural exchange, it’s possible to see these identities becoming more diverse (at least in the Orient) as the “Other” hemisphere becomes less alien and the distinction between “Eastern” and “Western” blurs. I am interested to see if this phenomenon is sufficiently identifiable as to be described by a theory of postmodern orientalism, and that’s why I’m reading this thesis…

So, that’s the outline of what we’re aiming for. Strap yourselves in kids. We’ve taken the Blue pill…

[1] I think this is a misreading of postmodernist theory, which mainly seems to argue that the way we interpret truth is coloured by our cultural and linguistic assumptions. There’s an excellent example of this in the paper “The Egg and the Sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on sterotypical male-female roles”, Emily Martin, Signs(1991): 16(3), 485-501.

[2] “the text” is like a classic postmodern bullshit bingo cliche, but I actually think it’s a really useful word for catching the broad sense of what post-modernists[3] talk about when they do their critical analyses

[3] I’m really quite certain that I routinely confuse post-modernists and deconstructuralists, (deconstructionists?), but I don’t care because it’s their fault not mine. Nobody confuses a statistician and a mathematician, do they?

[4] Though actually I doubt one would have to google very far to find that Orientalism as a concept would have been significantly boosted by better consideration of gender relations…

[5] mostly, in the case of Japan, through a series of wet dreams or nightmares, but still…

[6] Consider, for example, the West as presented to the West by Miyazaki in Kiki’s Delivery Service, or in Full Metal Alchemist[7]

[7] I just want to point out here that if I was going to be a proper academic wanker like Said I would present these names in untranslated Japanese, on the assumption that you, dear reader, can just read everything, or that if you can’t you’re a worthless loser who doesn’t deserve to know what I’m talking about. Aren’t I nice?

Being the report of Bishop Julius Morninghope, emissary to the Pope for the New World, on the mysterious events in the American plains of winter, 1755. This report was sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints by Morninghope on the request of a small group of catholic colonial (white) residents of the New Red Empire, who believed the events of that fateful day should be better broadcast through the old world, which was at that time locked in debate over the spiritual rightness of what they called the “Renouncers”, that is, people who renounced English sway over the Americas and turned to the New Red Empire for protection. The Holy See was believed to be taking a position against the Renouncers, with the threat of mass excommunication, and the canonization of Father David Cantrus would serve to make such an excommunication extremely difficult.

The New Red Empire, having freedom of conscience as one of its central principles, was happy to allow Bishop Morninghope into Albany to investigate in more detail, and to send this missive to Rome.

Your Holiness

Please find below the full report on the matters which occurred on the Great Plains in winter, 1755, in support of the case for canonization of the priest Father David Cantrus. This information was gathered in Albany in early 1756 on the request of the local parish of Albany, who constitute the Actor Causae pursuant to this case. Investigation was performed by myself and a single Inquisitor, Hendrick Heim from Bern.

Initially, gathering information on the events proved difficult, but eventually I persuaded the survivors of the battle to speak to me. I was uncertain as to the veracity of their account; however, a survivor, one Dave Black, agreed eventually to submit himself to a mental Inquisition by Hendrick Heim. Heim was somewhat unusually affected by this mental Inquisition, but his sanity survived long enough to give a mostly lucid account of the events as they were witnessed by Dave Black. Although the unfortunate consequences of intruding on Dave Black’s mind have rendered the details a little hazy, I assure your holiness that the account is correct in all significant particulars (and especially Father Cantrus’ end).

Father Cantrus is most certainly not the only hero of this process, though he is the only one to have performed a miracle, so I refer to the group of actors as “the Heroes” for the duration of this report. They arrived in Albany in possession of significant information concerning the intentions of an organisation called The Iron House, which had invaded the Americas with the intention of finding and opening an ancient gate to hell, which the Heroes refer to as “The Red Gate”. The characters had a message from an Indian Sorcerer begging them to come to his aid and, being important figures in the New Red Empire, had decided to do so.

They were met at Albany by two old Indian witches referred to colloquially as “Coyote’s women”, presumably due to their manners and odour. They led the heroes to the Prophet, who was staying near Albany, and he informed them of the salient particulars of the matter: that a powerful wizard of the Iron House, one Alastair Crow, had landed in the Great Lakes region with a band of enslaved Irish soldiers and some British mercenaries, and was raiding the inland in pursuit of the Red Gate. The Prophet’s war chief, a heinous traitor and murderer known only as “Magua”, had led a warband to the scene of the Iron House’s arrival, but superior European magic prevented the savages from finding the intruder. As always happens at these times, the weak Indian Sorcerer turned to white folk for help. They told him that they knew what the Iron House sought, though not where it was, and upon discovering that the Iron House had the Thorntree as its objective, he offered to send the characters there quickly. He opened a gate to what he knew as the Spirit World, undoubtedly some outer part of hell, and they agreed to journey through it to the location of the Thorntree, shaving many weeks off the journey should they survive. Coyote’s women would aid them as guides in this spirit world, which sounds from their account like a greater and even emptier version of the real world of the Indians.

Within this spirit world all humans take an alternate form, and those of the heroes were (by their own account):

  • Father Cantrus: An angelic figure comprised only of sharp angles and flat planes wearing a formerly alabaster robe that’s now filthy with all manner of foul things. The being’s left arm is translucent and leaves shadows in the wake of its movements. Wings made of a combination of feathers and blades sprout from its back in an array of white glow and steely reflections that are marred by the blood that they have been dipped in
  • Dave Black: a great black badger
  • Anna Labrousse: a beautiful woman being slowly constricted to death by a dragon coiled around her
  • Merton St. Helier: a powerful centaur, bow in one hand, wine glass in the other, and very well hung
  • Brian the Hunter: A roughly human shape, but made of thorns… the longest nastiest thorns you’ve seen… the between the fronds of thorns light just disappears and the result is unnaturally deep shadows between the branches of thorns.  Out of the shadows thick, half-congealed blood slowly seeps, leaving constant blood trails behind him that after about 10m of walking seem to evaporate into thin air.  On close inspection, and with the aid of bright light, you can see that all Brians human organs are underneath the thorns in their relevant places, including his oversized heart!
  • Russell Ganymede: eleven foot tall, naked, super-short legs (stumps!), massive belly and arms; bleached, oozing skin (translucent!), and a stench of rotten eggs: like an ogre had been lying in sulphuric acid for too long. Recessed chin, chiselled forehead, “walks” using much of its arms, and exhales sulphuric vapour; drooling problem.

Coyote’s women took the form of coyotes in this spirit world. This world has many strange properties which make it difficult for the living (let alone the pious!) to travel through. By the account of our heroes, the spirit world is a strange land, indescribably vast, with some of the features of the real world massively exaggerated, and others strangely subdued. It doesn’t seem to have temperature or weather, but in the distance there are always storms. The heroes occasionally saw distant creatures, including:

  • Rolling rock (an Indian superstition, undoubtedly a demon)
  • Vast herds of buffalo, but strange and horrific and seemingly shrouded in shadow
  • Ancient battlefields, over which haggard coyotes pick, and through which ghosts and undead wander
  • Occasional great animal spirits – a huge boar, or a massive eagle
  • Forests of ancient, vast trees

The journey seems to take a long time, but simultaneously everything seems to have flicked by quickly, so that when they look back on things past they are already far away, and the detail not remembered clearly as if not much time was spent in them. Even the number of nights that has passed doesn’t seem to be clearly recalled or understood.

However, the heroes survived this land and emerged at the far side into a canyon, just after dusk. They emerged into a narrow culvert, and could see into a wider canyon which sloped down to enter an even wider, deeper canyon. In front of them they could see that the smaller canyon was blocked by a ring of wagons in a circle, which they would have to pass. Wandering about in dazed confusion between them and the wagon circle was a sick, weak-looking Indian brave, and in the distance they could see another figure wandering about in front of another part of the wagon circle. Beyond the circle at the juncture of the smaller and the larger canyon they could hear screams, and see a distant shadow.

The heroes attacked the wagons, but as they approached someone inside threw a bundle out of the circle. This manifested itself as a large and nasty Autonomous Sentinel Cannon, which immediately attached itself to the confused brave, and began shooting at them. They were also attacked by three riflemen hidden behind the wagons. Anna Labrousse summoned a monster in the form of a small version of Rolling Rock; this overwhelmed the cannon while Cantrus healed the Indian Brave which was feeding it, and the remainder of the party attacked the hidden riflemen. Merton opened fire on them with a pair of barrage pistols, which missed; then Ganymede, Dave Black and Brian’s dog Matilda took apart the remaining three.

They approached the other dazed figure and found him to be an Irish soldier, one of the soldiers they had freed from a curse about a month earlier, and this soldier told them the full details of the Iron House’s journey to America. He told them that the force that arrived had successfully fought all Indian attackers with powerful magic and military might, but when the Heroes enacted the ritual to free the Irish Mercenaries of their curse, the remaining Iron House soldiers turned on them. Their remaining Irish soldier had been sick with dysentery at the time, and so was not killed; when he recovered he had entered the stage of being suggestible, and had been brought along as food for the Autonomous Sentinel Cannon. In the battle between the Irish and non-Irish mercenaries much of the force had been killed, and they evidently had no healer; after that they had to rush through enemy lands, and had lost the remainder of their force. Only Alastair Crow and the 3 riflemen remained. The Irish mercenary knew they had set out in possession of 5 Myrmidons, but he did not know how many remained.

The heroes took this information and headed into the canyon. At the point where it entered the larger canyon they found the Thorntree, and with it Alastair Crow in the midst of enacting a great and powerful ritual. The Thorntree itself was a great, twisted monolith of wood and bark, so large it blotted out some of the stars of the early winter sky. It was dotted with thorns, the ones at its base as large as trees and the higher thorns only the size of elephants tusks or pillars in a small church. Hanging from the larger thorns and impaled on the smaller ones were Indians – women, braves and shamen impaled on the higher thorns, and children hanging, bleeding and tortured, from the lower ones. At the base of the tree, surrounded by a magic circle drawn in the sand of the canyon floor, was Alastair Crow, his back turned to the party of heroes. He was engaged in a ritual, and had open before him a small box.

The characters attacked. Brian the Hunter called forth walls of entangling thorns linking the walls of the canyon to the thorntree, in order to prevent attacks from within the canyon. Anna Labrousse summoned another monster, this one made of thorns and shadow; and they all charged forward. However, they were attacked immediately by two Myrmidons, one each side, which leapt over the thorn barriers and charged to attack. These were larger than previous Myrmidons they had fought – 12 feet tall, and much faster and fluid in their movements. Flying down from the canyon wall there also came two fly demons, the same sort that the heroes had fought at the Iron House’s headquarters in Bodmin. Battle was joined.

While Russell, Dave Black and Brian the Hunter took on the Myrmidons the Fly Demons swooped low, spewing vomit on the party. Merton fired on the Myrmidon fighting Russell, and Anna Labrousse attempted to rip off its limbs, while Cantrus healed those near death and banished the demons alternately. The Demons had soon been torn back to hell by giant angelic chains, but the battle against the Myrmidons was much harder. Brian the Hunter conjured another entangling patch of thorns, which held one of the Myrmidons long enough for Dave Black to kill it, though not before it had slain Brian, its captor. At this point a wizard hidden nearby cast a spell on Russell, forcing him to attack his party members; Anna Labrousse was then occupied casting magic to undo this spell while Merton and Cantrus attempted to kill Alastair Crow. Unfortunately, Crow was immune to all their attacks, magical or otherwise – even appeals to his chivalric nature to make him consider a duel against Merton failed.

This was a dangerous situation, for while the battle with the Myrmidon raged Alastair Crow had partly opened the gate to hell, and the heroes could hear the coming hordes of darkness. Father Cantrus realised that there was only one solution remaining to the party – he ran forward, grabbed Crow by the shoulder, and attempted to lock him in a soulgaze. He realised as he did the reason for Alastair Crow’s immunity – he wore around his neck a pebble the characters had used once to kill him, which he had turned into a charm against all their attacks! However, Cantrus’s soulgaze is no magical or physical attack, merely a revelation of the fate which awaits all sinners, and no mage is immune to it. Alastair crow, trapped in the vision of his own inevitable fate, screamed hollowly, but the gate remained open. In desperation, Cantrus pushed him in; but as he did so the remaining Myrmidon teleported over to his side and cut him in twain with its massive blade, before any could stop it.

In his death, Cantrus fell into the gate with the wizard, and with his dying wish invoked the miracle by which his supporters request his canonisation: He sealed the gate shut, forever, with his soul. The gate slammed shut, sealing wizard and Priest’s soul inside hell but protecting the mortal world forever from any infernal incursion through this ancient gate.

I should note that objectors might point out the local Indian tale which says the gate was opened with the bones of a priest, and can be closed the same way; I do not credit this story as anything but native American ramblings, probably peyote- inspired, and instead I argue that this was a miracle, invoked directly by Cantrus through his faith. It is rendered all the greater in its power by the sacrifice he made – taking a place in hell to prevent hell coming to us – and the nature of his own faith, which in previous confidential reports to the Inquisition has been described as “shaky” and “flexible, to say the least”. I present this miracle as evidence that the Lord has judged Cantrus’ faith to be sound.

On this basis I recommend that Cantrus be considered for canonization.

On this basis, and with the full support of the Inquisition, I also should like to point out that the remainder of the Heroes are a dangerous and unstable group, with few morals, fewer links to the New World, no loyalty to divinely appointed laws or rulers, and great power. I have seen what happened to Inquisitor Heim after he attempted to read the mind of Dave Black, even though Black had submitted willingly, and I have heard tales of all their deeds.

On this basis I recommend that Cantrus’ allies be considered for liquidation.

Finally, I note that traditionally a soul becomes a Saint by being reborn in a new, more powerful form, in service to the Church, on this mortal plane. This is impossible for Cantrus, since his soul is trapped in hell. He can only be canonised if his soul is rescued from hell to be returned to the service of the church. In the place of his death we should also be able to find the pebble which the wizard Alastair Crow wore, and which completely protects the wearer from Cantrus’s allies.

On this basis I recommend that a team of Inquisitors enter hell as soon as possible, to recover the pebble and Cantrus’s soul, the latter to enter into service to the church as a Saint, and the former to be used in completing the destruction of Cantrus’s allies.

Yours in holy observance

Bishop Julius Morninghope

I stumbled on this story at a blog I’ve never read before, and – though not surprised – was profoundly horrified at the content of the deception it involved. Truly, the possibilities for nastiness on the internet are endless, and the ingenuity of people in ferreting them out to be admired and pitied simultaneously.

Also, is it not interesting that Lord of the Rings Online uses terms like “kin”, and is it not interesting how that blog post, written using the language of the game, sound strangely insular and, well, nordic-folkish? It’s as if it reflects something I’ve been commenting on recently…