Archive for the ‘Spec-Fic’ Category
It’s Friday, and Spring Break, so time to focus on something a little less mentally taxing. Namely: anime. Now, with age and taste comes a little less of the geeky obsession I had with it in my highschool and undergraduate years, but certain, select titles still make up a solid twenty percent or so of our DVD collection. Why? Because it is a great vehicle for speculative fiction. By using an animated medium you dodge the cost spikes of practical and computer generated effects and it becomes no more difficult to make breathtaking and bizarre scenes than it does to make mundane ones. You can take an interesting premise or setting and explore it in a manner unconstrained by skyrocketing budgets.
This is exactly what Daphne in the Brilliant Blue fails to do.
Animated by J.C. Staff and produced by Genco, Daphne in the Brilliant Blue is a sci-fi/action story set in a flooded world. Humanity survived the deluge by building underwater cities where they preserved themselves and a great deal of Earth’s animal life. At an appointed time, 100 years before the start of the series, all (but one) of the submerged cities rise to the surface to form floating city states associated with whatever remaining land masses they can find. Society is rebuilt under the watchful gaze of a centralized government, scientific, law-enforcement organization known as the Ocean Agency.
The story opens with our young heroine, Maia Mizuki, completing her application for employment with said agency. Despite receiving top marks she is denied a position with the Ocean Agency, and not having made any alternate plans, winds up frantically looking for work. After a few traumatic incidents and with a bit of luck she finds a job with a rough and tumble company of freelance problem solvers called Nereids. Over the next year with Nereids, Maia grows up and begins to unravel her (apparently requisite in these sorts of series) mysterious past.
I love this premise and setting. Further, it is animated by a great studio. About a week ago, when I saw that this was up on Hulu and realized that my weekend was mostly free, I wound up sitting down to watch it with high hopes. Those hopes were quickly dashed.
The beginning of the first episode seems almost promising. We open on a young girl salvaging a box from a wrecked ship, some friendly ocean life, and a submersible hover bike/jetski. But right after that things begin to go…well, not really bad, but weird. From the second episode on I felt like I had stumbled into a different show: some kind of all-female scantily clad Cowboy Bebop/Firefly knockoff with a bit too much absurdist comedy tossed in for good measure. And things never really circled back until the last one or two episodes of the twenty-four episode series. But by that time I had mostly lost interest and none of the reveals that they were poorly building to seemed that important or surprising (save for the one about the true nature of Maia’s grandfather, that was kind of neat).
I don’t think I have ever been so let down by a show. I was really hoping for at least some sense of curiosity or wonder about this cool world with its strange cities and tech. Where does their food come from? How do the mouthpieces that let the characters breath under water work? What terrestrial life has been preserved and what hasn’t? How do they obtain fresh water? How were these cities constructed? How the hell do those bathing suits even stay on…spirit gum? There is quite a bit to explore here and the setup is so interesting, yet the creators seem to think that the only thing their audience should be interested in is guns and T & A. Which is profoundly disappointing.
This is not a bad show. It’s certainly well animated and I am sure that a number of people will be able to find it passably entertaining. There are even obscene amounts of exploitative fanservice (I will grant that the whole aquatic world concept well justifies putting their characters in swimsuits…but nothing justifies the specific swimsuits they decide to use) for those who are into that. But it is certainly not a good show and really fails to live up to the promise of its setting. I suppose if I want my aquatic cyberpunk fix I will just have to go read Starfish again.
Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today — but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.
The above was written by Isaac Asimov in 1978. Five years later, in 1983 he would undergo a bypass surgery. The older and/or more attentive of you might see where this is going. Asimov died in 1992. It would be ten years before his family would make public that he had died of AIDS. Not only did HIV rob us of one of the greatest writers of the 1900s, but it was ten years before his family felt that they might be safe from the stigma attached to the disease. I find the above quote fascinating and haunting because of how pertinent it seems to the manner of Mr. Asimov’s death. He, and so many many others, quite simply did not have to die. They died because simple minded people could not expand their thinking into areas that they didn’t want to.
Infections from tainted blood supply are an often overlooked subset of HIV infections. Why? Certainly not for any good reason, this information could only help understand the current crisis. I feel that in all likelihood society is so embarrassed by how horribly it handled the early days of the HIV epidemic that they try to pretend it never happened. And almost nothing from those days is more starkly horrific than the way we handled the blood supply.
See, blood is more than just a nutrient delivery system, it’s a very lucrative industry. Put yourself in the shoes of an executive of that industry circa 1983. So there is this “gay cancer” going around and everyone is up in arms about it, well…everyone except the current presidential administration which is just ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. Who knows how you feel about it? Maybe you think that it is a tragedy, maybe you think that it is God’s judgement. Regardless, you get called into a meeting with some guys down at the CDC in January 1983. All of a sudden you are introduced to a new idea: gay cancer might be transmittable by blood. Moreover the CDC actually wants you and your company to take some minimum of responsibility. The horror.
If you were to actually screen your blood it could cost as much as 5 million (1983) US dollars! And how come if this is true, only expert virologists at the CDC know it? Aren’t all those guys just alarmists elites anyway? And hey, they only have clear evidence that three people have contracted the disease from tainted blood so far. That whole thing about 10% of all haemophiliacs being infected by transfusion is rubbish, isn’t it? And it isn’t like a public outcry is likely. Moreover, what gives big government the right to poke its nose into your business anyway? They’re the bad guys here. The government needs to get the CDC under control. So what if about 5% of diagnosed AIDS sufferers had donated blood within the past year, there just is too much of a financial stake for you to bother listening, to bother believing, or to even bother imagining that these experts might be right.
In the meantime, Isaac Asimov would undergo bypass surgery and be supplied blood from a donor with AIDS. That donor had given that blood in good faith, with the intent of saving a life, but the pathogen hiding within would instead claim another victim. And a host more would follow in the wake.
The status quo is often assumed to be good. The first response to troubling information that would change it is generally disbelief. And we have seen this before and will see it again on a grand scale. Sometimes that disbelief leads to inconvenience, sometimes that disbelief leads to no consequence, this time it led to an ever escalating body count. This time it was just one more step in letting a horrifying pathogen rage out of control. And all but for the sake of a little thinking about what could be. All for the sake of a little open-mindedness, a little evidence based speculation and extrapolation on the future, the blood banks voted to willingly go on acting as a vector for HIV. The irony that these institutions earned their keep by saving lives is not lost on me.
At the end of the meeting, CDC’s Jeffrey Koplan, who was chairing it, began proposing consensus recommendations. Bruce Voeller suggested a resolution opposed to deferral of high-risk donors; the proposal was defeated soundly on a voice vote. Other proposals met similar fates or were modified so extensively that they were rendered meaningless. The meeting adjourned with no recommendation or agreed-upon course of action. Things would simply go on as they were, as if nothing was happening.
-Randy Shilts; “And the Band Played On”
Anyone who seriously has to ask: “How much will it cost me not to kill people? Is it worth it?” Fuck you. I know some of those blood bank execs that attended that meeting are still alive and probably still working today. I just hope they realize the extent of the blood on their hands. And I hope all of you realize just how important the questioning wonder of speculative fiction is if we are to be saved at all.
Sources & Further Reading
- And the Band Played On Randy Shilts
- Seriously, if you don’t read pretty much any Asimov that you can get your hands on, start.
- Not directly related, but there was a recent interesting pictorial history of the epidemic by Life.
And on the third day of actual posts, I decided to introduce a brief interlude to discuss another thing that this blog is going to be about: Speculative Fiction, specifically what works and what doesn’t. And we are going to start off on a high note because, believe me, the following works. The reason I say that this is a “review kindof” is because the nature of Watts’ writing precludes me from going into much detail on the second and third books of the trilogy without spoiling about three-hundred brilliant plot threads. So what follows only includes as many details on the actual plot as I can give in good conscience:
Peter Watts is a Canadian born, former (or as he puts it “reformed”) marine biologist who has turned to writing speculative fiction. He is the winner of an Aurora Award (“A Niche”) and a Hugo Award (“The Island”), as well as the recipient of numerous nominations for other honours. His works include The Rifters Trilogy (Starfish, Maelstrom, ßehemoth), Blindsight (which looks like it might be getting a follow-up soon), and numerous works of short fiction. He has been featured in the journal Nature twice now (ironically for short fiction rather than any research from his biologist days). He is also a (let us give him the benefit of the doubt and say, wrongly) convicted felon in the United States for a little mishap with US Customs and Border Patrol.
The Rifters Trilogy is a series of three books (although it was actually printed as four physical texts): Starfish, Maelstrom, and ßehemoth. Each book primarily follows a woman named Lenie Clarke in a third person, limited perspective (although numerous interludes do swap out viewpoint characters from time to time to give a more complete view of the world). It is set on Earth in 2050-2056 C.E. The world is a combination of cyberpunk and biopunk pureed together to create an unsettlingly realistic (and in some ways even familiar) dystopia. The entire series is impressively well researched and Watts often takes the chance to show his work and includes discussions and reference lists for the technology and concepts used in each book.
“The abyss should shut you up.
Sunlight hasn’t touched these waters for a million years. Atmospheres accumulate by the hundreds here, the trenches could swallow a dozen Everests without burping. They say life itself got started in the deep sea. Maybe. It can’t have been an easy birth, judging by the life that remains—monstrous things, twisted into nightmare shapes by lightless pressure and sheer chronic starvation.”
So begins Starfish. It sets the tone for the series, even if things do get a little more amphibious later on. Even on dry land this is a series about frontiers, survival in the face of extreme pressure, and the monsters that live in both literal and metaphorical depths. It never really seems to find a solid voice on whether it wants to be a horrific thriller or an action piece, but then, it never really needs to. There are even places where the world Watts has crafted shines with a bizarre beauty (and your mileage may vary, but certain elements in the series almost drip a bit of fetish fuel).
The name of the series comes from the inhabitants of undersea geothermal power stations. These human extremophiles have been modified (all physically, some mentally) to be able to survive in the very depths of the abyss. They live in stations spread across unstable areas of the sea floor and are capable of venturing out in the crushing pressure to do their work for the Grid Authority, a megacorporation the likes of which would make William Gibson proud. The protagonists of Starfish are located on the ridge of the Juan de Fuca Plate, a highly volatile region off of the western coast of the US. Here is a link to Dive & Discover’s 2004 expedition to the Juan de Fuca, just so you can get to know the neighbourhood.
More specifically, they are located in a place called the Channer Vent. There is something special about this particular place. “Here there be dragons”. With a passion that makes the alien landscape of the sea floor come alive, Watts discusses the fauna of Channer vent almost all of it drawn from a study of actual marine life. Almost. Cause there is one new thing in the depths, and it is interfering with the metabolisms of the wildlife. And the ramifications if it finds a nice, squish human-cum-amphibian to take it to dry land are apocalyptic. And the best part? It is almost as biologically plausible as everything else out there.
The characters that people these novels are largely, shockingly sympathetic. It makes no sense that they would be: pedophiles, life-long victims, assassins, psychopaths, sadists, and worse. are presented to the reader in a realistic and believable fashion. In a fashion with which we can empathise. Because they are us. No, not completely, but there are pieces. Possibilities that there, but for the sake of blind chance, go we. After all, we all have the same underlying neurobiology, and if that is subverted…
It should be noted that these are not what you would call happy books. And their content is incredibly violent, shockingly sexual at times, and thoroughly cynical. If you are squeamish, or an optimist, you might want to avoid them (or just grow up and baptise yourself in fire, it will be fun!).
In The Rifters Trilogy, Peter Watts has written some of the smartest, hardest, and most satisfying speculative fiction in existence. Further the fact that he sources his concepts make me giggle with manic, mad scientist glee.
Like all of Mr. Watts’ works, The Rifters Trilogy it is available on his website under the Creative Commons License. Here is a link to Starfish. Get busy reading.