FLASHPOINT: TITAN is a Hugo finalist!

It is my pleasure to announce that my story FLASHPOINT: TITAN has been nominated as a Hugo Awards finalist. I am humbled by the amount of support I have received, and it is my great honour to accept the nomination. I also congratulate my fellow nominees, and I wish them the best of luck.

FLASHPOINT: TITAN was written and published almost exactly a year after my first professional sale with Castalia House. I am grateful for everybody who has helped me with my writing, including Steven Hildreth Jr., Nate Granzow, Brian Kunimasa Murata, Vox Day, and so many more. Without your help, I could not have gotten so far, so fast. You have my deepest thanks.

This nomination marks a milestone in Singapore literature. If my research is correct, this is the first time a Singaporean has been nominated as a finalist for the Hugo Awards. SFF is borderless, defined not by nationalities or arbitrary identity markers of writers or characters, but by its fearless exploration of technology, ideas and values. SFF, at its greatest, is an analysis, assessment, and affirmation of the human soul. I am proud to have played my part in growing this field, even if it were but a small role.

I acknowledge that the Hugos have been mired in controversy over the past few years. 2016 is no different. But no matter your position, if you are a voter, I ask only that judge each work on its own merits. Let the awards go to the most deserving, to the best and brightest in the field.

This is how we can make the Hugos great again.

Japanese Ghost, Western Shell

Ghost in the Shell was among the first animes I have ever watched, and among the first sci fi manga I have ever read. Even today, its themes, aesthetics, technology and design language influence my writing and worldbuilding. When I learned of Scarlett Johansson being cast as Major Kusanagi Motoko for the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, the only thing I could do was sigh.

I prefer adaptations to be as true to established canon as possible. Everything from themes to technologies, settings to characters, including their mannerisms, personalities and, yes, appearance. Part of this comes from distaste of executive meddling, of Hollywood inserting ideas that are not the original creator’s, or deleting ideas the creator wished to explore. While adaptations and edits are necessary to translate a given work from one medium to another, I prefer that these edits enhance the experience and stay true to the author’s vision instead of detracting from it.

Case in point, let’s look at the upcoming movie adaptation of The Dark Tower. The series protagonist, Roland Deschain, will be played by Idris Elba. However, in canon, Roland is a white man. And his ethnicity plays a major role in the story.

(Spoilers ahead!)

In the second Dark Tower book, The Drawing of the Three, Roland draws three characters from different worlds and times into his. One of them is Eddie Dean from 1987 New York — a white man. Another is Odetta Susannah Holmes from New York — a black woman from 1964. Holmes also suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and has a secondary persona, Detta Susannah Walker. Who also happens to be murderously psychotic.

Much of the drama in The Drawing of the Three lies in Detta’s antagonism towards the men. Detta hates all white men, calling them ‘honkey mahfas’, and speaks with a stereotypical black accent. Her racism boils off the page, culminating in attempted murder.

If Roland were a black man, and if the movie version of The Dark Tower extends to The Drawing of the Three, the presence of a black gunslinger would rob the drama of at least half its power. Barring clever editing and rewriting — which Hollywood adaptations are not known to enjoy — the experience will be cheapened. Or even eliminated altogether. And if such a pivotal experience, one that gives rise to Holmes/Walker’s third personality of Susannah Dean, is weakened or eliminated — what else will be given up? What else will be eroded?

What else will be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness?

(End spoilers)

When I think of Major Kusanagi Motoko, I think of a Japanese secret policewoman who fights cyberterrorism and corruption in a post-cyberpunk Japan using fair means and foul while grappling with what it means to be human. She lives in a time and place where anybody can afford a customised cybernetic body, a ‘shell’, which throws into question the nature of the soul, or ‘ghost’.

It is true that the setting allows Kusanagi to choose whatever body she wants, including, presumably, that of a Westerner. It is also equally true that in the canon she chose to present as a Japanese woman. To present her as a Westerner barring specific circumstances feels like disrespect towards Kusanagi, her choices and her motivations. Further, the entire franchise is set mainly in Japan. If Kusanagi presents as a Westerner in Japan, one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, she will stand out — not a good trait for a secret policewoman who operates outside the law and fights terrorists and corrupt government officials.

And what if the story is not set in Japan? Then the next question must be: Why even call it Ghost in the Shell? While the core theme of the franchise is an exploration of what it means to be human, the cornerstones of the story universe are based on Japanese concerns. Ghost in the Shell, it must be remembered, was originally a manga published in 1989. The manga dealt with powerful Japanese corporations, superior Japanese technology,  growing Japanese soft and hard power, unelected Japanese bureaucrats and officials consolidating and abusing their power, and Real Robots — itself a spinoff from the pioneering mecha genre, a Japanese innovation.The manga reflected a dark vision of a future Japan, seen from 1989. The anime adaptations stayed true to this vision. If the live adaptation isn’t set in Japan, and doesn’t have a Japanese lead, then it won’t reflect the Japanese underpinnings of the story. In which case, why even call it Ghost in the Shell? It might as well be a whole new post-cyberpunk movie.

Otaku are not a forgiving breed. When they encounter questions like this, they default to the worst case scenario: Hollywood cast Scarlet Johansen in an attempt to appeal to a Western audience, and they don’t care if it ruins the creative vision of the franchise. If an American film company will cast an American to play the role of a Japanese, then will the Americans respect the Japanese ideas underpinning the story, including a cynical view of American imperialism and interference in Japanese affairs? If the film concept is about a Westerner doing things set in a cyberpunk West, with little or no reference to Japan, then is it simply leeching off the fame of the franchise like the all-female Ghostbusters remake and Mad Max: Fury Road?

In other words, what other aspects of Ghost in the Shell will be sacrificed on the altar of commercialism?

There may be good reasons for casting Johanssen as a Japanese woman. Hollywood may even take the safe way out and eventually brand it as a Western adaptation of Ghost in the Shell under a different title, the same way Edge of Tomorrow was a Western adaptation of All You Need is Kill. I’m hoping that the film makers will take this path, as it respects the executives’ desire to appeal to a Western audience and the otaku’s desire for integrity of the franchise’s creative vision — and also because Ghost in the Shell as a title isn’t particularly evocative to Western ears. The director may even surprise everyone and cast a second, Japanese, woman to play the role of Kusanagi Motoko, perhaps as Kusanagi’s shell when she wants to appear Japanese, reinforcing the franchise’s theme.

But until more is known about the movie, the otaku of the world are simply going to assume that Johanssen’s casting is symptomatic about a much deeper problem — one Hollywood is infamous for. And Hollywood isn’t doing anything to assuage their fears.

A Tale of Two Devs

The recent furore over Blizzard’s Overwatch and Beamdog’s Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear illustrates two very different approaches to game design and response to criticism.

Blizzard’s Overwatch is an upcoming multiplayer first person shooter. The original controversy began when people complained about a victory pose employed by the game’s first revealed character, Tracer, claiming that it turns her into a sex object. Blizzard quickly apologised for the so-called ‘butt pose‘, and replaced it with another victory pose…itself based on a pin-up.

I think the original complaint was overblown to begin with. Overwatch is Blizzard’s intellectual property, and they are free to design characters as they please. A bunch of pixels on a two-dimensional screen is hardly worth getting riled up about, but it’s what Social Justice Warriors do all the time.

Blizzard’s response is one for the textbooks. I don’t know enough about the game to decide whether the original pose suited the character in question. But I don’t see any wrongdoing there, and there’s nothing for Blizzard to apologise for. On the other hand, the new pose took the perspective off Tracer’s rear, defusing the original complaint, while retaining the aesthetics of the game and character, and gave anti-SJWs something to smile at. Blizzard turned a potential crisis on its head, showed its respect for its target audience, and even generated good PR for itself.

Dragonspear, on the other hand, was a mess. It was set in the Baldur’s Gate universe, in between the original and its sequel. The franchise has an existing canon, an established universe, an entrenched culture — and Beamdog inserted social justice memes into the series.

While designers are free to design what they wish, Beamdog interfered with the creative vision of another team of developers — and not in a way that built up the canon. Instead, they subverted the game universe to push their ideology, practically shoving it down gamers’ throats. For example, there is a transgender character named Mizhena. She says:

“When I was born, my parents thought me a boy and raised me as such. In time, we all came to understand I was truly a woman. I created my new name from syllables of different languages. All have special meaning to me; it is the truest reflection of who I am.”

The mindset revealed in this explanation points to a modern Western progressive mindset, one that is concerned about tolerance, gender fluidity, and casual linguistic appropriation. Most tellingly, the player character can only react in three ways: express approval, move on to another subject, or end the dialogue.

This is something you might expect to see in San Francisco, circa 2016. But tolerance, gender fluidity and casual linguistic appropriation have not been established as part of the in-game culture and memes of the original Baldur’s Gate. This is clearly a naked attempt to subvert an existing IP to shove politics down gamer’s throats.

When called out on it, Beamdog’s CEO doubled down, claiming that he will stand behind his staff. Beamdog proceeded to crack down on ‘harassment’ and ‘abuse’ on its online forums, banning users for thoughtcrime. The company also called for people to post positive reviews of the game online — which is a naked attempt to manipulate rating systems.

If people want to make social justice games, they are free to do so. It has never been easier to create, publish, sell and market a computer game in history. But Beamdog subverted an existing IP, disrespected its original creative vision, and alienated its target audience. And the icing on the cake: the game itself is buggy, riddled with glitches, and breaks other mods. Gamers may forgive social justice themes in games; they will not forgive broken games.

Beamdog’s approach is characteristic of social justice warriors: they subvert existing IP to ram their ideology down fans’ throats, they double down when called out on their behaviour, they lie about how good their work is, they project their insecurities and tendencies towards harassment on people who call them out, and if their new IP is fundamentally broken in some way they will redirect attention on the cultural conflict.

Developers should be like Blizzard: either create fresh IPs or build upon existing IPs, respect their target audience without backing down to SJWs, and focus their efforts on the game and the gamer.

Gamers care less about social justice than game mechanics and playability. Gamers do not want to be lectured or preached to; they want to have fun and escape the real world for a while. Developers who fail to recognise that are failures.