Space Opera is about Opera

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Tor launched #SpaceOperaWeek to promote and discusse space opera. In 24 hours, the Pulp Revolution launched a memetic revolution and claimed the hashtag for its own. Now, practically every hashtag and Internet discussion about #SpaceOperaWeek is dominated by the PulpRev folks. This stunning success exposes a hard truth: Tor has no idea what space opera is about.

Tor says ‘Space Opera is at its best when it merges the sweeping, big stakes stories with ordinary human drama‘. That is a laughable notion.

Space opera is about Opera: enormous stakes, huge conflicts, sweeping scope, massive drama, larger-than-life characters. Readers do not want to read page after page of mind-numbing tedium; they already live that in everyday life. They read fiction, especially science fiction, to escape reality, not to delve deeper into it.

David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is a classic example of space opera: interstellar diplomacy and warfare, grand strategy and fleet tactics, conspiracies and drama, high technology and higher stakes. The series doesn’t have Admiral Harrington spending entire novels caught up in mindless staff meetings and tedious paperwork; that’s not the point of space opera. People don’t want to read boring stuff, and ordinary, everyday life is boring. If they want to read about ordinary human drama, that’s what literary fiction is for.

Tor’s assertion to the contrary demonstrates a lack of awareness of what readers want. But that’s what you get when you bring aboard a writer who admits she is “not really a Space Opera kind of girl“.

Space opera is about, well, fun. As John Del Arroz points out on the Castalia House blog, space opera doesn’t have to realistic; it just has to be fun.

Not that there isn’t room for realism if it doesn’t subtract from the story. It just has to be done right.

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Science fiction celebrates the vasty deep of the galaxy, marvels at the strange wonders born in the light of alien suns, and lauds the power of the imagination. Today, sci fi is split into ‘realistic’ hard science fiction and ‘unrealistic’ soft science fiction, with works assessed by how closely they hew to known science. The old pulp masters would have laughed at such a notion. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not useful.

Hard science fiction is the fiction of probability. It celebrates the glory of science today, showing us what we can do with what we already know. It is not about fixing your imagination into tedious todays and stagnant yesterdays, or locking your brain into the realism box. Science constantly changes; a hard sci fi story cannot possibly remain completely accurate forever, nor should it. Instead it should strive to show what humans can achieve simply with what we know today, and build a ladder for us to reach for brighter and more glorious tomorrows.

Starship Operators is perhaps the hardest science fiction anime today. There is no sound in space; the sound is explicitly described as dubbed in for viewers. Battles take hours or days, with ships jostling for position. The only artificial gravity aboard a ship comes from rotating wheels. Light-speed lag significantly affects tactics and combat.

Yet at its heart, Starship Operators is about a group of plucky space cadets waging a one-ship war against an interstellar superpower to free their country while being sponsored by a television company. It doesn’t let science get in the way of the story. Hence there are stealth ships, plasma weapons, faster-than-light travel, and a disturbing lack of thermal radiators. The science in the anime are simply the props that allow the story to be told.

For ultra-diamond-hard science fiction, bar none, look no further than Children of a Dead Earth. It’s a space warfare simulator, designed with the express purpose of exploring what warfare in space would look like. Everything in the game obeys the laws of the universe: thermal stress and radiation, orbital mechanics , the rocket equation, Young’s Modulus and more. To fully appreciate the game you need to have an in-depth understanding of lasers, nuclear reactors, thrust and a dozen other fields. No fantasy physics here – at least, until you unlock the black box design module.

Children of a Dead Earth succeeds because of these limitations. The creator produced a compelling story universe in which humanity has colonised the planets, asteroids and moons of the Solar System. It is a universe riddled with superpower conflict and interfactional rivalries, culminating in a shooting war where fleets of atomic rockets attempt to destroy each other with high-intensity lasers, hypervelocity projectiles and nuclear missiles. While this isn’t strictly space opera, a setting like this demonstrates what can be done today — so imagine what can be done tomorrow.

Soft science fiction is the fiction of possibility. It’s not completely accurate, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, soft sci fi sets the stage for epic tales of tragedy and heroism and sorrow and hope. It takes the readers to journeys to far-off worlds, fires their imagination with depictions of Super Awesome Tech, and the very best stories point the reader to greater truths about the nature of humanity.

Star Wars (the original trilogy!) is an enduring classic of soft science fiction. It has Space Magic, wandering samurai with energy blades and mind powers, galaxy-spanning polities and world-killing superweapons. It’s not realistic and pretend to be. It doesn’t bother with ‘ordinary human drama’, focusing instead on the high drama of good versus evil and the struggle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. The original trilogy focuses on being fun, and that is why its legacy endures to this day.

Looking further into the past, we see the old masters of pulp writing space opera with an emphasis on opera. E. E. Smith’s seminal Lensman series exemplifies this: elder alien races manipulating younger ones to achieve their ends, superweapons and psionics aplenty, massive space battles with the casual destruction of worlds, and titanic struggles between the forces of civilization and tyranny. Compared to such luminence, mere human drama means nothing.

While it may sometimes be useful to divide science fiction between hard and soft, it is merely a paradigm, to be adopted when useful and discarded when not. Consider the case of John C. Wright’s Superluminary. It features all manner of ‘soft’ sci fi technology–casual biomodification, psionics, the titulary faster-than-light travel mechanism–but the story universe is carefully constructed, with the technology obeying the rules of the universe as faithfully as any other piece of high technology in a work of hard science fiction. With these sci fi elements, Wright tells a story of a young man who must seize the throne of Humanity and lead mankind in a desperate war against a star-spanning race of vampires who have conquered the universe and seek to consume everything. Nowhere near ‘realistic’, but it is an epic space opera told in the grand tradition of the old pulp masters – and vastly more enjoyable than stories of mere human drama.

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Science fiction is about *fiction* and space opera is about *opera*. If people want to read about science or space, there are plenty of non-fiction books, magazines and journals to choose from. If people want to delve into ordinary human drama, they just have to live ordinary lives or pick up lit fic. The science in science fiction makes the fiction *fun*, and the space in space opera is the setting for the opera.

Science fiction is not about dragging readers through muck and demanding they derive pleasure from it. Science fiction turns their eyes to the stars, and space opera takes them there. Space opera is about opera: the glory, the terror, the joy, the horror, the sorrow and the wonder that awaits the intrepid starman who dares to brave the infinite expanse.

Thoughts on the Isekai Genre

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Fantasy writers need to solve two problems. They need to create a believable fantasy world significantly different from ours that allows for fantasy elements. But this world and the people who live in it can’t be so fantastic that they alienate their audience.

The isekai story offers a neat solution.

‘Isekai’ is Japanese for ‘other world’ or ‘parallel world’. In this other world, the author is free to dream up societies, fantasy races, magic and other fantastical elements without being hemmed in by such minor things as history or the laws of physics. To create a connection with modern readers, the author plucks a character or a group of characters from the real world (typically 21st century Japan) and plunks them into the parallel world. Adventures and hijinks follow.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Three Kinds of Isekai Stories

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I’ve noticed three different types of isekai stories: transportation, reincarnation and video game.

Transportation stories involve traversable gateways or abductions. The protagonist may be mysteriously transported to an alternate world by means unknown to everyone. He may discover a portal, accidentally or otherwise, that leads into a parallel world. Or someone from that parallel world forcibly transports the protagonist to that world using summoning magic. Examples of such stories are Now and Then, Here and There, featuring a boy who is transported to a hellish dystopia, and Gate – Jietai Kare no Chi Nite, Kaku Tatakeri, in which a gateway to another world mysteriously appears in Ginza.

In such transportation tales, the protagonist must learn to adapt to his new environment while taking on quests and other missions. Heroes summoned from our world are typically selected to defeat a demon king or some other evil being, and must survive perils and overcome obstacles to achieve his goal. Heroes who pass through a gateway that allows free two-way travel typically serve as a bridge between this world and the other, passing back and forth to exchange or transfer technology, goods and knowledge. More realistic tales have the hero learn the local language and/or the locals learning Japanese; in others, the transportation process mysteriously grants the hero the ability to speak in tongues or the locals mysteriously speak fluent Japanese.

Reincarnation tales involve protagonists being reborn in fantasy worlds, usually retaining or recalling their memories of their past lives. This neatly sidesteps the question of how the protagonist can understand the natives of the fantasy world, since he would have grown up learning and speaking the language. Reincarnated protagonists will tend to use their knowledge to single-handedly spark an industrial revolution, drive themselves towards excellence, or otherwise gain an advantage over others. Moshuku Tensei features a NEET who decides to make the most of his new life after being reborn in a parallel world, while Isekai Tensei Soudouki has a protagonist with three souls in his mind, all of whom use their respective knowledge to build a commercial empire and drag the rest of the land into modernity.

In video game stories, in addition to being plopped into a fantasy world, the protagonist discovers that the world runs on video game logic. Status windows, levels, unique skills, and health and mana points abound. In some stories, the protagonist was heavily involved in the game, perhaps as a player or game developer. In others, the protagonist doesn’t have such an advantage. Sword Art Online is perhaps the most well-known of this time, starring protagonists who have their consciousnesses transported to a game world, and quickly learn that death in the game means death in the real world.

As these worlds run on video game logic, realism tends to fly out the window. Either the transportation process grants the protagonist the ability to speak in tongues or everyone speaks Japanese. A person’s ability to fight, craft objects, recover from wounds and other such matters are governed largely by his stats. The transportation process may even grant special powers. Reading video game isekai stories can become the equivalent of reading a role playing game.

Cheat Characters

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Common to almost all isekai protagonists is that they possess a special power or knowledge after arrival, or the protagonist is already special prior to arrival. These cheats, as they are known in the genre, automatically elevate the protagonist above everybody else.

At the far end of the scale, the protagonist becomes stupendously overpowered early on. In Death March kara Hajimaru Isekai Kyousoukyouku, protagonist Satou is transported to a parallel world based on the game he is developing, and discovers he can cast a meteor shower three times. He promptly utilises the meteor showers to wipe out an army of orcs. In that instant, he hits the level cap and secures useful gear and vast treasures, effectively turning him into a walking god.

At the lower end, in Isekai Tensei Soudouki, protagonist Balud Cornelius shares his body with the soul of Warring States commander Oka Sadatoshi and otaku high schooler Oka Masaharu. None of them have any special powers, but commander Oka is an apex warrior while otaku Oka retains his knowledge of the twenty-first century. Together, the trio accomplish such wonders as inventing shampoo and treating cholera, leaving their mark on the world.

In the case of Gate, Itami Yoji is a First Lieutenant in the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force. He is a mundane human, but behind him is the might of the JGSDF. Through the gate, the JGSDF can funnel troops and resources into the parallel world, allowing them to dominate the land. Thus, the might of the all-powerful Empire easily collapses in the face of modern combined arms, and nigh-invincible dragons fall before explosives and Panzerfaust 3 rockets. Here, modern military technology is the superpower.

A superpowered isekai protagonist, when mishandled, turn the story into a clumsy self-insert power fantasy. The reader can put himself into the shoes of the protagonist and imagine that he is now the lord of the story universe. However, when the protagonist is so hilariously overpowered that nothing in existence can stand up to him, action scenes lose all drama. There is no suspense, no doubt that he will lose, no possibility that he will ever be defeated in battle. Boredom follows.

If an isekai story must have a superpowered MC, there are three ways to get around this. The first is to make the protagonist powerful enough to evoke the feel of a superhero fantasy, but not so much that he becomes a Boring Invincible Hero. Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari, Naofumi Iwatani has unmatched defensive ability, but thanks to the world’s video game logic, he has virtually no attack power and he is still not invulnerable. As he is forced to rely on his squishy companions to do the fighting, there remains the element of drama and suspense.

The second is to reverse the superpowered MC trope: give the protagonist a seemingly useless power, if at all, and force him to make his way in the world. Arifurte Shokugyou de Sekai Saikyou features Nagumo Hajime, a luckless young man transported to a parallel world only to find that he was granted mediocre stats and a useless class. After plummeting into the depths of a monster-filled dungeon, Nagumo must rely on all his wits to survive.

The last approach is to play the overpowered character trope for all its worth. Hellsing got away with starring an immortal and invincible vampire as the protagonist through his force of character. In the case of Jaryuu Tensei, the protagonist is reincarnated as a dragon. In his dragon form, he is so overpowered that nothing his enemies throw at him can do so much as leave a mark on his scales. The story becomes defined by his empathy towards everyone around him in spite of being an evil dragon instead of how he steamrolls over his enemies. While the outcome of action scenes in such cases are preordained, a flashy, cocky or humorous protagonist can inject emotional beats into the sequence, staving off boredom.

What’s So Special About Isekai?

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What’s the key difference between a standard fantasy story and an isekai story? The presence of someone from the real world. Isekai stories need to explore the fantasy world through the lens of the modern-day character. However, handled improperly, the isekai trope becomes a clumsy tool.

In *Isekai Houtei – Rebuttal Barrister*, Yuuto Shiba is a washed-up wannabe barrister. After he dies in a traffic accident, he is transported to a parallel world. In this world, the god has decreed that the Kingdom of Luanolde shall implement the law of Japan, and that Yuuto shall be a barrister. Quite mysteriously, everyone speaks Japanese (or Yuuto is suddenly fluent in the local language).

Such a forced introduction makes it transparently clear that the author is basically writing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney WITH ELVES! Fortunately, the author ensures there is a clash of cultures to fuel drama and make the isekai elements relevant. In his first case, Yuuto must defend a half-elf, in a land that persecutes elves, against criminal charges laid by a noble, whose life and dignity the kingdom views as greater than that of a commoner. Later, he discovers more unpleasantness, such as the actual age of majority in the kingdom, that forces him to use his wits instead of just rote regurgitation of the law.

Without this collision of cultures, an isekai story just becomes a standard fantasy story. The isekai element becomes just a tool to lure in the reader and artificially create empathy.

By contrast the manga adaptation of *Tate no Yuusha no Nariagari* makes almost no references to Naofumi’s history as a displaced 21st century Japanese male. Aside from the occasional reminder about where he and the other heroes came from, Naofumi’s history plays no part in the story. We do not see him struggling to learn the local language or customs, no confusion over social protocols, no dietary incompatibilities or taboos, no significant employment of modern knowledge and technology, no indication that Naofumi came from a different world. If the Naofumi’s backstory were changed to ‘wanderer from a distant land’ or ‘teenager from the frontier seeking his fortune’, there would be no significant impact on the plot or character. The isekai element here is used simply to justify the fantasy elements, the video game logic, and to handwave Naofumi’s shield and defensive abilities – and even those can be justified using other tropes.

Isekai stories comprise of two key elements: a parallel world with fantastical elements distinct from our own, and a protagonist or protagonists who come from our world. For stories in this vein to realise their full potential, they must balance both halves to create a whole, while avoiding the pitfalls that lead to self-insert power fantasies. Done right, an isekai story shows the reader the best of both worlds.

Anime Analysis: Demi-chan wa Kataritai

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Cute monster girls doing cute things.

It’s tempting to summarise Demi-chan wa Kataritai (Interviews with Monster Girls) with that line, but the anime puts a fresh spin on an otherwise well-worn trope. An adaptation of the manga of the same name, Demi-chan wa Kataritai is a slice of life anime that posits the existence of demi-humans and explores the lives of four demi-humans in a high school in modern-day Japan.

As a slice of life anime, Demi-chan wa Kataritai has no overarching plot, no villains to defeat, no extended conflict to overcome. Without any of the elements that drive a plot, the franchise relies on its characters to sell the series.

And it does that in spades.

Four Monster Girls Walk Into A School…

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Takahashi Tetsuo is a high school biology teacher whose dearest wish is to meet demi-humans and learn more about him. By a stroke of fortune, when the school year begins, four demi-humans enter his school. He seeks them out and talks to them, leading to the titular interviews with monster girls.

Genki girl Takanashi Hikari is a vampire who drives much of the story’s comedic moments. By contrast, Machi Kyoko is a quiet and intelligent dullahan who secretly wishes for more human contact. Being a yuki-onna, Kusakabe Yuki represents Japanese folklore in the series. The final monster girl is Sato Sakie, a shy and awkward succubus who joins the school as a math teacher.

In this world, demi-humans represent a minority of the population (Machi is just one of three dullahans in existence), but at least in Japan they are accepted as regular people with special needs. The conflict between the demi-humans’ natures and their needs drive their respective arcs.

Hikari is the most well-adjusted demi-human, and she is the glue that bonds the rest of the cast. Her drama arc centres on her relationship with her twin sister Himari, who is a regular human, and her interactions with her fellow demi-humans and teachers. Machi, being a dullahan, has her head constantly detached from her body (it’s suggested that her neck is a wormhole joining her head and body), requiring her to learn how to adapt to the modern world. She longs for more social contact, but people feel awkward around her because of her head. By contrast, Kusakabe believes that she can accidentally harm people around her, and avoids getting too close to anyone. Sato’s arc is a variation of that theme: being a succubus, her body produces aphrodisiacs that drive men wild. She wonders if she will ever have a romantic relationship, and comes to believe that Takahashi is immune to her powers. (Spoiler: he isn’t.)

Demi-chan wa Kataritai finely balances the monster girls’ dual natures, highlighting both their monster and girl selves. Throughout the series, the audience is constantly reminded of their biology, expressed through their human selves. Hikari and Kusakabe are susceptible to heat, and as the story moves into summer, they start complaining about the sun and retreat to Takahashi’s air-conditioned biology preparation room. Kusakabe herself has a constantly cool body and needs to manage her body temperature. Being a dullahan, Machi feels safe and comforted when someone is holding her head. Sato wishes to be a responsible adult and teacher, so she dresses plainly and avoids touching males — and her lack of experience interacting with males comes painfully to the forefront when interacting with Takahashi.

This tension between the monster and girl selves drives the story, allowing Takahashi to shine.

Great Teacher Takahashi

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Lesser studios and creators would have treated the series as a harem story with a perverted pushover as the protagonist. Instead, both the anime and manga portray Takahashi as a teacher who is genuinely concerned about his students. He thinks, talks and acts like a teacher, offering counselling when they are troubled and scolding them when they underperform. In Sato’s case, he treats her like a colleague, going out of his way to hide his reaction to her aphrodisiac.

Like the rest of the cast, Demi-chan wa Kataritai constantly reminds the audience of Takahashi’s physiology and character. Takahashi is buff and strong: he is occasionally seen carrying heavy loads, and among the cast he carries Machi’s head the most. When interviewing the demi-humans, he showcases his knowledge of biology, and sets up impromptu experiments to learn more about them. When interacting with Sato, we see his iron will in resisting her aphrodisiac — and he actually succeeds. Mostly.

Takahashi’s portrayal as a competent, (literally) strong male is refreshing in an industry marked by bland and/or weak and/or perverted male protagonists. The default Western approach of having a Strong Female Character demonstrate her ‘strength’ by tearing down a male is conspicuously absent — the one time this happens the male was a creep who got was coming to him. Indeed, everybody is portrayed positively in the series, supporting each other instead of tearing them down. In modern-day entertainment, this is an unusual approach, and all the more refreshing for its positivity.

From Character, Tone

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The worldbuilding and character-building lead to a relaxed, light-hearted tone. None of the monster girls are monsters; they simply have biological quirks. Vampires don’t need to feed on human blood, yuki-onna can’t cause fatal cold spells, succubi don’t need to seduce men to survive, and dullahans aren’t innately dangerously. None of the demi-humans face widespread societal discrimination; indeed, all of them receive help from sympathetic authority figures.

Because of this approach, the drama in the series is heavily character-focused, revolving around how the main cast interact with other people. As the setting is limited to a high school context, there are no wider conflicts with higher stakes. With every character doing their best to accommodate and support each other, the moments of drama and teenage angst are easily and plausibly resolved within the length of a chapter instead of being drawn out. There are also plenty of comedic moments, further softening the tone and reinforcing Hikari’s role as the joker of the crew.

Demi-chan wa Kataritai demonstrates how character-building and worldbuilding influences the tone of a story. The story minimises opportunities for discrimination, oppression and physical conflict, focusing instead of social interactions and relationships. The series deftly balances the characters’ physiology and personality to produce a cheery, leisurely slice-of-life story punctuated with moments of drama and humour. It is highly recommended for people who want to see light-hearted slice-of-life tales and for creators looking to study the intersection between worldbuilding, character-building and story-telling.

Image credits:

  1. https://myanimelist.net/anime/33988/Demi-chan_wa_Kataritai
  2. http://elvortex.com/guia-de-animes-invierno-2017-parte-1/
  3. https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2016-09-10/interviews-with-monster-girls-demi-chan-wa-kataritai-tv-anime-teaser-introduces-characters/.106315
  4. https://myanimelist.net/anime/33988/Demi-chan_wa_Kataritai/pics

Can post-cyberpunk fiction be superversive?

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“The important part in Cyberpunk is just that: it’s not the technology, it’s the feel. It’s getting that dark, gritty, rain-wet street feeling but at the same time getting that rock and roll, lost and desperate and dangerous quality. Cyberpunk is about that interface between people and technology, but not in that transhumanist way where it’s all about the technology changing or improving them. It’s about how people use things… Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity. It’s about saving yourself.”
Mike Pondsmith

Cyberpunk is the literature of subversion. There are no clean, shiny and prosperous utopian futures promised in old-school science fiction; here you find the dirty streets of dystopias born from the unholy union of untrammeled megacorporations and state power. Technology doesn’t elevate people; it twists them into man-machine hybrids, exposes their secrets for all to see, and creates fresh prisons for the mind and body. Heroes are dead and forgotten; in their places are marginalised, alienated loners at civilisation motivated only by self-preservation. Where the best of science fiction tries to take humanity to the stars, cyberpunk drags humanity into the gritty, nihilistic underbelly of the world.

By contrast, superversive fiction is fiction for a more civilised age. Where subversive fiction undermines, superversive fiction builds back up. The best superversive fiction is a celebration of the values and ideas that underpin civilisation: family, law and order, morality, religion, tradition. To quote from Russell Newquist, superversive fiction is marked by at least some of the following:

Heroes who are actually heroic. They don’t have to be heroic all of the time, or even most of the time. But when the time comes, they must actually be heroic.

People are basically good. Not all the time, not in every case – and certainly not every person. But basically.

Good Wins. Not every time – a good story always has setbacks in it. But evil winning is most definitely not superversive.

True love is real. Again, maybe not for everybody. But it’s real.

Beauty is real. It’s ok to show the warts. But show the beauty, too.

The transcendent is awesome. There’s no obligation to show any particular religion, or even really religion at all. But superversive literature should show the glory and splendor of the wider universe around us, and it should leave us in awe of it.

Family is good and important. Not every family, sure. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Civilization is better than barbarism. This doesn’t mean barbarians are evil, or that they aren’t fun. But in the end, they’re… well, barbaric.

Strength, courage, honor, beauty, truth, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility are virtues. This can be demonstrated by showing people breaking the virtues. But they must be recognized as virtues.

There is hope. Superversive stories should never leave the reader feeling despair.

Cyberpunk is opposed to superversive fiction at every level. There are no heroes, only blackhearted characters either performing fell deeds or manipulating people into performing them. Love and beauty are either alien or transient, and functional families are unheard of. There is no hope of transcendence, except maybe as a ghost in a machine. The primary characters reject civilisation and its virtues, instead living by their own codes at the edge of society. Cyberpunk fiction rarely has happy endings, and those that do tend to be bittersweet or temporary.

Blend everything together and you have a recipe for darkness-induced audience apathy.

Meaningful conflict is the heart of drama. Readers need to empathise with characters. Actions should not entirely be in vain. Evil is punished, good prevails, civilisation endures or evolves. Without these elements, it becomes exceedingly hard for a reader to care. Why should a reader care about a self-destructive misanthropic loner who remains a self-destructive misanthropic loner? Why should a reader be concerned about the fate of an oppressive dystopia? Why should a reader cheer on a traitor, a liar or a murderer with no redeeming traits? With such societies and characters, it takes great skill to hook a reader and keep him invested in the story — a skill few cyberpunk writers, if any, have. Indeed, it is telling that the authors once associated with cyberpunk no longer write cyberpunk.

Is there room for superversive cyberpunk?

Probably not, but that’s what post-cyberpunk is for.

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Epitomised by works like Ghost in the Shell, post-cyberpunk draws upon the cyberpunk ethos and places its own spin on things. Shaped by the technological development and societal attitudes of the 21st century, post-cyberpunk represents an evolution of cyberpunk without necessarily retaining its nihilistic post-modern attitudes.

As Mike Pondsmith says, cyberpunk isn’t about the technology, but the feel. It’s the contrast of high tech and low life, of desperate struggles in the dark, of how people use and abuse technology. Even with this aesthetic there is room for superversion.

Ghost in the Shell (the anime and manga, NOT the live-action movie) features a secret police officer who protects a future Japan against terrorists and corrupt bureaucrats while exploring heavy philosophical themes. Psycho-Pass stars an idealistic police officer who struggles to retain her humanity as she defends a dystopian police state. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its sequel Mankind Divided features Adam Jensen, a former police officer and later counterterror agent who uncovers a conspiracy to rule the world. Watch_Dogs features hackers fighting a powerful megacorp and the omnipresent surveillance system it has created.

These stories are all called cyberpunk in the popular press. They certainly share the same ethos as older cyberpunk works. But instead of descending into the depths of nihilism, at the end of these stories their worlds are just a little better and brighter, and the characters emerge with their spirits tested but unbowed. Victories may be small, but they are meaningful to the characters and the story world.

Post-cyberpunk fiction can be bent to the ends of superversion without sacrificing the core aesthetic that defines it. In a dark, oppressive world, kindness and virtue shine brilliantly. Tsunemori Akane’s humanity and idealism stands in stark contrast to the inhumanity and utilitarianism of the Sibyl System. Adam Jensen can choose to spare every enemy he meets. By creating sharp contrasts of virtue and vice, humanity and alienation, idealism and cynicism, post-cyberpunk is able to unmask the heart of darkness while still making a stand for truth and beauty and justice.

Like cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk is still dark and gritty and dystopic. There is still plenty of chrome and tech, and there are no end of villains scheming in the night. But here, there is also room for hope. Ruthless megacorporations, politicians and criminals are held to account or punished for their misdeeds. Civilisation chugs along, and ordinary people are better able to live in peace. The Leviathan may not be slain, but you still retain your soul, and even an all-powerful state can be convinced to reform itself for the better. You may not be able to save humanity, but you can still save yourself and everyone else around you, and lay the foundations for a better tomorrow.

Post-cyberpunk may be as black as pitch, but the darkness accentuates the brilliance of a candle.

And the flame can be passed from candle to candle, fiction to consumer, heart to heart.


First image: Cyberpunk 2077 trailer
Second image: Psycho-pass anime poster

Retrospective: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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When I first watched Ghost in the Shell, I was impressed by the fluid animations, the detailed visuals, the melancholic atmosphere and the slick action scenes. A dozen years later, after watching it again, I picked up the finer points my teenage self didn’t: the post-cyberpunk ethos, the characterisation, the tight storytelling, and most of all, the reversal of emphasis on philosophy and action.

When put together, Ghost in the Shell is a philosophy film disguised as a sci fi thriller.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Post-Cyberpunk, NOT Cyberpunk

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It has often been claimed that Ghost in the Shell is a cyberpunk franchise. It’s more accurately described as post-cyberpunk. Major Kusanagi Motoko and her colleagues at Section 9 are members of a secret police agency. Their job is to uphold the current order. They may face corrupt government officials, terrorists and cybercriminals, but they act under the colour of the law — even if the government cannot officially sanction their deeds.

Cyberpunk stories depict amoral, nihilistic underworlds populated by unscrupulous hackers, slick corporate representatives, hardboiled cops, well-heeled businessmen. Cyberpunk media such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash or the Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop role-playing games, emphasise the punk of cyberpunk. They focus on high tech and low life, powerful megacorporations and corrupt governments, and the people caught in the games of power and wealth. Cyberpunk is about how money and politics and technology conspire to degrade the human soul — and how people scrape out a living at the ragged edge of an increasingly dystopian society while trying to retain their sense of self.

Ghost in the Shell sets itself apart by making its protagonists members of a secret police organisation. This allows the protagonists to come into contact with the coterie of cybercrime archetypes, but it also charges the protagonists with upholding civilisation instead of eroding it. By being government agents, they will naturally have access to state-of-the-art tech and training, letting them plausibly have an edge over their adversaries, while giving them multiple opportunities to encounter black market tech. They see at first hand how predators use technology to hollow out the human spirit — but instead of dirtying their hands, they take a stand against it.

Post-cyberpunk contrasts those who use technology to uphold civilisation against those who abuse it for their own ends. The characters of Ghost in the Shell inhabit a world filled with corruption and dirty politics, but Section 9 still tries to serve and protect the people. Unlike traditional cyberpunk works that shows how technology dehumanises people, Ghost in the Shell aims to examine whether technology can elevate humanity, and the cost of doing so.

Merging Character and Plot

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In the original manga, Kusanagi was a vivacious woman who enjoyed practical jokes, had a casual approach to romance and violence, and had a wide range of emotional affect. Batou was a support character who played the role of comic relief, but otherwise sank into the background until the focus was no longer on Kusanagi.

The anime radically changed the characters. Kusanagi was now serious and focused. She rarely shows emotions, but when she does it emphasises the gravity of a scene. Instead of sticking her tongue at people behind their backs, she is more likely to exchange philosophical argument. Batou, in turn, was promoted to the role of her unofficial second-in-command, assisting her during key scenes and also voicing deep thoughts of his own. Now he is both a shooter and a thinker, able to match Kusanagi and drive both the action and the dialogue.

This character shift elevates the anime above the manga. Manga Section 9 comes off as a unit of cowboys just a few steps away from being loose cannons, who have no qualms turning their skills on their allies and superiors on a whim, and only slightly more skilled than the criminals they face. Anime Section 9 is an elite group of operators who take the time to ponder their humanity.

The anime characters created a somber, introspective atmosphere lacking in the manga, conforming with the anime’s philosophical core. With Anime Kusanagi and Anime Batou portrayed as intellectual cyborg shooters, it now makes sense for them to contemplate their navels when they’re not chasing bad guys. This, in turn, makes the ending believable.

In the manga, the Puppet Master abruptly launches into a pages-long exposition on life and transmission of information. It is a jarring departure from a manga otherwise filled with gunfire and cyberwarfare but little explicit discussion of higher concepts. In the anime, the exposition is reduced to a minimum — and since the characters are already established as deep thinkers who also act decisively, the concluding scene fits with the overall tone and direction of the anime.

The manga characters were action-oriented; the reader either had to tease out philosophy from the plot, or the mangaka had to break up the action to make the themes and philosophy explicit. The anime characters give voice to the philosophy explored in the franchise, showcasing their characters and explicitly drawing out the ideas the filmmaker is exploring. The latter approach makes the philosophy more accessible and digestible to the audience — and in doing so, raised Ghost in the Shell above other sci fi stories that merely used cybertech as stage dressing.

Lean Storytelling

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Ghost in the Shell does more in 82 minutes than what other films try to accomplish in over 2 hours. The anime achieves this through a minimalist cast and efficient storytelling.

The only extraneous scene takes place in the middle of the film, showcasing daily life in 2029 Tokyo. Otherwise, every sequence is tightly plotted, with ramifications down the line. Of great importance is the use of technology: every key bit of technology is used at least twice, first to introduce the audience to the tech, and then to facilitate the plot.

The opening scene has Kusanagi using thermoptic camouflage to assassinate a bad guy. It’s an iconic moment that defines the franchise, introducing the tech and the murky politics of the world. Later, while preparing for a mission, Kusanagi tells Togusa that she brought him aboard Section 9 because he has the least amount of cybernetic enhancements and Kusanagi values his different perspective. During that mission, their target uses thermoptic camouflage to evade pursuit, suggesting that the antagonists also have access to such tech, and showing that such camouflage can defeat Section 9’s sensors. When the Puppet Master appears, thermoptic camouflage plays a critical role in aiding the antagonists’ plans, and this allows Togusa to demonstrate his out-of-the-box thinking to detect the invisible intruders, enabling the final showdown later on.

In the movie, technology drives the plot and characterisation. We see this again in the use of high velocity rounds. During the chase scene, the target loads his submachine gun with high velocity rounds to disable Section 9’s truck. Batou later comments on how the ammunition damaged the weapon’s internals. Later, Kusanagi employs HV ammo against a spider tank, but takes the trouble to swap out the barrel of her rifle — and even so, the HV rounds don’t do squat.

The chase scene sets up the existence of HV ammunition and its limitations. This prepares the viewer for Kusanagi using them later and sets up the expectation that the HV rounds would tear the tank apart. Her taking the time to swap out her weapon parts solidifies her characterisation as an operator. When the HV bullets bounce off the tank, it undermines the viewers’ expectations and justifies the following scene which has her try to hack the tank’s cyberbrain, in the process ripping off most of her limbs. This in turn makes the climax possible, showing why she can’t simply evade the snipers targeting her, and ratchets up the tension further.

By compressing technology, characterisation and plot into as few scenes as possible, the director made the philosophy scenes work. When discussing the philosophy and implications of technology in the work, the characters don’t stand around and exchange lines in a context-free vacuum. They always talk philosophy in transitional scenes.

In these scenes, the characters are either on the way to somewhere or waiting for something to happen. One exchange takes place while Kusanagi and Togusa are on the road, preparing for a mission; another takes place on a boat when Kusanagi and Batou are off-duty and awaiting orders; a third is inside an elevator as Section 9 prepares to head out.

In other movies, these scenes would be short takes, empty of beats. Here, the director used the opportunity to fill the gap by delving into matters related to prior scenes, making the philosophy feel organic instead of being forced on the audience. It also eliminates the need to have separate talky scenes dedicated solely to philosophy.

Ghost in the Shell is an exemplar of lean storytelling and a masterclass in the craft of maximising the efficiency of every scene.

Reversing Action and Philosophy

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In most movies, action scenes are the highlight of the film. Scenes in between the action are crafted to lead up to the combat.

Ghost in the Shell reverses this logic: the action scenes lead to the philosophy.

Conventional films feature lengthy action sequences featuring kinetic gun battles, furious hand-to-hand combat and waves of mooks, creating spectacles that hook the audience and keep them watching. The payoff of the film is watching the protagonist overcome the antagonist through wit or violence (or both), saving the day and winning the girl. Any deep thought is incidental.

Ghost in the Shell, by contrast, treats action scenes differently, with long periods of building-up and short bursts of overwhelming violence. The action scenes are much shorter and feature a far lower body count than conventional action films, because they do not exist to create spectacle, but to set up the scenes where characters ponder their humanity and their place in the world. The assassination in the beginning reveal the political system of future Japan and sets the stage for the rest of the plot; the chase scene later on reveals the possibility of false memories, in turn leading to Batou and Kusanagi musing on what makes them human; the final showdown creates the setting for the actual denouement.

Unlike traditional movie logic, the true antagonists of Ghost in the Shell aren’t directly dealt with. Indeed, at the end Batou describes the resolution as a ‘stalemate’. This wouldn’t work in a film that places spectacle first: audiences would expect nothing less than total victory after experiencing one action extravaganza after another that consistently raises the emotional tenor and stakes of the story. However, in a story that places philosophy first, underscored by an introspective atmosphere, it is appropriate: the true resolution lies with the merging of the Puppet Master and Kusanagi to create a higher life form. It is the ultimate payoff for an audience already primed for a movie that promises to explore transcendental matters in the guise of sci-fi action. The stalemate is an afterthought, but it fits into the overall cyberpunk culture, in which there are no major lasting victories, just personal successes at the individual level.

Philosophy with a Dash of Action

 

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In an industry defined by visuals and spectacle, Ghost in the Shell dares to do something different. While it employs a high standard of visual quality, instead of relying on the Hollywood standbys of intense action scenes, Ghost in the Shell delivered philosophy with a dash of action. It made full use of its sci fi mileu, setting up scenarios that organically explore the implications of these technologies and characters who combine combat skills with intellect.

Lesser filmmakers would have stumbled, either by making the philosophy ultra-abstract and the action scenes boring, or by concentrating on action and neglecting deep thought. Ghost in the Shell finds the perfect balance between the two, cementing its position as a masterpiece.

All images from Ghost in the Shell (1996) and publicity materials.

Movie Review: A Silent Voice

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The anime Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice) is an excellent movie marred by flawed execution. At its heart, Koe no Katachi is a story about redemption, friendship and overcoming social anxiety, covering childhood bullying, suicide and the psychic scars of isolation and ostracism. The anime makes excellent use of its heavy subject matter, creating a realistic and entertaining character study.

But only of the protagonist.

The Sole Driver

The story focuses on Ishida Shoya, a former delinquent trying to do good. When he was in elementary school, Nishimiya Shoko transferred into his class. Nishimiya is deaf, relying on hearing aids and communicating mainly through written notes on her notebook or through sign language. While she can speak, she is unable to properly articulate her words. Her mannerisms lead Ishida to pick on her, causing the rest of the class to join in.

Until one day, he goes too far.

In an instant, the entire class turns on him. Nishimiya transfers out. Nishimiya’s deeds haunt him through the rest of his days in elementary school. Guilt and regret set in, festering into crippling social anxiety. In high school, Ishida is unable to even look at most people, picturing a ‘X’ in place of their faces.

With no plans and no hope for the future, Ishida contemplates suicide. But one day, he meets Nishimiya again, discovering that she attends the same high school. Ishida reaches out to her, and begins his long journey to acceptance, recovery and redemption.

The anime’s critical weakness lies in having too many characters. Nearly named character from the manga appears in the anime. This leaves very little screen time for all of them. While a manga has the capacity to fully explore the minds and actions of supporting characters in depth, the two-hour anime adaptation can only do so much. The anime elects to focus on Ishida’s struggles to face his past, understand the meaning of ‘friendship’, and fight through the mental block that isolates him from everyone else. While it was masterfully done, it came at the cost of character development for everyone else.

Every supporting character is defined by their deeds and personalities, and remain static for much of the film. Aside from Ishida, only Nishimiya Shoko and Yuzuru enjoy character growth — the former by being more willing to interact with others, the latter by growing friendlier and less sullen.

While everybody has believable personas and act entirely in line with their core beliefs and attitudes, the secondary characters exist mainly as a means to reflect Ishida’s progress in becoming more sociable. Indeed, characters like Mashiba Satoshi and Nishimiya Ito barely have spoken lines and almost no influence on the plot. Further, at times in the anime I found it difficult to understand why some characters did the things they do; only in the manga are these motivations revealed, such as why Ueno Naoka began bullying Nishimiya, why Yuzuru takes so many photographs, or why Mashiba joins in Ishida’s social group.

It is inevitable for lengthy manga to suffer major cuts when adapted to the big screen, but at least in Koe no Katachi, the core ideas and story remain intact. It is a testimony to the studio that they managed to deliver a powerful anime in spite of eliminating major story arcs and being forced to work with many shallow characters.

Almost-Amazing Cinematography

The major flaw of the anime is its cinematography. To be sure, Koe no Katachi has excellent visuals. Every scene is stylishly depicted, combining traditional anime iconography with beautiful background scenery and fluid motions. The art direction and soundtrack shifts at key moments, driving home Ishida’s mental and emotional state.

However, those key moments are also interrupted by flashbacks and surreal sequences. This is especially jarring in the opening segments of the anime, covering Ishida’s elementary school and early high school days. These shots distract from the main event instead of adding to it, making it more difficult to keep track of events and characters and muting the overall emotional impact of these scenes. The flashbacks could be cut from the anime without loss to the story — and should have been, to retain its overall coherence.

Final Thoughts

Koe no Katachi is a beautiful coming-of-age tale of friendship and redemption — but poor cinematographic techniques undo the key scenes. It stars realistically-portrayed characters suffering from deep psychic stories and personal failings — though the secondary characters are all static. Koe no Katachi is a few steps short of being a genuine masterpiece, but it is nonetheless an amazing story in its own right.

Photo credits:

Anime poster from Wikipedia

The Ethics of Piracy in the Digital Age

Ebooks, digital downloads, torrents and the Internet have fundamentally altered the nature of commercial transactions, but definitions of ‘piracy’ remains stuck in the 17th century, in the heyday of pirates at sea.

Maritime piracy is clearly evil. Maritime merchant shipping transfers goods from a supplier to a buyer. The supplier expects payment and the buyer expects goods. By attacking ships at sea, pirates deny the buyer his goods. If the buyer doesn’t receive his goods, the supplier either will not receive payment or will lose future customers. Many pirates also take the opportunity to rob the crew and passengers, and sometimes kidnap them for ransom.

Software piracy is far more ambiguous. It is the act of illegally reproducing a work of intellectual property. No physical goods are stolen; rather the original is cloned. No goods are stolen, no payment denied. No middlemen and no innocents are harmed.

The primary argument against digital piracy is lost sales. After copying the IP to physical media, the pirates sell the media at much lower prices. This undercuts the original merchant, translating into lost sales. The pirates are profiting from the creators’ efforts at almost no cost to themselves. The creators are not rewarded for their work, discouraging them from future work.

This argument might be true in the era of CDs, DVDs and printed matter. But that era has passed.

The Reality of Digital Piracy

Torrents and download sites are everywhere. If you have an Internet connection, five minutes on a search engine will turn up plenty of pirate sites. The authorities might squash one or two every now and then, but more will inevitably pop up. The cost of hunting down pirate sites, identifying the owners, obtaining court orders and serving warrants is far greater than setting up anonymous sites and obtaining proxy servers. And there will always be demand for piracy. Further, pirated digital goods — music, movies, games, ebooks — are freely available. There is no reason for consumers to buy pirated material if they can download them from the Internet for free.

The pirates do not normally profit from sales of software. Many pirates do not even sellsoftware to consumers. This indicates that the people who pirate software are people who would not have purchased anything from the creators. No sales are lost. This undercuts the primary argument against piracy.

If no goods are physically stolen, if payments are neither intercepted nor prevented, if no innocents are harmed, is piracy still unethical?

The Ethics of Digital Piracy

Here we see manga in their native habitat: a bookstore in Japan. Many Japanese manga are not translated into English, and will never be. Even if they are, the salacious covers of some of these manga will ensure they will never be imported into my home country. These linguistic and legal barriers will prevent the manga from reaching a wider English-speaking audience.

Enter scanlation groups. These groups scan and translate Japanese manga, posting them online for people to read. While many are amateurs, they provide a service professionals do not or cannot. Most scanlation groups do their work for free, covering their costs from out of pocket. Some will solicit for donations, but only to cover operational costs — including purchasing a legal copy of the original manga to scan and translate.

Scanlation groups make Japanese-language manga available to people who speak different languages free of charge. The author loses no sales; his books were never for sale in those languages to begin with. Nobody is harmed and no profits are made. While this is technically piracy — how does it harm people?

What about goods that are widely available, such as computer games? Here, pirates are consumers who do not want to buy a good at a certain price point. This is an argument for proper price strategy, not anti-piracy measures. This is why many game companies run sales regularly on outlets like Steam and GOG. With that said, we can’t expect publishers to constantly set a price that forces them to make a loss, and there will always be people who will never pay a cent for games.

There is no way to extract profit from people who won’t pay for a digital product. If piracy were not available to them, they would simply not consume the good. Going after these pirates would tend to generate bad press for the company, especially if people think the goods are overpriced. On the other hand, if these pirates are left alone, some of them will inevitably talk about the goods, driving brand awareness. So long as the pirates do not resell their copies for profits or attempt to pass off the creators’ work as their own, they are harming no one. Instead of wasting finite time and resources chasing people who won’t give them money, publishers should instead serve their paying customers and make more products.

Piracy doesn’t just affect publishers; it also undermines state power. In 2007, the Media Development Authority banned Mass Effect in Singapore for portraying same-sex relationships — never mind that the relationship in question was between Commander Shepard (who could be male or female) and Liara T’soni, a monogender alien who appears female to human eyes. Elsewhere, Germany bans anything that depicts Nazism in any form, while Australia has a dim view of games with graphic violence or sexual content.

In those countries, piracy of prohibited content is undoubtedly commonplace. If a product is widely and openly available everywhere but in a consumer’s home country, a consumer who wants the product will seek it out through illegal means. It is simply human nature. Since these goods are already banned in these markets, no sales are lost. On the other hand, the creators’ brand name continues to spread — and it is this brand name that makes or breaks artists. Through piracy, state power is undermined — but this is neither an unmitigated positive nor negative outcome.

Consider that Singapore also bans pornography of all kinds. If you believe that pornography is immoral and harms people, then obvious piracy of pornography weakens the moral fabric of the nation, making it evil. If you believe pornography is harmless, than this ban is excessive and piracy circumvents it.

But piracy is not just about immorality and mindless entertainment, either.

Singapore has banned a number of books, including The Satanic Verses. It is illegal to buy or sell any copies of The Satanic Verses in Singapore. But this book can be found freely on sites like Amazon. Similarly, you can find plenty of material on Amazon that would otherwise be banned elsewhere. Not so coincidentally, the Kindle store is not available in Singapore, making it nearly impossible to purchase many ebooks from the Kindle store. More often than not, if you are Singaporean you can only obtain Kindle-exclusive books through pirate sites.

It is easy to claim that piracy performs a social good by defeating censorship and supporting freedom of speech and expression. But consider this: Singapore is a tiny Chinese-majority nation surrounded by large Muslim-majority neighbours. Race and religion informs practically every political decision Singapore makes. By banning The Satanic Verses, Singapore arguably prevented any possibility of a race and religious riot in Singapore andanti-Singapore protests in Malaysia and Indonesia. If censorship could potentially prevent social disorder and unrest, is it necessarily an undiluted evil?

Beyond questions of state power, there is also the question of the publisher’s power. Many digital products come with some kind of digital rights management software. The idea is to prevent unauthorised use, sales or reproductions of the software. While DRM does a fine job in protecting a publisher’s profits at the point of sale, in practice it harms users past the point of sale.

DRM takes away control of the customer’s computer and degrades software performance. It requires the computer to perform actions not ordered by the customer. Unscrupulous publishers can insert spyware into a consumer’s computer under the guise of DRM, allowing them to gather or destroy the user’s private data. DRM that requires a constant Internet connection, especially to authentication servers, make the software fragile: the moment connection is lost or the servers are shut down, the game is gone for good. Ebook DRMs prevent the user from reading the same ebook on another personally-own device – which can be troublesome if you need to convert an ebook into another format before you can read it.

There is also another aspect of piracy: making old and outdated products available. When books and movies stop being profitable, when software is superseded by new hardware, these products are permanently taken off the market or relegated to distant specialist shops. This does not mean that they have no worth, only that they are no longer profitable to be placed in the market.

Piracy makes these products available to a fresh generation and ensures their continued circulation. Nobody makes a cent from this, but more goods that are no longer in the market are created. For companies that have a long and storied backlist, piracy of no-longer-available products allows their fans to see how far they have gone and introduces new ones to the company. While many companies these days are seeing profit in remastering, converting and re-releasing old products, these companies tend to come from the gaming, music and movie industries. Books, instructional videos and obscure artistes get the short end of the stick.

An Ethical Framework for Piracy

With so many issues to resolve, how does one create an ethical and legal framework to handle piracy?

The fundamental principle must be to do no harm. Laws are broad and uncompromising, and are enforced at the point of a gun. The broader a law, the more innocent people will be swept up into jails and morgues. Restricting laws to the harm principle means the state may only prosecute people who have caused measurable harm to a party.

From a digital piracy perspective, this means that publishers and creators must make a strong case for harm. They must prove that the pirate stole goods and profits. They must prove that the pirates discouraged creators from creating new works. They must prove that the pirates have harmed innocent people. If the pirate has not harmed anyone, they must not be prosecuted. This would mean a legal framework that is strongly in favour of individual liberties, freedom of expression and consumer rights.

As for DRM, the answer is simple: no DRM. If a publisher wants to introduce DRM, the onus is on the publisher to prove that the DRM cannot be used to subvert the user’s computer, will not gather private information, and will not degrade product performance. Any DRM that infringes upon the user’s property rights should be eliminated.

What about the individual? If a specific act of piracy harms no one, as we see in a number of cases, then the question is simply a matter of individual conscience.

Photo Credits:

  1. Mass Effect wallpaper by Suicidebyinsecticide
  2. DRM protest by Electronic Frontier Foundation

Tired Tropes: The Potato Protagonist

If a potato has more personality than the protagonist of a story, the writer is doing it wrong.

The best stories are driven by their characters. The best characters aren’t two-dimensional constructs of excessive verbiage, but a reflection and amplification of the myriad facets of humanity. Characters must resonate with readers, acting, talking and thinking the way people in their situation would do. Shaped by their background, genes, personality and networks, these characters take on a life of their own, and in doing so become distinct people in their own.

Character creation is complex. The more complicated and technical a person is, the more likely a creator will make a mistake somewhere, creating a false note that jars a reader’s sensibilities. If there are too many mistakes, or if the mistake were too serious, the reader would drop the story there and then. Creators must give their all when building characters; at the very least they must try their best. But the ones who reach for the potato protagonist don’t even try.

The potato protagonist is as blank as a potato and has the personality of one. Everything about him is dull, flat and humdrum. His skills, backgrounds and talents don’t matter; his core is empty, his thoughts and behaviours utterly predictable by anyone familiar with standard storytelling tropes. There is nothing about him that makes him stand out from other protagonists, nothing that draws and retain the reader’s attention.

A classic example of the trop is Ichijo Raku of Nisekoi. Ichijo is allegedly the son of a yakuza family at odds with a rival gang. To prevent a gang war, Ichijo must pretend to date the daughter of the rival gang boss, Chitoge Kirisaki, during his high school years. This couldhave been a fascinating setup, but the creator wasted the potential of the main character.

(Unmarked spoilers ahead!)

Ichijo’s background has minimal influence on him. He is supposed to be the heir of a nation-spanning yakuza group, with an army of servants at his command and a fortune to his name. But from the get-go he spurns the notion of inheriting the group, and insists on getting an ordinary job in the real world. This is a thin excuse to explain how and why he goes to a regular school, but this falls flat.

Someone who grew up surrounded by wealth, luxury and (allegedly) murderous yakuza acts, talks and thinks differently from a regular person. He would have a cavalier attitude towards money and possessions, yet he would act and talk with grace and refinement. He would be mindful to act in a way that would not bring dishonour to his family, because the yakuza are allowed to exist only because of the goodwill they have built in their community, and because in the underworld, careless words leads to deadly violence. He would have been groomed to study people, keep track of favours and relationships, network with the children of the rich and powerful, and influence people. Depending on how violent the underworld is at that time, he would also have trained in martial arts and learned how to use illegal weapons.

Instead, Ichijou comes off as an ordinary high school boy. Indeed, his background is almost never referenced until a story arc demands it. For much of the story, you can replace ‘scion of a powerful yakuza family’ with ‘ordinary high school student’ and it would not affect him one bit. Ichijou fits the mold of Bland Shounen Harem Protagonist to a T. Nothing about Ichijou makes him stand out from any of the thousands of high school student protagonists out there…except for his utter inability to notice how the girls around him feel about him until the manga draws to a close.

Fundamentally, the potato protagonist is not meant to uphold a story. He exists to solve a marketing problem.

The primary target audience of shounen anime and manga are Japanese high school boys. The easiest way to reach out to them is to have a protagonist that vaguely reflects them andallows them to project themselves into the character. By granting the main character the personality of a potato, the audience has an empty vessel to pour their own unique selves into.

The same applies to other audiences of other categories. Want to write a trashy romance story for women? Create a blank ordinary everywoman. Drawing a shoujo manga? Have a fluffy emotional girl as the protagonist and a cool, handsome boy as the love interest. Writing a men’s action adventure novel? Make the protagonist a cold killer and play up the guts and gore.

The Potato Protagonist is easy, but writing is about truth, and most of the time, when employed this trope does not reflect the truth of the world. High school students do not embark on grand adventures; at least not without coming through unchanged. People do not exist to reflect the quirks and desires of other people.

And for characters to be realistic, they must pass as people.

The Potato Protagonist Done Right

(Mass Effect 3 wallpaper, http://www.hdwallpapers.in/female_shepard_in_mass_effect_3-wallpapers.html)

The point of Tired Tropes is not to deride a targeted trope, but to see how it can be employed effectively. And even potato protagonists can be redeemed.

Potatoes are bland lumps. They absorb the flavor of the foods, spices and oils they are cooked with. They can be steamed, fried, boiled, stewed, roasted, grilled or microwaved. They can be cooked as is or cut up into different shapes. This essential malleability is key to properly understanding this trope.

Potato Protagonists lend themselves well to choice-driven games, especially role playing games. The point of such games is to allow the player to shape his experience in the game world with the protagonist as his vehicle. As such, a protagonist without any unwanted baggage is excellent — the player is free to act however he likes within the confines of the game, without having to experience dissonance between a protagonist’s actions and his supposed background.

Where the protagonist does have a backstory, the intelligent developer would find ways to integrate that backstory into the overall choice mechanic to create a deeper gameplay experience. In Mass Effect, the player is free to customise his own Commander Shepherd , and can choose between three separate backgrounds. But these backgrounds exist independently of the player’s choice. If the player wants to play a Shepherd who ordered a massacre but later regretted his actions and is trying to be a better person, he can. if the player wants to play a Shepherd who survived a slave raid by hostile aliens, propelling him to become a ferocious war hero and twisting him into a ruthless xenophobe, he can. In games that allow players to deeply customise their experiences and see themselves as active participants in the story events, the potato protagonist is unmatched.

In print media, a potato protagonist is also acceptable…if he does not remain one. Events change people. Stories change characters. The reader must be able to compare a character at the beginning of the story with his future self and see how much he has changed. A potato protagonist facilitates character development, since there is no fear of violating established background or character regression. This also has the effect of making character development appear more obvious to the reader.

An example of this is Rosario + Vampire. Aono Tsukune is an ordinary high school boy who accidentally gets enrolled in a high school for monsters. Predatory monsters who feed on humans and who are learning how to blend into human society, starting with magic that makes them appear human. His innate humanity attracts the attention of a group of monster girls, leading to harem hijinks.

Not.

The story begins as a generic Monster of the Week manga. Then the creator delves into each character’s personal life, creating opportunities for drama and character bonding and deconstructing the Unwanted Harem trope. Soon, villains appear, threatening the fragile peace between humans and monsters, and targeting Tsukune and his friends. Tsukune, in turn, resolves to help his newfound friends and love interest, and embarks special training to grow stronger. At the start of the series, Tsukune is a high school boy well over his head, desperately trying not to be unmasked as an actual human; by the final arc of the second season, Tsukune stands alongside his friends to save humanity from a monster terrorist organisation.

Personally, I dislike potato protagonists. Such characters hold little appeal to me, and it takes a great deal of work for me to continue putting up with them longer than an hour. That is usually because they aren’t understood and employed properly. But done right, they can become icons in their own right. Case in point: Commander Shepherd.

The potato protagonist is the quintessential blank slate. In choice-driven games, he is a vessel for the player to shape his experiences. In fixed stories, he has maximum potential for evolution and development, pushing the story to greater heights. In both cases, the protagonist changes into someone better.

A potato protagonist is not enjoyed raw; he must be prepared and cooked through the events of the story. Or, like a raw potato, he could poison the reader and turn off the reader permanently.

Tired Tropes: the Tsundere

Welcome to Tired Tropes, in which I dissect popular tropes I find annoying. While tropes are tools, they can be overused or done badly, and Tired Tropes are especially gregarious examples of them. Here, I take on the tsundere.

The tsundere is a staple of Japanese media. She—for the overwhelming majority of tsunderes are female—is defined by switching between harsh (‘tsun’) and lovestruck (‘dere’) personalities, due to how she feels towards a love interest and her reaction to having these feelings. While Tropes are Not Bad, it takes great skill to properly utilise tsundere archetype, and many, many, many creators have failed to do it properly.

When people think tsunderes they think Type A tsunderes: harsh and aloof as her default setting, but sweet or vulnerable towards her love interest…eventually. And by ‘harsh’ I mean abusive. Examples abound in media: Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere from Zero no Tsukaima, Ayatsuji Tsukasa of Amagami, Kirisaki Chitoge in Nisekoi, and so on.

Type B tsunderes, who have dere as their default setting, are also abound, but I haven’t encountered (too many) problems with their portrayals. This post will focus exclusively on the ultra-Type A tsunderes: the abusive types.

In the real world, abuse has consequences. It inflicts horrendous psychological damage on the victim over time. More assertive individuals would simply refuse to have anything to do with such people, or turn to the authorities (or arrest them, if they are the authorities). In fiction, for some reason, abuse is rewarded with love.

Louise physically and emotionally abuses Hiraga Saito throughout the entire series, including berating him, whipping him and punishing him whenever she gets jealous of another girl who talks to him—and they become the official couple. Ayatsuji blackmails Tachibana Junichi into helping her by threatening to accuse him of sexual assault when he accidentally picks up her diary—and in her route she becomes his lover. Kirisaki Chitoge is abusive, haughty and violent towards Ichijou Raku, especially in the early chapters—and he falls for her anyway.

Writing is about truth. Tropes are a tool to point the reader towards truth. And the truth of the world is that if a woman were arrogant, abrasive, manipulative and outright violent towards anyone, she is not girlfriend or wife material. This is a clear indicator of intimate partner violence—better known as domestic violence. And yet the relationships described above are portrayed as loving relationships.

Consider what would happen if the gender roles were flipped: if male tsunderes abuse their female love interests. There is no expectation that the relationship would end well. Yet this portrayal of female tsunderes endures. After all, Abuse is Okay if it’s Female on Male.

This is not to say that the tsundere archetype should be abandoned, rather that it should be deployed with skill.

Instead of playing abuse for laughs, especially in a serious work of fiction, it should be explored to the bitter end. Unflinchingly explore the consequences of being around someone who switches between harsh and sweet at the drop of a hat. The result is confusion, a tendency to walk on eggshells around her, and a dysfunctional relationship. More assertive characters will stand up and put a stop to such nonsense, or ruthlessly cut out these people from their lives.

If the tone of the story is comedic or light-hearted, downplay the violence or abuse to the point where it won’t actually harm anyone. Imagine the female lightly punching a male’s arm or softly bouncing her fists against his chest without actually hurting him, or limiting the use of insults and retorts. This provides insight into her character without crossing the line. Or, as in the case of Kaze no Stigma, the female may be lashing out at the male with full force, while the male easily avoids or no-sells the attack with boredom or amused mastery. In either event, it is immediately clear that what happens isn’t abuse, as it doesn’t actually affect the target in any meaningful way.

If the male does have a background in martial arts and/or a profession that requires the regular use of force (soldier, mercenary, police, etc.), show the real-world results of attempting to abuse that person. Force will be met with force, dodged or redirected. These are survival mechanisms, so deeply ingrained that they cannot be turned off so easily. Such people will also have no tolerance for abuse: either the tsundere shapes up or is dropped.

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An example of the Type A tsundere romance done right is Steins;Gate. Makise Kurisu is a classic Type A tsundere, who developed her acerbic tongue after being looked down on for being the youngest scientist in her lab. Okabe Rintarou roleplays a mad scientist all the time, to the point where nearly everyone thinks he acts like a twelve-year-old, and also displays classic tsundere characteristics. Unlike other media, the character dynamic is both hilarious and realistic, thanks to the way it’s handled.

While Makise and Okabe bicker over literally anything, their interactions showcase both chemistry and growing respect for each other. Makise maintains her tsun side by talking in scientific terms when annoyed, acting cynically towards Okabe, and (in the Japanese version) by using rude forms of address, while reserving her ultra-tsun moments for times when it’s justified—such as reacting to a perverted joke about her, usually with a sharp remark. And she doesn’t abuse people who don’t annoy her, like Shiina Mayuri. Okabe, in turn, feeds off her energy, responding with aplomb and genuinely hilarious comebacks.

Most importantly, when the chips are down and push comes to shove, Makise drops the tsundere act. She demonstrates her brilliance as a scientist, supports Okabe through difficult situations, and acts as a loyal member of his lab team. In this sense, Makise is more than just a two-dimensional character; she is a complete character who drives the story. And in the end, she (mostly) drops the tsun act and acts more affectionately towards Okabe.

Looking at Steins;Gate we see an instance of effectively deploying a Type A tsundere without alienating the audience. She doesn’t go overboard with her harshness, or when she does it’s met with resistance. She shows character development over time instead of flipflopping back and forth. Most of all, she is more than just an archetype: she contributes meaningfully to the story, becoming more than just a set of clichéd behaviours.

The tsundere archetype in of itself is not bad. But when poorly handled, it is a portrayal of female abuse and generates violent dissonance with the truth of the world. Properly crafting a Type A tsundere requires careful calibration of her character, showing her harshness without crossing the line into unchecked abuse, while giving her opportunities to be more than just a cliche.

Still Skeptical about Ghost in the Shell

The first official trailer for Ghost in the Shell is out…and, if anything, I’m even more skeptical about the movie.

In an earlier post, I made it clear that I’m not enthusiastic about the movie. After watching the trailer, I’m almost certain my fears will be realised.

To be fair, this movie is visually stunning. The art direction is top-notch, and it captures the cyberpunk aesthetic of futuristic cities with broken rain-slick streets. However, it seems that the producers focused on amazing visuals instead of faithfully adapting the characters, story and tone.

Major Kusanagi Motoko drives the franchise. In the manga, she is an exuberant, cheerfully destructive woman with a juvenile sense of humour. In the anime, both movie and series, she morphs into a cold, ruthless operator hyper-focused on the mission. In this incarnation, the ‘Major’ (no name given) is a brooding cyborg who feels alienated from society. In the trailer, she says, “Everybody feels connected to something I’m not.”

This is a major departure from established canon: the Kusanagis of the anime and the manga have made peace with the fact that they aren’t part of ‘regular’ society. They don’t brood about it. In the manga, Kusanagi pursues relationships; in the anime, she just doesn’t care.

In the real world, special operators are chosen for their ability to be decisive and adaptable; there are very few navel gazers and moody brooders in their hallowed ranks. Going by the trailer, that makes the anime and manga Kusanagi more believable in my eyes.

Furthermore, Kusanagi is a team leader. She may be the central character, but she knows how to her team to achieve her goals. The opening scene of the movie pays homage to the first episode of the anime series, with one key difference: in the anime, every member of Section 9 deploys, utilising their strengths to efficiently take out the terrorists.

Part of the appeal of the Japanese Ghost in the Shell franchise is its attention to detail, including tactics. The creator, Masamune Shirow, and the anime production team at least tried to incorporate tactics and teamwork. Kusanagi may be a superpowered cyborg, but in the world of GitS, her enemies may be just as deadly as she — and oftentimes, deadlier. Section 9 has to work together to succeed. Indeed, when the enemy catches Section 9 members working solo, Bad Things usually happen — to Section 9. This approach increases the verisimilitude of the series, and reinforces both its hard sci fi aesthetic and its gritty tone.

In the movie, we see Major Nameless soloing a room full of bad guys. Yes, this shows she is a Superpowered Female Character…but it also betrays Hollywood’s elevation of the visual. Instead of going for the gritty realism that defined GitS, the Hollywood version emphasises gee-whiz action and shallow sleekness.

We see this visual sophistry again at 1:32, when Major Nameless uppercuts a person. He promptly goes flying and spins round and round. This is painfully obvious wirework. It’s meant to highlight just how powerful she is — in the mind of a Hollywood writer — but to the eyes of a person who studied martial arts, it’s utterly impossible. Physics simply does not work that way.

Most important of all, the anime and manga were not about Kusanagi. She may be the protagonist, but she is not the focus of the story. Those stories explored how rapid technological progress changes people and society, and what it means to have a soul when your body, vital organs, and brain, can be designed and mass-manufactured. Kusanagi’s missions place her at the cutting edge of technology, forcing her, and the viewer, to grapple with the concepts of individual consciousness and emergent group gestalts. Indeed, the ‘ghost’ in the title is an in-universe term characters use when referencing their soul or consciousness, while ‘shell’ indicates their cyborg bodies. The philosophical underpinnings elevated the franchise from mere excellent to timeless.

In the trailer, we hear lines like ‘You know I have a past. I’ll find out who I was’, ‘Everything they told you was a lie’, and ‘They did not save your life. They stole it.’ This suggests that the story is about the Major seeking the truth of her past, and implies false or erased memories, and that she is an unknowing pawn of ‘them’.

Not that this is a bad story, but it is not Ghost in the Shell.

Hollywood GitS is classic cyberpunk: alienated character seeking the truth and fighting a powerful enemy to pursue personal goals. The original GitS is one of the earliest examples of post-cyberpunk: a government agent who uses morally gray methods in the service of civilisation. Cyberpunk is an arrow against the system; post-cyberpunk upholds society. And I don’t think the live action movie recognises that.

The Hollywood movie might still turn out to be a decent flick. But going by the trailer, I’m skeptical if it can live up to the original.