The Dishonored Life Is Worth Living

Posted By on October 23, 2012

I think I’m enjoying Dishonored, but I’m most certainly enjoying its setting. Visual designer Viktor Antonov has created a lovely nightmare of a city that feels like several centuries of imperial squalor at once, avoiding an impression of anachronism because every detail is so well matched to its purpose, feels so logical in its context: of course the medieval dungeon has industrial concrete walls with stenciled signs; of course the guards carry longswords and receive orders over loudspeakers; of course the authoritarian city contains both elegant vehicles and Orwellian slogans (“The boldest measures are the safest”); of course a motorboat takes you across the waterway into the ancient citadel. Everything looks like it belongs, everything fits the mood. The faded-glory dystopian vibe, not to mention the authoritarianism, are reminiscent of Antonov’s work on Half-Life 2 (“Welcome to City 17. It’s safer here”) but Antonov isn’t just quoting himself. Dunwall is every city and also entirely itself.

Have you ever played a videogame just because you wanted to live in its world? I sat through all the nonsense of Plot Kompression just so I could complete my tour of Final Fantasy VIII’s surreal cities. I’m uninspired by Skyrim‘s quests or combat but I’m willing to perform some perfunctory missions just to have an excuse to explore the countryside. I replay Metroid far more often than the more polished Super Metroid just because I want to remember the way through its creepy tunnels.

Maybe this is the same impulse that leads some people to take menial jobs—as delivery boys, as line cooks, as laborers—in order to be able to live in some exciting city, whether it be New York or London or an exotic tropical locale. Maybe some people just have to live in Skyrim, and if that means running fetch quests to earn their keep then so be it. Myself, I’ve fallen in love with Dunwall and want to be there, and if thriving in Dunwall means I need to get a job as a disgraced former bodyguard turned stealth assassin, well then that’s an effort I’m willing to make; I hear it’s a pretty fun job in any case.

Seattle Enters the 20th Century

Posted By on October 21, 2012

Last night, members of the Seattle Symphony and the International Contemporary Ensemble treated us to a short concert of 20th-century experimental music at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle. I’ve generally been happy with the Seattle Symphony’s repertoire of 19th century classics but wished they could be a little more adventurous. The occasional Shostakovich is about as deep into the 20th century as they’re usually willing to go. Could we have more Bartok? Some Nielsen? And while I can only take the 20th century avant garde in small doses, I do want those small doses.

So I’m happy to hear that our new conductor Ludovic Morlot plans to conduct an ongoing series of 20th century and contemporary programs. At last night’s inaugural concert, the event format itself was experimental. A stage was set up in the lobby and the audience was encouraged to mill about, availing themselves of tables, chairs, cushions, rugs, or stairs, not to mention the bar. It was like a cross between a happening and a night at the pops. I’m not sure how well it worked; I think the intention was to get people to relax, to appeal to an audience of youngish Seattle hipsters who would be intimidated or put off by the supposed stodginess of a symphony concert. As it happened, the hipsters certainly came (the audience had a high incidence of goatees, black boots, tight t-shirts, and asymmetrical body piercings), but I’m not sure they entirely knew what to make of the setting. At first, people shifted awkwardly, trying to get a good view, and we never did get comfortable moving around much during each piece.

But the music! The audience seemed to love the music. If the odd venue did one thing right, it gave us license not to take the music too seriously. Many of the pieces—Cage’s, Feldman’s—were clearly games or jokes, and they weren’t artificially solemnized by the performance context. The music was having a good time. The performers were having a good time. I think a lot of the audience was having a good time. I certainly was.

This made the inclusion of Scelsi’s Khoom (Seven episodes of an unwritten tale of love and death in a distant land) all the more shocking. Scelsi’s mesmerizingly bleak sound world, a sort of spiritual wailing that seems to exist outside of time or place, made me completely lose my sense of surroundings. I need to emphasize that Morlot had encouraged the audience to get up and walk around during the music, but in this case no one wanted to. We were too terrified. The tension broke only once, when someone in the balcony managed (accidentally?) to drop their program notes onto the atrium floor. One joker tried to deliberately follow suit, but we weren’t having it. Most of us in the audience were entranced by Scelsi’s complex gloom, and we didn’t feel like joking about it.

The audience had a different sort of reaction to the final piece on the program, Ligeti’s Symphonic Poem for 100 metronomes. The music couldn’t be more simple: 100 mechanical metronomes are set to various intervals and are then started. They clack happily for many minutes, creating a complex random rhythm. One by one, the metronomes wind down, and the noise slowly diminishes. The rhythms become simpler yet more interesting (because more easily graspable). And then, without any obvious transition, a time comes when you can hear the individual voices, when there are only ten metronomes left, five, only two, only one, and then silence.

In the Seattle performance, this piece was staged almost as a sort of stunt or street performance, with the audience milling about on their way out the door after the main concert. People stopped to observe for a few minutes, or just noted it on their way out, or stayed to watch the whole thing. Many of those who stayed took on the role of spectators rather than concertgoers: they started to cheer for their favorite metronomes, to place informal wagers on which one would stop next, which one would survive the longest.

I’ve always seen the Ligeti piece as being about mortality, about suffering and death, as the voices slowly weaken and go silent. The casual setting and unserious response of the audience actually fits with this reading, in a surprising way: in the audience’s goofy enthusiasm, in sympathizing with the long-surviving metronomes, weren’t they engaging in precisely the sort of life-affirming antics that we do every day when we succeed against all odds? You could stage this music as a solemn ritual, and that too would be a valid performance, a valid context. A rowdy performance and a solemn performance are both engaging with Ligeti’s metronomes as prophets of life and death; it’s simply a question of whether we sit in dread, or cheer for the life that we have now.

To See With Eyes Unclouded: Princess Mononoke at 15

Posted By on June 29, 2012

Princess Mononoke was the first anime movie I ever saw. It was 1999 and I was at college in Providence, and I saw Mononoke in a cute art-house theater with sofa seating. I was astounded. I had never seen anything like Mononoke. I watched it again the next day and was amazed again. Over the following years I devoured any and all anime I could get my hands on, but Studio Ghibli is special. No one else has their mix of seriousness and playfulness.

Last weekend in Seattle, SIFF presented Princess Mononoke at their Studio Ghibli retrospective. Thirteen years after I first saw it (and 15 years after its Japanese release), Mononoke has lost none of its power. The audience seemed to be half Miyazaki fans and half first-time viewers, all of whom gasped and cheered at the action, laughed at the humor, and sat thoughtfully as the credits rolled. “Wow, I think that’s the most violent movie I’ve ever seen about environmentalism,” one viewer remarked.

It’s obvious that Princess Mononoke has something to say about our relation to the environment. But what exactly? Certainly neither Miyazaki nor his protagonist Ashitaka is happy to see trees cut down or animals killed. But Miyazaki isn’t giving us a simple good-versus-evil narrative, and his movie isn’t encouraging us to go back to nature. Miyazaki’s villains are famously sympathetic, and Lady Eboshi is no mere enemy of nature. The ruler of Iron Town and destroyer of the forest is also a champion of lepers and brothel girls. Even her devastation of the forest isn’t purely bad. It powers an industry that has made her people’s lives immeasurably better. Her ambition brings about good things at a great cost. The world of Princess Mononoke, in other words, is a lot like ours.

It’s easy to misread Princess Mononoke as condemning civilization, but then the ending is puzzling. Why does Ashitaka choose the town over the forest in the end? Something more subtle must be going on. Ashitaka does come close to turning his back on humanity in the first half of the movie. While visiting Iron Town he nearly decides industrial civilization is worthless and depraved. But in the movie’s second half, Ashitaka goes to live in the forest and finds it no idyllic paradise. It’s an awe-inspiring and ravishingly gorgeous world in which humanity will never be at home. Brute nature is, in fact, brutal: the wolves may be beautiful and noble, but they’re also vicious and want to chew your head off. And none of the forest gods have any intention of accommodating humanity. The only possible peace would be extermination, and Ashitaka rejects that option. He and the audience watch sadly as the forest gods grow stupider and more brutal, and bloody conflict becomes inevitable.

We have, then, a tragic dilemma. We can only sustain our civilization by violating the very environment that we depend on, yet if we acquiesce to nature we will be annihilated not reconciled. Harmony exists only in an unrecoverable mythic past like that of Ashitaka’s village. He is exiled from that utopia in the movie’s opening scenes, as we are all barred from utopia by our very nature. This is the environmental message of Princess Mononoke, that we will never be at home in the world, however much we yearn to be. All we can do is live our lives humbly and humanely, with awe and respect and care for nature and society alike.

Mass Effect 3’s Ending: Messianic Archetype Showdown Edition

Posted By on April 22, 2012

Many people have observed that the choices at the ending of Mass Effect 3 are rather similar to those presented at the end of Deus Ex. And indeed, despite the Synthesis ending being only thinly foreshadowed, I had the same immediate reaction to the three choices in both games.

In that game, JC Denton is faced with three choices: destroy the internet and plunge civilization into a new dark age, hand control of the information network to the Illuminati, who will hopefully not abuse it quite as badly as its previous owner, or merge with an emergent AI that wants hishelp to usher in a new age of peace and enlightenment.

As in Mass Effect 3, there’s a sense the designers were not entirely neutral about the relative merits of the three endings.

So, my initial thoughts about the Mass Effect 3 ending choices were similar. Destruction solves the immediate problem, but nothing is gained. We bring about a dark age (more inevitable in ME3 than DX, but one can argue that the non-Destruction endings provide more immediate hope for rebuilding) but, long term, the issue we were dealing with may be just part of the human condition, which is not significantly changed. The Synthesis ending offers some hope that something might actually be built out of all of this destruction. And, when given a choice, I generally take Transhumanism if it’s offered to me.

So, that clinches it, then. By choosing Synthesis, we do more than simply break the cycle. We refuse to let this conflict merely destroy. At least, that’s what JC Denton would do. Of course, JC Denton’s most notable ability was to be the pawn of multiple simultaneous conspiracies without emoting once. Frankly, he’s not the best role model around, and his elevation to techno-messiah was more a matter of being at the right place at the right time with the right implants than being a paragon of humanity.

Perhaps another comparison would be more useful. Maybe we could draw in another figure faced with this sort of choice, one who had a better track record of actual agency and independence, and who demonstrated a better understanding of the world. In short, is this what Nausicaa would do?

 

At the end of her story, Nausicaa confronts the Master of the Crypts of Shuwa, a product of the lost technology of an earlier age, which has been manipulating the evolution of all life on Earth in order to preserve it, but, in the process, has repeatedly provoked horrible conflicts, inflicting immeasurable suffering on the surviving human population. So, there may be some instructive parallels to help inform Shepard’s choice.

One can argue that the Reapers and the citadel entity don’t necessarily deserve destruction. After all, the cycle exists in response to what they saw as a much greater threat to life in the galaxy.

And this cuts to the heart of the problem. While the Synthesis ending may be dressed up nicely in pure, shimmering light, one can’t help but think about what we’ve actually seen so far of the fusion between humanity and Reaper technology. Despite their origins and the stated goal of the Catalyst, everything we’ve seen of the Reapers exhibits a contempt for organic life. Even while supposedly carrying out the preservation of humanity, those Reapers which we actually speak with spend most of their time gloating about their vast superiority. While Shepard’s contribution to the Synthesis process makes it more palatable, can we actually assume that this process will preserve what is worthwhile in organic life, and have the Reapers really demonstrated any traits that justify their survival in any form?

But what about the Geth, and EDI? Surely the annihilation of an entire species is a high price to pay. Perhaps we should just choose Control, limit the damage, and prevent another genocide.

Nausicaa, a hero with a far greater innate respect for life than Shepard ever demonstrates, was willing to destroy the hibernating race of humans which the Crypt was preserving to repopulate the purified world. We can do no less, if it is the only way of decisively ridding the galaxy of the blight of the Reapers.

Finally, what if, despite its crimes, the Entity has a point? What if, by breaking the Cycle without replacing it with anything else we are simply perpetuating the longer cycle of even greater destruction?

 

Here, is, of course, where Nausicaa is on the shakiest ground. The world of Nausicaa has a far greater and more visible claim to need effectively divine intervention. Humanity’s worst impulses have brought the world to this point, and Nausicaa is throwing away the only thing which has even let humanity survive this long based on the way some people have chosen to react to it.

So, a trace of uncertainty remains, and our parallels have broken down a bit. Perhaps, though, there’s a third archetypal figure we can invoke. One facing a more analogous threat – a malign force beyond understanding that has been guiding human evolution as part of a bizarre reproductive process.

Fortunately, there is.

The analogy holds, for at the moment of apparent triumph, Crono finds himself faced with three choices: two unremarkable widgets, and in the center, something completely unexpected and unprompted.

Core

All doubt is thus dispelled. The center is just a decoy.

Attack the one on the right.

Civilization vs Nature, Space Marines vs Samurai

Posted By on April 3, 2012

Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum had an exhibit on Avatar recently. It was a pretty cool exhibit that focused on the virtual camera technology that James Cameron developed for the movie. But it also had some pure geek-out indulgences. Near the entrance was a full-scale model of one of Avatar‘s military mecha-exoskeletons, and it was cool. I thought to myself, Cameron loves this stuff. He can’t get enough of it! He loves imagining cool military hardware, yet his movie spends so much time pounding into your head the fact that the space marines are the bad guys. Why? Because war is bad? Well duh, of course it is. But that doesn’t mean that space marines aren’t cool!

James Cameron’s Avatar notoriously stole its space marines from James Cameron’s Aliens. He created a now-beloved archetype (or at least brought it into the current generation—Heinlein might dispute that Cameron created the idea) that has infiltrated a zillion movies and video games.

Aliens is a horror film superimposed on an action film, and its space marines play two superimposed roles. They’re the big tough action heroes. At the same time, they’re the scared kids getting picked off by the slasher. Every witticism they toss off is both action-movie banter and whistling in the dark. The ambivalence humanizes the characters and provides an emotional anchor in what would otherwise be just a grueling nightmare.

Avatar has none of this subtlety. In Avatar the military is a big monolithic humorless villain, in keeping with the generally humorless tone of the movie. (There is joy—for instance, in the flying scenes—but little humor.) The only good space marines are the ones who defect. Avatar has all the same military paraphernalia as Aliens—the gear, the dropships, the giant mechanical exoskeletons—but the movie hammers us with how bad it all is.

A similar tension exists in Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but Miyazaki isn’t ashamed. Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind and Princess Mononoke carry unambiguous pacifist and environmentalist messages, yet some of Miyazaki’s most lovable characters are unrepentent miners (Castle in the Sky) or fighter pilots (Porco Rosso). Even Nausicaä and Mononoke have scenes that are blatantly geeking out over the minutiae of aviation or gunsmithing. MIyazaki’s characters are nearly always sympathetic, and Miyazaki admires the things they love.

Miyazaki isn’t ashamed of his enthusiasms like Cameron is—indeed, he weaves them into his philosophical message. Princess Mononoke doesn’t tell us “forest good, humans bad.” Ashitaka could go live with San in the forest (just as Avatar ends with our hero renouncing humanity for good), but he chooses to rebuild Iron Town instead. Miyazaki and his hero find things to admire and things to despise about both civilization and the state of nature. Miyazaki is ambivalent—a pacifist who loves warplanes, an environmentalist who admires industry, and a great enough artist to embrace his own contradictions and render them into something that feels true.

James Cameron would be a deeper artist if he too would accept his own contradictions, if he could allow himself to admit, as he once did, that space marines are cool—and that maybe the other trappings of civilization are cool and even admirable as well—while also holding onto his genuine moral sensibilities.

Joys and Perils: Intimate Blockbusters and Pop Gnosis

Posted By on March 6, 2012

Once in a very great while I come across a wildly popular piece of mass media that I feel privileged to have been able to experience. Movies are a mature form of expression, and even they pull this off rarely. The Star Wars trilogy does it. Peter Jackson does it. In video games, Metroid Prime and Twilight Princess are in this category—I felt like they’re for me, even as I knew they’re for an awful lot of other people as well. Most recently, the original Mass Effect forged this personal connection for me.

I’m not talking about aesthetically deep things. Shadow of the Colossus gets under my skin in subtle ways. It registers emotions that I scarcely knew I had. It’s a deep experience. Mass Effect isn’t deep. It’s an action blockbuster; it’s designed to blow your fuses, not touch your soul. How does one begin to construct an ethics, let alone an aesthetics, of such a thing? Action blockbusters are transparently manipulative, and certainly the creators of Mass Effect used every trick in the book. To say this is not to criticize, but merely to describe. In fact, it’s merely to say that it is an action blockbuster. The message is more than the medium; what matters is what the blockbuster does with its tricks. What Mass Effect does is stupendous. Its final hours blow my fuses in a way that feels like enlightenment.

The sense of privilege springs from a sense of transience. How many times in our life are we going to experience such a thing? How many times do we want to? At what age will it be too much for us? Will it ever seem merely silly? What does it really matter in the face of mortality? Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t raise such questions, because it’s so manifestly able to stand as a serious statement. Katamari Damacy doesn’t raise such questions, because it’s about love and joy and giraffes; its buoyancy needs no support. Mass Effect raises these questions because it’s huge but ultimately ephemeral.

The answer, I think, is that we take our glimpses of eternity where and when we can get them. They’re rare enough. And if a team of overworked geeks can create something that induces in some target audience a combination of chemical rush and Wagnerian epiphany, some key that unlocks a door for us here and now and opens us to awe and wonder and nobility and triumph, then, hey, I’ll drink to that. It makes the world that much a better place.

Heaven and Hell

Posted By on March 3, 2012

The Culture books contain scenes of extreme and perhaps gratuitous cruelty. Consider Phlebas opens with its antihero being punished in a particularly unpleasant and disgusting manner, and The Player of Games and Use of Weapons also have their moments of grotesque torture, often only tangentially related to the plot, sometimes entirely irrelevant and simply mentioned in passing. What’s going on?

I think the casual cruelty of Banks’s imagination can be explained on two levels. Philosophically, graphic scenes of torture remind us of the alternatives to the Culture. Not all forms of decadence are equal, and given the choice we can hope we’d choose the least sadistic. If our technology makes us as gods, then we’re responsible for the heaven or hell we create. But I suspect Banks also just gets a kick out of describing intricate acts of cruelty. He does it with such relish, not just in the Culture novels but also, for instance, in Transition. (Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is evidence that a book in which torture is central to the story—which, indeed, is narrated by a torturer—need not be lurid or cruel.)

Maybe these two explanations—the philosophical point and the author’s predilection—are linked. After all, Banks is hardly the earliest or the most famous writer to produce big books about heaven and hell. Dante, too, describes the bliss of the saints and the torments of the damned with equal gusto. Maybe it takes the same sort of imagination to envision both poles, to magnify the possibilities of human experience to both extremes.

A Game of Empires

Posted By on February 25, 2012

Jernau Morat Gurgeh has a first-world problem. There’s really no other kind of problem in the Culture, what with the benevolent near-omnipotent A.I. taking care of your every need. And to be sure, the opening chapters of The Player of Games show us daily life on a Culture Orbital, feeling the happy glow of perfect health and security and affluence, of trouble-free existence. Yet Gurgeh, the eponymous protagonist, is troubled. He’s bored. He’s existentially bored, afflicted by the meaningless of life, because no game is a challenge for him any more. His problem leads to more first-world problems: half out of boredom and half out of pride, he cheats at a game and is then horrified to realize that his reputation might be at stake.

The Player of Games stands out among the early Culture novels. Banks is determined to tell a dramatically and philosophically convincing story about a citizen of utopia, and he largely succeeds. Gurgeh has emotions and problems we can understand—not just boredom and shame, but unrequited love as well, and love is something that can’t just be manufactured. When material things are too cheap to meter, social capital—reputation, friendship, love—become the only truly valuable things. That’s sort of wonderful, and speaks well of Banks’s characters. The reputation-at-stake plot is resolved in a way that feels a bit unsatisfying; it ties up the loose plot threads but dodges the interesting moral questions. But otherwise, Gurgeh is a citizen of utopia who gets to make serious choices.

But this is all the setup for the really interesting philosophical core of the book. For much of the story Gurgeh grapples with an alternative to utopia, and that means Banks himself does too. Assigned to a diplomatic mission (to alleviate his boredom, you see), Gurgeh travels to the distant empire of Azad, whose culture, society, and even politics are based on an almost unfathomably complex board game. The imperial succession, for instance, is determined by a tournament of multi-day matches. All aspects of Azadian life are seen through the lens of the game. It’s considered right and proper that there be winners and losers—this does, after all, give life a bit of an edge, a sense of danger, a possibility of a certain kind of meaning—the meaning, perhaps, that’s missing from the existentially bored Culture-dwellers.

Now, Banks leaves us no room to side with Azad. The empire is almost absurdly cruel and oppressive, full of rigid hierarchies for their own sake, and teeming with barely-repressed sadistic urges. Yet what’s interesting is how Banks encourages us to find it appealing anyway—appealing because of the seriousness of the Azadians, the sophistication of their game, the personal excellence that it encourages. The people of Azad seem stern and dignified, precisely how the well-disciplined members of a proud and regimented empire should, and in contrast to the soft, decadent, easygoing Culture people. Gurgeh himself becomes entranced by the Empire and its Game, and through his eyes, we do too.

There’s an implied argument here. If we would reject Utopia on the grounds that it makes existence meaningless and gives rise to unadmirable people, we need to ask exactly what price we’d be willing to pay for meaning and virtue. How much suffering is enough to give our lives meaning? The Azadians aren’t merely a bunch of jerks who are technologically capable of universal affluence but reject it out of malice. In seeing life as a game to be won or lost, they want to forge better people. In a pivotal scene, the implied argument becomes explicit: “The meek, the pathetic, the frightened and the cowed… they can only last so long… In the end [the Culture] will fall; all your glittering machinery won’t save you. The strong survive. That’s what life teaches us, Gurgeh, that’s what the game shows us.”

Gurgeh struggles to respond. “What, anyway, was he to say? That intelligence could surpass and excel the blind force of evolution, with its emphasis on mutation, struggle and death? That conscious cooperation was more efficient than feral competition?” Noble thoughts, but Banks leaves us room for doubt whether or not it will work forever in practice.

Which argument we find more persuasive may depend as much on our own sense of the world as on anything in the novel. There’s no doubt which side Banks is on, but he allows the argument here to be inconclusive, and in the end both sides cheat a little in defending their philosophy on the field of play. We might object that the Empire of Azad is a straw man, that we can reject decadent utopia without being sadists. But can we? In rejecting the Culture and its decadence, wouldn’t we be saying that we want someone to suffer needlessly?

Iain M. Banks Plays With Us

Posted By on January 31, 2012

In the world of Iain M. Banks’s space operas, life is pretty good. Technology has entirely eliminated hunger and illness. Machines manufacture all the goods we could ever want. Even land can be manufactured, in the form of giant rotating space habitats called Orbitals. Benevolent sentient AIs look after our every material and emotional need. Genetically engineered glands let us self-administer whatever drugs we need in order to be calm or happy or energetic or aroused. People live healthy and alert for hundreds of years, and then eventually let themselves die because, well, after a few hundred years, you’re ready. And anyone who wants to leave this utopia is welcome to—there’s no coercion.

The Culture is Brave New World, except more so—more managed, more engineered, more drugged. Yet Banks clearly intends it as a wonderful place, and it is. I’d choose to live there in an instant. What, after all, is so bad about Brave New World? What’s so dystopian about a world in which everyone is happy? The only real objection to Huxley’s future is that it feels inhuman. And so Iain M. Banks takes it upon himself to assure us that the inhabitants of his Culture are fully human—that they have all the richness, all the complexity, that we’ve come to associate with human life. Banks faces the same challenge as a philosopher that he does as a novelist: he needs to convince us that the inhabitants of utopia can be interesting people with meaningful stories.

Sometimes Banks dodges the issue by taking as his protagonist an outsider who either opposes the Culture (as inConsider Phlebas) or work on its behalf (as in Use of Weapons). In these books we only occasionally see the inside of the Culture, in scenes that generally play out as comic relief: the pampered Culturites cavorting in their utopian playgrounds like Homer’s gods on Mount Olympus, far removed from the toil and tragedy of mortal existence. Such characters would make uninteresting protagonists, and so Banks doesn’t make them protagonists. This solves his artistic problem but not his philosophical problem. It makes for a good story and even makes me want to live in the Culture—who wouldn’t want to be a Greek god?—but doesn’t exactly convince me that the Culture produces admirable people. In short, it makes me sympathize with the skeptical characters who are always cropping up in the Culture novels, the ones who oppose the Culture because it seems less than human.

Banks tells great stories in a world rife with philosophical interest, so it frustrates me that he so often dodges the issues that he raises, seldom giving the anti-Culture viewpoint an articulate expression. Even when opponents of the Culture have the spotlight, they tend to be philosophically inarticulate. Phlebas‘s Horza, for instance, seems to despise the Culture for essentially aesthetic reasons; he assumes without argument that life in the Culture would be meaningless. Use of Weapons‘s Cheradenine seems to simply be bored by the possibility of safety, and has no particular opinion on what anyone else would want. In short, Banks allows his characters raise the sorts of issues that might well arise in the minds of his readers, but then he doesn’t really confront them. He teases us with philosophical depth, but then leaves us to decide whether or not we really buy it.

The Player of Games is a welcome exception, a book in which Banks and his characters grapple with what it might really mean to accept or to reject utopia. We’ll look at that next time.

Nyan Sutra

Posted By on December 20, 2011

The Nyan Cat loves you. This much is completely clear. Watching the full three-and-half-minute video is known to induce a state of euphoria, optimism, and total cosmic love. If you haven’t felt the love yet, then you haven’t watched it enough times.

But why only three and a half minutes? Why not ten hours? Why not a hundred? The Hundred-Hour Nyan Cat is more than a conceptual art experiment. It’s an intimation of eternity.

The Non-Stop Nyan Cat is a clever algorithmic creation, but it doesn’t transcend finitude. It’s a brief moment, looped, with occasional random variation. It does not contain an infinity of Nyan, but a finite Nyan repeated indefinitely.

The Hundred Hour Nyan Cat, by contrast, opens the door to an actual, embodied infinity. Rather than closing into a circle, it opens into a line. It contains not a single moment captured in a loop, but 100 distinct hours of data—100 hours of Nyan data that has no purpose other than to exist and to be full of Nyan, each Nyan different from other Nyan because it occurs at a different point in time. A hundred hours does more than merely feel like an eternity—it implies it. The number 100 is provocative in its arbitrariness—it could have easily been 10,000 or 10,000,000 or אo.

The Nyan need not end. The Nyan knows no number. The Nyan that you can YouTube is not the true Nyan. The Nyan Cat has Nyan nature. The Nyan is eternal and unchanging, an unbeginning and unending succession of Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan Nyan