Fausto is deciding on which pair of running shoes go best with his skin-tight Nike shorts. He has the wardrobe of a serial killer. Hanging on his closet rod are fifteen or so shirts, all pure white and immaculate; between one shirt and the next hang trousers of various styles but all black, all perfectly pressed; in the back of the closet are twenty or so pairs of shoes, black, and virtually identical. But they’re not right for him. First, he tries on a pair of gym shoes with a large M on the side, then another pair with a large H. He likes the H better. Or so it seems. He tries on the pair with the M again, then no, he’s made up his mind, he likes the ones with the H, but he needs to change his shorts. So over the boxer shorts with a big CK printed on the elastic band, he puts on a pair of tech Bermuda shorts, also emblazoned with a CK.
The Problem with Reboots
I’ve always found the concept of the “reboot” to be inherently distasteful. At first I just assumed it was because of its singular connection with the dorkiest, most overwrought of superhero comic books, but I’ve put more thought into it and realized that there exists a deeper set of elements tied to storytelling—what it appear to say about the art of storytelling—that lie at the heart of the problem with the reboot.
For the uninitiated: a reboot is the act of taking an existing story, most often a serialized one (comics, TV series), and restarting it from the beginning with any and all previous back story or “lore” rendered non-canonical to the new version. It’s not a sequel or a prequel, however. The objective of the reboot is not to begin a new story about new or previously unexplored characters. Instead, the intent is to retell the same story that was told previously, only, well, different.
To extend the metaphor, when the system is rebooted the fundamental semiotic anchors of the franchise—premise, characters, setting, theme, etc.—are the unchanging BIOS, and window dressing like plot arcs, character developments and events are the data stored in RAM that gets flushed to allow a new load of data to come in.
In the reboot the effect is seemingly a trumping of commercial priorities over creative ingenuity. The owners of the intellectual property want a new franchise that enjoys all the surface-level, two dimensional semiotic anchors built from the ground up in previous installments, but jettison all of the context—the hard, technical work of the writer(s)—which underlie those anchors and grants them sufficient weight to make an impression on people in the first place.
Assorted Flaura and Fauna of the Technology-Oriented Office Environment
“The Cubicle-Side Consultant" —
A curious creature of either the Rankerus or MiddlusManagerius genus whose acts of territorial and clade dominance are manifested not through excellence (or indeed even simple execution) but a Mackaw-like bleating in response to positive status reports emanating from peers’ projects. Said bleating calls into question the “overall real worth” and “tangible benefits” of the peer projects; a peacocking display which draws attention away from the subject’s own lack of progress.
[Unclassified - ARO RDRL-ROP Proprietary]
The CSC is deployable in either standalone or over-the-side configurations, with an effective operational radius of two cubicles; some experimental models exhibit with amplified signaling capabilities capable of penetrating even door-equipped offices. In addition to direct targeting mode, the CSC supports a delay capability permitting it to retransmit snide remarks and caustic commentary regarding earlier events over a kitchen or smoke-break environment in an undirected (PAB, or passive-aggressive broadcasting) configuration.
Conservation Status: [Least Concern]
(A collaborative project between T-S and NoFirstPrize.)
Review: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
I’m not sure what to make of The Quantum Thief, the debut novel of Finnish science-fiction novelist Hannu Rajaniemi. When the gleam of the postmodern glitz and special effects die down the reader is left with a rather simple, formulaic story needlessly obfuscated with the literary equivalent of white noise.
Quantum Thief wears its influences on its sleeve, not the least of which are Japanese SF anime, modern videogames and gaming culture and the SF novels of Iain M. Banks and Richard Morgan. In all of these media exists are recurring theme of human consciousness from the elements we’d traditionally describe as being “human.” Most obviously this is about the conscioussness’ dissimulation from the human body, but more tellingly it is also about dissimulation from or complete absence of families, extended history, distinct ethnic and/or cultural denominations, etc. The emphasis is on alienation from the familiar, above concepts being propagators of the lie, the “unjust peace” reviled by the antagonists in Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor 2. Rajaniemi seems to embrace this approach wholeheartedly.
If the reader’s definition of good storytelling is to be continually “weirded out” and/or perpetually confused as to what is going on then Quantum Thief is “a stunning debut” as some reviews have described it.
The most disconcerting aspect of the needless obfuscation is that there is nothing inherently wrong with telling a simple adventure story. At its heart the novel is a heist story starring a smooth, charming criminal who’s a fusion of two legendary heroes of manga: Monkey Punch’s Arsene Lupin (Lupin III) and Buichi Terasawa’s Cobra (Space Adventure Cobra). Along for the ride are a warrior princess girl whose stoic attitude, heavy weaponry, and cybernetic augmentations are a clear evocation of dozens of heroines from the anime of the 1980s, and a stereotypical disgruntled detective.
This last addition to the cast of protagonists is one of the worst aspects of the novel. The world-weary, investigating, interviewing, cross-referencing crime solver has become a literary shorthand technique, a means for pomo storytellers to shoehorn agency into a protagonist in a world where everyone is otherwise a listless lump glazed over into stasis by the Inherent Meaninglessness of Reality or some such. The detective who shambles through most of Quantum Thief is no exception to this rule, and the reader will often find himself flipping pages to get back to the latest antic of Jean le Flambeur, the aforementioned master thief and bon vivant.
To Rajaniemi’s credit as a storyteller, each of the three protagonists has personal, human reasons for taking part in the story’s central events. Finding out more about these motivations is one of the best parts of the novel, as they imbue a degree of human features onto a trio whose actual actions and mannerisms usually border on cartoon character. The supreme irony, however, is that they hardly make sense in the context of the novel’s universe; a Banks/Morgan-esque post-Singularity world where the essence of humanity has been “liberated” from corporeal forms to exist for all eternity as collections of 1s and 0s riding beams of light across the time and space towards the next cheap thrill. What point is there to the revelation of a character’s true parents when the previous 3/4ths of the novel was spent describing a world where families or childhood seem to no longer exist? Indeed, when the parentage of Shambolic Detective is revealed near the end, it is treated as an utter anticlimax by all parties involved: Rajaniemi, Shambolic Detective and reader.
An anticlimax? Pomo! Dissimulation! Alienation! So deep.
Quantum Thief is rife with interesting little ideas. An enclosed society of cybernetic telepaths where citizens temper their digitized mind reading abilities with adjustable privacy clouds that can all but block them out of people’s realities. A prison in which the most dangerous criminals are kept occupied with an endless dueling game that exploits the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Cloud computing on anabolic steroids creating colonies of machine intelligences who must be negotiated with to perform high-level computations. One only wishes that Rajaniemi dialed back the privacy cloud on his own thought process to organically explain what any of his out-of-control vocabulary coinages actually means, or what is going on at any given point in the story. The enclosed society of telepaths in which the bulk of the story does not have its origins or nature definitively explained until around halfway through, and by that point it’s far too late. “Challenging” writing does not mean slangy writing that’s hard to understand.
There’s a straightforward, fun and action-packed adventure story here somewhere. Iain M. Banks knows how to balance his affection for his post-mortality, post-morality world of cynical gamers and cyberraconteurs with beer-and-pretzel space fleet/nuclear mortar action. Here’s hoping the accolades garnered by Rajaniemi’s freshman debut grant him the resources and motivation to develop his style into a similar 40 technobabble/60 action ratio. Such an approach just might have the potential to entertain someone other than himself.
It is sidereal, as inebriating as bad wine and above all a perfect illustration of the way the university works: if you want to make a career, take a marginal, exotic text (William Ockham’s Sum of Logic) that is relatively unexplored, abuse its literal meaning by ascribing to it an intention that the author himself had not been aware of (because, as we all know, the unknown in conceptual matters is far more powerful than any conscious design), distort that meaning to the point where it resembles an original thesis (it is the concept of the absolute power of God that is at the basis of a logical analysis, the philosophical implications of which are ignored), burn all your icons while you’re at it (atheism, faith in Reason as opposed to the reason of faith, love of wisdom and other bagatelles dears to the hearts of socialists), devote a year of your life to this unworthy little at the expense of a collectivity whom you drag from their beds at seven in the morning, and send a courier to your research director.
Dancing in Outer Space
Here’s a preview of the fifth and final part of Five Stories From the Future, my upcoming short fiction compilation.
At 20:00 Geosynchronous Time the panels on every planet-side observation window clicked, whirred and began to move. The thousands of adverts which hovered over each individual ten meter-tall blinder like a school of remoras blinked out of existence seconds before their hosts disappeared into their bulkhead receptacles. Those of the cleverest design didn’t simply turn off but appeared to crack, crumble apart and then whisk across the floor, crossing the half-kilometer distance to the panels shutting themselves on the opposite bulkhead.
These bits of data were the favorites of the children on Harbin Spindle, so much so that those who weren’t immediately shuttled off into their afterschool tutoring made their way to Esplanade Circuit to chase them. The elders, those closer to ten than five, huddled in little groups under the shade of the trees sharing screens and crude programs they’d cobbled together using the basic assets issued to them for educational purposes. The best among them could mess with an advert enough that the colors inverted or the audio clips became corrupted, both highly amusing to the youth programmers. The younger ones however were content to simply run after them like schools of minnows swimming through the air.
It was over one of these groups that Winston almost tripped and fell on his face.
Contrary to his own pessimistic assumptions, his old reflexes didn’t fail him. He paused in mid step, heel of his freshly polished shoes centimeters away from the burst of holographic light darting across the floor. Sure as the sun, a moment later came the children in hot pursuit. They blew past Winston, all hoots and hollers and the rasping of their baggy nylon school uniforms rubbing up against each other. No one paid any attention to the grownup in his grownup clothes with the grownup expression on his face.
He watched them for a moment. They jumped the barrier around a row of acacia trees, ignoring the brittle-voiced admonitions of the nearby trashcan robot whose job it was to sweep up and consume the leaves that caked the floor tiles. By the time it deployed and turned its cyclopean periscope eye to track their progress they were long gone. It paused for four or five seconds before retracting its camera once more and returning to its janitorial duties.
Winston walked aside off the primary thoroughfare and towards the planet-side windows. Traffic was, for once, light, with most of the station inhabitants still locked up at work and incoming travelers sparse owing to the proximity of Lunar New Year. The absence of noise pollution and the ample strolling space was in direct contrast to the crush of humanity and commercial activity that characterized most spindles under the aegis of the People’s Republic.
Seen from the observation balcony the Earth, front lit by the sun relative to the spindle’s axis, seemed to glow. Central Asia beckoned from underneath an uneven frosting of swirled cloud patterns, the northern frontiers of the People’s Republic itself just out of view near the lower right hand corner of the towering window. Winston had hoped he could catch sight of the Pacific, though he knew that he wouldn’t have been able to see the islands he wanted to anyways.
He brought up his cellular and dialed a personal call straight off the numpad, no need to access his list of contacts—this was the one number he knew by heart. The cellular recognized the region to which he was dialing and popped up a window displaying the predicted overall cost projected off currently updated telecom rates, local data tax and an averaging of the duration of calls he’d made to the same number over the past three months. It wasn’t cheap; orbital-terrestrial signals never were, and the figure highlighted in yellow gold font would be an uncomfortable bite into his already-depleted savings.
“Dial,” he said.
The call punched through. Winston imagined the errant signal racing up Harbin’s bulbous communication spindle and being fired down at the planet, but all he could see was a pair of zero-g maintenance laborers in the distance making their way across the Esplanade’s torus exterior. The boots on their boxy civilian hardsuits seemed to rise and fall in rhythm with the cellular’s smooth ringtone.
One, two, three, four rings. The fifth got cut short by a bright three-note melody, the telecom provider’s jingle.
“Xin chao, said the voice on the other end. The visual display was shut off by default.
Winston smiled at the sound. “Since when do you say hi to me in essyessy?”
“Tatang?” The visual display flickered. The black square dissolved into a profile of dark blond hair, blue-gray eyes and fair skin, though not so fair as Winston remembered it. “Dad, you freaked me out for a second. Your code was blocked and all I saw was a general Mainlander signature.”
“Huh, that’s odd. It must be a recent change,” he said, trying to recall the last time he’d had an orbital-terrestrial call interdicted. “But you didn’t answer my question.”
“Well at first everyone thought I was from the States, so I started going Доброе утро, как вы to everyone.”
He laughed. “Здорово, at least you look the part. But why…”
“It was getting stale, so I changed it up. ‘Woah, bet you don’t know that I know this too!’” She grinned ear to ear; that expression alone would have been worth a four times the cost to Winston. The Earth, space and the stars all receded into the background.
“Ang yabang mo. And then you show them your SCSC passport.”
“And then I show them my SCSC passport. And photos of my dad.”
“Such a spitting image.”
He almost told her that he was happy simply to hear her voice regardless of which language it was in, but he knew she didn’t appreciate such sentimentality. When he’d finished helping her move into the campus dormitories she warned him against any “essyessy telenovela-style bathos.”
“So you’re getting a tan already or is the color correction off on my end again?” He asked.
“Are you kidding?” Her hand flashed over the display for a moment and her face disappeared, replaced by a panorama of a brilliant blue ocean abutting a crescent of white sand impacted with beachgoers. “What else am I going to do in Hawaii?”
Winston shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know; study, go to classes, study some more…”
The display turned back to her face. “Ugh, now you sound like Uncle.” She rustled through something and brought a piece of paper up in front of the display. “Can you read that? Galina Hsiang. Full-academic-scho-lar-ship.”
“You just carry that around with you everywhere you go?”
“No, of course not, but I come here straight after class so I just bring my bag with me.”
He shook his head. “It’s good to know Chem E isn’t giving you too many problems at least.”
“Never mind about me,” she said. “How goes the search?”
He started walking, he always preferred to circumambulate whenever he was on a call, it helped clear up his train of thought. “I just came out of seven straight hours of interviews, so I’m a little out of it.”
“And?” There was muffled laughter in the background behind Galina. “How did it go?”
“I heard a lot of stock phrases I’ve heard before.” He rested his hands in the pocket of his old Firm pea coat. “Verbatim.”
Galina frowned. “It’s not like you have a crappy skill set, Dad.” She paused and looked aside for a moment. “Well, depending on which skills we’re talking about here.”
“Obviously not the ones that ones that would be illegal on a Mainlander spindle, or any spindle for that matter.” He felt an unpleasant hum behind his left ear. Another call, whose number he did not recognize except that it was native to Harbin Spindle, was trying to get through to him. “Speaking of which, I have an ominous call on the other line right now.”
“Wow! Pick it up!” She waved her hand at the display. “I’ll be the one to call you next, I promise, OK?”
He cleared his throat, glancing over his shoulder to make sure there was no one spying his awkward gait walking towards the nearest bench with hands jammed into his coat. “Only if you have time, I want you to focus on your studies. до свидания.”
“Tam biet, Tatang.” She disappeared from his sight.