Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Future of Science Fiction

Clive Thompson wrote an article for Wired (a publication I normally avoid as assiduously as The Economist) on why he says that ""Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas." To the Best of Our Knowledge (which I do listen to) dedicated an episode to exploring that question, talking to Ursula K. LeGuin and George R.R. Martin. I enjoyed that discussion, and it reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson's stirring and thought-provoking introduction to the anthology of ecotopian fiction he edited, Future Primitive.

"Science fiction is a collection of thought experiments that propose scenarios of the future. All science fiction stories carry within them implicit histories connecting their futures back to our present. They are historical simulations, which start at the present and then state if we do this we will reach here, or if we do that we will reach there. It's a mode of thought that is utopian in its very operating principle, for it assumes that differences in our actions now will lead to real and somewhat predictable consequences later on—which means that what we do now matters. Science fiction is play that helps teach us how to act, like the wrestling of tiger cubs.

"This, at any rate, is the utopian view. Science fiction also expresses the hopes and fears of its writers and readers, who have mostly been inhabitants of the urban industrial nations. Thus science fiction has presented us with countless images of urban industrial futures: Trantors and Metropolises and spaceships, those cities cast loose in space. All these images, endlessly reiterated, have come to form in our imagination a kind of consensus vision of our future. Poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world, and to a very surprising degree what we have been legislating with our poetry is existence in great industrial city-machines, with people as the last organic units in a denatured, metallic, clean, and artificial world.

"We are beginning to understand that this imagined future is impossible to enact, and is an artifact of an earlier moment in history. The megacities currently on Earth today serve not as models for development but as demonstrations of a dysfunctional social order. A whole range of sciences now emphasize how inextricably we are part of a larger biosphere, enmeshed in our world like jellyfish in the sea, taking it in with every breath and every meal. The biosphere is our extended body, and we can no more live without it than we could live without our kidneys or our bones. The old paradigm of the world as a machine is being replaced, in modern science and in the culture at large, by a more accurate and sophisticated paradigm of the world as a vast organism, complexly interpenetrative in ways not previously imagined. The world is not a machine we can use and the replace; it is our extended body. If we try to cut it away we will die.

"And there is no reason why we should want to lever ourselves out of nature into machines, even if we could. Over the millions of years of our evolution, we grew bodies and minds that crave certain kinds of experiences—walking, throwing things, contemplating fire, dancing, sex, talking, spending most of every day outdoors, etc., etc. Only in the last part of our long history have we shifted away from lives that gave us these satisfactions, and the "sublimated" pleasures of industrial existence cannot replace them.

"Worse, industrial existence cannot save us from the coming environmental crisis; indeed, is is part of the problem. In all likelihood we have already overshot our environment's carrying capacity, yet the world population will double before it stabilizes, while many vital resources are already being depleted. At the same time, however, our technological ability is expanding tremendously, as is our understanding of how social institutions affect our problems. We are gaining great powers at the very moment that our destruction of our environment is becoming ruinous. We are in a race to invent and practice a sustainable mode of life before catastrophes strike us.

"So we are in the process of rethinking the future, of inventing a new consensus vision of what it might be. This is happening all across contemporary culture, in a great variety of forms, with names like the environmental movement, green political parties, deep ecology, the land ethic, landscape restoration, sociobiology, sustainable agriculture, ecofeminism, social ecology, bioregionalism, animal liberation, steady-state economics. All these movements contain efforts to reimagine a sustainable human society.

"Science fiction is part of this work. Of course there are many science fiction stories which still invoke the mechanistic world view, using the old futures like tired stage sets. But the science fiction responding to the latest advances in contemporary science is beginning to look different, less "hi tech," more various. All manner of alternative futures are now being imagined, and many of them invoke the wilderness, and moments of our distant past, envisioning futures that from the viewpoint of the industrial model look "primitive." It's not that they advocate a simple return to nature, or a rejection of technology, which given our current situation would be nothing more than another kind of ecologic impossibility. Rather, they attempt to imagine sophisticated new technologies combined with habits saved or reinvented from our deep past, with the notion that prehistoric cultures were critical in making us what we are, and knew things about our relationship to the world that we should not forget. These science fictions reject the inevitability of the machine future, and ask again the old questions, What is the healthiest way to live? What is the most beautiful? Their answers cobble together aspects of the post-modern world and the paleolithic, asserting that we might for very good reasons choose to live in ways that resemble in part the ways of our ancestors and of the primitives that still inhabit corners of our planet. These visions are utopian statements of desire, full og joy and hope and danger, re-opening our notion of the future to a whole range of wild possibilities."

In the episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge I linked to above, Steve Paulson asks George R.R. Martin about the problems besetting science fiction today. He said, "What happened, I think, that social changes of the last fifty years has made the future something that we no longer want to go visit the way we did when I was a kid." I agree, up to a point. I think, on some level, no one really buys the old, urban, industrial "consensus future" that Robinson writes about here—for the same reasons he outlines. I disagree that we no longer want a vision of the future. I think people want a vision like that more than ever. But we want, in the words of artist Michael Green, a vision of "a future that works," not endless repetitions of the same technophilic fantasies. We want to visit a future that puts us back in touch with our humanity and a more-than-human world, not indulging pathetic "transhumanist" fantasies about some pseudo-religious Singularity. We want a future we can believe in and look forward to.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fluency Play

Joel Shempert has given Willem Larsen's "Pedagogy of Play" (Parts 2, 3 & 4) a new name: "Fluency Play." I rather like it. He's posted about it both in a thread on Story Games, and in a blog post. He provides a nice summary of what it means, too: "...basically instead of trying to assimilate an entire body of RPG procedures and put them into action from the get-go, you start at the most basic level and work your way up. The aim is to have a game experience with maximum creative flow, where the shared dreamspace is as unbroken as possible. So you only play at the level you're fluent at."

I've posted a good bit about "fluency play" here before, under the old, alliterative name. I like this term, and it does my heart good to see people responding to it, at last. In the thread, In the thread, Hans Otterson noted that it seemed like a way of hacking existing games. I can certainly understand that view. After all, games up until now have generally expected you to learn all the rules at once, sit down, and start playing. If fluency play can happen, it must then happen by hacking existing games to suit it—as Willem & I experimented with Polaris, or as I & Sean Nittner experimented with Mouse Guard. That said, I took Willem's description as a call to designers to design this into their games from the start. The version of The Fifth World that I'll soon start playtesting will have this. Reading the rules will form part of the game itself, and that will add rules, bit by bit. I look forward to playing other games that take this approach, too.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

RPG's in the Mainstream

I listen to a lot of gaming podcasts while at work. Sometimes, I run out, and have nothing to listen to, which can sometimes make for a very long day. I don't know if I'd say that I like Fear the Boot, which seems to stand astride the RPG podcasting world like D&D stands astride the RPG world, but I still listen to them. Very often, they aggravate me, but I generally don't bother saying anything because it really doesn't matter. In episode 163, they talk about how or whether RPG's might ever become "mainstream." I don't know if this topic matters any more than the others, but it provides me a good starting point to make some points that I think do have enough relevance to warrant the time to type them out.

Now, I have a hard time keeping everyone's voices straight sometimes while listening, and I listened to the episode several hours ago, so I hope you'll forgive me if I don't even attempt to attribute these points to one or the other of the hosts, much less get the wording quite right. You can listen to the episode itself for such details. However, the discussion raised some of the expected (snobby) points: that RPG's can't go mainstream because people don't want their entertainment to challenge them intellectually (which thankfully, another host repudiated by pointing out the increasing intellectual sophistication of films, TV shows with years-long plot arcs, and video games of both staggering technical complexity, and philosophical depth—like BioShock's treatment of Rand's Objectivism, or Fallout's ethical issues), and that people don't want entertainment to actively engage them. They want something to entertain them, allowing them to remain passive. Since the hosts addressed the first point in the show itself, I'll leave that point lie. The second one speaks very much to something that I've written a great deal about: the importance of participatory folk art.

I reject wholesale the notion that people want passive entertainment. That said, we have no shortage of people trying to sell passive entertainment, precisely because they can sell it. Before you can sit back and passively consume it, they have to make it: whether "it" takes the form of a movie shown at the theater, a DVD, a CD, music on the radio, a book, a symphony, a play, or any other "medium". That makes the art an object, which someone can sell to you.

If you play your own music with friends, who profits? If you tell stories around a campfire, where does that leave Hollywood studios? We have a culture which sees the world as a collection of objects, and looks for art as objects. It values the ephemera left behind from an artistic performance, but rarely values the performance itself. Least of all we value participatory folk art, the art done without any audience whatsoever, save one's fellow performers. Playing music at home, or jamming story.

And yet, in spite of that, we see participatory folk art nonetheless continue, like the stubborn weed that keeps poking its head heroically through the cement, reminding you that no matter how many times you pave it over, living soil lies underneath, life preceded you here, and it will prosper here long after you've gone. Kids invent freestyle rhymes on street corners, old time players get together to jam for no one but each other, and geeks roleplay.

You hear some people say that the tabletop RPG can't out-compete the computer graphics of an online MMORPG. As one of the Fear the Boot hosts in this episode said, we want visual entertainment. And yet, World of Warcraft has by far the biggest audience of any MMORPG, and it also has some of the worst graphics. Why do people play? Pay attention to what they talk about. Transferring to a different server, where a friend plays. The guild they belong to on this other server. The people they play with on a particular server. They don't play for the graphics, they play because in an increasingly isolated world, they want social connection most of all.

I think people yearn for more active, more social pastimes. So why haven't RPG's gone mainstream? Well, have you ever tried playing D&D? My wife compares it to math homework. RPG's emerged from wargames, among geeks, and that meant they emerged with a very complex mathematical system. We need to face the fact: RPG's appeal to a particular set of not-entirely-normal people. I would even go so far as to say that your traditional RPG has a design that appeals most of all to someone somewhere on the autism spectrum.

I think indie RPG's or story games actually could become mainstream. But, having grown historically out of RPG's, we try to sell them to RPG players. And yet, the very people who would most likely pick up an RPG like D&D have self-selected themselves as the very group that would least respond to a story game. If we sell to them, then yes, we'll always seem like a very small niche. Not to put too fine a point on it, but selling a very social game to a group where many have taken a liking to the activity precisely because it caters to an autistic condition, even if very mild, and the rest of us, to a large extent, mimic that behavior even if we don't have any such problems ourselves, doesn't seem like the best idea.

Many people who get to play a lot more story games than I do have reported how they've had a much easier time finding people happy to try these games among the general populace, than they have among RPG players. This does not surprise. Neither does it surprise me that, for one of these "uninitiated," they respond far better to a game like A Penny for My Thoughts or even Polaris than D&D.

RPG's remain a tiny niche hobby because the traditional RPG simply does not appeal to most people. Most people do not consider math homework fun. I do think RPG's could go mainstream, but not the "traditional RPG" we currently have. I think, one day, story games could compete not just with Monopoly, but with TV shows or films. But that won't happen until indie RPG designers begin to understand that even when that happens, they still won't get much more of the regular RPG market than they already have.

I do plan to take the Fifth World to some gaming conventions when I have it ready. In fact, I'll release the new public beta at GASPcon in November. But my big marketing push doesn't rely on reaching out to the RPG fans who will probably always like my game least of all. I plan to take it to ecovillages, intentional communities, permaculture design courses, nature awareness schools, and people like that. I think they'll enjoy it a whole lot more than RPG players.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Fifth World Movies: Origin

Plenty of people have pointed out the thematic and aesthetic similarities between Origin: Spirits of the Past, and another Fifth World-inspiring movie, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, some even going so far as to call it a "rip-off." I think that stretches too far, unless Nausicaä has a monopoly now on all post-apocalyptic ecotopian anime now. In some ways, Nausicaä seems like a much superior film, but I can't help but admire Origin's ambition. It tries to do a lot, and I think it does accomplish it—though it does require you to meet its challenge and really think about its themes. Otherwise, they seem a lot like plot holes.

Origin begins centuries after a civilization-destroying apocalypse, in which a genetic engineering experiment goes out of control. The plants shatter a good part of the moon, and rain down on earth, creating a sentient Forest that can move quickly and violently. While the human survivors begin to rebuild their lives, two characters that awaken from a cryogenic sleep have a harder time adapting to the new life, and seek out ESTOC, a device that will "return everything to normal," (and by "normal," they seem to mean that brief anomaly of civilized life)—by vaporizing all life with volcanic eruptions, and allowing life to start anew.

The protagonist of the story, a boy named Agito, follows in his father's footsteps by becoming "enhanced": tapping into the Forest's power to become a bit of an eco-superhero. You get a few scenes reminiscent of anime like Dragonball Z as Agito shows off his powers, but it comes with a price. Agito's father ended up becoming a tree, losing his personality completely to "the Forest consciousness." In his quest to save his girlfriend (the last of the two characters from the past to awaken), Agito risks using his power to such an extreme that he might follow in his father's footsteps in that, too, but in a matter of days, rather than decades.

Ultimately, the film ends with (what I personally felt as) a powerful statement about human kinship with a more-than-human world. But certainly, that takes a unique perspective. Like I said, the film can certainly seem challenging, and what I consider its strengths, to some, seem more like plot holes. As one Amazon reviewer put it, "The problem is, the plot makes no sense: presumably the whole living-in-harmony-with-Forest thing is symbolic of living in harmony with nature. But since the Forest was mutated by humans, wrecked the world, genetically altered the survivors and keeps civilization in a stagnant stranglehold, it's about as unnatural as you can get. And the alleged bad guys just want to switch the world back to its pre-mutant-plant state when man and nature were in balance... meaning that the Designated Anti-Nature Bad Guy is actually the Pro-Nature Good Guy."

This argument rests on an assumption that I'd consider extremely pernicious, but we've all heard it so many times that I think few of us would recognize it. William Cronon certainly would, though. I actually saw someone tweet a link to his 2005 essay, "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature," just earlier this week. In fact, if by "wilderness," we mean "some place where humans don't have an impact," then no wilderness has existed for thousands of years. But of course, that distinction only makes sense if you first accept that humans have a unique uniqueness in the world. Otherwise, humans belong to "nature," and Origin deals with shifting from an ecology where humans dominate to an ecology where humans participate.

Those themes resonate through The Fifth World, too. Origin does it with really captivating, fluid animation, and some beautiful, haunting music. I often listen to Kokia's "Cyouwa Oto" to "get in the mood" for working on The Fifth World. Like so many others, Origin presents a much harsher future than The Fifth World, but it still presents some very evocative images and sounds, along with resonant themes, that it can still help inspire you with the right tone.