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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Deus Ex: Human Resources

Also from my tumblr, a ramble-y thing that really should have gotten edited, but I'm not going to bother doing so even now.

So, a bit more than a week ago, I went down to gamestop to buy Halo 4. I’ve been a fan of Halo for quite some time, but you couldn’t actually call me a long time fan, even though that’s what it feels like. I remember very clearly, in eighth grade, before my parents actually allowed me to play them, Halo and its story was the shit. One of my friends told me the story up until that point (this was before Halo 3 came out) in installments during art class, and he told it well. I was captivated. This was really one of my first exposures to a lot of the pop culture tropes that contemporary gamers would have found common.

Since then, I’ve moved out into the gaming world, but I still defend Halo as still being perhaps the best multiplayer shooter franchise out there, even though the rest of the world either plays CoD and thinks Halo is for nerds, or plays TF2 and thinks Halo is for CoD kiddies. And honestly, TF2 is probably the better online multiplayer shooter, and certainly a lot of the audience Halo previously had locked has moved on to CoD.

So I went down to gamestop to buy Halo 4, but I wasn’t as exited as I might have been. I arrived, and gave the used games a look over while I was there, and one caught my eye. Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I had heard great things about this game, and it was only 17 dollars. This, I figured, was an excellent deal. What of Halo 4? I figured I’d buy it later. Deus Ex was cheaper, and probably a better game. So I walked out of there with Deus Ex instead.

And now, just recently, I beat it.

This is old news by now, I expect. People know about how cool the setting is, how smart the writing is, how dumb the boss fights and third act are, and all that. I agree with most of the common consensus, though I honestly did enjoy the fight against Federova, but by that point I had dermal and leg augs, which helped tremendously by allowing me to bunny hop and machinepistol my way to victory.

And I imagine that people are also pretty tired about hearing how interesting the commentary on transhumanism is. If I wanted to weigh in on this fully, I’d devote a whole post to it, and it’d go something like this. There is no real higher level ethical debate to be had about transhumanism. If you want to establish that it compromises your humanity, and therefore you shouldn’t do it, you must first establish two things. You must establish that humanity requires having flesh and blood and lacking these causes the rest to be irrelevant, and you must establish that this conception of humanity is in and of itself ethically valuable. Both of these are highly problematic, and I have trouble coming up with an answer to either that does not veer off into magical thinking.

Fortunately, Deus Ex HR Department does not focus so much on that. It at the same time acknowledges these feelings, creates characters with whom you may sympathise about, but at the same time, it does not force that particular issue. It’s used in a far more interesting way in a very memorable conversation with an injured and dying anti-augmentation detective you meet some way through the game.

Instead, Deus Ex HR focuses on the practical upshot of transhumanism: it costs money. Augmentation isgreat for those who can afford it and can also afford the neuropozyne to avoid rejection symptoms. But it deepens the disparity between rich and poor. Humans can still compete with transhumans for now, but the bar is getting steeper and steeper. Ignoring the social problems is difficult even for those who would normally not see it as a problem at all, as it’s possible society itself may not survive long enough for augmentation to become so cheap and practical that, as Edison put it, “only the rich will burn candles.”

And really, ethics does not concern itself nearly enough with road tests. In the traditional thought experiments, outcomes are epistemologically certain, always. If you don’t flip this switch, five people will get run over by the murdertrain. If you do, you will kill a man on a different rail, even if you yell at him to run. But few things in the real world are so certain.

This is why Deus Ex makes such an interesting case. You can augment humanity, make yourselves gods, but if you try, the world could easily destroy itself before that happens. You could regulate augmentations, but then you’d be regulating the human body itself. If you leave it unregulated, it may not change human nature, but it turns potential tragedies into potential nightmares. The consequences of your actions are amplified along with your abilities. Augmentation changes the premises.

For instance, in Deus Ex, you routinely come into situations where you are under fire and can justifiably call any killing you do as in self-defense. It’s an intuitive response. But you are playing as Adam Jensen, a transhuman man of the future, who can just as easily knock a guard out cold as stab him with an arm blade. Given that, is Adam in any way remiss for killing a guard in defense instead of simply subduing him, where otherwise, he might be perfectly justified in murder? Where is the threshold between feasibility of non-lethality and the justification of lethal force?

I think it’s difficult to ascertain any moral weight of the distinction (I’m actually not sure if moral weight should look quite how it does in modern ethics), but it seems to me that Adam, if he acts rationally, should prefer non-lethality.

But whatever. Adam has retractable sunglasses implanted in his skull, and that automatically justifies anything he does.
So yeah, Deus Ex Human Revolution is a really cool air vent crawling simulator, and y’all should play it if you haven’t already. The characters are very well written, the gameplay is solid, and the atmosphere is great.

Almost German Expressionism - The Romance Novel

Posting your thoughts on someone else's work immediately after posting some of your own is probably in bad form, but oh well.  I'm not claiming I'm any better or worse or anything.  Just a disclaimer.

I don't read nearly as much as I want to anymore. I suppose it's just a matter of priorities, but it's still rather unfortunate. Most of what I read I actually listen to on audio book traveling to and from college in the car.

Recently, I just finished a book by Erin Morgenstern called The Night Circus. Now, if I didn't know better, I'd guess that Erin Morgenstern were a pen-name. I mean, how awesome is it to have the last name "blackstar?" Erin Blackstar. German is an awesome language, isn't it? Damn recht es ist.

The story itself is a romance framed by a contest between the disciples of two magicians, who are out to answer the question of whether sorcerers or wizards are stronger once and for all.

Of course, the story has nothing to do with D&D, but the two magicians certainly lie on that dichotomy. Marco is the wizard, and his reliance on spellbooks (not in the traditional sense, mind you) and power sources gives him a large amount of control and autonomy, but little at-will power. Celia is the sorcerer, her power limited on the upper bound by raw force of will, and on the lower bound by self-control and self-knowledge.

Inevitably, they fall in a nominally all-consuming love, and inevitably, the plot comes in between them and happiness. I have no deep and abiding love for romance novels, but I appreciate the well done ones, and the Night Circus, hypothetically, has some interesting things going for it.

For one, I am a huge fan of stories that use magic thematically rather than solely as plot propellant or setting window dressing. Magic in this world is complicated and makes it much easier to make serious mistakes. It is a constant drain on both contestants to maintain the circus. At least, we're told this, but I don't think either of these points are ever driven home, even if the plot elements are there. The one time when magic amplifies ordinary drama beyond its normal scope, when the novel actually demonstrates how easy it is to mess up with magic, it feels very much like douche ex machina. We never are given a decent explanation for why a certain character incites another to go murder a certain other one. It's just something that happens.

And really, that explains a lot about how the characters act in this novel. For main characters who carry literal scars with them from their past, they've got themselves very much together, and aren't seen really doing anything that isn't required explicitly by the plot. You'd think they'd be full of wonderfully interesting quirks and insecurities and motivations beyond the challenge, but they really don't. There is extraordinarily little character drama going on here. It's just them versus the plot, and the plot inevitably wins.

All of this ends up with an author filibuster as delivered through a one-sided conversation between A.H. and Widge (not the Cyberchase character...oh god, why do I even still remember that show?). I really wish Widge had provided a more contrasting point of view in that tract. That would have made it a lot stronger, I think. As is, the story doesn't really have much in the way of commentary on anything except the context this final conversation gives, but what was there wasn't...bad...per se, but it was a bit hollow, and along with the unsatisfying love story with the unsatisfying characters, this only leaves the story one leg to stand on.

The writing itself.

Which is pretty awesome. It maintains atmosphere extraordinarily well. The surrealism of the circus is handled quite well, even if it does seem a tad obsessed with the smell of caramel (is it a metaphor or something?). The story is structured in a non-linear fashion that at first seems unnecessary but eventually becomes understandable as a creative choice. The world-building is convincing and sets a very interesting stage that deserved an equally interesting cast. I would love to see another story, written with these same premises, in this same narrative voice. I hope Ms. Morgenstern (power metal riff here) revisits this world at some point, maybe in a short story.

So I guess my overall reaction is that this isn't a really bad story. It's not, even if I'm critical of it. I'm critical of it because of how much better it could have been. I did enjoy listening to it very much, and I suppose I can still give it some sort of recommendation, just on account of its writing style. I just wish it did something more.

The Hunting Girl Stops For Tea

>Draft of a short story for my fiction writing class.
>...technically already turned in for a grade, but I can still think of it as a draft, right?
>Actually no.
>So what I mean is, this is a finished short story for my fiction writing class.

I open my eyes.

It's still dark out. Man. What time is it?

It must be early. I look up into the sky, and I see that it is still clouded over, with lots and lots of massive thunderheads, way off into the deep focus range. So I guess it'd be dark regardless, huh.

I don't mind the dark, I never have. I get up and start to grab for my clothes. I pause. I think, I don't need to put them on just yet. I'm out here in the wilds, I won't need clothes until I want to go anywhere.

So I just stand up and feel the air. My magic-tent-enchantment-thing is still going strong. Rain is streaming down the invisible planes. I'm actually not sure how I'm going to undo the magic, once I'm done with it.

I don't particularly care anyway.

So I grab my coffee machine lying over beside my coat. It's white, and it's laying on its side. I dust it off, put the old bag of pre-ground beans in, draw some water from the air (this is why I love humid days), and grab the end of the electrical plug. This is the most annoying part, see, standing there and pretending you’re a human dynamo (which is exactly what you are).

Mostly, I'm actually annoyed because coffee is one of those things I still haven't been able to finesse. I found an old book in a library back in the Nuremberg metro area. That book had magic in it, and they were all able to conjure things out of thin air. Like, with wands and stuff. Convenient. I wish real magic was like that sometimes.

Ah, but I still wouldn't trade away my godhood for it. So I’m sitting around, doing my whole dynamo thing, thinking about how awesome it is to be alive.

Hah. Godhood. The ol’ man back in the village would frown his frowniest of frowns if he heard me say that shit. He’d worry I was about to turn into one of those viajantes myself. A good man, he is, and I'm fine with it, but he could never understand this about magicians. Deus ex magica, man. Well, dea ex magica in my case. My tomboyishness only extends so far.

And then my coffee's ready, and that just makes my morning complete.


It feels just awesome yelling that. There are some birds - yeah, actual birds man, the Fulda Gap has, like, a ton of them - and they get all startled and tweet tweet off into the…oh, that's where the sun went. I couldn't really see it before, because of all the storm clouds.

I take my first sip of coffee. It's damn good coffee. I feel like magic, let me tell you.

So I pace around a little. There's an old tree - that's what I slept under. I walk around that, and I look at it, I regard it. It's bark is a sort of grey, not so much brown, I dunno why people think trees are brown so often. It's smooth-skin too. Maybe it's a cherry blossom tree of some sort. I dunno how it got there. But it's a damn nice looking tree, and I like the way its bark looks when it's wet. Which it gets wet, because it’s still raining. Which I remember as soon as I dispell the force-tent-thing and I realize I'm still not wearing clothes.

Oh well. I don't mind being wet. And for real though, clothes are for looser humans.

The rain does get in my coffee before I can stop it though. It's a sad thing. I manage to dehydrate it slightly, but it tastes funny.


So I decide, forget the coffee. I toss it out of the cup. Messily, I do a poor job of it. But I rinse it out and sterilize it and I walk over to where my bag is. And my clothes. I put the cup in last, on top of the books, which are on top of everything else. I put on my clothes. They're light clothes, summer clothes, even though it's winter or something (I honestly can't really tell the seasons apart anymore, to be honest). I like the cargo pants the most - they're roomy and good for storing random things. Good adventuring gear. I got them from Sñr. Fransisco Franco (no relation) a month ago. These things are damn useful, and with those sleek, crisp lines even despite the pockets, they look very nice too. Even without having been washed for who knows how long.

So I take off. The rain gets in my face, of course, but though I squint, I'm fine. I just fly along in low visibility. I'm not too concerned exactly where I'm flying. Mainly because I don't know where I'm supposed to be going. They said I'd find her somewhere in where Portugual used to be. Maybe somewhere towards Nazaré? It's been a while since I've been there, and I'm still working on my Portuguese. Não é dificil, mas não tenho tido a oportunidade de ler muito, sabes?

Mas, I'm getting distracted.

The storm is following me.

The storm is definitely following me.

No really, why is the storm following me? This is…peculiar.

I lick my finger and hold it up in the air stream. I get goosebumps. There's fire in the air. There's lots of fire, and lightning. She’s definitely around here somewhere.

I love it. I eat it up.

But I feel the current is ahead of me, not behind me, not within the storm, so I guess whatever is causing the storm to follow me is completely incidental. I have such bad luck with weather sometimes.

But anyway, it's a strong, strong current I’m getting from her, because as far as I can tell, it's still hundred miles off.

At least I know where I'm going now.

I feel good today, real good, I tell you. The rain isn't even touching me now, the air is getting displaced in front of me. I accelerate, and before I know it, I've graduated from the transonic realm into the supersonic university, and my skin is very uncomfortably warm. Shit. I'm not protecting against the heat from the air resistance. I read about that too. Humans used to have trouble keeping their planes from melting. Of course, flesh is even worse for that – that’s why most of them abandoned the stuff. Then magic happened, and…well…

But that’s depressing.

I love the heat though. I let in just enough.

I can barely see ahead now through the mist of air, and I'm finding it hard to breathe. The air feels so much less dense. I feel my feet getting swept with fantails of water flung far from the displaced air, in brilliant arcs. It feels wonderful.

I see a rainbow star up ahead, between the coastline and the clouds.

Ah. There she is.

I feel her very distinctively.  It's an interesting feeling, but most importantly, she doesn't feel crazy in the same way so many other viajantes do.  I'll talk to her.

Hell, something in me is actually exited about this.  What is this?  I never liked small talk.  I like reading and shooting things with giant lasers.  Who needs to talk with anyone when you can do that?

I watch her shoot pass to my left as I cross in front of her and pull high into a loop to burn energy. All my joints are being torn at by the massive deceleration. My intertia wants to go in a different direction entirely. Silly intertia.

“Boa tarde!” An uncanny but friendly voice.

“Boa tarde, meu amiga!” I respond. “Este tempestade é genial, não?”

“Yeah, é muito genial. Mas, quem é você?”

“Katrina Gallardo de Nuevo Barcelona, em tua serviço.” I slide into the air in front of her. She actually looks younger than me – something like a 17 year old human might, if she didn’t have this creepy depth to her eyes and her skin weren’t so pale. Her eyes are an ossified blue, she wears a frilly blue and white dress, and she’s drinking a nice cup of tea. Charming look, really.

“Ah. De Nova Barcelona? Podemos continuar en español, si prefiere usted.”

“English is best. Y sabes que puedes usar “tu” conmigo, ¿no?”

“It has been a while since I spoke with anyone. I feel the occasion calls for extra politeness.”

“Vaya vaya, encantada to meet you. Thank's for the welcome, but I’m afraid I should either get down to business or start shootin’.  I'm here on behalf of the people of New Barcelona, you see...”

“Oh.  Oh dear. You’re one of those mages.”

“Yeah, I’m ‘one of those.’ I still kinda sorta identify with normal humans, you know? I feel…obliged…to make sure the likes of you don’t go around accidentally irradiating the lot of them.  Or hunting and eating them.  Or carving lewd things in their wheat fields.  Or something.”

“Go away. If you’re just here to bother me about dumb petty things like that.”

“I was going to ask you to do the same thing. Perferably somewhere not near New Barcelona.”

“I haven’t been doing anything. If you notice, I’m sitting here in the air drinking some nice tea in the middle of this wonderful storm.”

“Well that’s all well and fine, buh-waitwaitwait, you can magic tea?”

She shrugs. “I’ve been around a long, long time, Señora Gallardo.”

“But I mean…I have been trying to years to figure out a way to synthesize coffee with magic. Shit’s impossible!”

“Oh don’t be silly. Everyone can do it, you just need patience – time to refine yourself. I am going to guess here, and I’m going to guess you spent all your life training how to blast things, right? Of course you did, you’re a hunter. A demon hunter. They call us ‘viajantes,’ but you know they think of us as demonios. You kill gods so they can feel better about themselves at night. So they don’t feel so insecure.”

“Well, yeah. But really I spend most of my time reading and experimenting with little things, and I guess coffee is only one of many so I can’t say I concentrated on it too hard, but I guess it's not that I really don't have the time, since that's really all I do besides travel and reading, and…well, that’s beside the point.”

She smiles and closes her eyes. “You remind me a little bit of myself, I think. Before I decided to leave all that nonsense.” She nods to herself.

“So am I going to have to fight you first? Before I get you to leave?”

“Where do you see yourself in fifty years?”

“Still floating here asking you to leave.”

“A serious answer, meu amiga.”

“I am serious, I’m totally serious!” What’s this lady getting at?

“Do you have no sense of self-awareness at all?”

“Very little, Ms. Viajante. Now I’m gonna a…”

“Do you know how much your quality of life would improve if you left and became a traveller like me?”

“Gonna take a wild guess that you think the answer is up.’”

“More than you know.”

“No way, tía. I have friends in New Barcelona. It’s where my life is.”

“You know full well you spend more time out around the countryside than you do there.  You ever think why?”

“It’s a place to come back to, you know? A touchstone.  More or less.  I...just do.  They're good people, you know.  I'm fine with it.”

“I don’t see why you couldn’t return now and again, if you became a viajante.”

“You said yourself, they’d see me as a demon. And what’s more, that’s exactly what I’d become if I stayed out here for too long, you know?”

“Well it’s their fault for not accepting it. Be the change, Katrina.”

“Lol no. We both know nothing of that sort’s ever gonna happen. I’d rather not become a monster to my own hometown.”

“You already are. How many friends do you have in New Barcelona?”

“Plenty! I have…Señor Fransisco Franco, the shopkeeper! He sold me these pants! He…uhh…actually decided to move to the new settlement, I think near León, but he’s still a friend! I just don’t know where he is. Is all. It's fine.”

“Can you talk to him about anything?”

“Sure. He’s very knowledgeable. I gave him some of the books I found in my holiday to old Nuremburg. Well, sold, technically.”

“About yourself?”

“With him? Why would he care about me?”

She smiles, sadly, a pressed smile. “And your parents?”

“Want nothing to do with me. But hell, I never was the sentimental sort.”  The hell is with this lady?  I'm fine like this.

“So who do you talk to?”

“Well…no one, really.”

“It must be hard. I know it is. All the looks of hate hidden with aside glances. All the aquaintences who never spend any but the most minimum of time near you. All the warm, friendly tableside conversations at the café that dim whenever you walk past.”

“Hey. Hey. Shut up. It’s not like that at all.” How in holy hell does she know about the café?

“You stare at them. You sit behind your book and your coffee and you stare at them, and you’re jealous. So jealous. And I’m very sorry about that.”

“Shut it! I’m fine, dammit!”

“Your parents want nothing to do with you, and whoever gives you orders is too frightened of what you might do if you ever go rogue. He sees past your guards too, I know it. He knows how lonely and bitter you are with them all. That’s why he’s scared. You must eventually come to realize this.”

Shit. She can’t be reading my mind. She can’t be. I’m too good for this. I’m too good for all this! “Imma ask you once and once only…”

“You only feel alive out here, doing this. This is all you know. Flying. Fighting. Letting yourself get swept up in magic – they don’t know, do they, that using magic on such a scale releases endorphans like that? But when you return, you have nothing. You walk up the street to your little house on the corner, you open the door, you take off your hat and coat, and you collapse on your couch, wanting to cry, and there has never been anyone there. There never will be.”

“I’m fine! I’M FINE!” I’m trembling.

I’m also releasing several megajoules of anger colored magic at her. Oh god, what am I doing?

The beam manifests at about 9000 degrees kelvin, and like most B-class stars, glows a white-blue. I cannot see this, because I cut the line between my optic nerve and my eyes so I don’t blind myself. It’s all instinct. All of this is instinct.

And I’m crying.

Why am I crying?

I can’t cry anymore. How is this?

Why did I let this girl get to me?

I feel a hand on my left shoulder. I look, and there is her face, sad smile and all.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“Fuck you.”

“I wanted to help you realize.”

“I was fine before, thanks. You fucking asshole.”

“Would you like some tea?”

“Yes. No!” I feel a glass of tea is in my hand. Now that I think about it, I seem to have floated back down to the ground.

I shoot the tea back like a fifth of vodka.  It refills.

“They don’t realize how dangerous it is to use us magicians as demon hunters. Using so much magic as you do in a fight releases so many endorphans that it’s only natural it becomes the one happy thing you ever do, and so when they shun you, they create a potential demon with not only bitterness, but a taste and talent for destruction. If time had been allowed to take its toal on you...well, you may have done something you’d regret forever on.”

“Cool story, tía.  You dunno that.”

“I know I would have, if I didn’t catch myself in time.”

“You dunno that either.”

The rain beats on over our heads. She’s using the same trick I do, for making a tent out of force projections.

I watch the planes of rain.  Sitting out in the rain on travel are some of my only best memories, and I feel a bit calmer now.  It's pleasant.

>Only best.
>Did you just think...


“Look,” I start,” you've given me things to think about. Okay? But I’m not going to do anything, anything, to risk hurting New Barcelona. They’re good people, they really are. I’ll protect them, even if I’m not with them.”

“I know. That’s a good thing, I think. If you ever need any help, call me.”

“Call you?”

“I am very much like you, I think. I enjoyed a good fight back in my day.”

I consider her. She managed to not get incinerated by the energy beam I shot at her, and that’s damn impressive.

And fortunate.

Oh fuck, I could have outright killed her, and I wouldn’t have…

“I’m sorry, Ms….I don’t even know your name.”

“Aline Sampaio. It’s quite alright.”

“I’ve killed viajantes before. But they were crazy, psychopathic, murderous. Hell, you’re just psychopathic. And an asshole. And you’re probably right – that’s worst of all, you know.” I sigh deeply. “So, what is it you do around here, anyway?”

“I drink tea. Sometimes I paint. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I work on my giant robot project.”

“Sounds like a good life.” It clicks. “Wait," I gesticulate, "giant robot project?”

“Would you like to see it? I’ve been working on the design for years. I call it the ASA-00 – it’s a prototype model, of course.” An edge of exitement lines her voice. Her eyes don’t seem quite so distant anymore.

Well, part of that is because she's sitting beside me now, and her hand is around my shoulder.

Am I really going to let this shit happen?

“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds nice.”

My hands no longer trembling, I take a sip of tea.  A considered sip.  A calmer sip.  An honest sip, and I can taste it with good clarity now.

It’s very good tea.