Top Ten Cybergs

Purple Cybernetic FlightEvery purposeful network of beings and things forms a cyberg, where (like an iceberg) we only see a fraction of the entailed network and the rest lurks beyond our awareness most of the time. The complete inventory of beings and things entailed within each of these cybernetic networks would be challenging to enumerate, but we can approximate the scale of each cyberg by counting just the number of one kind of entity within it e.g. the number of humans, the number of computers.

To qualify as a cyberg at all, we must be dealing with a network that spans its entire breadth with some kind of active relation, even if merely one of potential. A nation is a good example: not every citizen knows every other citizen yet they are linked by a shared bureaucracy that integrates them all into one functional network. It is not enough for there to have been a common network of production – no matter how many people own a penknife, penknife-wielders do not have any ongoing relationship. Conversely, the exchange of media effectively links television stations and thus viewers such that while individual TV stations are modestly sized cybergs by contemporary standards, they aggregate into something far more substantial. (Religions are something of a borderline case in this regard, but I shall set these aside for now.)

In the list that follows, cybergs are listed in order of the size of a single indexed entity, either humans or devices. Everything listed is a gigacyberg, with no fewer than a billion entities embroiled in its network. This list is not intended to be definitive but merely indicative – it points to the general situation today from a perspective we would not normally consider.

Runners Up

A number of megacybergs narrowly missed the top ten, including the European Union (743 million), movies (about 800 million), and guns (875 million). More than 360,000 people die each year as a result of the gun cyberg, but this is by no means the most fatal of our cybernetic networks. If this list included religions, Christianity would be the number three gigacyberg (2.3 billion), Islam would be ranked jointly with Microsoft (1.5 billion), and the Hindu traditions would be a close runner up (900 million).

Joint 9th: Tencent and Google (1 billion)

Chinese internet giant Tencent and search colossus Google both have about a billion humans in their cyberg. Whereas Tencent does not lead Chinese search (that honour goes to Baidu) it has a tremendously diverse network of internet services, including the wildly successful competitive game service League of Legends. Google dominates search globally – but even this only allows it to squeak into the world’s biggest cybergs if we take its quoted figures as accurately gauging its scale. Pragmatically, the reach of the Google cyberg is probably greater than this conservative estimate – but it feels somehow fitting to show this young upstart beginning its climb towards the top of the heap...

8th: Cars (1.2 billion)

It is possible to drive completely around the world thanks to the extent that the car-human cyborg has emerged as the dominant lifeform on our planet. We have completely changed the ecology of almost every ecological biome by installing the infrastructure required to make cars a viable form of transportation. This is the world’s deadliest cyberg, taking more that 1.25 million human lives annually, and that figure does not include war deaths some would attribute to the oil industry that feeds this network.

7th and 6th: India and China (1.3 and 1.4 billion)

The only nations to qualify for this top ten list, India and China each have more than four times the population of the United States, and nearly twice the population of the European Union. China is the wealthier cyberg, with an economy four times the size of India’s, but both wield significant destructive power via their hundreds of nuclear weapons. However, they have less than 2.5% of the world’s nuclear stockpile, since the US and the Russian Federation hold 45% and 48% of the world’s nuclear weapons, a quantity far beyond any rational consideration.

5th: Microsoft (1.5 billion)

Despite no longer being the centre of attention in technology circles, Microsoft’s cyberg is 50% bigger than the certifiable size of Google’s, thanks to the continuing dominance of Windows, which has a 90% market share in desktops and laptops. That said, these are now only 20% of the robot market, which is dominated by smartphones (where Google enjoys 87% of the market). Microsoft is a cyberg in decline, unable to adequately break into the pocket robot marketplace, but jealously guarding its hold over other industrial cybergs.

4th: Television (1.6 billion)

That television enjoys only a marginal numerical advantage over Microsoft is a sign of how completely the computer has has positioned itself as the cybernetic successor to the notorious boob tube. Yet there is another lesson here: the television is not ubiquitous, being a cyberg that extends through only 20% of the planet’s population.

3rd: Facebook (2 billion)

Here again we get a sense of the power of the digital cybergs... it has taken a little over a decade for Facebook to become the first definitive 2 billion human cyberg owned by one corporate entity. By leveraging human social instincts – and largely by accident, for it was not originally designed to operate as a surrogate for relationships – Facebook has aggregated more humans into one walled garden than anything else.

2nd: The Internet (3.5 billion)

It is distributed, beyond outright control (but certainly open to influence) and is the largest electronic cyberg on our planet. The internet... so significant, most dictionaries think it deserves a capital letter, like a nation. But this is a cyberg on a scale beyond national bureaucracies, a network that links half the planet’s humans to almost all the planet’s computers. Cisco claims there were 8.7 billion devices connected to the internet in 2012. As cybergs go, this one is the most spectacular in scale and potential. Yet it is still arguably outstripped by at least one larger cyberg...

1st: Money (7.3 billion)

This was the first cybernetic network, the first technical system to spread around our planet as both practice and tacit relations. As humans have grown more populous, so too has money spread with us – including into the virtual spaces of the internet, where this cyberg now lives as much or more than it does in the pockets of its humans. It seems positively simplistic next to the other gigacybergs, yet it engulfs almost every human; I have estimated that only 1-2% of the population of our planet are not caught up in the commercial cybernetic system. The sheer ubiquity of money as a concept is so complete that politics hinges more around budgetary numbers than about questions of how to live. This is one of our first technologies, as old as civilisation – and it remains our most successful.

More cybervirtue next week.


Tip of the Cyberg

CybergDoes technology simply increase human capabilities? Or have we radically misjudged the extent and complexity of the ever-growing abundance of tools around us?

The astonishing advances in technological prowess in the prior century or so give an impression of infinite capabilities – the closest secular thought gets to imagining omnipotence. Thus we have no difficult envisioning (if we suspend critical judgment) techno-immortality, sentient robots, or interstellar travel. Indeed, science fiction is replete with these imaginary grails. This way of thinking about our tools – as personal enhancement – radically misleads us in several important ways (many of which I discuss in Chaos Ethics), but perhaps the most striking is the sense that equipped with any technology we act autonomously. This is always a subtle deceit.

Science fiction helps bring this confusion into focus. In Star Trek, the communicator, universal translator, phaser, transporter, and tricorder all do one thing perfectly (except when drama requires otherwise), to the extent that a Starfleet officer equipped with these things can appear anywhere, talk to anyone, scan anything to know what it is and what condition it is in, and – when push comes to shove – stun or kill on demand. All these capabilities occur literally at the push of a button. Where do these miracle tools come from? How does they work? It doesn’t matter; it’s high technology (hi-tech) – which is strikingly parallel to the magic-laden worlds of high fantasy. Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic should raise more questions than it does... even in the context of sword and sorcery, we are entitled to ask: where does the magic come from? What is expended when it is used? What are the unseen limitations to its usage?

In the Terminator movie franchise, mankind in the future has been driven to the brink of extinction by robotic killing machines humanity made without thinking. That much of its setting is not hard to believe, particularly when you see the effortlessness with which the armed drone made battlefield honour obsolete. Yet against the backdrop of a total collapse of civilisation and killer robots prowling everywhere,the Resistance movement in the future depicted by Terminator: Salvation somehow maintains safe houses, feeds the survivors, even operate fighter planes. The aeroplane sits in our mind like the tricorder and communicator – autonomous once paired with a human. But as Bruno Latour never tires of reminding us: airplanes do not fly, it is airlines that fly. In stark contradistinction with what we see in a Terminator movie, no plane takes to the air without their logistical supply chains bringing fuel, their air traffic control networks managing flight paths, their support personnel performing essential maintenance.

Technology is not magic, and even fictional portrayals of magic are not as autonomous as we imagine our tools make us. There is a stark difference between hammers, binoculars, and a wind-up torch on the one hand and computers, cars, and airplanes on the other. While both sets of examples are manufactured by complex meshes of people and things, the latter list also require a complex network just to operate, a point brought into clear focus by the actor-network theory developed by Michel Callon and Bruno Latour. If a cyborg is what occurs when an organism is cybernetically enhanced by a tool like a hammer, we can call the network that produces and maintains the more complicated cyborgs like cars-and-their-drivers or computers-and-their-users, a cyberg.

The iceberg famously has only 10% of its mass above the waterline, and thus only its top is visible to the casual observer. So it is with the cyberg – the cybernetic network required by the more convoluted of our technologies. We see only the cyborg – the car and it’s driver – and not the cyberg that makes it possible. When it comes to technology we are perpetually shallow sighted: we see only the ‘surface’ of the network, so flat that it can be expressed as a one-dimensional array or list (car, driver, fuel, road). If we manage somehow to become more deep-sighted, we can recognise the relations and dependencies that give the cyberg it’s network-qualities (ore mines, smelting mills, factories, oil rigs, refineries and far more besides). These dependencies rapidly become tangential and obscure: an oil rig has scuba divers who repair the metal structure when it corrodes with arc welders entirely unique to their profession, but who is deep sighted enough to think of the factories making hyperbaric welding kits or compressed air tank regulators when looking at a car?

It is the cyberg that defines our technological situation, more so than the scientific research projects that we (somewhat naively) see as feeding directly into new tools, like the magician conjuring a new alchemical potion out of thin air, having expended nothing but time. What is more, we can measure our depth into cyberg existence by looking at the numbers of people and things involved in the cybernetic network. A hammer made a millennia ago involved a miner and a blacksmith, a mule and a horse, a mine, a furnace and trees; no more than about a hundred beings and things were entailed in this early cyberg example. A functionally identical hammer today would entail a network of ten thousand beings and things, or even a hundred thousand.

Our cybergs get bigger, deeper, wider, and as they do our autonomy recedes even while the imagined scope of our autonomy grows. This is part of the technological blindness I have previously called cyberfetish and am here marking as shallow-sightedness; our strange capacity to see only the powers and potentials of our new tools, but to overlook or underjudge their consequences. Precisely because we have moved from tools that could be made by individuals or villages to tools that require nations or corporations to build and maintain, we live at a time where the cyberg is the measure of both possibility and catastrophe.

Although I have introduced the idea of a cyberg through the extended frameworks behind a specific tool, the concept behind these cybernetic meshes applies whenever beings and things are linked together into extended networks. When Benedict Anderson observed that the printing press allowed the imagined communities we call nations to form, his argument can be read as saying that nations are cybergs. Every corporation is a cyberg, constituted slightly differently from nations, but in the last half century rivaling and exceeding them for power and influence. Every one of us is embroiled and imbricated in cybernetic networks of such scope and influence as to make a mockery of our mythos of technological empowerment. For when it comes to our tools, the enhancement of our personal agency is truly just the tip of the cyberg.

Next week: Top Ten Cybergs


A Study in Psylocke

A Study in Psylocke was a short two-part serial that ran here at Only a Game from July 5th to 12th 2016. Effectively a sequel to Corporate Megatexts, it examined the relationship between the different comic series that featured Betsy Braddock (who becomes Psylocke), the circumstances in the Marvel offices surrounding her transformations, and the challenges involved in bringing such a racially ambiguous character into the X-Men movies.

The two parts are:

  1. Betsy Braddock
  2. Olivia Munn

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!


A Study in Psylocke (2): Olivia Munn

Munn as PsylockeLast week, I discussed the circumstances surrounding Betsy Braddock A.K.A. Psylocke both inside the fictional world of the X-Men comics, and within the offices where her stories were created. This week, I want to pick up this megatextual odyssey by turning our attention to the big screen narrative offshoot established by 2000’s X-Men. After two successful X-Men movies, Bryan Singer walked away to direct the disappointing Superman Returns, leaving Brett Ratner to complete the original trilogy with the choppy mess that is 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. One of the bit parts in that movie is a mutant called (so the credits claim) Psylocke, played by Meiling Melançon. You could be forgiven for not connecting Melançon’s character to Betsy Braddock, however, or indeed for never noticing her at all. In a very practical sense, the opportunity to bring Psylocke to the big screen was still substantially open.

 

Enter: The Munn

We come at last to Olivia Munn’s role in our story. She was auditioning for the role of Vanessa for Deadpool when somebody (nobody seems clear who) spotted the potential for Munn to play Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse. Another significant ambiguity is whether Psylocke had been written into the screenplay for that movie by this time, as she wasn’t originally part of the plan. Indeed, the Fourth Horseman would have been Xavier, a plan that began to feel hollow during production, since James McAvoy does very little in the final act of the movie beyond whinging. So a mutant character needed shoehorning into the story to make up the requisite number of minions for the dullest of all X-villains, Apocalypse. Whether because Munn had been auditioning for a role in Fox’s branch of the Marvel movie megatext and an opportunity was spotted, or because Psylocke had already been chosen to plug the gap in the story (which seems less likely), Munn was thus brought into the production.

This helps explain in part why Psylocke has so little backstory in the film, and very little to do other than provide another foe to fight in the rather flat final act. But the other side to this coin is that it would have been highly difficult to provide any context or origin story for Psylocke for the reasons explored last week: Betsy’s character is a clunky amalgam of three separate storylines,  the Captain Britain continuity from Marvel UK, the original Psylocke character that brought her to the US comics, and the Jim Lee-designed Lady Mandarin Psylocke who has lost all the vulnerability and ambiguity of Betsy’s previous incarnations and serves as yet another kick-ass anti-heroine to throw on the pile of scrappy new characters added to the X-megatext by the future Image artists (e.g. Gambit by Lee and Claremont, Cable and Deadpool by Liefeld).

Adding Psylocke to the already crowded story-space of Apocalypse must have presented director Bryan Singer with something of a conundrum. There wasn’t enough narrative space to do justice to the characters they already had, especially since Singer set himself the task of getting a solid X-Men team together by the close of business but had only Beast, Professor X, and Havoc left in play at the end of Days of Future Past. (I’m not counting Mystique, whose role has been utterly transformed in the movie megatext from second string villain to full-on heroine through the sheer popularity of Jennifer Lawrence). There was no plausible way anything substantial could be done with Psylocke. So what to do?

The first play in circumventing this problem was a stroke of simplistic genius: Singer announced Munn’s casting on Instagram by saying:

Excited to welcome @oliviamunn as Betsy Braddock! #Psylocke #XmenApocalypse #XMEN

The key point here is that he announced that Munn would be playing Betsy Braddock, which was not strictly the case. The credits to Apocalypse report only that Munn’s role is Psylocke, which is also the only name that is ever used to address her on screen. So here we have a situation whereby if we take solely the movie as our source of canonicity, Singer’s announcement is either incorrect, or a lie. But of course, the ultimate source of all canonicity in anything licensed from the X-men comics are the comics themselves – these are always serving as subsidiary props in the background of the ‘games’ being played by those who are watching the movies whenever they possess the relevant background knowledge of the comics, a complex form of play I explored in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium”.

 

Playing with the Backgrounds

When creating high-profile derivative works from a corporate megatext, you have unusual choices. As long as nothing in the foreground narrative (the X-Men movies, in this case) contradicts an element of the subsidiary text (the comics in this case), the ‘players’ of the movie are free to establish the viable narrative connections in their own minds. So as long as Psylocke as presented as having plausible continuity with her comic progenitor, fans of Psylocke are free to inject her backstory into their experiences of the movies along whatever lines of imagined adaptation they want to apply. Movie-goers without the knowledge of the source megatext are excluded from this game, of course, but to them Psylocke is just another bit player in a film franchise that is packed with such throwaway extras – just look at first draft of movie-version Psylocke in The Last Stand.

Now whether through agreement with Singer or just brilliant PR instincts from Munn or her agent at EBA (most likely through Munn’s own well-developed geek-sense), Munn takes the gift that Singer provided the fans by publicly announcing she was playing Betsy (rather than just Psylocke) and spins it into a brilliant piece of extra-textual play. For through a single press interview that was picked up and run through dozens of nerd-leaning internet news sources like Screen Rant, Collider, and Nerdist, Munn takes the foundation Singer had provided and builds upon it every possibility that could be used to support just about every game of canonicity-alignment any sufficiently interested X-nerd might want to play. Here’s a great example:

If Psylocke had a chance to tell her story, it would be great to start with the genesis… I think maybe like right as she’s getting out of university and before her whole family… We jump in right before all of her family is taken out and we have an understanding of what she had to lose. Then her figuring out he powers and how powerful she is. It’s something that I always loved about her. That she came from a good family and lost everything. Yeah, I would just like to tell that story.

Yet of course, if the comics canonicity was to be held faithfully, it would be essentially impossible for Munn to tell that story – for Betsy at this point is a blonde Anglo-Saxon aristocrat. And cast your imagination around how you like, you’ll not find a viable way for the first part of Betsy’s backstory to be comfortably converted to the big screen, nor for that matter for something as offbeat as Mojo and Spiral to be part of the events, nor for that matter the Ninjas-R-Us craziness of the Lady Mandarin story, whether in Claremont’s original form or Nicieza’s retroactive adjustments. Betsy’s story, in its most canonical form, is simply unfilmable. But Fox never needed to offer it on the big screen, because Singer and Munn had managed to offer fans a chance to play this game themselves, without creating any complexities for the film franchise.

In no way am I impugning Munn’s honour in drawing out this strange and wonderful side story that hangs ethereally off both the comic and the movie megatexts, bridging the two without ever having to establish anything substantial. Even if it is taken that the above quote invites the inference that Munn is falsely claiming to have read the Marvel UK Captain Britain stories (which she could not have done directly as they were UK-only) no US nerd could viably indict her since they too, like Munn, must have picked up this backstory from secondary sources, of which there are an endless supply of options, from trade paperbacks to internet databases. Honestly, I admire the way Munn managed to generate such incredible publicity from nothing more than the appeal of canonicity and the faithfulness of X-fans. I challenge anyone to find such commitment to a frankly minor acting role in any other corporate megatext adaptation ever.

But because of Psylocke’s canonical history, it would have been impossible for Munn to ever portray Betsy’s backstory without transforming it to the point that it was no longer canonical, thus breaking with the faithful community that care about such matters. All that could be done was to hold out a hope, a carrot of possibility, that would enable fans to create their own bridging stories in their minds. Precisely because storytelling with corporate megatexts concerns a manifold of practices, a set of different ways of drawing connections across impossibly distinct continuities, the satisfaction of the fanbase has become a vital corporate practice whenever adaptation is in play.

The management of the kinds of possibilities I have outlined here are now absurdly big business – a billion dollar business, indeed – and the risks of a misstep cannot simply be ignored or taken for granted. We geeks have a strange kind of powerful powerlessness: we were essential to the initial commercial success of any and all comics that come into contention for adaptation, and we are equally central to the hype-making and cross-megatext story-weaving practices that accompany transitions into television and film. Yet, we are also expendable, in the sense that satisfying the punters in the cinema or the binging box-setter is vastly more important to on-going commercial success than placating fanboys, fangirls, or other kinds of fan-entities. While it’s true that the corporations need us more than we need them, for those of us whose imagination and loyalty is bound to contemporary megatexts, the dependencies are far harder to unravel.

More nonsense soon.


A Study in Psylocke (1): Betsy Braddock

Captain Britain No13.borderWith X-Men: Apocalypse now leaving the movie theatres having pulled in decent box office returns but lacklustre critical response, the future of Olivia Munn as purple-haired mutant miscreant Psylocke is currently a matter of speculation. Here is a situation where the demands of adapting from a corporate megatext into a substantially more commercially valuable subsidiary megatext create subtle and awkward pressures. Psylocke, now a fan favourite in the comics, has a long and complex history that vastly predates her transformation into the Asian character that Munn was a fit for – and Betsy Braddock, who becomes Psylocke, was in no way Asian, and indeed, was resolutely and inescapably Anglo-Saxon British. What are we to make of this strange collision of ethnicities, and what can it tell us about contemporary megatexts?

 

Psylocke in the World of Marvel Comics

The choice of Olivia Munn to play Psylocke on the big screen is an act of casting genius on behalf of either Ronna Kress or Roger Mussenden, or one of their minions. Not only is Munn the spitting image of recent forms of the psychic knife-wielding fan favourite, the complex web of cultural forces bearing upon Munn’s childhood provide a plausible means of dismissing just about any ethnic argument that could possibly have been advanced against this casting decision. I wrote recently about Jon Tsuei’s objections to the casting of Scarlett Johanson as Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi as part of the Corporate Megatexts serial. The issue there was the casting of a non-Asian actress in a quintessentially Asian role, and the corresponding undermining of authenticity this engendered in the community around Ghost in the Shell. In the case of Munn’s casting, however, the Gordian knot that exists around Betsy Braddock provides no viable means for any equivalent complaint to be levelled.

But there is still a potential authenticity crisis surrounding the transferral of Psylocke to Fox’s cinematic adaptation of the X-comics megatext, and it is one that has been handled with either ingenious strategy or great luck on behalf of prodigal director Bryan Singer, the founder of the movie branch of the X-Men narrative tree. At its heart lies the problems entailed in taking a character whose backstory in the source materials is utterly unadaptable to a movie format, and which includes within it an ethnicity conflict that would have generated substantial furore had it occurred anywhere but pre-internet comics. Actually, that’s not strictly the case: there was an internet at the time, but it was largely only accessible to elite computer nerds, and it was substantially before its mainstream adoption, and certainly before internet nerds were a community with a power base that needed to be wrangled. Before we can adequately explore this topic, however, it is necessary to recap the rather strange biography of a character who had very little fan support before her transformation into ‘psychic ninja’.

Betsy Braddock debuts as part of the 1970s line up of comics published by Marvel UK. There is very little talk about this offshoot of Marvel Comics, which is unfortunate as incredible work was done by writers such as Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Dave Gibbons on the Doctor Who magazine (which, under a different publisher, continues today), not to mention in original stories never printed in the US for Star Wars Weekly by Archie Goodwin, Chris Claremont, Michael Golden and, once again, Alan Moore. But the lasting legacy of these unique British comics in Marvel’s superhero megatext is the creation of Betsy Braddock, who will eventually become Psylocke. Betsy, it should be clear is British… indeed, English, and a daughter of the aristocracy. Chris Claremont, writing for Marvel UK, added Betsy to Captain Britain (another UK-only title) in 1976. Her notorious purple hair begins as a dye in 1983, in a storyline by Alan Moore and Alan Davies, and she goes on to have a stint as Captain Britain in one fateful Alan Davies issue from January 1986 (pictured above), long before Marvel US took a penchant for gender-switching key characters. It ends badly for her, and she loses both of her eyes.

Claremont, never one to waste a loose end, rolls Betsy back into his run on Uncanny X-Men in the back end of the 1980s. In October 1986, nine months after Davies had left her blinded and broken as Captain Britain, Claremont and Davies remake the character via the second annual of The New Mutants, marking her first appearance in the US marvel comics, the creation of her new identity as Psylocke, and the changing of her natural hair colour from blonde to the trademark purple. The transformation is pure comic book hokum, and happens as a result of tinkering by Mojo and Spiral, two wonderfully peculiar extra-dimensional villains created by Ann Nocenti and Arthur Adams the previous year. But the strange creation of telepathic plot device Psylocke out of Betsy Braddock is dwarfed in weirdness by her metamorphosis into Lady Mandarin as Claremont’s contribution to the 1989-90 Acts of Vengeance crossover. Marvel’s bottomless bucket of ninjas, the Hand, somehow remake Betsy into a Japanese psychic ninja (later retconned to a body swap by Fabian Nicieza in 1993), making her one of very few fictional characters to have changed ethnicity. It is this that establishes the utterly English Betsy as now definitively Asian (specifically, Japanese), and kicks off a previously unprecedented popularity for Psylocke.

 

Psylocke in the World of the Marvel Offices

The circumstances of the ethnicity transplant that made Psylocke’s career are a source of tremendous speculation, and particularly because it involves one of the most pivotal writer-artist encounters in comics history. Many fans suspect that Korean-American artist, Jim Lee, who was the artist on the X-Men’s Acts of Vengeance issues, somehow pushed for the new look Psylocke. But this isn’t entirely plausible. Lee was 25 in 1989 and a virtual newcomer to comics while writer Chris Claremont was 39 and had worked on Uncanny X-Men for an unprecedented 14 years at that point. (Claremont’s work on these comics had vast influence on other writers, not least of which upon future nerd-god Joss Whedon.) Claremont and Lee had first worked together on issue 248, when regular artist Marc Silvestri wasn’t available, after which Lee returned to replace Silvestri for the three issues in question. Interviews with both have failed to reveal any way in which Lee influenced Claremont, and it’s unlikely he did: Lee was a newcomer and Claremont was a legendary veteran; at this point in time, Claremont would certainly have been in the driving seat.

Examining the construction of the panels in issues 256-258 reveal great attention to details that clearly come from Claremont’s plotting – such as detailed references to Betsy’s earlier life and the dream-twisted inclusion of Mojo and Spiral, all of which demonstrate connectivity to the longer narrative arcs Lee would have known little or nothing about. Clearly, Claremont was in control of the storytelling at this time, yet he would certainly have seen Lee’s sketchpad, and would have had a sense of the new artist’s strengths. It seems far more plausible to surmise that Claremont created the Lady Mandarin plot as a vehicle for Lee’s talents. Allegedly, Psyclocke would have reverted back to her Anglo-Saxon body soon after – but the popularity of the character as drawn by Lee was too great for a reversion, or for matters to remain the same as they had been at Marvel. Lee was soon signed on as the regular artist, and he (and other talented artists such as Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and the aforementioned Marc Silvestri) began to be recognised by new Marvel comics X-titles group editor, Bob Harras, as critical to the growing popularity of the franchise.

Psylocke thus becomes a symbol for the transformation of Marvel Comics at this time, precisely because her radically more popular post-Lee poster-art form usurps some of the narrative control from established writer Claremont. Claremont and Lee produce the first three issues of new hyperbole free X-Men in 1991, after which Claremont quits, citing a lack of support from Harras whose mandate was to keep their new hotshot artists happy so that sales could continue to build. The first issue of X-Men is the highest selling comic of all time – because Marvel printed five different versions of it, and foolish fans (including 19 year old me) bought every version, thinking they would grow in value like other number 1 issues in the past. Marvel sold 8 million copies, mostly five at a time to befuddled nerds with a sketchy grasp of economics. Afterwards, not only Claremont but many of the fans left because, like me, they felt manipulated and used, and no longer wanted to support Marvel’s lust for profits over storytelling.

Despite the compromises that Harras made to try and keep Lee and the other artists at Marvel, they all eventually broke away (in what has been dubbed, in tribute to the awful crossover names of the time, ‘the X-odus’) and founded Image Comics, a revolutionary artist-owned line of comics, which with the exception of McFarlane’s Spawn did not have a great deal of commercial power until Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead in 2003. Lee may not have enjoyed tremendous success with his Image title, WildC.A.T.s (which always felt rather too much like a second rate X-comic clone), but his nearly limitless popularity with fans ultimately led to him becoming co-publisher at DC Comics in 2010, effectively taking the top job at Marvel’s biggest rival. (Bob Harras, who had joined Lee at his Image company, Wildstorm, was appointed editor-in-chief and Vice President at DC, seven months after Lee was handed his half of the crown.)

Through both her transformation and the circumstances surrounding it, Betsy Braddock, an obscure scion of long defunct Marvel UK, symbolises the transition of Marvel from comics publisher to media corporation, a change that reaches its apex in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But before Marvel worked out how to effectively monetise their stories through making movies of their own, there was Bryan Singer’s hit licensed film X-Men in 2000. And that lucrative franchise extension is where Olivia Munn comes into Psylocke’s megatextual story.

Next week, the final part: Olivia Munn


Prezi: Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow

For those of you who have brought a suitable device to the Red Gallery (or for interested souls not able to make it to the Futurism v Fatalism event), here is my Prezi for my presentation Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow so you can explore it with me:

Click the button to start the Prezi, then use the arrows (or arrow keys) to advance the slides, or you can explore the content freely by zooming in and out and dragging the canvas. I also recommend using the button in the bottom right to put it into full screen. You can also view it over at the Prezi website by following this link for the Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow Prezi.


Corporate Megatexts

Corporate Megatexts was a serial in three parts that ran here at Only a Game from May 3rd to 17th 2016. It considered the way that we ‘play’ with the fictional worlds of books, movies, and TV shows as if they comprised a single conherent setting and the conflict between authentic expansion of such megatexts and the commercial custodianship required to make this happen. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the three parts:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Canonicity
  3. Faithfulness

Special thanks to Chris Billows, Rob Briggs, John Brindle, Geek Boy (AKA Al Swettenham), Scott Gibbens, Auriea Harvey, Alex Hempel, It's John, Matti Karhulahti, Metal Blackbird, Cuchlann, J.P.J. Garvin, Jeroen Stout, Jacek Wesołowski, and Jose Zagal for contributing to the discussions on Twitter that helped shape this short serial.

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!


Corporate Megatexts (3): Faithfulness

Flash Gordon Star WarsThere are just three screenings of the new Star Wars-branded movie left in my city and I'll have survived the new release with my honour intact, and the film unseen. This is a small and entirely personal victory, a test of my free will and my principles. It does not matter to me whether the new film is ‘any good’, because my concerns are not about being entertained... there was never a shortage of ways to be entertained. My concern is about the meaning we make of our megatexts (i.e. fictional worlds with many contributing works), and our relationship to the corporations that own them. I want to examine this topic as a question of faithfulness, which is to say a matter concerning the practices of authenticity (discussed two weeks ago) – and this is categorically not just about ‘being a fan’.

Surviving J.J. Abrams’ heavily promoted Star Wars film was challenging because I actively wanted to see it. I fell in love with the 1977 Star Wars as a five year old (the movie that would later be retitled A New Hope), and although I don’t consider myself a fanboy and have had a love-hate relationship with George Lucas ever since – I endured Caravan of Courage for a start – I never stopped caring about how the Star Wars megatext was being handled. Taking the classic Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials of the thirties and cross-breeding them with E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman space operas, Kurasawa’s Hidden Fortress, and a sprinkling of World War II aerial dogfight movies was a creative masterstroke.

Mind you, it was also extremely inventive to take the Hollywood Biblical-Historical Epics of the 60s as a template for the prequels, and to layer in a positively prescient reflection on US foreign policy – not that anyone noticed. (The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, four years before Operation Enduring Freedom). But errors in aesthetic judgement matter more to audiences than grand designs: Jar Jar was the harbinger of doom both in and out of the fictional universe of Star Wars as far as a great many fans were concerned. As a matter of custodianship, however, the prequels were unquestionably a commercial success, with returns on investment that outstrip Abrams’ movie, and challenging any of Lucas’ films on authenticity grounds seems like a losing prospect. No matter how disgruntled some fans of the original trilogy might have been in respect of the prequels, they were in no position to overthrow the House of Lucas. That particular throne had to be abdicated.

At a more personal level, I have to decide what my relationship with Disney and with Star Wars will be going forward. Working this out involves difficult questions about corporate megatexts, community, and even friendship. Fiction matters, but it can matter for good reasons and for bad ones. My rejection of the newest Star Wars-branded movie was a chance to test my own principles, but it was not just knee-jerk nostalgiarism that provoked me. Disney and LucasFilm owe me nothing as a childhood fan of Star Wars: fans ‘buy in’, they don’t and can’t ‘buy out’ like Disney can. What troubles me here is the sheer extent of my entertainment money going to one creative economy – Marvel, Star Wars, The Muppets, Pixar, Disney Classics... it’s a rare day I find myself in a cinema without paying the Big Mouse these days. Of course, you can say that Disney is just the money behind these productions, and that different creative forces are being funded by them. Or you could take a hard-line stance and simply refuse to pay them (although it’s worth noting that refusing to pay while still watching the movies through piracy still supports the corporate megatexts through indirect patronage and cultural participation).

The commercial power of fiction in our century lies in the megatext, and the corporate powers will always acquire the successful megatexts. There are no blockbuster movies without media corporations (nor AAA videogames and ‘event’ mini-series for that matter), so to reject Disney outright is to give up spectacle cinema cold turkey. Yet I don’t want my son to never experience this media form even if I also don’t want it to be his only experience of narrative media. And I don’t want to have to give up going to see the latest dumb superhero movie with an old friend, for whom each new release gives us an excuse to get together and reminisce about comics from our youth. What I need is a principled way of declining to participate in popular culture, one not based solely upon the mere capacity to entertain.

A few years ago, I wrote about the concept of faithful adaptation in the context of the Peter Jackson movies collectively entitled The Hobbit. Here, the question was the role of the source book in the ‘game’ being played with the movie. Faithful adaptation requires the source materials to accord authentically with the new production (in terms of make-believe theory, for the book to be a viable secondary prop in games played with the film). This concept can be extended to new works: a faithful extension of a megatext is one that offers ‘games’ to be played with any combination of earlier works that are part of the relevant canon. Thus determining faithful works depend upon the notion of canonicity, discussed last week.

Although last week’s discussion focussed on how creative people ended up in the role of ‘arbiter of canon’, it is also clear that fictional canonicity is a community practice. Sole authors wear the crown by tradition; in bigger projects, there are always multiple heirs to the throne, which can be passed down in a family but need not be. It is the ‘players’ of megatexts who determine, through agreement, or rather, alignment, who have this role. It seems as if we want a person to have a claim to Regent of Canon because then there are always answers to the ambiguous questions, as if our imaginative experiences were anchored in part upon them existing outside of us, always offering a final court of appeal. Perhaps we learned this habit from Plato’s view of reality, and if so it would be no coincidence since the nerds who sustain the practices of canonicity are also greatly into the sciences.

This means the concept of a ‘faithful work’ leads to the notion of a ‘faithful community’, and thus of faithfulness. A person displays faithfulness to any given canon when they withhold their support from works that deviate from it (the ones that are heretical, if you will). This all sounds overtly religious, and it should: prior to the twentieth century, the megatexts that nerds fought about were holy scriptures. It is no coincidence that the term ‘canon’ being applied in this context comes from the code of church laws in the Middle Ages. Contemporary usage of ‘religion’ as a derogatory term often obscures the way our religious practices are quintessentially human practices, and as such are shaped by situational factors such as tradition and ideals, whatever their ultimate meanings might be. These practices never go away, but they change – often radically – over the centuries.

So is my resistance to the new Star Wars movie an act of faithfulness? Not exactly. The faithful community of fiction I belong to that grounds my non-co-operation with Disney in this case is not Star Wars but Star Trek. In this regard, it is noteworthy that demands of custodianship could be invoked to explain why Abrams had to ditch almost every aspect of the thematic and moral background to the Star Trek megatext in order to bring it to as wide an audience as possible in the cinema. One of the things that was lost in this popularising move was the ethical role of the Prime Directive, which Roddenberry and his writers created to serve as a surrogate for Westphalian sovereignty by transposing the relationship between nations into the relationship between planets. It is noteworthy that a great many Trekkies and Trekkers do not support this concept in or out of the fictional world they love, since they favour international interventions around the world on ethical grounds that would be judged utterly unacceptable by any Starfleet captain. Here, as with the religious megatexts, there is a notable gap between faithfulness to the works in question and faithfulness to the moral practices they extol.

My own faithfulness to the Star Trek megatext is a key reason I withdrew my support for Disney’s Star Wars. It is because Abrams could not (indeed, would not) faithfully extend the Star Trek megatext (as I outlined last week) that I object to Disney handing him the keys to the Death Star just so he can blow it up. Again. Perhaps the new movie is a faithful extension of the Star Wars megatext for many of those who rejected the prequels – I have certainly heard fans of the original trilogy treating the new movie as if it were akin to the vain promise of mum and dad getting back together after an unpleasant childhood divorce. Most likely Disney’s custodianship of Star Wars is just yet another fork in the canon, creating ever more splintered communities and endlessly propagating the arguments over minutiae. This has been what communities of nerds have done for nearly two millennia, after all, and these days it is at least mostly harmless.

Corporations are not the enemy, but they cannot be our friends, for all the money they spend securing that mythos. They need us more than we need them, and they are adept at getting us to take them for granted. The challenge of twenty first century ethics increasingly entails forging and maintaining communities that are more than merely commercial, and in this regard corporations are indeed opposed to us. They are vested in the commercial communities of so-called late capitalism because this is what sustains them. It also happens to be what entertains us. In so much as faithfulness in fiction might give us reasons to break from the status quo, it could become something more than just pugnacious geeks arguing amongst themselves. My suspicion, however, is that our established loyalty to specific megatexts is a force stronger than faithfulness and authenticity. For myself, at least, I have strived to assert my humanity by resisting the inevitable pull of my childhood nostalgia. It is through nostalgia, after all, that the power of the corporate megatexts accumulates.

A new serial begins later this year.


Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow

Pleased to announce a new talk by me as part of the “Futurism vs. Fatalism” event at London’s Red Gallery.

Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow.lo resIn the 1980s, the literary science fiction movement known as cyberpunk explored the fractured cultures left in the wake of an uncontrolled rate of change in our technologies. Writers such as Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and Rudy Rucker offered new future visions that blurred traditional sci-fi beyond recognition. But within a decade, cyberpunk had been reduced to yet another glossy corporate branding, a vacuous fantasy where hi tech cool replaced the serious concerns of the movement. Cyberpunk was dead. All that was left was cyberfetish.

Acclaimed game designer (Discworld Noir, Ghost Master) and philosopher Dr Chris Bateman traces the history and influences of cyberpunk, from Enlightenment philosophy and the 1939 New York World's Fair with its promises of a glittering "World of Tomorrow", to the erosion of the movement's themes and its post-cyberpunk epilogue. In this engaging and provocative talk, he challenges today's heirs to the cyberpunk legacy to take charge of our unruly technology and develop the critical perspective necessary to understand it. Come explore the lurking dangers of our seductive age of cyberfetish that has made the World of Tomorrow an all-too-convenient lie we all buy into.

Thursday June 16th 2016, event begins 6:30 pm at the Red Galley, Old Street London. Tickets appear to be free and can be reserved from Ransom Note's Eventcube site.


Corporate Megatexts (2): Canonicity

Star Fleet Technical ManualThe reboot of a franchise has become so commonplace that seldom a second thought goes into pushing the button and burning continuity to the ground. However, for fans and lovers of any given megatext (i.e. fictional world with many contributing works) there is always an expectation of some degree of authenticity to each new addition. In science fiction and fantasy, genres where geeks form the bedrock of support, there is one particular ‘game’ that dominates questions of what is authentic: canonicity.

There is an inherent tension between the commercial viability of a franchise (the value of custodianship) and the demand for authenticity in the adaptation and extension of fictional worlds (last week’s theme). This aesthetic and moral conflict structures the growth and development of all the contemporary megatexts. In cases where nerd culture has a foothold (or indeed, a stranglehold), the question of what is canonical – of which works constitute the canon, or official components – is both fraught and crucial to understanding how nerds approach authenticity. The underlying process of defending canonicity against the impossibility of ever integrating disparate fictional works as if they were referring to a single universe is something I touched upon in Imaginary Games, but in the context of authenticity and megatextual networks it is worth reconsidering the rules of this game.

Last week, I suggested that it was possible to trace the networks for megatexts, and also to detect different games being played with them via disagreements. When it comes to authenticity, the networks foreground the relationship between fictional works and their creators, with the specific practices also varying to some degree depending upon the relevant medium. It is worth starting in books, where the situation is simplest. For any written story, the presence of a clearly identifiable sole author gives that person unprecedented power to establish or deny the authentic, authorised ‘games’ that can be played in our imagination. J.K. Rowling, for instance, is the final arbiter of any question about the Harry Potter universe as long as she lives. This power can be transmitted down the family line – from Frank to Brian Herbert, for instance, or from J.R.R. to Christopher Tolkien – although in such cases the ‘player’ of the megatext can choose to seal the canon, and treat the continuations as apocrypha or secondary texts.

Films, however, are conceptualised somewhat differently. Perhaps because they are inevitably produced by large teams, the mantle of arbiter of canon rarely falls onto an individual’s shoulders. The same pattern applies to TV shows, which are similarly the product of collaboration. In these cases, a ‘claim to the throne’ lies with a number of different people, depending on quite different circumstances. Directors, writers, and especially actors, all have a capacity to assert a claim to authenticity, even though the audience is not bound to accept it. Highlander 2, for instance, has clear continuity of cast but was outright rejected by fans like a failed organ transplant. There was simply too thin a claim to authenticity.

Star Trek is a particularly interesting case, one where multiple competing claims for creative inheritance lead to many available ‘games’, each with their own canon. There are fans for whom only the classic show ‘counts’, and others for whom the five live action TV series form a single megatext, with the animated series as apocrypha. Gene Roddenberry still held the crown during production of Star Trek: The Next Generation, passing it down to Rick Berman in 1989, who lost the throne with the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005.

It’s interesting to ponder what might have happened had Roddenberry died in the 1970s. Would Dorothy Fontana have become ‘Queen of Trek’ by the implied line of succession? It is notable that she is the only writer on the animated show whose work is given merit in canon discussions. She was also the only classic writer brought back to work on the Next Generation. The claims to the throne of canon arbiter become stronger the longer someone has been involved with the megatext in question.

The oddest branch in canon also relates to Star Trek. The technical artist Franz Joseph created blueprints for the USS Enterprise and other starships from the classic show, which were blessed as ‘official’ by Roddenberry. But in the 60s, megatexts were peripheral to media production and corporations were lax about subsidiary rights until Astroboy and Star Wars made it clear that successful monetisation of franchises was about more than the core product. Joseph licensed his drawings to Task Force Games, who then made the seminal tabletop wargame Star Fleet Battles. Canonicity forks here: the Star Fleet universe has all the races and ships of the Star Trek universe (the legal case TSR vs. Tolkien having established that races could not be copyrighted), but this secondary megatext clearly isn’t part of any of the Star Trek canons. Joseph had a disputable claim to the throne, but it remained securely with Roddenberry and Paramount, who became more vigilant about potential usurpation in the future.

When we come to the post-Berman resurrection of the Star Trek franchise, J.J. Abrams did not hesitate to cry “Code zero zero zero destruct zero” and detonate the existing continuity. But of course, this created a gap in the claim to authenticity, a problem pragmatically hurdled by having Leonard Nimoy bless the new movie by appearing in it as Spock. This act did not bridge the canons of the Star Trek megatext, which were irrevocably forked, but it met the minimum requirements for authenticity. In this regard, it is worth comparing William Shatner’s presence in Star Trek: Generations. Fans of the new TV shows were already on board, of course, but the majority of the cinematic audience weren’t necessarily in the same boat. Once again, a bridge to secure authenticity was required – and once again, it was an actor that did it.

It is thus clear that the defuse nature of the manifold of ‘games’ played with corporate megatexts permits extension only by the simultaneous risk of an ‘orthodox’ counter-fan base that rejects the new works and remains faithful to the originals (a theme I shall pick up in the final part of this seial, next week). Tactics to suppress or placate such resistance then becomes part of the corporate task of brand management. Yet it seems as if the role of actors as props in these imaginary games might outrank creators in establishing film canonicity, perhaps because by being on screen they are more prominently associated with the relevant fictional world. That’s why Nimoy had to bless Abram’s all-action, hollowed-out version of Star Trek (which could still be judged inauthentic against any and all prior games of canon up to that point, despite the legal authority of the owning corporation).

When Abrams was also tasked with continuing the Star Wars megatext in the cinema, the mighty G-canon (as LucasArts termed George Lucas’ primary continuity during his reign) represented a cult of resistance that needed to be addressed. In this case, on top of the claim of authenticity granted by securing the original cast (which was vital but not decisive) was the added power of Lawrence Kasdan – Star Wars’ very own Dorothy Fontana, since he co-wrote the latter two parts of the original trilogy. Since fans rate The Empire Strikes Back as the best of the movies, this play was both shrewd and effective. Avoiding the necessity of a reboot, Abrams used the heir apparent to secure his title as pretender to the throne long enough to validate his movie – yet had no interest in claiming the crown. Abrams role was as kingmaker in the consolidation of authority for Disney, whose acquisition of LucasFilm had set up the conditions for a potential ‘Star Wars of the Roses’. It is to the impact of this situation that the final part of this serial is addressed.

Next week: Faithfulness