The Dimension of Depth

Bit of a rant. Ain't done nothing like this in a while, eh? (Title's a Walt Disney quote: "We have created characters and animated them in the dimension of depth, revealing through them to our perturbed world that the things we have in common far outnumber and outweigh those that divide us.")

Among the six shows out this season that I thought were worth watching (there's probably more than that: this is a good season), is Plastic Memories. I think I'm going to stop watching it, because of its central conceit.

Now, like most anime about robots, the four-year lifespans and centrality of memory should be pretty familiar, because they are of course borrowed from Blade Runner. All anime with robots in them are riffs on Blade Runner; this is not unoriginality, any more than jazz is, because the fun of both is in seeing what this particular person will do with their riffs. You can get things as disparate as Naomi Armitage and Dorothy Wainwright out of that well.

But the thing is, the replicants' four-year lifespan was engineered in, to keep them from accumulating enough experience to question their lot (although then implanting memories derived from humans' experiences more or less neuters that; I think the plot-hole was present in the book too—been a while since I read it—and it's best not to apply non-schizophrenic logic to a Phil Dick story). You wouldn't build AIs like that without it being intentional; if your AI has a four-year lifespan, keep working on it. (I will allow "rampancy" in Bungie games because those are "neural clones", and the emulation is unstable, which emulators often are.)

The Giftias in Plastic Memories, though, have a four-year lifespan because apparently their designers said "Aeh, close enough." Who would design a product like that? How would you go about incorporating them into people's lives (they gloss over whether Giftias are sold, or what) without someone pointing out it's practically emotional abuse to let them get attached to someone who can never live longer than four years without turning into a monster? Who would view the people who come to "retrieve" Giftias as anything other than Dr. Deaths propping up a callous, monstrously incompetent system?

Understand, I don't think that Plastic Memories has a pro-euthanasia agenda, or anything—indeed, I think its plot is slightly tone-deaf for a society with Japan's demographics, in a way that no competent person advocating such a policy would be. I think that the people behind it just wanted to make a show about people whose job is "retiring" obsolete robots and how they angst about it.

But that's not how you do science fiction, not if you're an adult. The premise of Plastic Memories is impossible, because nobody would leave an AI with that flaw, or mass-market them if for some reason the flaw wasn't fixable. There might be a slave-caste of four-year-lifespan androids for certain specialized tasks, but nobody else would ever see one unless they were dealing with the applications where androids are actually an advantage over humans. You could get quite a bit of interesting television out of that, but it wouldn't really work as a slice-of-life show with a slight romance angle. (It could give you "Lifetime movie cancer-patient" romance, coupled with lots of drama RE: the applications where a four-year lifespan for an employee is not a liability or is even an asset, but that would be a very different show from Plastic Memories.)

And that brings me to my point: the setting of Plastic Memories is not being treated as a world: it's being treated as stage-dressing.

The ane-ue, since I accidentally got her turned into a filthy strung-out junkie hooked on Transformers Prime, has put up a "character" Tumblr where (in between explaining Kzinti don't have external genitals Cybertronians are sexless beings and so cannot be shipped) she roleplays as Starscream. She's got a campaign up, protesting the callous way Starscream was treated by season three of the show, and by the movie, especially the ending—where, after spending an entire (half-length) season nerfed into full-bore comic relief that Team Rocket would pity, he gets comeuppance befitting an actual villain. Right after Megatron walks off Scot free, after basically saying that a few days of Unicron doing to him what he'd done to Starscream for millions of years made him have a change of heart.

The writers, in the third season, nerfed Starscream. They had him do stupid things like try to use brute force against Predacons (and forget that an ornithopter might as well be walking, if it has to keep pace with a jet), and let him be bullied by Miko, and somehow be able to be shaken up by jostling that a human being (which is not, to my knowledge, designed to take re-entry or multi-G turns, unlike a Seeker) had been just fine in. Why? Well, partly because they thought Stephen Blum made funny noises as "freaked out Starscream". But also because they were moving the plot from Point A to Point B, and needed to spotlight Miko as if she was a relatable character (rather than a future serial killer), and needed to have the Wreckers live up to their till-then somewhat hollow chest-thumping. (Not only was Starscream nerfed so Wheeljack could seem smart—that whole tracking-device debacle was Ender's Game levels of "we made everyone else stupid rather than come up with a decent plan for the hero"—but Soundwave was, too. And Soundwave's courtesy title, which properly precedes his name whenever used, is actually "Excellent work", even in the Bayverse let alone the Aligned continuity.)

They deliberately made Starscream small and sleek in this version, so he would have to use his wits—and then in the third season he becomes a witless moron. They let Soundwave, who is a communications device and has the Nemesis' ground-bridge slaved directly to his nervous system, so he can bridge people basically by flexing a muscle, get trapped between two ground-bridges (if the proximity of the two vortices holds them open, that needs to be stated—again, when it comes to technologies and phenomena you made up, "if you didn't say it, it didn't happen"...and that doesn't explain why Soundwave didn't just immediately bridge himself back again, with his sensors he'd figure out what was going on in a tenth the time it took Ratchet).

I realize that the final season was rushed, and they probably had to shoehorn the Predacons in. But that is my point: they were doing shoddy work, however good their excuse. (Besides, they did the same "this guy's totally evil, never mind we never really showed you that" thing with Breakdown, and that was in the second season.) It is shoddy work to treat a character as a counter on a game-board. It is shoddy work to treat a setting as stage-dressing. Why on Earth would Starscream, of all people, try to browbeat Predaking, who he knows is stronger than him? It's true he's a petty borderline-psychopath who loves power-trips: but he only trips on power he's got. He might very well zoom off, and proceed to pelt Predaking with missiles from "over-the-horizon" range (the only thing keeping him from doing that to Megatron—they've got cameras on missiles, so he wouldn't even miss the look on his face—is his huge mental block where Megatron is concerned), and then zoom back in to gloat, once Predaking was bludgeoned by concussion-effects and possibly glowing red-hot around the edges. It'd even make sense for him to do that, miscalculate, and get trounced by a Predaking who was less missiled-into-submission than Starscream thought. But hit it with a stick? Why the hell would he do that? Do Cybertronians even think of "random cylindrical bit of debris" as being a bludgeoning-instrument? Tool use actually appears to be genuinely secondary to their mindset, since their anatomy changes to accommodate their tasks.

I realize this impulse, to treat characters as props and settings as stage-dressing, has always been with us. "You'd only build a ship like the Nostromo if you knew it'd be the setting of a horror-movie." But I really think it's gotten worse lately. I don't know if it's the success of Game of Thrones (where the characters exist only to set up the "twists" and the torture-porn—and the regular kind), or ideology (certainly Miko—who, with her total lack of fear around thirty-foot metal Nazis, is the person Goren meant when he said "...Tweak the upbringing another way, [people like that] become psychopaths"—is probably an unusually virulent strain of the stupid version of "strong female character"), but writers seem to care less about character than they used to, even as recently as 2010 or so. (It'd be ironic if the animus against "Mary Sues", where everything works out okay for your character, were involved, given that Miko could basically have been created to be an example of a Mary Sue, and all.)

I think it might be a combination of factors; Whedon and Martin between them being praised for "torturing" their characters, only sometimes figuratively, for example, is almost certainly one—since valuing that kind of thing encourages treating characters as tokens on a game-board, and settings as the spaces they move around on. Certainly nobody who cares about worldbuilding in a work of speculative fiction can like Firefly or ASoIaF, since neither of those settings makes sense for ten consecutive minutes. Another might be the changing nature of media, between the diminishing returns for various kinds of producers and the way social media's affected "word of mouth", fiction-producers might be reacting with something akin to what's known in online media as "clickbait"—with more shallow "twists" and more spotlight on characters or character-traits the "community" likes, rather than on what actually serves the actual story in question. But is there any factor that makes this not bad work, even if it's bad work with an excuse? I'm thinking long and hard and can't find one.


Sierra and Two Foxtrots

Science fiction and fantasy. Most of the latter is related to RPGs.
  • I had wondered if I could get away with having one of my planets have no life, and yet have an atmosphere humans can breathe. See, oxygen is highly reactive, and ordinarily bonds to other things; it is only found on Earth in a free state because it's exhaled en masse by all our photosynthetic organisms. Things weren't always so, for life on Earth, and in fact the Great Oxygenation Event is believed to have caused a mass-extinction that makes the Great Dying look like a rounding-error, because almost everything then living on Earth was anaerobic. (The presence of free oxygen is a trait exoplanet searches look for, because it indicates a planet might be host to life of the stage after a Great Oxygenation.)

    But, fortunately, the planet in question is in orbit of a K-type star—it orbits at .25 AUs, which is the particular K-type star's Goldilocks Zone. And apparently, M-type stars, at least, might have planets whose atmospheres have free oxygen without life. See, while M-stars are much dimmer overall than Sol, they give off almost the same amount of far-UV light. Far-UV breaks up many oxygen compounds on contact with the upper atmospheres of planets. The amount of light in any wavelength falls off with the square of the distance, so a planet orbiting an M-type star in its Goldilocks Zone is getting far more far-UV than a planet orbiting a G-type star. This probably has little effect on its surface—atmospheres are almost entirely opaque to far-UV—but in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, oxygen is being freed from compounds by radiation, at a rate comparable to that done by organisms on Earth.

    I think I can brazen out that the same process is in play in orbit of a K-type star, although they're intermediate between M and G; certainly their Goldilocks Zone still gets a lot more far-UV than ours does, even if it's not quite as much as an M star's does.
  • It seemed silly to me that the scythe was listed as a martial weapon in 3e D&D, but on reflection it makes sense. If you aren't careful with a scythe, you'll chop the ankles of bystanders or possibly yourself. Plus you have to learn to sharpen it—you use a dry whetstone, and go by the sound. You can also do all kinds of things to a scythe by using it wrong, from loosening the handle to scratching it on the ground.

    And then it occurred to me that the typical human commoner wouldn't have to waste his one feat on Martial Weapon Proficiency (scythe)—because humans get two feats at first level. And of the PC-race humanoids (what we grognards reflexively call "demihumans"), only halflings are likely to need to scythe—elves, dwarves, and gnomes don't farm, at least not the kind of farming that requires scything down grass to make hay.

    If you read that Belloc essay, by the bye, you will discover where Tolkien got the Hobbits: the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain. Belloc says of them that it "is on account of their presence in these islands that our gardens are the richest in the world." He also says they "love low rooms and ample fires and great warm slopes of thatch", which is a Hobbit-hole summed up in twelve words.
  • I discover that a zled vocal apparatus isn't as much like a bird syrinx as I'd thought: since a bird syrinx is in the chest, at the bottom of the trachea, instead of in the neck, at the top, like human vocal cords. And, come to think of it, a human's vocal cords are as "hyoid" (y-shaped) as bird ones are—you have a vocal fold on each side of your windpipe—with the bird's lateralization actually being something different.

    So I guess zledo actually have a vocal apparatus wholly unlike anything found on Earth, instead having two layers of cord, one to make complex "speech" sounds and the other basically only trilling. The latter, I think, might be down lower, allowing a zled to almost deepen trilled sounds like a subwoofer—or like the only-partly-ossified Adam's apple of the pantherines, which can stretch out and vibrate much more deeply to let roars become louder.

    I'd already had zledo use trilled shouts—roars—which can carry for miles, for premodern military signaling. I would imagine that, for one thing, the need for military buglers wouldn't come up: your sergeants can literally bellow like lions. Lion roars can be heard five miles away, after all. (For more surreptitious signaling, the Signalers' Sodality used heliographs, which are still one of their symbols.)
  • Slightly redoing the zled year. I'd been using the "simple" way of calculating where a planet orbits: stick it at a spot where it gets the same amount of sunlight Earth does, relative to its star's luminosity. But you have a bit more wiggle-room than that, since habitable zones are often almost a whole AU wide; so I decided to stick Lhãsai a bit further out, giving them a year 532 Julian days long—shorter than their year was when their primary was 59 Virginis, but still noticeably different from Earth's.

    I also discovered that I can't stick the khângây at ν Phoenicis, which is where they'd been; its current estimated age of 5.7 billion years is a bit too old. Changed their primary to "HD 211415", AKA "GJ 853 A, HIP 110109, HR 8501, LHS 3790, LFT 1702, LTT 8943, SAO 247400," and a couple of other designations about as memorable as a ZIP code for a place you never send mail to. But, I think it might also be "37 G. Gruis"; that name shows up a bit in literature, and HD 211415's number, in the catalog the Gould designations (that's what the G. stands for) are from, is 37. It's in Grus ("the crane"), too, so I think that's its name (for some reason the genitive of grus is gruis—it's third declension, but most third-declension nouns don't end in -ús in the nominative). In my setting, the human colonials refer to the star as "Three-seven Golf Gruis"—when they don't just call it the khângây word for "sun", anyway.

    I had had the khângây have never thought their star went around their planet, but that might be unlikely: even at an orbital distance like the one I gave them (they have a slightly longer year than the zledo), the parallax of the nearest star to them (which is only about 1.2 light-years away—which probably changed their space-development substantially) is about 3.9 arc-seconds. The maximum naked-eye resolution for a human is .6 arc-minutes, which is 36 arc-seconds. Thus, they would need over 9.2 times the visual acuity of humans, and while their vision is markedly superior to that of humans in some respects, they have no need for the same eyes as a hawk, because they don't hunt anything like how a hawk does.
  • Was looking into a few things in Pathfinder. I kinda like their hybrid classes, although they're basically just doing what I was doing with 3.5's gestalt-class alternate rule, except neglecting paladins and psions—and incorporating the utterly superfluous oracle, witch, alchemist, and gunslinger. (Actually, I might give you alchemist.) But their decision to give wizards and sorcerers d6 hit-dice just doesn't sit right; mages should be "glass cannons". Sure, hybridization/gestalting can get you mages who use some other class's bigger hit-die, but when you go all-in for spell-power (the gestalt wizard-sorcerer, which is the hybrid class called "arcanist"—but also gestalt wizard-psion or sorcerer-psion), you should still be rolling d4s.

    "'Tis the duty of the wealthy man/To give employment to the artisan." Let those fighters and barbarians earn their keep by acting as bullet-sponges for the mage, dagnabbit!

    And seriously, anyone who has different stats for margays and cats, or parrots and kakapos (or, for that matter, for parrots and ravens): you are officially OCD. Give the cat a climb speed and you have a margay, or an ocelot for that matter (I'd give the margay the same climb as its run, and knock 10 feet off for the ocelot); give the raven an eagle's bite damage to make a parrot (actually regular ravens should have no claw damage at all, but should do 1d4 peck damage—they're not raptorines and don't use their talons, if their claws are even worthy of the name); take the parrot's fly speed away and you have a kakapo. You also don't need separate stats for deer and stags, since, y' know, stags are deer, and all.
  • I don't care for Pathfinder's flanderization of the races. Snooty elves, dirty ignorant goblins, workaholic dwarves? Why, what a bold new direction you're taking things in! If I were to do something that stupid (which I wouldn't), well, how about do it to humans for a change? Give every other race (except orcs and ogres) a +2 bonus to Spot checks to find humans—because of the smell. And make humans take penalties as if they were multiclassing even in their first class—"jack of all trades is master of none", after all.

    Personally I find it much more interesting to take the stereotype in a new direction. I've talked about my dwarves having a gift-economy, for example; that's something I hadn't seen people do with the "really love craft and wealth" stereotype. My goblins are a combination of the bugbears' stealth with the hobgoblins' warlike ways (and my "bugbears" are just the biggest, full-grown male hobgoblins). They are, however, still lawful evil—their stealth functions a bit like the Predator hunting-code. (My goblins don't eat intelligent beings, though, whereas my ogres—which includes orcs—do. Ogres and orcs just don't eat each other.)

    The elves in my campaign sometimes trick humans into dangerous situations, possibly including deadly ones—but only in adolescence, an age when (as an elf points out in the story I'm setting in my campaign) humans kill each other in duels over winks at bar-maids and break their neighbors' skulls in armed raids. My elves have some elements in common with Warcraft trolls, like axes and pointed teeth (though not tusks—and I made them the same height as humans now, though much lighter; bigger than humans was weird). I think their stealth, too, functions by a Predator-like code (cloak of elvenkind, anyone?), though of course it applies to fewer targets than the goblins'.
  • Decided that triangular casings on zled lasers requires just too big of triangles. A 6-centimeter (or, actually, 6.435—aliens, they don't use nice round numbers of our units) lens, to be inscribed in an equilateral triangle with a minimum "tube" thickness of .32175 cm (which is a nice round number relative to a zled unit), requires a side-length of 11.14575 centimeters. So decided that all their weapons are hexagonal; that means the 6.435 centimeter laser is only 8.17354 cm wide, which is much more doable (being almost exactly three centimeters less). (The hand-lasers, with 3.2175 cm lenses, are now only 4.4583 centimeters wide, where before they had been 5.5729 centimeters.)

    Also decided not to bother with scabbards for their swords: or at least, not fixed scabbards. Instead, both the swords and the lasers have retractable sheaths, which, in the swords, slide down from the hilt when a control is activated. The same control whips the sheath away as the sword is drawn, so it's out of the way when the speed-draw strikes. The guns, on the other hand, just have retractable lens-covers (which may well retract entirely into the casing when the laser's in use—ultra-advanced materials don't have to be all that thick to protect the lens). Both laser and sword have some kind of automated hook-up that attaches them to weapon-belts, or to attachment-points on armor or spacesuits; part of what this change means is the speed-draw just became a much simpler motion, "unhook and attack" rather than "clear holster/sheath, attack".

    Pity I can't keep my long-gun iaido idea, though.
  • Female characters' armor being sculpted to their boobs does not offend me because it's sexist. It offends me because it's apparently a really bad idea; it's basically like sticking a splitting-wedge right over your sternum. And there are ways to have armor that doesn't have that problem while still making it look appealing. The "sweater-girl" look doesn't have a noticeable cleavage, and it's not exactly a burqah; armor can conform to feminine curves without being a liability. See, e.g., Cherche, from Fire Emblem: Awakening. And also Flavia and Sully.

    Incidentally, the "girl in skimpy armor" thing is not the same kind of problem. While it is a vulnerability, in real life, lots of people did fight like that. Watch a samurai movie sometime. There's always guys running around with only kote and suneate, and maybe a happuri. Armor, after all, is itself a liability, that's why we stopped wearing it for quite some time (in the West: east of, oh, Slovakia or so, people were wearing armor till right up into the 19th century). It's hot and heavy. That makes it a pain to slog around, especially for the smaller-framed (which, while it means your armor is smaller and therefore lighter, also means that so are your muscles). A woman would be quite likely to shed the heavy breastplate and just keep the armor for her arms, legs, and head.

    Yes, I just decided "to slog around" can be used transitively.