All posts by David

The Cloverfield Paradox and the problems of quantum realism

First, a spoiler warning for The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), obviously. Second, a disclaimer about my opinion on the quality of the three Cloverfield movies so far

  1. Cloverfield, pretty good
  2. 10 Cloverfield Lane, pretty great
  3. The Cloverfield Paradox, pretty bad

There are many reasons for that third point, but one that really sticks with me is made evident in the following line from the film, by Dr. Ernst Schmidt:

What we know about quantum entanglement dictates [activating the machine again] should bring us back, and perhaps undo the damage we’ve done.

It’s a pretty big moment, it establishes the main character’s goal for the rest of the story as well as the goal potential secret antagonists are only pretending to attain. However, it means everyone will spend the rest of the movie trying to do for the second time something they already achieved in the first 20 minutes.

We did X, with all of our equipment in good condition, after 2 years of constantly failing, and doing it sent us into the Unknown and damaged our equipment. Let’s do X again so everything goes back to normal.

It isn’t compelling even if the script justifies it, and the script doesn’t justify it. “What we know about quantum entanglement” is lazy writing, it means you didn’t even bother to look for a convincingly sciency-sounding phrase. What do we know about entanglement? Why are we talking quantum when discussing the physical behavior of a massive space station? Why does our plot revolve around 2013-style uneducated panic about the dangers of the Higgs boson?

The Spanish subtitles are particularly funny here: “Quantum entanglement says it will take us back.”

If you do X and you end up in a weird place, my general advice is do not try X again hoping it’ll take you back. If your plot depends on something nobody really understands and everyone just kinda hopes will work, don’t be surprised if characters sacrificing themselves for this vague hope feels terribly out of place. To me this all sounds like

What we know about neuropsychology dictates hitting this dude in the head really hard for the second time should bring his memories back, and perhaps undo the damage we’ve done.

Also, I’m always bothered (more than I should, probably) with the use of quantum mechanics as a plot device. For a long time newtonian physics has been deemed soulless and deterministic, which has lead it to be (often rightfully) ignored in stories filled with magic, or passion. The popularization of quantum mechanics means writers now tend to use it to make their magic seem scientifically backed, but the illusion never lasts more than an instant.

Though ever since I watched Extra Credits’ Frankenstein series I keep going back to Percy Shelley’s prologue:

The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence.

It reminds me that science fiction usually explores the edge of what we understand about any given thing, and builds stories out of what it finds there. I honestly don’t know if

What we know about physiology dictates electrocuting a collage of body parts should bring it to life.

sounded as ridiculous in 1818 as Schmidt’s entanglement line does in 2018 (hey that’s exactly 200 years later would you look at that). I do know this is fiction, and you should be able to have multiple dimensions without paying lip service to the many-worlds interpretation. I also know that I’m more willing to forgive you for it if you single handedly invent a century-defining genre at 18 years old.

Secrets and lies in Stand Still Stay Silent

In one of the latest pages from Minna Sundberg’s Stand Still Stay Silent, Emil gets pretty close to putting himself in Lalli’s shoes in a way that Lalli can appreciate (“Is that what you have to deal with all the time?”). You may not know them, they’re two of my favorite characters from this comic (a category that also includes the entire rest of the cast), but they’ve been through many adventures together. In publication time, they’ve known each other for nearly 4 years, yet it doesn’t feel like they’ve ever had a complete, successful conversation.

From the beginning the problem was, of course, that Emil didn’t know Finnish and Lalli couldn’t speak Swedish. Translation between the two has mostly been handled and heavily edited by Lalli’s cousin, Tuuri. Another problem is they’ve angrily told each other things they didn’t really mean, and another one still (perhaps the most insidious) is they’ve refrained from speaking their minds on several occasions out of shame and general young-adult ineptitude. They have both shown signs of wanting to consider the other a friend but not really knowing if the feeling goes both ways. Emil especially.

Different languages, biased translation, saying things you don’t mean, lacking the courage to speak. Stand Still Stay Silent is a beautiful parade of all forms of miscommunication. The one form that is mostly absent is lying, and with few exceptions secrets. Every character is generally trying their best to convey all the information they find relevant to the mission but communication breaks all the same, because that’s what human communication does.

Many stories suffer an excess of secrets and lies (not Secrets and Lies though, that movie was so good). Admiral Holdo’s secret plan in The Last Jedi is an example of this. I remember I stopped watching Lost shortly after Marshal Edward Mars died saying

[Kate] is dangerous. Don’t let her get to you. She is not to be trusted. She would do anything to get away.

Not only was I intrigued by Kate’s past, but also by the marshal’s reasons for not disclosing it. Why be so secretive when you’re trying to convince someone of your nemesis’ wickedness, on a deserted island, seconds away from death? Well, I looked it up on Wikipedia. Turns out he had every reason to speak openly. The esoteric language seems to be there mostly to sustain the mystery, and the idea that this show was going to do that regularly really turned me off.

Stand Still Stay Silent earns its few secrets. Sure, there are dodgy motifs behind the main mission, but all characters we know are privy to this and either accept it or choose to ignore it. The first lie that comes to mind is Onni’s famous “I have no need for worldly possessions” to mask the accident that cost him his luggage. And maybe Reynir’s “I didn’t care what my parents thought!” when, coincidentally, also relating the beginning of his trip into the unknown. Both are single-page gags that tell us a lot about the characters without really affecting the plot.

Chapter 15 includes the heaviest secret in the story so far, which not only was promptly revealed to the audience when a main character found out about it, but even ended with a single-day, 8-pages-long update that basically rushed the readers to the moment when the entire main cast was up to date.

That is one of the strongest narrative takeaways from this comic, that I try to bring into my own practice. Do not manufacture secrecy or deception when awkwardness and shame are much more plausible barriers to any human undertaking.

What I’ve been up to (September 2016)

We never step twice into the same river. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. And other such clichés which, you know, just because they’re trite doesn’t make them any less true. Every now and then I think about the person I was a few years ago and I’m overwhelmed by how much I’ve changed, even being as young as I still am. I’m overwhelmed by the chasm between that person’s opinions and the ones that define me today.

The thought that follows is that no doubt some of my current opinions differ fundamentally from the ones I’ll hold a few years from now. The following thought is that the same must be true of all people.

Now then, for us to be overwhelmed by the changing self, we need an equally strong constant self: the only reason why I’m stunned by how different I am from last year’s David is that I feel identical to yesterday’s David. And I know yesterday’s David felt identical to the one from 48 hours ago.

I updated this blog with my creative life’s status back in June, that is, three months ago. I talked about my text games, about my 2D games parodying games by my friends, about Matajuegos, about my general emotional ill-being.

I am not the same person I was three months ago. Moreover: I am not the same person I was one month ago. Even more: one month ago I had the sudden feeling I was not the same person I had been 48 hours earlier.

The time is right again, then, for me to rhetorically ask myself: what have I been up to since the last time I showed signs of life?

Quit in July

Chronologically, the first thing that’s worth mentioning is I quit my job. Since late 2013 I’ve been occupying most of my time with full time jobs that have nothing to do with my creative interests, to my freelancer friends’ dismay.

No doubt there are people with bigger problems in the world, but 60 hour work weeks are no fun. 45 hour ones where you get up every day at 6 AM aren’t either.

I left the place I was working at, then, partly because the work wasn’t gratifying enough, partly because my freelancer friends insisted that putting up with an ungratifying job wasn’t the best possible plan, partly because taking care of my emotional state became a greater priority than being able to move out in the near future, partly because two and a half years of savings gave me a little breathing space. Just a little.

I gave notice in early May and left by the end of July.

Teaching in August

Fundación Telefónica organized a videogames workshop in collaboration with the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) oriented toward people who had never made a game in their lives. The workshop consisted of four three-hour-long classes, every Wednesday of August, and was lead by Agustín “Tembac” Pérez Fernández, who had the kindness of inviting me as an assistant.

I had the fortune, then, of earning some money teaching games before I even started looking for a job.

Most people who came to the workshop were women, and regardless of gender most were teachers in subjects unrelated to videogame development. We used Game Maker and Twine. I have no problem teaching Twine to whomever in whatever time is available, but right from the start I told Agustín my experience with Game Maker is very limited, and when it comes to simple tools for making 2D games I’m more of a Construct 2 guy. He told me no deep knowledge of the tool was required. And he was right, for the workshop we mostly worked with the intro tutorials.

It’s always unsettling talking videogames with people from outside the space, people who are interested in the subject but are alien to the controversies, the common sense, the celebrities, the memes from the world of videogame creation. The first thing I feel is they are luckier than me. The second thing I feel is they are luckier than me, but sarcastically.

Bringing them up to date involves enunciating a number of principles from common sense without the nuance other contexts would require. I don’t tell my friends the cake is a lie, for example, because they’ve heard that joke a thousand times, but there’s people I wouldn’t tell it to because they never heard it. The hope is they’ll get interested enough to make their games and learn enough of our idiosyncrasies to enjoy the tweets by Merritt Kopas about what it would be like being Jonathan Blow’s child.

Crack Bang Boom in August

Another thing that happened in August, on the weekend between the first workshop class and the second, was Crack Bang Boom, an annual comics convention in the city of Rosario.

Ever since Force Awakens came out, an unignorable amount of individuals have pointed out to me, both in person and though the web, my relative physical likeness with the film’s main antagonist. What began as a joke quickly turned into a bigger joke when I finally saw the movie and became amazed with the character I was supposed to look like: Kylo Ren.

The absurdity of his failures, his emotional instability, the pretension of being a tough villain which faded away the moment it was challenged… I was really needing those qualities to be presented in a work of fiction as features of a serious, powerful, clearly-oriented character.

What began as a joke and turned into a bigger joke, then, also turned into a very serious plan of cosplaying Kylo Ren at Crack Bang Boom. The plan involved leaving the Buenos Aires Province for the first time in my adult life, finding accommodation in Rosario, sleeping in someone else’s house for the first time in many years, and dressing up in public for the first time since high school.

My sister’s mother had the marvelous disposition of telling me which fabrics to buy and making with them a full Kylo Ren outfit (minus boots and helmet: the boots I bought near my house and the helmet I skipped so people could see the resemblance). I’m eternally grateful, both to her and to the kind Rosarino, Tozy, whose home was my refuge during those four days in a formerly unknown city.

Crack Flauros
Photo by Flauros Geek Photo
Crack Shinobi
Photo by Shezo! (Shinobi News)
No idea who took this photo
No idea who took this photo
Reproducción de Mer Grazzini
Reproduction by Mer Grazzini

The Cuore in August

The Cuore

Back in February it had occurred to me that my next parody game was going to steal its mechanics from the upcoming The Core. It was going to be a funny game about being sad. The mechanics I built easily, but level design isn’t my thing, and Construct 2’s tilemap editor is not that good, so back then I finished three levels, the second of which was the only one that could be called such, and I left the project in standby.

The thing about this parody is, it’s a game conceived by a sad David, and because of a series of events related to having met a special person in Rosario during Crack Bang Boom, “sad” is just not an emotion I’m relating to a whole lot lately.

Since the parody, besides being sad, was funny in a singular and very-much-my-own way, the project kept retaining my attention. Put another way, the game was close enough to me that I would not bury it forever, but distant enough that I wanted to get it off my back with as little effort as possible.

I built one more level than the ones I already had and ended up uploading it, to everybody’s content. It’s called The Cuore and it works.

Teaching in September

Remember when Agustín contacted me so I could help him with the workshop at Fundación Telefónica and I told him that I’m more of a Construct 2 guy? Well, those days Nico Castez from Avix was just looking for someone to help him in his Construct 2 classes at the Escuela Da Vinci de Arte Multimedial, and Agustín knew to bring up my name.

The audience at Da Vinci is a bit younger and more versed in tech and games. Construct 2 makes it possible to create simple prototypes with familiar mechanics in the two hours of a class, with the comic, expressive and personal value of everybody having to draw every game element with their mouse on the spot. Generally there’s even time to talk design and theory and expression.

This last Saturday Nico couldn’t come to Da Vinci for bad and good reasons (the good ones having to do with winning an Awesome Game Award for Best Mobile Game 2016 at EVA Córdoba with Avix’s Thumb Fighter!) so I took charge of his classes, plus a free Construct 2 workshop only for that day as part of the Bit Bang Fest.

It was my first full day of work since I quit my previous job and I ended up very tired and very happy.

What does the future hold for me?

Nothing but good things.

What I’ve been up to (June 2016)

This year so far I’ve been at my most productive. My usual productive is pretty bad so my most productive is not impressive but I should tell you what I’ve been up to and I should update my sites and probably think about setting up an attractive portfolio because my financial situation is also not that impressive and I’m definitely not at my most financial.

I wrote the previous post almost a year ago, soon after leaving a 60 hours/week job which I put up with for a year and a half but maybe I should’ve left earlier and I had begun working at an office which I’m leaving at the end of June now with no plan whatsoever as to where I’m headed next. The world is a scary place and it doesn’t feel right and I haven’t felt right in a long time but I’m getting up every morning so don’t worry too much about me or my run-on sentences.

On November Agustín Cordes arranged a meeting between Brian Moriarty, who was coming to Argentina to give a talk about Loom, and Argentina’s most prominent IF authors or whoever wanted to go show Moriarty their game with words or a particular narrative intent. I’m nobody but also I’m somebody whom everybody in the Argentina indie dev scene associates with Twine and thus with games with words in them.
MeetingMoriartyIF

I told Moriarty about the twines I make in 60 seconds that were probably the longest I’ve ever spoken in English ever. Agustín immediately reminded me that on top of writing twines I actually translated Twine 2 into Spanish and that I should sell myself better, which is very very true. Moriarty seemed very tired but he listened to some other people’s projects and it all went fine.

After that my friend Santiago Franzani introduced me to the Kitten Cloud team and did not introduce me to Pablo Quarta because he had already done so a few months before and we all went to a nearby restaurant and talked for a couple hours and are now good friends. It’s been almost eight months since that. I could say I’ve never had this many friends.

Cobar (February 2016)

Cobar

I made Cobar in Construct 2 because I wanted to make something small and silly. There is an itch in me and it’s terrible. Cobar lasts about 5 minutes and it’s a parody of Santiago’s maybe upcoming My Little Humanity about a boat carrying humanity and changing course depending on humanity’s ideology which you help shape. The itch is nowhere on me that I can reach, and it’s terrible, it doesn’t get better. Cobar is probably really bad or obscure if you don’t know the original game or aren’t Santiago’s friend, but people with some knowledge of Argentine games found it funny I think.

Matajuegos (March)

Matajuegos

Santiago and I had an idea for a bilingual blog about games in 2014. It would focus on games about culture and interpersonal relationships and all that artsy stuff. Most people I know have the itch but they can scratch it, it’s always a mild itch, if you can reach it then scratching it will be mostly a pleasant occasional experience. The day Santiago introduced me to Pablo, he also pitched a book to me consisting of Spanish translations of good games critique. There really is a shortage of interesting games critique in the Hispanophone world.

When these frozen projects were brought to my attention by Facebook’s On This Day feature, Rumpel from Kitten Cloud said she was interested in collaborating and pushed us so we actually release the damn thing. Matajuegos is both projects now, we post our own stuff in Spanish and English and once every four weeks we translate something into Spanish. It’s pretty and you should check it out.

Sisters of Claro Largo (April)

Hermanas de Claro Largo

I usually don’t do jams or any kind of deadline-oriented game creation event, but 2016’s Spring Thing happened and my itch wants me to be productive, and these events are meant for being or feeling productive.

You know, it’s not like I’m obsessed with this itch, it’s just that I can’t reach it. This is partially a metaphor for loneliness. I wrote my first twine in 2012 when my ex dumped me and I haven’t felt right ever since. Sisters of Claro Largo is a twine about two sisters in a town of exiles. Emily Short wrote a bit about it when she reviewed the Thing and Lynnea Glasser (author of Creatures Such as We and Coloratura) played it on Twitch and it was beautiful.

Currently the game at the end shows you one of two randomly selected endings and I plan on changing that so the player can at least have a little choice moment.

Armando the Bardo (May)

Armando the Bardo

Spring Thing is only jam-like so I tried something with “jam” in the actual name now. I wrote Armando the Bardo: Shakespeare’s Secret Lover for the Bard Jam. It’s not like I would constantly be scratching myself if I could. I’d scratch it occasionally, like most people do.

Basically, working on Matajuegos meant having editors for the first time in my life, and it’s really great but I also had to face the fact that having most of my creative output be texty things and passing as Anglophone is a real pain in the ass, I’m just not there yet. So I wrote a story where most characters are worst at English than I am. Worse, I mean. It was fun to write.

It’s still English-only! I prepared the Spanish text but I have to paste it on Twine and upload it, I need some time. I’ll have time.

Yifairy (also May)

cover

Yifairy is a birthday present game! The birthday girl appreciated it. Like, it’s only natural to think a lot about food if you don’t have any, or have the bare minimum to survive. A person who scratches themselves whenever they want to may tell you to stop getting itchy all the time because it’s not healthy but you don’t get itchy all the time, you know? You got itchy once and you just could never reach it, it doesn’t feel good at all. I made Yifairy in Construct 2 like Cobar, but it’s more obscure still. I had fun with it though.

Future projects

No idea, sorry.

The hard problem of Chappie: science fiction and its paradoxes

Warning: imminent, unrestricted discussion on Chappie, its themes, story and ending.

As it usually goes in science fiction, Chappie (Neill Blomkamp, ​​2015) revolves around a small network of philosophical problems, scientific specialties and technological goals.

Philosophically, it’s a film about the hard problem of consciousness proposed by David Chalmers in 1995. As it usually goes in science fiction, the story’s and the problem’s conclusion go hand in hand. That is, during its narrative climax Chappie proposes a particular answer to the existential questions that inspire it: What is conscious experience? How does it relate with the brain’s processes for handling information? And the biggest one, is it possible to answer these questions?

Technologically, Chappie’s answer is a bit whimsical. Scientifically, the answer is simple, stubborn, and perfectly in line with my personal position on this. Is it possible to know what consciousness is? Chappie answers: yes.

I’ll do my best to understand why is it that, in reaching that answer, the protagonist’s intellectual victory, Chappie’s, is not a triumph over the villain who wants to see him dead but over his creator and best friend.

The hard problem

I always try describing the hard problem of consciousness respectfully. It’s an awfully interesting concept and many thinkers I deeply respect take it very seriously. I tend to think it’s not as important as it presents itself and seen a certain way it’s not really a problem, but none of that prevents me from finding it fascinating.

Understanding the problem is useful yet unessential for enjoying Chappie or for reading the rest of this article frankly. Suffice it to say that many people are convinced that no analysis of the human brain, no matter how comprehensive, can possibly reveal the nature of consciousness. For those interested, I take the liberty to describe the hard problem, as I understand it, as briefly as I can:

The idea is that neuroscience is advancing day by day in its efforts to understand the mechanisms by which the nervous system receives inputs and processes information. Each decade will find us more enlightened about it. Eventually, we’ll have perhaps not a complete but a comprehensive idea of how internal brain mechanisms operate.

We’ll understand how signals from the senses reach the brain and how neurons react, to these signals and to each other, how they store and process data in ways that eventually result in the body’s specific movements, posture attitudes and sound emissions, ranging from sudden laughs to annoyed grunts or words, which in turn can be conversations or speeches or voice messages or improvised songs.

Applied to a simpler machine, we can imagine a clock’s internal components taking the finger movement that winds it and resulting in a steady, rhythmic motion of its hands. The gears are pushing each other and the clock doesn’t know what’s happening or has any experience of the event. If for some reason we knew the clock is perceiving what happens, our understanding of its mechanism wouldn’t help us understand its ability to perceive.

In the future of neuroscience, we could imagine the brain’s inner components in motion and generating behaviors on the human body. We could visualize neurons exercising their capabilities and would understand how this makes that brain’s owner display a certain behavior, but we wouldn’t necessarily understand how she has any experience of the world. We can understand how the brain processes images, for example, but we’ll never know how it generates the experience of what’s the color green.

We know consciousness exists only because we experience it from the inside, and we assume other consciousnesses exist only because other bodies display our same symptoms. This is the hard part of the hard problem: not only we don’t know what consciousness is, we don’t know what could it be or where to start looking.

If we can imagine the moving gears of a clock showing the time without the clock knowing of its own existence, we can imagine the working neurons of a person who goes through her day and communicates without any internal notion of being in the world. This hypothetical person with a brain mechanically identical to our own but lacking personal consciousness, is what in this context is called a philosophical zombie. The important thing is, if such people existed, there’d be no conceivable material way to distinguish them from the rest, and therefore what distinguishes us from them is mysterious.

You don’t have to be religious to admire the hard problem or to think it matters, but it’s easy to see how the proposition is suggesting conscious experience must have some immaterial basis, which doesn’t act according to the laws of nature as we understand them.

Artificial Intelligence

The hard problem is a daunting presence in the field of artificial intelligence research, and therefore in the world of science fiction. It suggests we can program robots to act as if they had a personal experience, but we have no way of checking they do.

Chappie, then, asks whether its protagonist, the robot named Chappie, whose consciousness was fully programmed by the young Deon Wilson, is truly capable of having an inner life and an experience of the world, or whether he’s just designed to fake it.

The answer it gives us, of course, is affirmative. Chappie has a conscience and his experience of the world is as valid as any human being’s. It’s not a particularly original response: twentieth century fiction is full of thinking, feeling machines.

Common sense is dedicated, among other things, to identify human experience as unique and irreplicable. Science fiction is dedicated, among other things, to take down the various manifestations of this particular article of popular wisdom wherever it’s found.

As it usually goes in science fiction, all the main characters have personal positions on the matter, and important plot points contain discussions in which their views are contrasted.

“You’re not data”

A contradictory character in this sense is Deon Wilson, Chappie’s maker. The following exchange occurs at the 80th minute when Chappie is considering installing his consciousness into a new body with a healthy battery:

Chappie: —Deon, this could save me. I need a new body, remember?

Deon: —No, it can’t save you, Chappie. The problem is much greater than your battery.

Chappie: —Why?

Deon: —Because you are conscious. You cannot be copied because you’re not data. We don’t know what consciousness is, so we cannot move it.

Chappie: —Chappie can figure it. I can know what it is, and then I can move me.

Deon: —You can’t move it, I’m sorry!

Deon’s position is strange, and to some extent seems forced to push the story forward.

It’s important to note that Deon doesn’t doubt Chappie’s personal experience. Deon believes (knows) Chappie to be alive and aware, but also believes his consciousness can’t be copied from one robot to another.

It isn’t immediately clear how this view holds. 15 minutes into the film the very same Deon is done compiling the CONSCIOUSNESS.DAT file successfully. 25 minutes in, he’s installing the program in Chappie’s body from his laptop.

It’s clear that what he installed, what he effectively transferred from one robot (his computer) to another, isn’t merely “information” in the narrow sense used later to discourage his creation. Chappie initially lacks encyclopedic information about the world, he can’t even speak until he starts mimicking his peers’ English.

In all fairness to Deon, he never said the proposition is absolutely unfeasible. Maybe what’s impossible, in his eyes, is doing it fast enough. In the practical frame of the story, however, both positions are essentially identical. Either for lack of time or by logical necessity, Chappie’s plan is doomed to fail.

The easy problem

Marking the beginning of what tends to be called technological singularity, Chappie, a result of human creativity, manages to be more creative than the intelligence that created him and solves a problem his creator considered impossible.

Using his unmediated access to the internet (which he dubs the sum of all human knowledge) and a neurotransmitter helmet capable of transferring the wearer’s mental instructions to a remote unit, Chappie solves the hard problem.

As it usually goes in science fiction, at least in stories that predict answers to a currently pending question, Chappie’s solution is never explained in detail and we’re offered but glimmers of the bright object.

An initial description uses terms bordering on the mystical, perhaps with the excuse that Chappie’s explaining it to Yolandi, who knows more of superstition than neuroscience:

Consciousness is like energy. This helmet reads energy from you and me. I just need to figure out how to get it out.

It’s hard to imagine someone with a professional neuroscientist’s competence using the term “energy” so gratuitously. It’s never explained in what sense is this energy not “information” or how does it make sense that, not being information, the helmet can “read” it. But eventually Chappie finds out everything he has to.

Chappie Consciencia

Chappie: —I know what consciousness is. This helmet can read it.

The situation’s positivist thrust is notable. Chappie’s intellectual triumph is the triumph of scientific research, overcoming obstacles traditionally relegated by error to other branches of human inquiry.

In fact, Chappie’s processing power allows him to reach his conclusion in record time, establishing causation between his research and Progress much more strongly than real, human, slow, bumpy research.

Chappie even suspiciously gets answers for which you’d actually need accumulated data from brain scans of a number of experimental subjects Chappie has no access to. You can argue he does have access to thousands of published scans to date, but it’s clear his findings would require statistics from parameters his contemporaries wouldn’t have even begun to monitor.

Chalmers didn’t describe just the hard problem. The easy problem of consciousness, finding out through scientific research how the nervous system processes information, is also part of his point. In fact, the point is that there are two distinct problems, the easy and the hard one, where much of today’s neuroscience sees one. And that neuroscience progresses through one believing this will solve the other, which is not possible.

Asking how thoroughly we must understand the brain mechanism so that we know what consciousness is would be as incongruous as asking how thoroughly we must shuffle a deck of cards so that the sun turns green.

Chappie (both the film and the character) brings the problem to the table and then walks right through it, not without some insolence, as if it never existed. Chappie works hard on the easy problem and easily finds a solution for the hard one. Chappie shuffles those cards so bad the sun goes full lettuce.

“A fundamental spiritual problem”

That the main obstacle in his scientific endeavor is Deon’s opposition is even more curious considering the film already has an antagonist, Vincent Moore, to represent opposition to the story’s central thesis. His character introduction, during the film’s introductory news segment, is quite explicit about it:

Anderson Cooper: —Before the success of the ubiquitous human-sized police robots, there was a bigger bad boy on the block: the Moose. Vincent Moore is a weapons designer and a former soldier. He has a fundamental spiritual issue with artificial intelligence.

Vincent Moore: —I have a robot that is indestructible. It is operated by a thinking, adaptable, humane, moral human being.

Chappie’s advanced awareness doesn’t even exist at this point, and yet Vincent objects to the comparatively rudimentary intelligence of Deon’s inventions. The reasons behind this opposition are swiftly established: Deon’s success eclipsed his own, and he condemns artificial intelligence on spiritual grounds. Hugh Jackman’s natural accent also indicates that Vincent is Australian, just like David Chalmers.

His hostile demeanor’s origins are also established, somewhat stereotypically: he was military and his main interest, even outside the army, is weapons. Eventually we learn of his fondness for boxing and american football.

Later, pointing at the exposed insides of Chappie’s head, Vincent says:

Your simple A.I. program makes you think you’re real. But you know what’s in here, huh? Nothing. A bunch of wires, man.

Eavesdropping on the above quoted conversation between robot and maker, perhaps internally facing the possibility of Chappie indeed being alive and conscious, Vincent crosses himself. He doesn’t get to say Deon is playing God, but evidently some mystical assessment of consciousness in its organic expression explains his aversion to consciousness that was artificially manufactured.

Vincent is a jealous, weapons-loving, God-fearing soldier. His personal brand of Christianity is opposed, what a coincidence, to scientific advances led by his rival in the popularity contest secretly taking place inside his head.

He’s also a hypocrite: He convinced himself Chappie merely believes to be real, never realizing that the fact that Chappie believes anything goes against his worldview. He wants to fight crime by creating a killing machine (at no point do we get the impression the Moose can apprehend someone without destroying her in the process). He boasts of the moral superiority of human consciousness, but when he gets to use his, he tells his creation to perpetrate atrocities no other robot in the film comes close to committing.

Should not and can not, respectively

And nonetheless, again, when Chappie deciphers the secret of consciousness he’s not triumphing over Vincent’s overt hatred, but over his creator’s resigned skepticism.

This is narratively clever: if Vincent believed Chappie can’t be saved, his attempts to destroy him would make less sense. It’s also clever that Chappie’s artificial intelligence’s salvation finally depends on the neurotransmitter helmet Vincent himself invented precisely to dispense with artificial intelligence on his project.

In principle, it should be noted, Vincent opposes Chappie’s existence, or his potential popularity or his freedom of action, but not his ability to copy himself to another robot. While he doesn’t get a say in the matter (and while we might expect he would object to perpetuating an aberration’s life) his conviction that Chappie is “just” a program would prevent him at least from asserting, as Deon does, that Chappie is doomed to die before being copied to a different unit.

Which explains why Vincent is not the one opposing Chappie on this specific point, but why is it Deon? Why this contradiction? The first one to believe a machine can express feelings suddenly decides no human technology can move feelings from one point to another. The first one to imagine a scientific experiment who can write poetry suddenly decides the secret of consciousness exceeds the capabilities of science.

The film’s first minutes make us believe the enthusiastic scientist’s role will be occupied by Deon, the character that’s an actual scientific researcher. But Chappie, when it comes to avoiding his own death, usurps it without hesitation and succeeds ideologically over Vincent and Deon, for whom science should not and can not, respectively, decipher consciousness.

Science fiction’s paradox

If Deon’s well-intentioned antagonism can’t be explained inside the movie’s fiction, we may try to explain what function it’s fulfilling in the narrative. This would be an extra-diegetic explanation, but it must be more complex than “character A does X thing because if he didn’t the story couldn’t move forward.”

Part of it could be explained on a narrative thirst to include the aforementioned singularity. Chappie doesn’t go as far as creating an intelligence superior to his own, but at least his intelligence not only meets but also exceeds the capabilities of his maker’s. The result is an abrupt technological advancement, the sudden invention of cognitive transfer between robots and humans (whose verisimilitude doesn’t worry me at the moment). Technological singularity is a jump in the rate of human intellectual progress, a melody that unsettles by skipping forward several measures without warning.

It seems to me however that there is a deeper principle operating at the heart of Deon’s contradiction. A principle spanning science fiction and the values ​​it represents.

As I said at the beginning, most science fiction stories are born from a fascination with a current intellectual problem, with some emphasis on the philosophical implications of certain technological achievements. Yet it’s more accurate to say that there’s a particular way to be fascinated by a problem, and when we recognize it in a story we call it science fiction.

For a problem to fascinate us it is almost a necessity that we still haven’t figured it out. There is no doubt the aesthetic pleasure of an elegant solution, but I suspect that’s not what’s behind the kind of stories I mean.

Paradoxically, for a story like Chappie to have something to contribute to the problem at hand it is almost a necessity to propose a solution, or to pose a future in which such a solution is found.

Writing about space travel requires us to be fascinated by the vastness of the universe, interstellar distances, the problem that you can’t cross the abyss without dying several centuries before reaching the nearest star. It also requires us to imagine a ship capable of doing just that, or a culture capable of dealing with the waiting, or some other solution that eludes me.

Writing about the adventures of an artificial consciousness requires us to be fascinated by the hardness of the hard problem, our apparent intrinsic inability to discover the exact nature of personal experience. It also requires us to imagine ourselves tearing the problem down, to visualize a cognitive researcher at his eureka moment, or a robot saying “I know what consciousness is and this helmet can read it.”

In order to set in motion the events that make Chappie what it is, Deon has to be that future conquest of the intellect, he has to reach his eureka and decipher consciousness, to program it and install it on a dying anthropomorphic robot.

He also has to be that shocked amazement that invades us today, when consciousness seems indecipherable. He must consider Chalmers’ reflections and marvel at the complexity of the phenomenon of consciousness, to which we can’t find an explanation which, frankly, we don’t even know what it would look like.

A science fiction story needs to contain these two elements. Deon just got stuck between two expressions of the same fascination.

Chappie Pantalla

New twine story: QUIMER-B

Today I’m officially releasing QUIMER-B, a twine story I wrote a few months ago for the Premio Itaú de Cuento Digital, an Argentinian pageant for digital stories. It didn’t get picked, but the deadline helped me write something and that’s good enough for all of us.

PLAY/READ HERE
PLAY/READ ON PHILOME.LA

 

To prove its worth before a mistrustful world, the QUIMER-B supercomputer is left in charge of all systems at the facility where it was developed. Predictably, everything goes wrong.

It’s my least gamey twine so far, and my most gimmicky too. I’m not ashamed of that. I used lots of timers, which I had previously barely touched, and even played with different palettes for different moods. I’m proud of the prose and not so proud of a great deal of common places that ended up in the story, mostly for lack of time (blame the deadline).

If you have any thoughts/opinions/comments about it, hesitate just the minimum reasonable amount and then express them at me (whether here or at @DavTMar or anywhere else you can find me), for I will be thankful.

Let’s talk about gendered nouns for no particular reason

There’s so much presumption in the Anglophone web about what it means to speak a language with gendered nouns. Much of it is right, most of it isn’t. Now I’m no expert or language professional, but my lifelong understanding of Spanish (a language with gendered nouns/adjectives/articles) and my functional yet caveman-like handling of English already gives me enough insight to bring some things to light that maybe deserve to be told.

First off, using the gender binary to classify humans will eventually lead to silly inconsistencies with reality. Using it to classify inanimate objects and abstract concepts/attributes is just bonkers. Doesn’t work, sorry.

What does work (sometimes, for some specific cases) is classifying words with formal categories. You know, abstract little boxes. Random boxes. So yeah, saying a wall is male or female is pretty effed up. But if you forget about that for a while, there are real advantages in having two random categories that affect grammar dependencies like that. Most important of them is disambiguation.

Good for disambiguation

When writing in English I’m very extra careful with the order of the words, because it can heavily impact grammar dependencies. In Spanish it feels (I feel) like there’s more freedom to arrange words in ways that help clarify the message’s attitude without seriously affecting the propositional meaning of a sentence.

Of course this might be just a personal feeling, because I’m so much more fluent in Spanish, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. Sometimes and adjective ends up very far from the noun it modifies. In English, this tends to mean the reader will get confused, it won’t be clear (unless context is very helpful) which of the previous nouns is being modified. Whenever something like this happens in Spanish, you can just switch the words so the adjective’s gender only fits the noun it’s meant to be modifying.

So what happens when there’s ambiguity between nouns of the same gender? Well, there’s always other tools to disambiguate. English language proves so. But another thing you can do is change a noun for a differently-gendered synonym. And this is important to know too. Grammatical gender applies to words, not the things those words designate. The more popular/quotidian an object is, the more nouns we have to describe it, the more chances of having plenty of male or female nouns to choose from.

So I can have, for example, “She threw the chair towards the wall so it ended up broken,” but I know context will make most readers think the chair broke, when in fact I want to break the wall. “Ella tiró la silla contra la pared así que terminó rota” is fairly ambiguous (and a little awkwardly worded, but that’s grammar examples for you), even “She” could conceivably be the one broken (in Spanish, where you can skip the subject “it” and let the verb conjugation do the work).

The easy fix I’m proposing here is “Ella tiró la silla contra el muro así que terminó roto.” I switched “la pared” for “el muro” and the female adjective “rota” for its male form “roto.” Now “muro” (that is “wall”) is the only male noun in the sentence so it’s the only place the male adjective “roto” (that is “broken”) can be pointing to. “Muro” and “pared” both mean “wall,” so the sentence doesn’t mean something else now, at least not substantially.

Not that good at brainwashing

Another thing worth noting is gendered nouns don’t brainwash people into thinking everything in the universe responds to the gender binary. It’s obvious that they affect the way we think about some objects, but in my experience they don’t determine actual opinions.

Nor do they stand the slightest chance against critical examination. That is, every single person who at some point gave too much importance to the gender Spanish uses to describe an object changed their mind immediately after the tiniest of oppositions from my side.

“But X is female.”

“Yeah, the Spanish word. But the object itself is not really anything in terms of gender.”

“You’re right, that’s kind of a dumb thing for words to do.”

Every single time.

Allows play

My wall-breaking example points out that things in Spanish can go by many names. I’m sure this is true of all languages. Even people can be talked about by many names. Anything, if you are willing to speak vaguely enough, can be discussed as female or male, because you can call most things an “object” or a “thing:” “objeto” (m.) and “cosa” (f.) respectively. And there’s also “persona” (f.) and “ser humano” (m.) for those things that we usually don’t want to call things.

Take the sentence “Ricardo is a very masculine person, his muscular legs can crack heads open.” In Spanish, that would roughly be “Ricardo es una persona muy masculina, sus piernas musculosas pueden partir cabezas.” Now, except for the subject “Ricardo,” every noun and adjective there is female or in its female form (the pronoun “his” is the gender-neutral “su” in Spanish, with “sus” being the plural I just used). Person, legs, heads, all female in Spanish. “Masculine” and “muscular” appear in their female forms, because they’re modifying female nouns.

The same can easily be done for masculine nouns: “Juliana’s face had the most feminine features, two big eyes bright as the sun, red and delicate lips that could melt hearts, and hair that looked more like fine strings of fire” can plausibly be translated into “El rostro de Juliana tenía los rasgos más femeninos, dos ojos grandes brillantes como el sol, labios rojos y delicados que podían derretir corazones, y un cabello que más parecía finos hilos de fuego.” (Hair is not a face feature though, is it.)

So even if gendered nouns can enforce the gender binary they can also allow for a certain play inside it. Some objects feel more female than male if there are more female words to describe them, or if the female words for it are more common.

Many adjectives are gender-neutral, which means they look the same regardless of the noun they modify: brillante, lumbar, inteligente, veliente (bright/brilliant, lumbar, intelligent, brave).

Many nouns are ambiguous, meaning it’s canonically correct to use them as male or female simply because you prefer it: azúcar, tilde, esperma, herpes, interrogante, lente, mar (sugar, tilde, sperm, herpes, query, lens, sea). The case of “mar” is particularly interesting, because using the female “la mar” suggests a certain familiarity, and it’s mostly used by people working near or on the sea.

A few others even change with time: the most famous case being “calor” (“heat”), which was the female “la calor” a few centuries ago and is now “el calor” all across the globe.

Many cases are weird and people don’t know how to resolve them. Most people will use the grammatically female “la víbora macho” to say “the male snake” because “víbora” is a female noun, yet will be undecided and confused by “the female toad” (that is, “el sapo hembra” versus “la sapo hembra”) because “sapo” is male. “Macho” and “hembra” (“male” and “female” in the biological, animal sense) are uniform, there is no “macha” or “hembro,” yet it isn’t clear if this is because they’re gender-inflexible (they can’t be used with the opposite grammatical gender) or because they’re gender-neutral (they can be used with anything but don’t change their spelling).

In conclusion

I don’t have a conclusion, but thanks for bearing with me in my first blog post written in English as opposed to being translated from an original Spanish version.

Mechanical Macondo: videogames and Latin America

Around the end of last week, both Fear of Twine and Gabriel García Márquez’s life came to and end.

García Márquez’s thing was pretty shocking: I was at work and a guy on the radio said he had just heard a very sad thing he preferred to hold on to until he got some kind of confirmation, which later came with the news. Fear of Twine’s instead was a death foretold: Richard Goodness never hid that the exhibit had an expiration date, after which the works would disappear or retire to their author’s sites (in my case this one).

Along with Fear of Twine came the conclusion of my third experience making a videogame (for the purposes of this article let’s pretend the interactive stories I make are videogames and there’s no debate about it). It was a very positive affair that left me thinking about my writing and about what I’m trying to achieve with it. I imagine many had similar considerations after what happened to Gabo.

The question and the answer

I asked myself again, this time perhaps stronger than before, the question every creator has to ask themselves at one point or another in their lives: What do I have to contribute with my work?  For some it might not be that important, for me it is. If I decide to write, I want to write something I alone could have written, something that without my presence would probably had never been conceived. I want to look at literature in the eye and say:

“See that thing you got there? It may not be your most important aspect, but a lot of people like it, and you wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for me.”

(I hope you know what I’m referring to, it’s not such a selfish whim as I make it sound.)

When I ask myself what do I have to contribute to the world of videogames many answers come to mind, but lastly one comes much more clearly than the others: Latin America.

Big answer, right? Maybe, but I’m not saying I have an entire continent to contribute, I’m saying videogames have a continent-sized hole in them, and I might have the tiniest grain of sand for the dune it’s going to take to fill it up.

A movement

There are more cynical opinions of course, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say García Márquez headed a literary movement that showed a big chunk of the world that in Latin America we have writers, good writers, with an enormous creative independence and the capacity to establish ourselves the guidelines for an aesthetic that responds to our own artistic needs.

It might be healthy to rethink what does it mean that a people have different artistic needs than others, if such a thing can happen, but the concern remains: Does a movement like that, or the seed for such a movement, exist in videogames? Will it? Where my latinos at? Who among us will code the Facundo? How will the Cien años de soledad of videogames be like? And most of all: Does it matter?

How much of this is a legitimate concern for my colleagues and how much a personal fancy of mine? After all, Latin America is an imaginary unit like any other. Why not widen the border and ask for more games from Ibero-America and the Spanish-speaking world? Why not shrink it, and ask for more games from the block I live in?

These are not resolved issues in my mind, and no doubt I bear a great love for Spanish games (go Deconstructeam!) and even more for the ones made at my block (of which for now, and unfortunately, I only know mine). But I’m gonna keep referring to Latin America ’cause from all imaginary divisions I stumbled upon in my life it’s one of those I feel the most real. Feel free to raise analogous concerns regarding any cultural unit you want.

These questions don’t come to me from nothing, nor am I the first one to ask them. I already took part in many discussions, of greater or less complexity, about these very issues and about possible routes of action for the reality of our creations in relation to our cultural context to be closer to one we’re satisfied with. Two kinds of propositions tend to come up, to my mind equally ineffective:

  • Making games with no regard for Latin America: No one, no matter how latino they feel, has any business telling anyone else what they should or shouldn’t make their games about, or which continent or language they should have in mind when creating. USA’s dominion of the creation and distribution of videogames is so complete, creating outside of that is creating nowhere at all. We’ll make games about this continent when we feel like it, and when we don’t we’ll make them about anything else.
  • Making games about Latin America: Minority opinion but surprisingly popular in debates, particularly comparing it with the near-null presence this perspective has in the actual creation of Latin American games. The idea is to make games about the Aztecs, about fútbol, about mate, about lucha libre, about Frida Kahlo. Let the people who play these know they came from the south of the world.

What do I have against these proposals? In principle, nothing. If anyone feels developing with some of this things in mind does it for them, go ahead. But I do know that for some reason none of them seems to me like an answer to the worries I’m raising here.

Something that fascinates me: every time these two perspectives appear in these sort of exchanges, both sides are highly aware of the opposing side’s flaws. The first ones are incredibly clever to point out that an exaggerated thematization fetichises those it attempts to represent and doesn’t produce a real change of perspectives, dangerously increasing the chances of falling into some sort of bland edutainment with zero persuasion power. The second ones wisely recall that neutrality doesn’t exist and it’s impossible to create from nowhere, because those who don’t create from their culture are creating from the dominant culture.

My solution? I don’t have one, but the more I write the more I stumble upon possible answers and accumulate resources. I look for turns and tricks to help the stuff that makes me who I am to make its way into everything I do to show everyone else.

My search

When I wrote Úrquel, the black dragon, I was just starting. I had never used Twine. I got an idea to make an interactive story with a trick of perspectives no one had made until then and I didn’t care for much else. The story happens in a nameless European-like kingdom. The main character is a hero who’s going to rescue a damsel in distress. I knew my story was gonna be special for a trick that could end up making things confusing, and I didn’t want to add a complex narrative to the confusion. I already explained how distancing yourself from stereotype equals to adding information.

But that was the time when Anita Sarkeesian successfully funded her Kickstarter campaign and Twine grew as a tool to give a voice to the voiceless. Fearful of staying behind, I looked for a new approach when I started writing Eioioio. I set my game in Buenos Aires, the city I live in, and particularly in the narrative world of El eternauta (1957), an Argentinean science fiction comic book whose alien invaders are a metaphor for foreign capitalism and whose author, Héctor Germán Oesterheld, was kidnapped and disappeared the same as his four daughters by the Armed Forces during the National Reorganization Process in 1977. I also put several references to other corners of Latin American literature in the story, which probably didn’t add anything to the game and no one will ever find.

Justice for the Oesterhelds, by the way

See what I did? In my first two interactive projects, I alternated between the two main approaches to think Latin America from videogames: first ignoring it, then putting it in the spotlight. Both stories inspire me a lot of love, with their virtues and flaws, both even accomplish interesting things in artistic and intellectual terms, but none of them satisfied me in the context of what is it I have to give with my games no one else can give.

Where I am now

Bearing in mind the narrative structure, this is when I tell you how I made my next project, synthesizing the two previous attempts into a third, better alternative. Sadly, the third project is just another stumbling step in my awkward walk towards a more or less satisfactory Latin American aesthetic.

Like all my previous games, this one’s available both in English and Spanish. The translation was considerably simpler thanks to the introduction of the StoryInclude passage in Twine 1.4 that allowed me to have both languages in separate projects that were nonetheless easy to compile in a single final file. Like all my previous games, the few characters that appear have Spanish names.

I explored other things that interested me. Eioioio doesn’t spend even a hundred words before naming the city I live in, but this time I wanted to do something more interesting. I’m under the impression When Acting as a Wave happens in a fictional “troubled country” in Latin America in the 20th century, with some anachronistic reference to instant messaging. The problems the main character faces look like nothing that could happen in a developed country. However, it’s not a story about living in the Third World, and it’s exactly there where I feel lies one if my accomplishments with this game.

At no point I set out to write about anything that felt personal to me. In fact, it’s entirely possible to play this story without stopping a second to think about Latin America, that element is there but it isn’t a necessary requirement to enjoy the experience. (It’s even possible to enjoy the story and think any kind of geographic anchoring would impoverish the experience.)

Of the few games I’ve seen explore autochthonous perspectives, most present their culture as an eccentricity:

“It’s a strategy game, but with the particularity of having the Aztec empire!” “It’s a shooter, but with the particularity that you have to fight the forces of Batista in Cuba!” “It’s a platformer, but with the particularity that you play a Mexican luchador!”

The Latin American element is always generalized, or specific but famous, like something planned to be quickly picked up by a US audience. An external element, presented as a quirk mostly contradictory with the project’s nature (which, I repeat, is unsatisfactory to me but not necessarily bad: on the contrary, it seems to underscore that making games from or about the Third World contradicts the status quo in today’s interactive field, which can be very true.)

Where I want to go

In the future I wanna write about what I am but knowing that just that is not enough. When Acting as a Particle is a text game about turbulent Latin American politics, but with the particularity that links to click on constitute the complete text of the game. I have a culture to share, yes, but I also have an interesting plot and an interesting way to tell it.

I want to some day see a Cart Life mod telling a week in the life of a Buenosairean cartonero. I want a game à la Papers, Please about the people controlling who goes in and out of the Malvinas. I want a Gods Will Be Watching in which you make your crew members feel better by spending an hour or two drinking mate all together. I want someone to build a Macondo whose eccentricities don’t show up in the way it’s described, but in the way its internal mechanisms react to a player’s input.

I want more than anything somebody to make something with that same spirit that cannot be reduced into a direct reference to past works that already managed their respective successes. I want new people to discover a new way of expressing themselves through the mechanics they lucubrate and the stories they tell. I want to admit I’m really not that sure of anything I’m writing, but I had lots of things in my head and I needed to dump them somewhere.

Twines to fear

I’ve been working a lot and writing very little these last few months. I hope I don’t need to clarify I’d like that to be exactly the other way around. All 2013 my creative writing stopped completely and it’s just now that I dared publishing something new. This something is my contribution to the online Fear of Twine exhibition, organized by Richard Goodness, that started on February 14 and will go on until April 18.

It’s 16 wildly varied interactive stories made with Twine by 19 wildly varied authors, and I feel very pleased to have my name there among such a crowd:

A completely linear trip of futuristic action that doesn’t give a crap what you might think on how narrative interaction should work. An eccentric comedy that made me laugh more than a few times, about a US serial killer of whom I know little or nothing. A personal expression thingy about little understood sex practices, much more in line with what one might expect from Twine but without ever losing a very personal, unique voice. The fantastic adventure of a hero who must overcome adversity on their mission to defeat an infamous dragon identified by his color that in some of the endings turns out not to be that evil (where did I hear that before?).

A surprisingly profound story about how the beginning of the end of the world might look like on the landscapes that it would most likely happen. A political simulation that’s simple but clear with serious warnings about the economic path some nations are taking without remembering all the times that same path failed them. A short description, very sad and very comical, of a night in the life of a person who’s lonelier than he’d like. A bizarre crime fiction about a religious cult that, in the style of Upstream Color, leaves you with the impression that you didn’t understand anything until next day you try to explain it to somebody else and you realize you understood everything there was to be understood.

A CYOA that loves to explore any kind of contradictory or surprisingly arbitrary resolution without ever killing the idea that all ramifications are part of a concrete whole that just doesn’t care for being consistent. A meditation on the nature of science in its bid for saving us from adversity. An experiment about exploitation and telemarketing and flies and the sense of not getting anything of what’s going on.

A scifi poem with machines and researchers and political intrigue. A singular tale of repressive organizations and resistance movements dedicated to document forgery in which, to my surprise, at some point it’s randomly chosen which main route will the plot take. Nearly a documentary about coyotaje that in many ways made me think carefully about the point of artistic expression. A parody RPG whose true meaning and deepness eludes us all.

Women, Tringlenians and narrative entropy

I think I began writing when I was around 10 years old. One of the first things I noted, of the first critical observations I made to my own literary work, is that my stories almost never had female characters. I wondered many a time why. What happened that women were never doing stuff in the things I wrote?

My first explanation

It’d be easy to say that since I’m a boy I wrote about boys, but that’s an incomplete explanation. After all, my characters frequently had features that have nothing to do with me: they had other personalities or were from other planets, they could have powers I don’t have, they could have hair colors that aren’t mine and have other names. Why, then, it almost never happened that they had another gender?

I ended up explaining it the following way: Characters are by default male, they’re only female when the story really needs them to be. As long as I have nothing to comment on my character’s gender, there’s a force that moves me to keep them on the male side of the spectrum. It’s like male gender were in some way some kind of neutral ground.

The explanation was a little simplistic, but it had something real going on. And don’t be fooled: I was perfectly aware of the situation’s unfairness and I wished to live in a world where literature didn’t have these arbitrary rules imposed merely by tradition. I wanted to write women, but the fact remained that writing women implied discussing gender, while writing men avoided the gender issue, and I felt too young and ignorant to have anything important to say about the matter, so avoiding it seemed the most attractive choice.

But let’s back up two steps and talk about this same phenomenon applied to more wide categories, perhaps less polemic ones.

Three stories

In most stories we write and read, there’s people.

People, persons, humans: those pretty mammals, relatively stretched, famous for their habit of walking with their feet and talking with their mouths.

There are millions of entities in the universe, millions of living species and millions of animal varieties, but people tend to write mostly about other people, real or imaginary, but almost always human.

As a result, we also tend to expect a story to be about persons. What do I mean? I propose to illustrate some of this with the following little mental exercise:

  1. Someone you know praises a story you haven’t read yet. You ask them to describe it a little. Their answer is that the story’s about a human from planet Earth who interacts with other humans from planet Earth. Let’s see. It’s probable that that description won’t tell you anything, that it’ll feel insufficient. It’s probable you’ll interpret it like they’ve just described literally any story, consummated or possible, and no story in particular at all.
  2. But if, instead, they tell you the story’s about an elephant from planet Earth who interacts with other elephants, most probably you’ll have the impression that you know a lot more about this second story than on the previous case. You’ve just been told a more important fact, more particular.
  3. If they tell you about a story concerning a being from planet Tringlen 24 who interacts with other beings from planet Tringlen 24, not only you might think the description’s quite specific, you’ll even be able to guess, with a minimal margin of error, what’s the genre it belongs to. Even without having ever heard of that planet I just made up.

Now, from a point of view more like trying to be objective, elephants and humans and Tringlenians are approximately equally complex beings. And our narrative imagination can manage to tell as many stories about one or the other, and as many stories happening on Earth as happening on Tringlen 24. But we’re used to have our stories told about people, so when stories are about something else, they get our attention. And conversely, when the story’s exclusively about humans, the characters’s species doesn’t seem like a relevant fact to us.

In a certain way, then, the concept “human” has less narrative information than the concept “elephant” or “alien.” That a character’s human doesn’t say anything about them or the story they appear on. That they’re an elephant says a lot.

Or maybe an alien elephant

The writer’s template

I like to imagine writers have some kind of template we use to create characters and worlds. Some sort of document, organized in categories, where some options are already selected beforehand. It’s a template established by tradition, and to be precise we’ve to say it can vary considerably from person to person or from narrative community to narrative community, but it persists through consciousnesses with a remarkable similarity.

One of the fields on this template is “species,” and by default it’s marked on the slot “homo sapiens.” The writer who invents a character doesn’t face the simple question of “what species do they belong to” but the double one of “are they a human being or not? And if not, what species do they belong to?”

Or better yet: “Your character is a human being. If you want them to be anything else, write it down here.”

When we read in a story that a character’s human, we really don’t receive any kind of information because it doesn’t tell us anything about what the author could’ve wanted to say with their species choice: we simply know they left the “species” field on the template marked on the automatic slot and didn’t stop to think what species is more useful for the story’s sake. (Particular emphasis in that this need not necessarily be true, but it describes accurately the impression it makes on the reader. It’s not that the reader’s less interested in the character, but they are less interested in their species.)

When the protagonist’s an elephant, instead, we know the author made the effort to edit the “species” field, to customize the biological order of their character, and therefore, their story will (probably) expect us to be alert to this fact. This is why that fact gives us more information: simply because, in some way, the effort the author hypothetically made by editing the automatic option reaches us in the form of narratively relevant information.

My last explanation (so far)

So we can say that, in a literary culture where stories about elephants are extremely rare, the concept “elephant” contains a much superior quantity of information than the concept “human.” As for scenery, the concept “Earth” expresses much less information than any other possible planet.

And in the same way, I dare say that during a big chunk of literature’s history (and maybe today too) the concept “woman” expresses much more information than the concept “man.” Which is particularly funny considering that woman are half the people we live with, half of those who write and read these stories I’m talking about.

Are these concepts I’m comparing really more or less complex than each other? No, they really aren’t. But narratively speaking, some get farther away from the norm, and this alone represents an extra piece of information. Was my 10 year old Me right about avoiding the concepts that contained this extra information? No, the information is there and wants to be expressed.

I even think in many cases it’s not even about discussing gender, or species or planets. I simply find in departure from the norm a positive value. A way of approaching our stories from paths new, routes less worn out, less overcrowded, and on which the goal can maybe be spotted with greater clarity from a much grater distance.

Final notes

  • I wanted to write this after having read the tweets opposing Anita Sarkeesian’s comment about the lack of female characters in Microsoft’s recent conference. Essentially because many of ’em wielded the same argument I came up with when I was 10.
  • I can’t leave without mentioning the children’s short story “An elephant takes up a lot of space” by Elsa Bornemann, where the protagonist is indeed not only an elephant, but also a union activist.
  • I also mention the science-fiction novels by Ursula Le Guin, because they work in a very interesting way that subverts the rules I explained here. The gal’s very dexterous at presenting the concept “Earthling,” that would usually be very light, as heavily loaded with information and with… I dunno, otherness, foreignness? Be that as it may, recommended reading.