Monday, March 10, 2008

Schismatrix Plus Review: Can Space Opera be Cyberpunk?

Having just finished Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix Plus, I have to admit right now that most if not all of my preconceptions going into the book were shattered and then re-shattered like some parody of humanity's factional fracturing that occurs over the book's time line.

To begin with, let me just dispense with my judgment: read this book! Read it and then read it again! Like any great work of art, you will find yourself changed when you come out the other end. Following Sterling's main character, Abelard Lindasy, over the course of his incredible lifespan is a whirlwind ride through the solar system and by the end, just like him, you will find yourself thinking differently about what you've come to take for granted.

So can space opera be cyberpunk? I hate to brand it by a subgenre but, the novel has a cyberpunk "feel." Compact is the proper adjective. I was stunned at the richness of the ideas produced by so few words. That is not to say the book is devoid of long metaphysical ruminations but, think of "long" as relative here. This book packs a plethora of ideas (similar to Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space) into a little over two-hundred pages. Clipped, powerful pace is the name of the game.

And this is ultimately where the book will fail or succeed fabulously based on your willingness to submit to riding shotgun in Sterling's sprint through his own world. Those looking for long passages articulating the physics of an asteroid's impact in sublime prose will be disappointed. Grandeur is suppressed. Expect no moral conundrums or intrigues that rack character's minds for pages on end. Sterling keeps his narrative to a narrow wavelength and the distance from peak to peak can be deceptive.

Jumps between thirty years and three months happen throughout. Each leap occurs with little more than a timestamp at the start of the passage. Whereas I would normally ignore these and dismiss this kind of formatting as a stylistic flourish for other authors, I actually found myself needing to return to a passage's start to understand how the world had gotten so radically different in the span of a few pages. Then I would discover we had jumped a decade ahead. One can think of this as a weakness on the part of the book or my reading but it was certainly a recurring complaint I noticed in other reviews.

If you have come to relish William Gibson's emotional suppression in his narrative and how it brings the clarity and humanity of his characters through in stunning admissions, Sterling's own nonchalance with the setting and timing will do much the same. In a superb effort of show-don't-tell discipline, Sterling refuses to let his narrative be awed by its own world or epic span. Instead that is left up to you, the reader, and while this is by no means a familiar tactic to the space opera genre, it is effective.

Unexpectedness is at is the center of this work's beauty. Sterling paints a humanity coping with its own evolution and displacement in life outside the gravity well. What happens to human beings who grow used to space? This book offers a startling answer.

Competing philosophies are at the heart of the conflict, and don't be fooled by the blurb into thinking that this is a simple polar matter between Shapers and Mechanists. Both sides have a variety of subfactions that emerge, then die or evolve into stranger things. The line between the two is continuously blurred to show that this is no monochrome war - gray is everywhere, including our protagonist: Lindsay maintains modifications from both sides (along with a slew of identities and alliances back and forth.) Post-humanity (a term I use loosely here as Sterling has his own definition in the book) is very enjoyable to watch and everything from sex to warfare to social nuance becomes a fascinating interplay of intelligence, technical progress, and adaptability to the ever-present future shock.

Future shock is something the front cover quote highlights and I can see why it was chosen for the prominent location. Life in Sterling's world seems always on the verge of the harshly alien and, one may grow frustrated when ideas introduced in certain eras are not adequately explained until much later when they have already been replaced or gone extinct. This is very much a book that rewards a second reading (one I have neglected to do for this review, so bear with me here.) In fact, my only real frustration with Schismatrix was the glancing nature given to some of Sterling's factions. While clearly well-developed as thought experiments, their idiosyncrasies are often not given enough room in the narrative to satisfy my appetite. But this is Lindsay's story, not just the story of an emerging humanity, so I can see why certain creations were sacrificed as being tangential to the main thrust of the plot.

In addition to Schismatrix, you also get a collection of short stories at the end. These are what Sterling first used to flesh out his ideas before writing Schismatrix, and while I found myself less enamored of them, they work as effective complements to leftover mysteries in the novel. I would recommend reading these after reading the novel as they will otherwise spoil the unexpected directions humanity turns in Lindsay's narrative.

As far as the individual stories go, in "Swarm" I found the ending too typical of the scifi-ironic-twist for my liking. "Spider Rose" had an extremely difficult narrator which made the story less than likable. On the flipside, "Cicada Queen" was a great second romp through the Czarina-Kluster and actually added some unexpected depth to a mystery in the novel. "Sunken Gardens" is set after the end of Schismatrix and is a little too brief in its resolution to do the idea justice. I found "Twenty Evocations" to be more of an outline and fragments of narrative than a full story. Others may enjoy its experiment, but it was a bit too convoluted for my taste.

Schismatrix Plus will leave one spinning in orbit around the ideas Sterling has put forth, coming back to ponder them again and again. While some will be frustrated at its depth (or seeming lack thereof) its breadth cannot be criticized.

At the end of the book's introduction, Sterling flatly refuses to return to the Mechanist/Shaper world. After reading it I can see why fans would clamor for a sequel - the stories are full to bursting with a wealth of ideas and a future that asks interesting questions about human nature, humanity itself, and the power of ideas. Lindsay's ideas drive the book forward and outward. As a reader I felt lucky to be along for the ride.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Anonymous Versus Scientology: The First Stand Alone Complex?

I know that title can look a bit intimidating to the uninitiated. What is a Stand Alone Complex? Who are Anonymous? What does any of that have to do with L. Ron Hubbard?

Anonymous is a much more esoteric subject, I think, so we'll start with the more imposing but perhaps easier to grasp "Stand Alone Complex."

The Stand Alone Complex is a pretty interesting philosophical proposition which is the heart of the first season of the Ghost in the Shell TV series (of the same subtitle.) The deliciously cyberpunk Ghost in the Shell movie is worth noting here as it is thematically very different from the TV series and the movie was directed by Mamoru Oshii while Kenji Kamiyama handled the series. The movie was also was released way back in 1995, really at the beginning of the internet curve, while the TV series' first season premiered in Japan in late 2006. I'll come back to that in a moment.

A Stand Alone Complex is the eventual (perhaps inevitable) result of individuals accessing an information medium like the internet. To over-simplify, collective information being viewed by a sufficient array of individuals creates collective action. But where it gets even stranger is that the acting collective is made up of Stand Alone individuals with differing motives, ideologies, and methodologies.

I'm tempted to call it a sort of twenty-first century mob-mentality, but that conjures up images that are really the opposite of the complex's most interesting characteristics. What makes a Stand Alone Complex such an intriguing idea is that it proposes large numbers of people accomplishing action with widely differing strata in their personal make-up. Whereas a mob implies a single determined group of united individuals, the individuals therein also lose their individuality to the mob. A Stand Alone Complex maintains each member's individuality, partially at least because of the unique properties of the information medium through which they gathered. In this way, "unrelated, yet very similar, actions of individuals create a seemingly concerted effort."

Conversely, a Stand Alone Complex also relies upon a human willingness for copycat behavior, which also means that one could think of none of the individuals as being truly separate entities in their self-mimicking behavior, thus not individual at all. Rather they copy the so-called original, creating a mass-movement out their similar interest in one individual or one event.

While this may sound like a far-fetched concept, the reality is that copycat behavior, which is a mainstay of this phenomenon, has been around for far longer than the internet. Serial murderers have often been diagnosed with a sort of copycatting that's not entirely unlike a Stand Alone Complex. But information collectives like the internet create a way of uniting much more disparate groups of people than the the sociopathic or psychotic. And the boundary-less nature of that can be exploited to profound effect.

Kenji Kamiyama, the director of the TV series admits in a fascinating interview to his own copycatting of Mamoru Oshii's previous work in his own directorial start. Kamiyama describes himself as "full of conceit" in believing he could substitute his work for Oshii's without anyone knowing the difference.

This is actually sort of shares an odd connection to the thrust of the series' first season, which deals primarily with a hacker known as the "Laughing Man," a revolutionary avatar who's image slowly transforms as it is claimed in copycat perpetrations by others using him as a stand-in for their own schemes. At one point it is even suggested that the original may have never existed, that only "copies of copies" make up the whole of the Stand Alone Complex.

As much as all of that may sound like one Japanese man's willy-nilly thought experiment, a strange candidate for perhaps the first known Stand Alone Complex has emerged in the form of, surprise surprise, a hacker collective of sorts.

And they have a message for Scientology.

The first time I spotted that video, there was something both creepy and rousing about watching it unfold. The heartless monotone of the computer's voice. The high-minded musings on the nature of information, freedom, religion, and so forth. And the grim, very threatening sounding intentions to stop Scientology in its tracks.

And as hollow as any of it might have sounded, the results have been anything but.

With the multiple release of secret Scientology documents online, Denial of Service attacks disabling the Scientology website, and even simultaneous international physical protests at different Scientology headquarters, it seems this strange clique of people were ready and prepared to stir up the hornet's nest of Scientology's infamous lawyer brigades. Their actions earned them international attention.

But who are our strange revolutionaries? Is it even appropriate to call them such? Well that's where the story gets even stranger.

You may have already gathered from the images in the previous links that they all appear to be wearing the same mask. That's no coincidence. It comes from Alan Moore's award-winning V for Vendetta graphic novel which, was recently reintroduced into the pop-culture psyche with a movie done by the Wachowski brothers (of Matrix trilogy fame.) The movie's penultimate scene depicts thousands of angry Londoners gathered around parliament, all wearing the same unnerving mask, in protest; the similarity is not coincidental.

As it happens, the mask-wearing V, the anti-hero of Moore's tale, does bear a strange resemblance to Ghost in the Shell's Laughing Man, whose own calling card is a smiling face worn as an animating glyph to conceal his face. Pop-culture truly is a snake eating its own tail.

As for Anonymous, they are a complicated subject. The Church of Scientology has labeled them "cyber-terrorists" (another term used to describe the Laughing Man) bent on promoting "religious persecution." Anonymous has countered somewhat under the banner of "Knowledge Must Be Free" as a criticism of the church's method of charging its devotees in order to participate. This also fits in nicely with their other activities, of which internet piracy and attacks on individual's privacy feature regularly.

Yet, what seems to have begun as one big inside joke has slowly gestated and morphed itself into an internet activist collective. Their attack on Scientology is rallied around an information resource they started specifically for fellow protesters/hackers, Project Chanology, a brewing ground open for any to participate, write, and edit as they see fit in proposing new actions to be taken against the church.

Given the church's infamously litigious nature, it seems inevitable that an eventual challenger to its ideology would come in the form of a faceless mass that readily identifies itself as "Legion" in its own addresses. After all, the anonymity of the internet, or even more simply a mask, does render one somewhat invincible to a lawsuit.

Who do you sue when Anonymous is your provocateur?

Legal recourse necessitates the identification of the culprit. But if the culprit has become a shifting, evolving, fluctuating mass of thousands, how can you accuse it? Or better yet, what do you stand to gain when tracking and confronting individuals from a cellular opponent? The RIAA is already failing in its efforts to stymie piracy of music over the internet. It has shown that taking legal action against an army of like-minded individuals is an exhausting, often hard-won battle. And attrition gives the individuals infinitely more favor for victory in the long run, even in the face of short-term consequences. The growth of the internet as a medium for this kind of collectivist behavior may ultimately come to overpower more than a few corporate entities in the coming decades.

I'm not sure if Kenji Kamiyama is aware of the phenomenon, although given its recent coverage in several international news sites, I'm inclined to believe he does. But I wonder what he makes of it. The Stand Alone Complex he presents is one united against corporate corruption on the highest levels, something of an allegory to the current health care situation America faces today. It certainly has none of the confusing connotations or questions about freedom of religion that come into play in the current situation.

Or perhaps the real question is will Anonymous succeed and if so who is next? Diebold? Homeland Security? The Federal Government itself? There are quite a few interesting choices that come to mind, ones I could easily see uniting disparate individuals into a force to be reckoned with. I think there is a strange analogue to democracy lurking somewhere under all of this: the power of free and informed people to stand up against perceived injustice in the world. Though I'm not inclined to think that it's the kind of democracy neoconservatives are happy with inflicting upon unsuspecting third-world nations. Anonymous seems of a character more belonging to the 60's, a kind of public that will not be gladly coerced by propaganda or corralled by fear quite so easily. And that, for whatever else can be said about the Stand Alone Complex, seems to me a very good thing.