Science Fiction


And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

Avengers: Infinity War is essentially a terrible movie. It’s about an hour too long, it has too many characters and too many plot threads running at once, and most of the characters are either not introduced or barely introduced, get very little dialogue and don’t get any development. If you haven’t watched a long train of interminably dull prior movies in the sequence, you have nothing invested in this shlock, which is just as well because the movie suffers from a more fundamental problem: it bullies its viewers. This movie is basically a series of scenes in which a giant, invincible arsehole does whatever he wants and takes whatever he wants, and all the efforts of the people that we the movie-watchers are supposed to have emotional investment in amount to nothing. If this were an actually serious, well-made movie about a real topic – sexual abuse at Ohio State University, for example – we would be watching the same series of awful bullying scenes, and we would leave exhausted and shattered by the sheer brutal abusiveness of the experience. This isn’t how you make entertainment, it’s how you make documentaries.

Perhaps the movie-makers knew this, and this is why they made sure that not only is a casual viewer unable to invest anything in the characters, but is also unable to engage with the substance of the movie itself. The script wavers between a serious adventure/sci fi, a classic superhero movie, and a comedy. This means that the viewer cannot properly get into the flow of things. Has Thor just seen his entire crew murdered by a fatally powerful demon who aims to destroy half the living creatures in the universe, or has he had an entertaining evening at a bar with some friends? It’s impossible to tell. Is Spacedouche fighting to save his loved one from a fate worse than death, or just hamming it up for his friends at a keg party? It’s impossible to tell. This is one of the (many) fatal errors that sank the recent Star Wars effort, and it did no favours for this movie either. Well, perhaps it did the movie a small favour – the only reason I finished watching it was the dialogue. I watched the whole thing at a remove though, as a disengaged critic, because I had nothing invested in it or its characters.

And how bad were these characters? I have no sense of Thanos’s motivations, or any emotional engagement with his drive to get the infinity stones and destroy half the universe, which is terrible because a fundamental requirement of these kinds of movies is that you be on board with the bad guy’s plans. I felt more in common with the Alien queen in Aliens than I did with this boring dude and his gold fist. Spacedouche, obviously, is a waste of my effort and a completely awful character. Iron Man long since lost his shine and, like late-vintage Elon Musk, has become just a rich entitled white dude with bad ideas. Dr. Strange is a condescending prat who should have stuck with his original career as a detective. Insipid Witchgirl is weak and boring, and I have no idea why she is in love with Useless Robot (Phase? Nobody introduces themselves), who seems to have no purpose in this movie except spare parts. Black Panther might as well also be a robot for all the energy in his performance, and who was that Steve Rogers guy and why is he so useless? I think I was supposed to feel some emotion other than relief when Spiderman died but why would I, when his sole role in this movie is to act as a ham-fisted tool for breaking the fourth wall (and why are we breaking the fourth wall in a supposedly serious movie?) What is Black Widow’s purpose, and what is wrong with this world that Scarlet Johanson can be paid millions of bucks to turn up, say three lines, and then sit in a chair while her stunt double does 90% of her moves[1]? I think there was a guy who flew a thing and blew stuff up, but I don’t know his name and I don’t even remember if he died. Bruce Banner has now thoroughly ruined the Hulk, turning him from a metaphor for adolescent angst into a metaphor for middle aged male sexual dysfunction. Groot – now Groot is an example of how to really terribly mistreat a great character. In the original Space Daddy Issues movie he was a fun and interesting character, but baby Groot in Daddy Issues 2 was just a waste of space and this teenage Groot is such a depressingly bad form of comedy relief that it makes me want to go back in time and destroy the original movie.

A further mark of how bad this movie is is that it introduced time travel. It is a universal truth that a movie with incidental time travel is a bad movie, and that only two movies in the history of cinema have done time travel well: Terminator and Back to the Future. As soon as you casually insert time travel into a movie you ruin it. This was easily avoidable in this story simply by replacing the time stone with some other noun (the shit stone? the mcguffin stone? It doesn’t matter, because there is no sense in which anything Thanos does with his golden fist corresponds in any way to the supposed functions of the stones embedded in the fist). But no, the directors had to go there because there is no stupid thing that cannot be loaded into a modern American action movie. Of course, in keeping with this principle there were a bunch of other incredibly bad decisions that completely undermined the good guys’ efforts and made all their failures both predictable and frustrating:

  • Spacedouche’s decision to punch Thanos in the face while he was sleeping, just as his friends were about to pull the glove off and save the universe, and indeed his decision to stand there arguing with sleeping Thanos and making everything in the universe all about him instead of helping his friends remove the glove and then punch the stupid blue dude when he was actually vulnerable
  • Dr Strange’s decision to go with stupid Iron Man’s stupid plan to confront Thanos while holding the very thing Thanos wants, and then to give up that thing even though he asserted very strongly earlier in the movie that he would let Iron Man die rather than hand it over (we all know why he did this – see below).
  • Dr Strange’s decision to scan all possible futures for the wisdom of his actions after going to confront Thanos instead of before
  • The decision by the idiots at Wakanda to spend precious time and lives defending Wakanda against invading alien hordes so that Little Sister can extract the stone from Useless Robot’s head without killing him, thus ensuring Insipid Witchgirl doesn’t cry, even though ultimately Insipid Witchgirl has to kill Useless Robot anyway, but does it in front of Thanos so that he knows where the stone is[2] and can go back in time and stop her destroying it (but Useless Robot still dies at least)
  • The dumb-arsed series of historical decisions which led the super people of Wakanda with their super-powered Bullshitanium super mineral and hyper high-tech social order to develop an army that fights with spears, has no air support, no artillery, and no projectile weapons of note, and also lacks the strategic sense to stay on the high ground focusing the piss-weak projectile weapons they do have on a narrow breach in an otherwise almost impassable wall
  • Thanos randomly and incoherently spares people, like the entire crew of Spacedouche’s ship (who subsequently go on to try and remove his glove, almost successfully) and Iron Man, who is going to kill him in the next movie

It’s become a pretty much constant aspect of modern American movies that the main characters make bad decisions based on emotion rather than heart, and then at the end have to save the day by sheer grit and determination in the face of the avalanche of consequences their hot-headed decisions unleashed[3]. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Often these stupid decisions simply lead to long unnecessary extra scenes to undo the damage, and plot complications that make the movie less believable than it would otherwise have been, and frustrating. I have got to the point with movies like this and Star Wars that I am basically just hate-watching them: I watch them to see how terrible they are and to get angry at my cultural overlords, more than to enjoy the actual content of the movie. In truth this is why I skipped most of the Marvel movies leading up to this one, and only watched this one because I was on a plane[4].

I also previously avoided this movie because there is one crucial scene, where Dr. Strange hands over the time stone to prevent Iron Man being killed, which basically tells us that Iron Man is crucial to the one possible future in which Thanos is defeated. This means that the rich entitled white guy is going to be the person who saves the universe. Who could have guessed!? That amongst a cast of thousands of super heroes, all the non-white and non-human characters die “randomly” after Thanos gets the final stone, leaving white Iron Man, white Spacedouche, and white Black Widow[5] to save the universe, with rich white Iron Man as the central hero. I can’t wait to see this unusual and novel ending to a movie! It’s highly unlikely I’ll watch the next one, unless it’s playing on a plane in a typhoon, so it seemed like a waste of my time to watch this one too. Perhaps one day someone can remake these movies without all the stupid decisions and white entitlement, and then they might be actually enjoyable. But probably not.

There is one more aspect of this movie which I found amusing, though. It seems to me that there is a metaphor in this movie for the 2016 presidential election, with Thanos as Trump and the six stones as the swing states that he had to pick up to win the electoral college. Everything our heroes throw at him doesn’t stick or slides off, and while some of his buddies are sacrificed on the path to victory, he is ultimately unscathed, and seems to be protected by this strange otherworldly power that enables him to change reality to suit his whims and battle off any enemies. In this metaphor the glove is Russian interference, and the central scene is the moment where the intelligence agencies are trying to reveal the truth to the electorate – this is Spacedouche’s friends trying to pull the glove off – but instead of helping to reveal the horrible truth and fatally weaken him, the mainstream media (represented aptly in this metaphor by Spacedouche) is distracted by Hilary’s emails – a distraction put there by Trump himself – and the moment is lost in their fury. Thanos wakes up and shakes off the people trying to drag off the source of his power over reality, and he goes on to get everything he needs for ultimate victory. It’s up to you to decide whether the half of the universe destroyed by this are a metaphor for women, the Democratic electorate, or most of the rest of the planet. I guess we’ll find out in a year or so.

It’s a nice metaphor, but I have to ask the directors – why did you make us sit through your pain? Couldn’t you have made some other movie, in which the evil arsehole isn’t an invulnerable bully who rampages through the world taking whatever he wants until he gets ultimate power, and the people ranged against him were annoying, powerless losers who consistently make bad decisions? Because I’m not interested in workshopping your pain, and what the world needs now is more superheroes, not more shit superhero movies.

Other reviews you might be interested in

My review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which was a horrible movie in every way

My review of Mad Max: Fury Road, as an exemplar of eco-feminist violence

My review of Dunkirk, as a story set in the in-between


fn1: Sorry in advance if this is a slur on Johanson and she actually does all her own stunts. Even if she did, though, she still was almost not present in this movie.

fn2: This is the best gloss I can put on the insertion of time travel into this movie. Otherwise, why doesn’t Thanos just go back in time to the beginning of the universe and hoover up all the remaining stones as they come out of the big bang? This is why this movie is a railroad – you know Thanos is going to get what he wants, you just have to watch everyone suffer and die until he does.

fn3: See also, Battle of the Bastards

fn4: Did I mention that? I didn’t watch this movie by choice, but because I was flying past a typhoon and couldn’t work on my computer for fear it would fly up into the ceiling of the plane during turbulence

fn5: Wait, isn’t Major Kusanagi Asian?

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Under the mountains and into the wild

[Our Degenesis campaign has had two sessions but I skipped a write up of one, so here I give a brief overview of the events of the last two sessions. We are heading into the campaign In Thy Blood…]

In session 3 the PCs had raided an underground bunker and recovered a transceiver of some value and helped a lost man called Stanko. After leaving the bunker they stumbled onto a large squad of apocalyptics, who were camped in the wilderness and who Stanko told them were the group that he had been scouting for when his team was killed by monsters in the bunker. Approaching the apocalyptic camp they saw that it was surrounded by cockroaches (a kind of degenerate human clan), and likely to be ambushed that night. Stanko, eager to be paid for his work, went into the camp and tried to negotiate for his money. This didn’t work out for him, so the PCs decided to wait until nightfall when the cockroaches attacked the camp, and rescue Stanko and steal the apocalyptics’ stuff during the confusion. The ambush came and all hell broke loose, and during the battle they were able to steal an apocalyptic motorbike, free Stanko, and get away from the camp without being pursued.

They took the bike and the transceiver to the town of Gesseln, where they sold them for a lot of draughts. While they were relaxing in the town they discovered they were being followed by a Chronicler, who they ambushed in a tavern. After a brief and very nasty battle they managed to capture him and beat him until he talked, and discovered that he had been spying on them for the same shadowy people who had sent the apocalyptics to the bunker. This bothered them, because they had been sent to the bunker by Chroniclers, and if a Chronicler had also sent the apocalyptics then it appeared there were factions in the Chroniclers who were trying to cause them trouble, or at least were happy for them to get into a lot of trouble as part of some internecine Chronicler squabble. Everyone knows that the less one gets entangled in Chronicler business the better, so the PCs decided to leave Gesseln and get out of the area. They returned to Tumbler, where their adventures had started, with the intention of perhaps heading somewhere further west and south to get far away from whatever trouble the Chroniclers intended for them.

Here too though they had been misused by the local Chroniclers, and they were none too happy staying here long. Karl Franz, their dour Spitalian, left on Spitalian business, and was replaced by a more junior Spitalian called Montaigne, a familancer rather than an epigeneticist. While the characters were wasting time in Tumbler they discovered that there was an African apocalyptic in the town, apparently lost and looking for a way home. Sylvan, the party’s apocalyptic, went to visit her in her tavern and was given a speech about how she saw him in her dreams. Sylvan is very confident that he is in every woman’s dreams, but this woman seemed strangely unaffected by his usual kant, and suggested they visit an old apocalyptic seer in town who would throw the cards for them. Foolishly Sylvan did this, and they visited the old woman. She told him that for some weeks now she was always drawing the same cards no matter what, and saw him and the African apocalyptic in her dreams. She drew the cards for them, and it was the same pattern: The abomination over the Creator, Hellfire, the Fields of Elysium, and the Bearer of the Broken Cross. She warned them that trouble was coming, and she saw them both standing on the shores of Africa, fighting off hellfire. They must head to the fields of elysium to meet their fate.

Apocalyptics cannot resist the pull of the tarot. Esmeralda the African apocalyptic joined their party and, for lack of anything better to do, they decided to head to Lucatore, a town on the far side of the Alps where Elysium oils are made by the anabaptists. They would find their fate there, and then help Esmeralda to return to Africa through the peninsula. This mission suited Ronan the Hellvetican, since it would take them under the mountains where he grew up; and it suited Tesla since it was her goal to travel to the Island of Bedain, wherein lay some scrapper heaven of oil and broken things. So it was that they set off.

The journey was long but easy, since they traveled on large roads and Sylvan brought a catamite that he procured in a refugee camp, to carry some of their load and ease his sore muscles at night. This boy, Teal, trudged along with them in the dust, patiently carrying their extra gear and doling out attention where it was needed. Such is the way of apocalyptics. They passed through Justitian and Cathedral City, then south to the Alps, where they crossed through the Hellvetican tunnels under Ronan’s warrant, escorting a trade caravan through to lower the cost of passage. On the far side they accompanied the caravan as far as Tirano. They rested here, on the border of Purgare and Borca, and gathered news about the road ahead. Unsure of what they were looking for, knowing only that Sylvan and Esmeralda’s fate had been sealed somewhere here, they feasted on rumour and got drunk on tall tales. One tale told of strange things happening in the swamp to the south of the Lucatore road, so they decided to investigate. They headed south into the swamp, coming to a small camp of peat-digging clansmen after a day’s travel. They hired three to accompany them as guides, and went further south to a thing called the “Old Image Wall,” a huge piece of wall that was said to have once held moving images. The peat-diggers told them a Chronicler had come here with a generator, turned on the wall, and recorded the images that appeared, then left, but they could do nothing to make it work. They headed south for another day and found a smaller peat-digging camp, where they heard that strange things were happening further south, where the land became thick with insects and strange smells. The peat diggers refused to venture there, but they went ahead to investigate. They found signs of a psychonaut of some kind, decided it was too much danger to interfere with and too far from civilization to matter, and returned to the peat-diggers. Unfortunately a gang of Romano clanners had found their peat-diggers, and were in the process of torturing them to find out where the PCs had gone when the PCs returned and stumbled on them in the camp. There was a short, brutal battle in which the Hellvetican wasted 4 bullets and the apocalyptic did nothing, and then the clanners were dead and the peat-diggers rescued. The whole group returned to the Lucatore road, exhausted and disappointed, and they headed further east towards Lucatore.

Elysium is here

Lucatore is a small town in the east of Purgare, famous for its strong walls and the water towers that hold pure water. With this pure water the anabaptists of the town make huge quantities of Elysium oil, which is an incredibly valuable and powerful substance carefully controlled by the anabaptists. It is also the home of one of the Baptists, and a redoubt of their strange and strict faith. When the PCs arrived the town was full and busy, and they initially found accommodation in a small and rundown tavern. Unfortunately some priests arrived, Flayers, who needed accommodation, so the PCs were moved to the Commission House outside of town, a much more comfortable place to stay. They bedded down for their first comfortable night, and slept soundly in a real bed for the first time in weeks.

In the morning they were woken by a horn, and cries and yells from a gathering crowd. When they opened the windows of their Commission House they could see a commotion in the distant town. Sylvan went down to disturb the Commission House maidservant, Dana, and found her in a fuss in the kitchens, wringing her skirts and agitated with worry. When he asked her what was wrong, she answered him with a single simple sentence.

“The baptist is dead!”

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three movies in quick succession: Solo, Death Wish and Pacific Rim: Uprising. Solo was kind of fun but overall these three movies were pretty ordinary, and none of them is really worth its own separate review. I thought I’d put reviews of all three in one post, as exemplars of how America’s cultural industries are falling apart before our eyes. It’s worth noting that all three of these movies are either remakes, sequels or part of a “franchise”, so there’s nothing truly original in any of them. In many ways they’re also movies that are designed to appeal, well, not even to the worst elements of our nature, but to the most banal elements of our nature. Is this how western civilization ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but a long drawn-out sigh of boredom?

Pacific Rim: Uprising

I want to start this review by pointing out that just a few years ago, when the Lord of the Rings, was first made (or was it the Hobbit? I forget and don’t care) a bunch of LoTR fanboys were ruing the fact that Guillermo del Toro didn’t get the gig as Director. Surely he, more than Jackson, would have been able to make these movies soar? Well now, having watched him royally fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, are you still sad that he didn’t get to make a movie with dragons and elves? A man who can fuck up a formula as invincibly, trivially easy as giant robots would surely have made an absolute dogs breakfast of something as subtle and culturally significant as LoTR. Thank God Jackson pipped him to that one, because this movie – even more than the shit sandwich that was the first one – was an absolute disaster. The worst thing about it obviously is the two people operating the one machine, in the bullshit “neural mesh” setup, who despite being neurally enmeshed have to operate their stupid giant robot by physically doing whatever it does. Watching the scenes of the soldiers in the brainpod (or whatever stupid name it has) I could only think of those ‘90s comedy skits in which terribly earnest acting school students pretend to be trees or ducks or something. What a fucking joke. Don’t get me wrong, if some idiot paid me a million bucks (or a fraction thereof!) to pretend to be running inside a giant robot I would be all in on that shit, but let’s not pretend it’s a contribution to western civilization. God no, burn that crap down. Also is it just me or is there some new phenomenon in action movies, let’s call it jockburn, where the lead characters are first introduced into the mess hall/ bunk room/ shower room where the other soldiers eat/ reside / fuck and your heart sinks when you realize that you are now going to have to sit through several minutes of macho posturing that is obviously meant to be in the vein of Aliens, but you know before it starts that it isn’t going to come close? And then there is the related experience where the leader is about to make a big speech, and suddenly you know the big speech is coming and you’re going to have to sit through about 20-30 seconds of “stirring” speech about how everyone has to fight and die for glory / the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child / a sack of French porn and you know it’s going to be a disappointing and shamelessly unselfconscious pile of cliches that will just make you squirm? What do we call that feeling? I think it’s an identifiable and common experience in modern action movies. Occasionally you get a good one (the one at the Gates of Mordor, the speech about taking chances in Rogue One) but mostly they’re just shit. And they aren’ t improved when, as in this movie, they refer to the speech in the previous movie (because that’s how low we have sunk) and try to pretend that this one won’t even be trying. Look, Guillermo (or whoever else squatted out this pile of shit), if your work is so bad that you know ahead of time that it isn’t going to compare to even the last steaming turd you dumped on us, please don’t insult us further by pointing out that you aren’t even phoning it in. Just fuck off home and don’t make this waste of pixels. Oh, and while you’re listening to tips from me, can you please please please drop the daddy issues? They weren’t constant and overwhelming in this movie like they were in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (thank the gods of shit movies that that arsehole had some trouble buried in his twitter feed! Now if we could just kill off the cast we can all go home happy!) but right at the peak of the movie, when they’re about to save the world, someone manages to make the resoundingly important point that the lead character is going to make daddy proud. Really? He’s going to risk his life saving the world and all those billions of people are going to be looking up at him as the dude who saved the world but his real single only concern is that his dead daddy will finally love him? He’s an adult, right? What is wrong with Americans and their daddy issues? Also what is wrong with the Chinese people in this movie? I can’t figure out if they’re meant to be the bad guys or patsies, if there’s a message about copying technology in there, or something else, but why did they have to be such arseholes? Also, when you choose to portray America’s current Big Trade Enemy as arseholes in an action movie, can I suggest that you perhaps go and check on how the Japanese were portrayed in the 1980s and ask yourself if perhaps, just perhaps, you’re just repeating a massive flyblown cliche? Because at this point in the cultural cycle of the west, any opportunity to do something original would be appreciated kthxbai. This movie also suffers from another weird problem of action movies that needs a name, perhaps something like self-referential SNAFU, in which there is a central problem or barrier that they have to overcome through some special means, but at some other point in the movie they immediately do exactly the thing they said they can’t do. In this case we’re told that you can’t make the giant robots (I refuse to call them Jaegers, fuck off) fly because there is no fuel that powerful, but in the very first action scene the stupidly named giant robot with the enormously stupid flail (fuck off already I cannot believe how stupid that flail is) jets out of the ocean and onto land using just the rockets in its feet which is exactly what they said these things can’t do. Also we’re told that they had to build these giant robots to fight the giant monsters because the giant monsters are invincible, presumably cannot be beaten with say a rail gun from space or a missile, but then their solution to the final massive, extra super powerful monster, is to drop a disabled giant robot on it from space. Now I don’t know how much these giant robots weigh but right now the Falcon Heavy rocket can put 64 tons of material in space, so it seems pretty easy and cheap to me to hoist say 600 tons of material into space, stick it all together, and drop it on your annoying giant monster. Why build stupid giant robots that need two terribly earnest method actors to neurally mesh (impossible – method actors don’t have brains) when you could just use your reusable rocket to build a makeshift rail gun at a fraction of the cost? This is the self-referential SNAFU I mentioned earlier. To be clear I don’t care if the pretext of the movie is that we need to build giant robots that can only be driven by method actors but I want the movie to stick to the pretext throughout. Failure to do so bursts me out of the bubble and just leaves me disappointed and feeling ripped off. Which is probably the best description for how this movie leaves you feeling. In conclusion: this movie was a joke of a reheated disaster, and if you can fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, you should fold up your director’s chair and go home.

Death Wish

This movie is a straight remake which has the single redeeming feature of having Bruce Willis in it. Bruce Willis is a legend, and anything he touches is made better (although I note that he was not in either Pacific Rim movie and I think we all know why). I haven’t seen the original but I remember when I was a kid it was hugely controversial because of its ultra violent story and the perhaps morally neutral approach towards vigilantism. Now, 40 years later, as militias roam the landscape and Sasha Baron Cohen can convince American politicians to advertise gun self defense schools for four year olds, we can look back to that time of controversy as a purer, more moral era. Now we can watch as the movie-maker postures through the issue by having talk radio hosts debate whether vigilantism is right or wrong without ever making a decision one way or the other, because heaven knows it would be terrible for someone’s career if they made an actual moral judgment on something as grey and uncertain as whether vigilantism is okay. So it is that Bruce (let’s not waste our time pretending his character has any other name) wanders this morally free and pure space murdering random criminals and getting his own back on the people who refrigerated his wife. Unfortunately for the pretext of this movie, the dudes who refrigerated his wife didn’t really even want to, and they’re just small time criminals, and two of them didn’t really even come across as especially bullying, and we didn’t see their faces, so it’s really really hard to get any strong feeling of revenge when he murders them. In fact it seems pretty clear that two of the criminals, at least, were strong candidates for rehabilitation – they were clearly intending just to rob him, they wanted as little trouble as possible, they didn’t want to hurt anyone, they clearly knew that rape and murder are wrong and should not be done, and they were just trying to make a buck. This isn’t to say they were nice people or anything but here’s the thing: this is a vengeance movie. I absolutely love watching bullies get murdered, beaten up, humiliated and destroyed, it’s pretty much the only reason I am still sitting through Game of Thrones. But for my bullies to deserve brutal murder instead of say 10 years to life, they need to actually appeal to my baser instincts. They need to be real arseholes. Not participants in an armed robbery that went wrong. This is why the only really truly satisfying murder is the death of the Ice Cream Man, who steals children’s money when they walk to school and shoots them in the foot if they don’t pay up. His death – and the subsequent looting, essentially, of his still warm corpse by the residents of the block – was the only satisfying death in this bland flick. The deaths might have been slightly more appealing but there was this additional subtext in this movie that made it really hard to fully get behind our hero Bruce – America’s ridiculous and unsustainable levels of inequality, and rich people’s fear of what will happen when America’s poor decide to do something about it. Bruce is a doctor, he’s obviously super rich, and he works in a hospital – a US hospital. We all know that hospitals in the US are key drivers of inequality, and the doctors who work in them get rich working in institutions that refuse healthcare to people who can’t pay, and bankrupt people who come to them for healthcare with bullshit emergency services like charging $500 for an aspirin. So some poor people break into Bruce the emergency doctor’s house to steal some of his ill-gotten gains, and their theft goes wrong because they’re idiots, so they kill his wife, and then this man goes on a spree, murdering poor people across the city. Additionally, at one point he goes into a gun shop and a smily second amendment girl called “Bethany” tries to sell him some guns and makes it really really fucking clear that she doesn’t care who he is and will sell guns to anyone (though she makes the weak sauce excuse that she doesn’t sell them to criminals haha). This entire fucking movie wouldn’t happen if the gun shop was closed down, “Bethany” was put out of a job (sorry Beth!) and everyone got access to universal health coverage. Bruce wouldn’t have got robbed, nobody would have been able to shoot Bruce’s wife and daughter, and Bruce would be able to go home from his job satisfied that he had spent all day saving lives rather than worried deep down inside that he actually spends all day saving only wealthy lives. And we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the (only very partial) thrill of watching a rich man hunt down and murder poor people for doing whatever they can to make ends meet in a world with no universal health coverage, no minimum wage, no gun laws and no sense. Now I guess someone is going to come on here and make some stupid point that I’m making excuses for murderers but I hardly need point out that anyone who defends Bruce is also making excuses for murderers. You can’t watch this movie and not make excuses for murderers (well, I guess you could tut!tut! at everything but where’s the fun in that). And if you live in Japan (as I do) you can be confident that nobody’s going to murder you for your watch, certainly not with a gun, and everyone can afford healthcare at Bruce’s swanky hospital, so Bruce’s riches are genuinely morally deserved, and he can be confident that his valet isn’t going to take a screenshot of his navi (except perhaps to steal his daughter’s underwear from the washing line). Call me a sad-arsed SJW if you will, but a movie where Bruce hunts down some people who brutally murdered his family for shits and giggles is slightly more engaging than a movie where Bruce the rich doctor hunts down and murders a bunch of poor people because they tried to rob his wife and daughter in a society where they can afford guns but can’t afford healthcare. (And don’t even get me started on how the cops are underfunded and overworked!) It’s not like these movies can’t be made! Korea makes awesome gangster movies, and Korea has gun control and universal health coverage. When a rich doctor goes on a murder spree in a Korean gangster movie I’m all in. Not so much when it’s against a backdrop of a crumbling empire with a huge inequality and gun problem, the contradictions of its own oligopolic order now so apparent that you simply can’t squint past them anymore. It steals some of the thrill, and it also makes the whole thing just … boring. In crime movie genre terms, making a boring revenge flick is like making a bad giant robot/monster movie. It should be impossible, but somehow whatever loser made this reboot managed to do it. Thanks for your efforts Bruce, but this wasn’t your best showing.

Solo: A star wars movie

This movie was actually fun! The train heist was a gas, and although the Mad Max elements were a bit obvious and overdone it was enjoyable watching the marauders having their fun. Han Solo was kind of forgettable and the less said about Amelia Clark’s acting the better, plus the betrayals and double-crossings were predictable and the bad guys were not exciting. But otherwise the movie kind of hung together, and although the whole thing in the maelstrom was sort of tedious bullshit, at least there was a tenuous effort at explaining the Kessel run, and given they took a short cut it made sense to refer to doing the kessel run in 12 parsecs (also I like that Han rounds it down and it actually took 13 parsecs, nice touch). That fixed a minor issue in the original movie that had always bothered me. Apparently – my friend tells me, because I won’t go into any cesspit of star wars fanboys – lots of people are pissed off with the director for fucking up a few parts of the original canon, because (spoiler alert!) at the end Darth Maul makes an appearance. Apparently the same fan boys who were pissed off that he died 12 years ago are now pissed off that he’s not dead, which doesn’t bother me at all because about the only thing that was good about the three prequels was Darth Maul’s fighting style (which I guess we won’t see him repeat since the stunt actor who did it must have retired). Also Jar Jar Binks, whose contribution to star wars lore by setting up a plausible theory that he was a Sith Lord is probably the only good cultural contribution of the three prequels. But I digress! One aspect of this movie that pissed me off was the way it implies Han started the rebellion by giving the hyperfuel to the tween girl in the groovy mask. In a universe of trillions of people over billions of planets, why does every single thing that affects the history of the universe have to hang on the actions of just four people? Can things be maybe slightly less incestuous? (And on a related note, the idea that Rey’s parents are nobodies is a ridiculous joke. There’s no way an American franchise is going to let that happen). So overall this movie was light, bearable fun. But I think it says something about Disney and modern American entertainment culture that a movie written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, set in a classic science fiction setting like this, would be just “light, bearable fun,” and that we are satisfied with this because at least he didn’t massively fuck it up.

Which brings me to my conclusion about these three documentaries on America’s cultural decline. What has happened to the production of cultural stuff in America that three movies set in three basically failsafe genres can be so shit that “bearably not fucked up” is our new standard of excellence? And why is it that they can’t make anything original anymore? Almost every action sci-fi now is a super hero movie from the same dumb universe, with no original thought put into any of them. I think the only original movie I have seen in the past three years was Atomic Blonde, and almost everything else has been either a remake, a fixture in an existing franchise or setting, or a sequel. What has happened in the past 30 years that the industry that produced Star Wars, Rambo, Aliens, Robocop, Last of the Mohicans, and that insanely cool Charles Bronson movie about the dude whose dog dies, cannot now produce a single original or interesting movie, and can’t make even half-decent movies in the genres and franchises it already has at its disposal? What’s going on in America now that what was once its powerhouse of cultural production has become so incredibly lame? And what will replace it?

I got plans for more than a wanted man
All around this chaos and madness
Can’t help feeling nothing more than sadness
Only choice to face it the best I can
When the war is over
Got to start again
Try to hold a trace of what it was
Back then
You and I we sent each other stories
Just a page I’m lost in all its glory
How can I go home and not get blown away

 

Our heroes have been betrayed, set up by an unscrupulous Johnson and framed for the attempted murder of the CEO of Oakheart Corporation. They have a history of trouble with Oakheart, and somehow it doesn’t surprise them that they were chosen to be the fall guys in Oakheart’s scheme to win its CEO a position on the ruling corporate council of New Horizon. Unfortunately for Oakheart, however, they made a small mistake: They failed to kill the group, and now the group want revenge.

But first they had to escape New Horizon. Their ship, HS Fortuna, had been sequestered somewhere in Havensport by Mr. Lao, the head of a criminal gang called the Goldsharks who were sympathetic to the PCs’ situation. From their safe house at the edge of Sai Kung the PCs had to find a way to get to the ship, and get out of New Horizon. After a night with little sleep they put in some calls to old friends, and confirmed what they had all suspected from the moment they saw their faces on the news: Their network in New Horizon had burnt to the ground. Friends had changed numbers, old allies were not answering calls, or took the phone only long enough to wish them good luck. Genji’s daughter had been picked up by the Sumiyoshi-kai, a well-placed Yakuza gang who had past, friendly dealings with the PCs, but when Genji put in a call to the gang’s maitre d’ Niwa san they proved suddenly very stubborn: they were holding his daughter “for her own protection” and would not release her until the PCs had resolved their conflict with the Oakheart Corporation. Lee, Jayden and Zenith encouraged Genji to let this go, pointing out that his daughter was much safer under the protection of the Sumiyoshis than she could ever be on the HS Fortuna, but it took some effort for Genji to recognize that their current situation was too precarious to admit family ties. All of them sat in their safe house, steaming with rage at Oakheart as they cycled through their contacts and found them all burnt.

Finally they found one contact they could rely on. Jayden put in a call to Koucha, the old troll shaman they had helped out by slaughtering a bunch of neo nazis, and received a positive response. They had done that job for free, and in return Koucha had promised that if every they really needed to hide he would bury them in the substrata of meta human life that thronged in the poorest parts of Sai Kung. When Jayden called him he proved true to his word, and offered to arrange an escort through hidden ways as far as Havensport, and to get in contact with Mr. Lao for them to organize a meeting. They packed up the few belongings they planned to take, jumped into Zenith’s van, and drove to the meeting point Koucha gave them.

They could not be on the road for long, though to their relief Zenith’s van had not been included in the multiple descriptions of them being broadcast on every media channel. They took quiet side streets and narrow alleys to the meeting point, a neglected auto parking spot under a huge multi lane highway flyover. Here Koucha waited for them as promised, accompanied by a couple of dour-looking Orc bodyguards. He greeted them warmly, accepting Jayden’s gift of stinky tofu warmly and sharing it with his guards. They drove their van into the shadows of the park and crouched behind it with Koucha, listening to the latest news. The contract on them had been opened up beyond the corporations that had issued it, so now every Shadowrunner in New Horizon who needed easy money would be thinking to jump them, and their old haunts had become officially death traps. They definitely needed to get out, before bounty hunters started squeezing their contacts for information and tracking down every trace of their unofficial lives.

Koucha had organized it all. They would be escorted by two of his orc guards to a canal some distance from their meeting point, where they would meet an agent sent by Mr. Lao. That agent would guide them up the canal in a boat and take them to their ship, where Mr. Lao himself would meet them to discuss whatever payment he had in mind for securing their ship and helping with their getaway. Koucha made his distaste for Mr. Lao clear, but also seemed sanguine about whatever possible price Mr. Lao would extract. “If he thought it was a price you couldn’t pay, he wouldn’t waste his time asking. Busy man, Lao.”

At this point they were not in a position to haggle. They secured their van, which Mr. Lao’s contacts would come and collect later, and set off with Koucha’s guides to take a circuitous, quiet route to the rendezvous. “Go well,” Koucha offered by way of farewell. “Remember vengeance can taste so sweet that it beguiles the senses and becomes a poison. Think carefully about it before you return.” Jayden shrugged and patted his knife, Genji sneered, and Adam Lee took in the sage advice with alacrity. With that final warning they set off.

Their path took them on winding routes through stormwater drains, old building sites, narrow alleys lined with crumbling and deserted shops, and ruined industrial estates. Occasionally they had to cross areas with more people, quiet shopping centres or markets where old women haggled over mouldering fruit stalls, but the orc guards guided them faultlessly away from the busiest and most crowded parts of Sai Kung. They marveled at the strange musty landscape they were led through: Here in New Horizon, one of the most densely-populated areas on earth, they had never guessed they could find so many silent cul-de-sacs and empty promenades. Koucha’s men knew this city with a care and detail that none of the group had ever been able to muster.

Those dusty by-ways and disused alleys were not enough to shield them from pursuit, though, and after an hour Jayden sensed it. Somewhere far above them an eagle screamed, and Jayden’s senses began to tingle. That beggar bundled up by the side of the road ahead – had he not seen that same guy just two kilometres back? And was that a shred of movement in the shadows ahead? In the nick of time he warned the others, and then the ambush was sprung. Six shadowrunners, two on an overhead gantry, two on the ground ahead, two rounding them off from behind, all armed with sub machine guns or shotguns. Jayden’s warning was enough for most of the group though, and they sprang into action before the trap could close. Genji opened fire on a gunman on the gantry while Adam Lee dived into cover inside an alleyway and Jayden surged forward to begin hacking at the group’s leader, a tough-looking orc in heavy armour. Their technomancer Heckerman hunkered down and began hacking smartgun links and cyberware while Zenith the rigger opened fire on the flanking gunmen.

The battle was short and brutal. They ganked the mage where he stood on the gantry, gunning him down before he could cause too much damage with his pain spells, and their leader failed to bring his shotgun to bear on anyone as he constantly fended off Jayden’s hacking, slashing savagery. When the two flanking gunmen fell the remaining gunman on the gantry fled, but Heckerman put a trail on him to make sure he would not bring reinforcements. A few questions to the boss confirmed their suspicions – this was a freelance team making a punt on a rumour, hoping to cash the reward, and no sign that they were being pursued by corporate security. They left the runners nursing their wounds and moved on, hustling now to get to Mr. Lao before they ran into more trouble.

After another hour they reached the canal where Lao’s contact waited for them, a grumpy old troll squatting down in the mist by a small boat. They climbed in, wished their orc guides farewell, and set off down river to their ship. On the river they felt the first threads of freedom, the silent banks drifting by slowly in the near-dawn light, empty of anyone who might be paying attention to their silent progress. Soon they reached the wider reaches of the harbour, and as the sun rose diffuse through New Horizon’s harbourside mists they alighted on a small dock, lifted up by heavily tattooed triad members to stand in a press of cheerful, gap-toothed men. Mr. Lao pushed through, swatting aside his men and greeting them warmly.

“If it isn’t the heroes of Sai Kung!” he proclaimed, arms wide, and gestured them through to a small shelter set up on the docks. Beyond them their ship HS Fortuna loomed tantalizingly in the mist, so near – just one more negotiation and she was theirs. Genji and Jayden glanced around casually, counting numbers, wondering if they could cut their way through, looked at each other and decided this time they did not have the numbers. Talk first…

They noticed Zha, Lao’s bodyguard, standing apart from the rest of the gangsters and looking out to sea. He was stoic about the whole affair, though this was not unusual from the stone-faced mage. He was talking with a man who was clearly out of place, a friendly looking man with a gentle smile and simple suit. The characters felt they recognized them and, seeing them stare, Lao enlightened them. “Yes yes..” he opened. “Here heroes, meet Doctor Guowei, the crazy old man was warned, but couldn’t help but come meet you.”

“Evening friends…” Doctor Guowei moved closer, looking nervous and out of place, his hands behind his back. He gave a tiny bow followed by a smile. “I am Chung Guowei, a pleasure to meet you all.”
Then it clicked, where they had seen this simple man before. In the news. He was one of the many crazy enough to be running for Council of Sai Kung. Doctor Chung Guowei, former professor of New Horizon University of Technology. If it were not enough that hew as NHUT faculty, they had heard stories of the social studies professor gone rogue, having connections with pro-metahuman terrorist cells and the Sai Kung triads.

They stood there blinking. Well… in some sense they, standing there on a dark dock at dawn, with Mr.Lao right next to them, were all outright evidence in support of those rumours. Dr. Guowei shared a drink with them, though there was little need for small talk – he already know their names and roles, likely informed by Mr. Lao, and although obviously nervous around men of violence and misdeeds he also had the confidence of a man who knew his path. Here on the docks at Sai Kung, a plan of subversion began to take shape. After a short while of small talk and discussion he thanked them all for their efforts, telling them that even though this meeting was very risky for him, he couldn’t help but risk it to meet those who were brave enough to declare outright war on the Oakhearts.

“It was about goddamn time,” said Mr.Lao, his golden cyberarm almost knocking the drink out of the good Doctor’s hand.

After a small while, the professor-politician bowed his goodbyes and left, accompanied the PCs noticed by a small squad of Lao’s most dangerous looking men. Then they turned to business. Mr.Lao explained to them that it would take a few hours before their boat was ready and Zenith’s van had been brought to the ship. He asked for details on the assassination attempt, dismissing any talk of a “setup” with a wave of his hand and a stern knowing look when they pressed him. Then he told them the simple facts of the matter: They were in a contract with the Sai Kung Golden Sharks from now. When they returned to New Horizon, they would be helping Sai Kung with its resistance to the rulers of New Horizon. “It is a simple contract,” he explained. “And when you return I will fulfill my part of the deal – we will fight the Oakhearts together!” He downed another shot of strong Chinese spirit and slapped a decidedly uncomfortable-looking Adam Lee on the back. “Life and business is nothing else but finding the enemies of your enemies, and sharing a drink with them!” He poured them all another. “So here, friends, let us drink. To the revolution, and the downfall of our enemies!”

They knocked back their last drink on New Horizon’s grubby shores, and prepared to board…

So to all you feelers and fumblers
Waiting for the fireworks to start
Do it now–blow it up yourself
Unbutton the butcher in your heart
And if I don’t come home before midnight
And I can’t find the keyhole in the dark
You’ll know, you’ll know that I’ve been tempted
You’ll know, you’ll know we’re drifting apart
Everything’s on fire

 

For a week or two after they completed their bug hunt the characters rested, and spent some of their hard-earned nuyen. During this time a lot of things changed in New Horizon, and in particular the PCs discovered a new and disturbing force loose in the shadows of New Horizon: Electoral politics. To the extent that New Horizon had ever been ruled over by anyone, it was managed by a council of major corporations that made important decisions about basic municipal details like garbage collection and road rules, and stayed well clear of each other’s business deals and their shadier engagements with the city’s teeming populace. This council’s memberships were usually organized through backroom deals and money politics, but for some reason one of the CEOs had, when he resigned, thrown his position open to a popular election, based on the full suffrage of the people, and suddenly New Horizon’s shadowed lanes were alive with rumours and political debate. CEOs from a handful of smaller companies jostled for position, as did the leaders of the teamster’s union, a well-known gangster, some independent celebrities and a couple of genuine politicians. In the cramped and humid darkness of the lower levels of the city a new fever gripped the residents, as they tried to understand this strange and alien social landscape. Posters, graffiti, demonstrations, parties – a new vocabulary and a new style of interaction swept across the city. The PCs showed a particular interest because the Oakheart company was heavily involved in all the political machinations leading up to the election, and was running a candidate. Oakheart was the company that they had rescued a rich student from a few months earlier, and its vicious way of dealing with the student occupation of its labs had not endeared it to them. So it was that they found themselves sprawled in the dining room of their ship, HS Fortuna, whiling away their spare time shooting beers and watching this strange new process of “voting” and “canvassing” unfold on their large vid screen.

But if you’re not a politician politics doesn’t pay the bills, and eventually they started hunting for work again. They were contacted after a few weeks by Ibai Texeira, the man who had given them the train job and the smuggling job that got them their ship. It was unusual to be contacted directly by their Mr. Johnson, rather than having him go through their fixer Anansie, and perhaps in retrospect they should have taken that as a sign that the job was too hot – but they had grown to trust Texeira, and so they agreed to meet him.

Only fools trust a Johnson. Fools and dead shadowrunners.

The job was again quite simple, and urgent. A certain scientist named Lincoln Cheng had run away from his employer, carrying a large quantity of valuable research data, and his employer wanted him back. There was an open contract on this Dr. Cheng, but he had gone to ground and no one had found him in a few months. However, Ibai happened to have found out where he would be for a few hours from 4pm this afternoon, very precisely. He wanted the PCs to go in and get Cheng, and hand him over to Ibrahim, in exchange for 40,000 nuyen – half if Cheng was damaged. Ibai cut off their concerns about grabbing a scientist on the Lam by explaining that the data he was carrying was some kind of magically coded poison intended to preferentially kill the Awakened, and he would likely sell it off to finance his life on the run, so it was probably better that he didn’t get too far with it. Perhaps it was the easy money, or perhaps for a moment the thought of a targeted magical virus aimed at the Awakened got the better of them, but they did not ask a lot of questions they should have. They agreed to the job.

Knowledge is power, any decker could tell you that. Their decker wasn’t with them when they cut the deal. They only learned what Ibai wanted them to know – and what he didn’t want them to know could sink corporations.

Lincoln had rented a room in the Eolani Corporation building in the southern part of Sai Kung, from 4pm to 7pm. They had to get into the building and grab him while he was there, and it was 2pm already. There was a big catch though – the building was in front of a large park, and an election rally was being held in the park for the whole afternoon. They would have heavy security, and Ibai wanted Cheng dragged out with “minimum explosions”, as he put it, so they were going to need to find a way around the security in the area. Most of it would be standard New Horizon security services stuff but there might be some special teams on watch because a candidate in the elections was going to be giving a speech.

They shrugged. Stealthy jobs, done quickly and suddenly – that was there thing. No problem! They cut the deal and cut to the chase.

Their rigger Zenith took them to the Eolani building, actually a whole campus of mixed residential and office buildings separated from the park where the rally would be held by a wide road and a small orchard park. They dressed as labourers and got their decker, Jo, to set up a fake business and a fake call, a sudden vermin problem in the basement of the building where Cheng was meant to hide. By 3:50 pm they had their car parked in front of the building entrance and were unloading their gear – a medium crawler drone, their body armour and weapons. As they unloaded Jo explored their surroundings, and Zenith sat tight in the van, body slumped in his seat as he scanned the area in cold VR mode.

Jayden, Genji and Adam Lee would go inside dressed as vermin hunters, ride the elevator the 6th floor and set up in the maintenance room. On the way up Jo told that the rally was being held by Oakheart, and also informed them that she had found a bunch of high end security drones, packing heavy jamming equipment to deter hacking and heavily armed, probably in some sort of crowd security role for the rally. She traced them back to a subsidiary of Aztechnology, which was a bit strange, but not impossible to imagine – perhaps this area had a special security deal with one of Aztechnology’s security corps, or maybe Oakheart’s CEO had a deal with Aztechnology for help on the election – who knew how corps work? They donned armour in the maintenance room, set up the combat drone, and sent Zenith’s flyspy drone down the hallway towards Cheng’s room while Jo sought a map of the building. It was 3.52.

The drone showed them no threats, and Jo identified an empty room neighbouring the one Cheng was due to use. They moved quickly down the hall and slipped into the empty room, keeping the lights off. 3.53. Jo began looking for more information about the next room. The flyspy sat on the wall outside, watching the elevator. Had Cheng arrived already? They could not tell. Jo was in the surveillance cameras, but saw no one coming or going. 3.55.

They waited. While they waited, Genji idly switched his eyes to infrared and began scanning the neighbouring room. He found the heat signature of a person, sitting on the far side of the wall close enough to register, near the window. Was it Cheng? Or was he due to meet someone? They alerted Jo, who began scouting around for any signs of network activity from the room. 3.57.

They began to think it must be Cheng. Adam Lee decided to try getting him to open the door, in the hope that he would at least open it wide enough for the flyspy drone to slip through. He slipped into the hallway and knocked on the door, announced himself as a vermin inspector and asked if he could quickly check the room. His ruse did not work and the door did not open. 3.59.

They were sure now it must be Cheng. They discussed smashing their way through the walls, which were thin enough to allow a heat signature to show, but decided not to. Better to go through the door. Jo informed them that there did seem to be some kind of electronic activity in the room and … oh, well, he had a bomb rigged up to go off when the door opened. She could disarm it but would need a few minutes. 4.00.

They looked at each other, Jayden shrugged, and they decided to go through the front door. This Cheng was a scientist and Jayden was an adept, chances were Jayden would have him by the throat before he could react. Then they would negotiate or drag him out depending on the situation. There wasn’t much else for it, given the situation, and if he was waiting for people from a rival corp to come and start negotiating a transfer then they were going to need to act now, before his corp contact – and associated bodyguards – turned up. They moved into the hall, set the crawler drone with its rifle facing the door, Genji and Lee behind it, and Jayden readied himself to push the door open. 4.04.

Jo contacted them, the bomb was down. They nodded to each other and Jayden reached out, pushed the door open, and coiled up to spring through the door. As the door slid open Jo’s voice came breathless in their ears:

“TOO MANY CONNECTIONS. It’s a trap!”

4.05

The door swung open and Jayden surged through even as Jo spoke. Inside was a dimly lit room, bland corporate day decor, a desk in the far corner, stock posters on the wall, sterile bar, a long wide window sweeping along the whole wall facing the park. Jayden took it all in in a heart beat as he leaped forward at the position where he knew Cheng was.

Cheng was sitting tied to a chair, a gag over his mouth, gesturing madly at them with his eyes and grunting. Next to him on a stand was a large sniper rifle, barrel pointed through the window, some kind of trigger device linking it to the door. As Jayden surged through the door the rifle fired, the window shattered, and with his preternatural reflexes Jayden had a frozen moment as he flew through the air, where he saw that the gun had a perfect view of the speaker’s platform, where Lang Oakheart was just finishing her election speech. As he reached Cheng’s chair he knew she was already beginning to fall, the sniper’s bullet in her heart. He grabbed Cheng’s chair and began dragging it towards the door.

As he dragged the chair Cheng grunted and swore and twitched, and over his shoulder he could feel the security drone rising from where it had been hidden beneath the parapet of the window. He could already hear its autorifles whirring into action. Everyone cleared the doorway in a mad scramble as the drone opened fire, a full automatic roar that tore the door off its hinges and destroyed their drone where it sat vulnerable in the middle of the hallway. Lee, just out of sight of the door, was not targeted, and Jayden and Genji were able to scramble out of the way in time, but Jayden was still inside the room, covering Cheng with his armoured body.

Still 4.05. The room went silent, only Cheng’s grunts of terror and the smooth hum of the drone breaking the stillness. In their earphones Jo was yelling instructions at them but her voice was broken up by the sudden jamming interference from the drone, just hints of frightened orders coming through static: “… OUT … THEY … GA-…”

Genji looked wild-eyed through the door, saw the expression on Jayden’s face and started running for the stairs at the opposite end of the building. Adam Lee cast an armour spell on Jayden and moved as far from the doorway as he could. Jayden, grim and determined and carrying 40,000 nuyen worth of scientist, started dragging Cheng to the door. Behind him something clicked, and the drone’s missile housing opened.

Clicked again once, fired. The room erupted in fire but but by now Jayden was through the doorway, protected from the worst of the blast. The walls bulged, the whole hallway filled with dust, and Jayden and Cheng were hurled against the far wall. Jayden slipped to the floor, unconscious, to lie on top of Cheng.

4.06. Downstairs at the entryway Zenith had been rudely kicked out of his VR connection to the dying drone, just in time to hear the sound of an engine revving up in the trees about 30 metres ahead. Some sixth sense warned him that he was about to get rammed, so he reversed the van as fast as he could away from the door. By the time he was perhaps 30m back from the door a large, evil-looking grey van came hurtling out of the trees and hauled to a stop in front of the door, rear doors facing it. The doors opened and six heavily-armed men burst out, charging into the building at a rush. Zenith realized that this van was some kind of special armoured combat van, probably with a machine gun hidden in a roof mount, and he needed to clear it away if they were going to have any chance of getting out. He flipped the car into drive and gunned it forward, hitting the van with such power that it bounced into the air, rolled over and landed shattered on its side some distance from the door. Back in his place at the door he hit the comm link and told everyone that they had incoming troops.

Still 4.06. Upstairs Adam Lee cast an awaken spell on Jayden, who emerged from his comatose position and surged to his feet, knife in hand. He sliced Cheng free of the chair and he and Adam ran to the stairs where Genji waited for them, his pistols out. Zenith’s voice broke through the static to warn them of incoming soldiers, followed by Jo telling them the lift was moving. Everything Jo said came through a wall of static, and they had to guess some of her words, but she was delivering. She also told them more drones were coming, and they had to get out. They ran down the stairs. Jo jammed the lift to buy them time, working furiously through the jamming, and informed them calmly as they hurtled down the stairs that she had found a back room on the third floor with an unlocked door and emergency escape hatches in its balcony. Zenith gunned the van into a screaming reverse and hurtled around to the back of the building to park outside the room and wait. “THEY KNOW WHERE YOU ARE, THEY HAVE EYES ON YOU!” Jo yelled at them, then, “TOO MUCH OVERWATCH! GOD IS COMING!” and she was gone.

They hit the third floor, slamming and locking the room door behind them, Jayden standing right by it with knives out, ready for the soldiers. They had passed the elevator on level five at the far end of the hall, trapped between level 4 and level 5, but they were sure that with Jo gone those soldiers would be heading down for them. Adam and Genji scrambled to open the emergency hatch, for the first time in their lives fervently thanking their local ward office for insisting on emergency preparedness drills one Sunday morning every three months, and they began to climb down. As soon as they had Cheng through and the last of them was gone Jayden sprinted to the verandah and leapt down, landing with a smooth roll in the grass by the van three floors down. By the time Genji dragged Cheng into the van he already had his seat belt on.

4.08. They gunned it.

Aftermath of a betrayal

Somehow they made it out, the van screaming through confused and chaotic streets as people fled in the aftermath of the assassination. They left the troops eating their dust, and somehow their van had not registered with the drones so that by the time they cleared the area no one had triggered them, but it didn’t matter. Before they had even made it to their safe house their names were on all the news channels – the team of terrorists who had tried to assassinate Lang Oakheart. Their names, their faces, Jayden’s full real name from his legal national SIN, all appeared on the newscast. Cheng was incriminated too as a member of their gang. By the time they made it to their safe house they had already received a farewell message from Mr. Anansie, their regular fixer, and a contract had been declared on them – strangely, though, a contract that was currently a closed one restricted to a few corporations and not available to shadowrunners generally.

A corporate contract. Ibai Texeira had fragged them. The whole thing had been a set up. If they had acted a little slower, if Jayden had not been wearing Adam Lee’s armour, if they had all gone into the room together instead of trusting to Jayden’s adept instincts, the drone would have cut them all down as soon as the rifle had been fired. They had been expected to die in that room, and only the luck of the shadows had saved them.

They rested in the safe house, watched the news. Corporate police were hunting for them, but Lang Oakheart had somehow survived – a miracle. Lang Oakheart, the new telegenic and super-sophisticated face of Oakheart Industries, who had been struggling to be heard over the media power of the larger corporations, had been badly injured by the bullet but somehow – miraculously – the bullet had just missed her heart. Perhaps it was her patented Oakheart security dress? As the talking heads on the news marveled at her luck, the characters knew the truth: The shot had been intended to miss, because the whole thing was a set up. Lang would recover, her poll numbers radically improved, and would storm home to victory in the election on the back of her near-miss.

The PCs would just be collateral damage, roadkill on her path to victory. They had been burned.

By morning the calls had come in. Their old allies and friends saying a final farewell. “No hard feelings, friends, but you know …” Only their friends the Goldsharks in Sai Kung stuck by them – they received an early morning call from Mr. Lao to inform them that he had moved the HS Fortuna to a safe location, and they could come to it as soon as they wanted.

They were wanted, betrayed, on the run. They had to get to the Fortuna, and get New Horizon behind them.

At least until they could come back and get their revenge on every single person who betrayed them, starting with Ibai.

Hidden in their safe house in a rubbish dump in the worst part of Sai Kung, none of them could sleep. They began making lists.

They would be back.

 

I never thought that I would find myself
In bed amongst the stones
The columns are all men
Begging to crush me
No shapes sail on the dark deep lakes

And no flags wave me home
In the caves
All cats are gray
In the caves
The textures coat my skin
In the death cell
A single note
Rings on and on and on

The Ark’s heroes have secured the Dark Castle and looted its treasures, which they found to be tawdry gold- and silver-plated baubles covered in strange glittering stones. Having previously made a deal with an old man to give him a haul of these stones – and one in particular, the koh-i-noor – in exchange for knowledge, they decided that it was time to pay a visit to two old men: The old man who had promised them the knowledge, and their own Ark’s Elder, who they wanted to confront while their power in the Ark – and their confidence – was still high.

The Old Man’s Secrets

They rested for only as long as they needed to recover their strength, and set off for the old man’s abandoned army camp the following morning. They drove to his camp this time in the car they had liberated from the Dark Castle, its boot stuffed with sceptres and crowns and heaped jewellery and gems.  As they approached he emerged from under the attached lean-to, squinting at them in the gloomy zone light and scratching quizzically behind one ear. By the time the car trundled to a noisy halt he had hidden any sign of surprise, however, and had lined up a set of chairs for them. They dragged their loot out of the boot and sat on the chairs.

In exchange for the koh-i-noor and the diamonds the old man was true to his word, and offered them his boat. He even showed how to hitch the trailer to the car, so that they could drive it straight down to the water near the Ark without having to enlist the help of their fellow mutants back at the Ark. They pressed him then for more – the knowledge he had promised them – and discovered that he had lied to them slightly. He would not give them any knowledge, but he could tell them the location of a great library where they could learn everything they needed to about the ancient world. A library with millions of books, that could tell them everything they needed. It was not far, he assured them that it was completely safe, and he had soon explained its location to them. Feeling slightly cheated but hopeful that they would learn more than they had ever expected – and without having to endure his irascible manners – they thanked him and left with the boat.

The great grey librarian

Having learned of this strange new “library” full of books they could read, the mutants decided to delay their visit to the Elder, and to instead immediately fly to the Library. They could not hope to read all the books immediately, so they decided to do a strategic grab. They loaded their Trash Hawks with sacks and set off, hoping to scour the library for its most valuable and immediately important books and return with them to the Ark. As they soared westward they saw the old man, standing on top of his caravan, the koh-i-noor flashing in the sun atop a gaudy golden staff. He did not wave to them.

They soon found the building they had been told about, a huge L-shaped ruin of orange brick entangled with vines and creepers and the ever-present fungal rot of the zone. Its upper floors had been wrecked by some huge blast and lay open to the elements, their books and contents long since crumbled to nothing, but the lowest two levels were still mostly intact, though many windows had been smashed, and as they circled above it they shared high hopes of finding a large haul of books.

They landed in a large plaza in the crook of the L, leaving their birds to preen in the courtyard, and approached a huge shattered entrance. Through the entrance way they found a gloomy, mould-covered entry way, with stairs leading up to a higher level and abandoned counters overgrown with creeping vines and moss. To the left of the entry way was a door, with a grubby sign on which they could partially read the words Exhibition Room. They decided to start exploring there. When they approached the door, however, it exploded backward in a shower of shattered mouldy wood, and a huge grey beast emerged in a furious rush from the shadows of the room. It was three times the size of Grimshaw, covered in a thick scaly grey hide, walking upright like a man but with a nearly featureless face, a mouth distorted by huge fangs and deep set eyes that burnt with an unholy fire. Its hand were huge battering rams ending in three thick, clawed fingers, as did its feet, and its legs bent backwards like one of their Trash Hawks. As soon as they saw it they felt a wave of revulsion and terror, but they knew immediately what they faced – a giant grey man like the one they had found entombed beneath the Ark!

As the beast lunged forward Grimshaw unsheathed his shotgun, Reason, and fired point blank at the beast’s chest, yelling for the others to flee outside. He did not expect to have any success, having seen in the videos that these grey demons appeared to shrug off rifle fire, but was stunned to find that at this range he could harm it – for a brief moment it staggered and the others retreated. They hoped that it would have the same fear of light as its smaller brethren, but they were wrong, and so found themselves fighting it in the murky light of the front entranceway. It fought by slashing with huge claws and unleashing great gouts of concentrated rot from its mouth, which surged over all the mutants in the group and afflicted them terribly. Although it nearly killed two of them, and many of their weapons bounced off of its thick hide, they finally managed to slay it, felling it just inside the entrance. It twitched briefly but then to their horror began to rot and decay rapidly in front of them. Within minutes only bones remained – and it was then that Parsnip saw a necklace around its neck, of gold with a central diamond embedded. One of the Old Man’s … they had been tricked.

They discussed what to do. They were all sure that the old man had tricked them into coming here so that this beast of his could kill them, but they also wondered how could this old man control such a creature? Could it be coincidence? They were also injured and needed time to rest, so they decided that they would not rush back to confront the old man. Instead they would explore the room the demon had been found in, and grab some books from one other part of the library, rest, and then head straight to the old man’s lair to confront him.

In the Exhibition Room they found a collection of ancient books of great cultural value: one of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta of 1215, a manuscript of Handel’s Messiah in the composer’s own hand, the original handwritten copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and notes written by Leonardo da Vinci. They had been torn up and strewn around the room, covered in rot and filth, but the mutants managed to recover them. They then went to the science section to grab some important science books, and left the Library to kill the old man.

War for the Ark

They flew back towards the Ark, turning north at the last and dropping in on the old man’s base, but he was not there. His caravan was unattended, and he did not shuffle out from under the lean-to to meet them. He obviously had not fled though, and all his belongings lay where they should be, as if he had tidied up after himself in an orderly way and set out on some errand. Disappointed, they decided to head to the skies and see if they could find him. As they searched in wider and wider circles they finally saw it – smoke rising from the direction of the Ark. They turned their Trash Hawks and headed home.

They soon saw it – a massive attack on the Ark. Grey Men swarmed towards its entrances, whipped on by a pair of great grey demons. In the distance on a hillside stood the old man, holding his staff of gold aloft, the koh-i-noor flashing in the sun. Near him a third demon hulked, and a squad of grey men for his personal guardians. The People fought valiantly, and thanks to the projects the mutants had pioneered the Ark was holding its ground. The barricades on the door held, someone stood in the Sky Temple firing a pistol into the clamouring grey men, the Phantom of the Opera played the Organ in a mighty dirge to support the troops, and the Ark’s organized militia fought in a disciplined style against the beasts. Nonetheless, the situation was dire: they were outnumbered, and the grey men tore at the barricades and swarmed over the facade of the stadium. Fires burnt on the edges and as the great grey demons pressed forward the defenders fell back in terror and disarray.

Their task was clear. They dived their Trash Hawks towards the barricades, and attacked the first grey demon. With her first strike Bloody Jack cut it down at the knees, attempting to knock it over, but failed. As Preacher circled above, exhorting them to greater efforts to the glory of the sky god, they hacked and slashed and fired at the beast until it finally succumbed. Injured but not defeated, they downed their painkillers and soda pop, some of them knocked back hard quantities of booze, and they leapt into the air again, this time to attack the old man himself.

The old man had some special power, which caused them to divert from attacking him to attack his grey demon instead, and with its rot blast it felled Parsnip, but they persevered, fighting both the demon and the grey men. While they fought the old man assailed them with doubt and pain and fire, but eventually they prevailed and finally the demon was felled. With a cry of rage Grimshaw struck the old man in the face, and he fell to the ground with a sick thud. Their leader slain, the remaining grey men fled back to the tunnels from whence they came, leaving behind a small number of dead mutants, and a large amount of damage.

They had come only in the last moment, but through their efforts the Ark had survived. They had prevailed!

The Elder

Having won the day for the Ark, they had one more thing they wanted to do. The next morning, as the Ark was still being repaired, the wounded still tended, they marched up to the cupola lying in the middle of the Ark’s open stadium and demanded admittance to the Elder’s inner sanctum. One of the Chroniclers at the door tried to stop them, but Grimshaw tapped his hammer Justice and with a sigh he allowed them in. Another Chronicler led them down a short corridor to a small, stuffy room that stank of human excrement and decay. On a tiny bed in the corner, heaped high with grubby blankets, lay the Elder. In another corner sat a dour old chronicler, who roused resentfully when the mutants entered and even more angrily when they demanded he clear away the bucket of festering shit that sat in the corner. Chang Chang threw aside the thick curtains, letting in the weak zone light, and Lonnie and Parsnip began cleaning the room. Meanwhile Bloody Jack and Grimshaw approached the bed, pulling back the sheets and filthy blankets to find the Elder, their inspiration and guide over these years.

He was a shell of his former self, a thin, disease-ravaged wreck of a body. He had never been strong or overbearing, always a frail man, but now he had been reduced to a shred of a man, a sack of bones and bed sores. What had happened in this fetid room over the past months as they had been busy at their work and their missions, what had fallen on this man? He was obviously dying, but now they needed to know. There was so much they needed to know: Who were they? Why could they have no children? What did the future hold? What should they do? This man, the source of all their knowledge and inspiration, lay pale and shrinking on the bed, oblivious to their demands.

They cleaned him up and waited, but he lay their in weak disregard, looking away at the faint light from the newly-opened window with obvious desperate longing. Finally Grimshaw lost his temper and, standing up, looming over the old man, began to rage at him, threatening and yelling and demanding answers. The old man ignored him. Then Bloody Jack stepped forward and ordered him to speak, for the Ark, for the People, for the Seventh Revolution! She gave a stirring speech about leadership and command, the responsibility of the leader to the future, and to everyone’s shock he responded. Just briefly his eyes cleared and he turned to face her, spitting an oath of power up at her and reminding her that it was him who had saved them, to him that she and hers owed fealty.

She demanded answers. And he gave them! He told them a story of horror and desperation that they had never heard before:

  • A group of powerful wizards unleashed magic on the world, and with it came demons and dragons and the grey men. No one knows why they did it.
  • The world was overrun and destroyed but many of the creatures unleashed in it could not stay – they were chained to “somewhere else” and had to go back.
  • In their savage return, the demons and dragons and fairies took most of surviving humanity with them
  • This included the apprentices of the powerful wizards.
  • In hell, humans became slaves, food and fuel. But the wizard apprentices found each other and tried to help some humans escape
  • When they got to the gates of hell, a secret way out, they found a gate keeper, and had to cut a deal. He took their future and left them in stasis – destroyed the mutant’s ability to have children – but let them free
  • The wizards took groups of humans through the gate but they all emerged in different places and lost their magic when they emerged
  • But the mutants retained some of the impact of hell, and emerged into the world with powers
  • They set up arks, but never made contact with each other again

Then his head fell back onto the pillow and, spent, he waved them away with a weak twitch of one hand. Their audience was done.

So it was that the mutants emerged into the light of the Ark, newly educated, knowing their place in the world – and knowing they were lost. Their only hope was to find humans who had been left behind on the earth before the apocalypse, and find out if those humans could still make children, or their Ark was doomed, and all their dreams with it.

But that is a story for another time.

 

The death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death’s kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way.

On the 23rd January Ursula le Guin died at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy unrivaled in science fiction, and a body of work that has been hugely influential in and outside of the genre. Ursula le Guin was my gateway to fantasy, and a very important personal influence for me, not only on my reading habits but also on my game mastering, and on my own perspectives on politics, feminism, and race relations. She has received accolades from newspapers and writers across the world, and there’s little that I need to say to add to the obvious appreciation of her contribution on display in all the usual places, so I thought I might say a little about the various and important ways that she influenced me from a very young age. It’s not much, but ultimately this is what writing is all about – the impact it has on its readers.

A Wizard of Earthsea was my introduction to real fantasy, probably the first book I read after the Narnia series, and the one book more than any other that served to kick me into a lifetime of devotion to this genre. I was always an avid reader when I was a child so there was no risk that I would not be reading a lot of books, but it was A Wizard of Earthsea more than any other book that ensured I would commit a lot of that reading time to the fantasy and science fiction genres. It’s a great book to start with, because it is immediately accessible to children, but whatever age you read it you will gain something from it. Indeed, I think I have read the whole series perhaps three times, and the first in the series at least five times. The writing is very powerful and so very simple, every sentence carefully poised to carry as much weight as possible. The original three slim volumes require so little work to read, and have such a powerful impact. For me Ged is one of the most powerful and engaging characters in all of fiction, speaking to me not like a lone magician but like the voice of some eternal conscience, a moral and spiritual force far greater than its possible to believe one literary figure can possess. It surely helps that when I read this book I was beginning to give in to my position as an outsider, always moving around, always rejected by new schools and new communities, living on the edge of things just like Ged when he discovered his powers. This book, simultaneously so forceful and so gentle, was a huge influence on my personality when I was very young.

The Dispossessed came to me at the beginning of university, and is probably the single biggest reason I fell into left wing political views. I was a very naive, very inexperienced boy coming from a very poor background with a great deal of anger about the disadvantage that I, my family and my friends faced, but no sense of how anything could ever be different – or that it even could be. Then, because I had read A Wizard of Earthsea, I decided to read The Dispossessed – and I suddenly discovered an image of a world where everything was different, where there was no inequality and people worked and struggled for very different reasons. This story was about a scientist – a physicist no less! – embarking on a world of political discovery at just the time I was studying physics, and moving from my country town to the big city. Just like Shevek after he left Anarres, I felt again like an outsider, a country bumpkin in amongst all these sophisticated kids from the city who already knew each other and already knew the world they moved in, kids who had spent their whole lives knowing they would be at university, and knew that after they left university they would inherit the world – while I had only learnt what university was a year earlier and did not know where I would go after it finished. Caught in that in between world I read The Dispossessed and suddenly I knew that there had to be another way, that maybe things didn’t have to be the way everyone assumed they had to be. After I read this book I sat with a much older mature age student in the cafe, trying to explain how it had opened my mind to knew ways of social organization, and my anger at how things were, and he suggested that I should join Resistance, the youth arm of the communist party. “I think you’ll hate them,” he told me, “and you’ll leave after a year. But you’ll learn about the things you need to know.” So I did, and he was right in every detail – I did hate them, and I did learn a lot, and I did leave them after a year. Just like Shevek I ended up in between political ideas, but knowing a lot more about myself and what I believed.

The Left Hand of Darkness came after The Dispossessed, again while I was still a callow youth, and it opened my mind about gender the same way that The Dispossessed made me think about politics. It had never really occurred to me that the relations between the sexes were culturally constructed, and the complex relationship between biology and culture described in that wonderful little book was a completely new idea to me (like I said, I was a very naive youth). The Left Hand of Darkness is perfect science fiction, in that it gets you to think about how things are and how they could be and how they should be, but it doesn’t give you any neat answers – it just makes you wonder. After you read a book like that you just want to know more, you have suddenly a whole new dimension of thinking that you didn’t know about before, and suddenly you are open to all the new ideas that flow from it – feminism, post structuralism, whatever. I spoke to a friend after I read this book, an activist in the Australian Labor Party, and he recommended to me an excellent guidebook called Men, Sex, Power and Survival that provided a primer in feminism for men. At the same time the university where I studied was offering basic education in how to behave in a non-sexist way in tutorials and in general at university (a few tips on how not to sexually harass people, that sort of thing) and I think without this book I would have been less open to these things. I don’t credit myself with being “woke” in some dumb-arsed American way, but I think I have lived my life open to feminist ideas and alternative ways of thinking about sex and culture, and I think I can credit Ursula le Guin for this.

So in terms of my main hobby and interests, my main political direction, and a lot of my views about gender and sexuality, I have a lot to thank Ursula le Guin for. Of course nothing is all one person’s fault, and there were other things that influenced me in all these directions – Dragonlance probably cemented my interest in the fantasy genre, and I think Star Wars and a few other movies would have fixed me on science fiction (though I came to sci fi later than fantasy). I guess I probably would have discovered left wing politics anyway, given my class background and my anger, and the university was pushing a strong feminist line when I arrived that might have influenced me anyway, but I’m sure that without Ms. le Guin’s impact I might have been far less committed to or interested in any of these areas of life. She influenced me in other ways, too – I think Orsinian Tales is a heart-breakingly well written depiction of the lives of ordinary people, that really moved me when I first discovered it, and I read a lot of her other work and was duly influenced by that too, but these were the big three ways in which she changed my life.

Ursula le Guin didn’t get the credit she deserved in life, and although as she neared the end of her career she began to get the accolades which she should have got decades earlier, I think she still didn’t get all she deserves. I think she identified this as partly being because of her gender, at least within her field; but she also seemed to be very convinced that it was the genre itself that held back the esteem its authors deserved (not just her; she never seemed to be very proud). She was a staunch and prickly defender of her genre, refusing to apologize for it or to break out of it, and as punishment for that I believe she is not as well rewarded as, say, Margaret Atwood, who writes slightly science-fictiony stories in a mainstream genre and got a lot of respect much earlier in her career. Of course I can’t speak for Ursula le Guin but I think, from what I read of her essays and her writings, that she wouldn’t care about those awards and accolades nearly as much as she valued the impact that she has had on the lives of her readers, the ordinary people from whom she believed all important change arises, about whom she always told her stories, and to whom she so patiently and consistently directed her work. So I wanted to add my voice to all those others this week who spoke up to say how much she influenced them, and how much she mattered to them. Ursula le Guin’s work changed the direction of my life, for the better, and I will always be thankful to her for that, and for her huge contribution to the fields of science fiction and fantasy that have formed so much of the backdrop of my life. She may be gone, but she leaves a formidable legacy that will change science fiction and fantasy forever, just as it changed me.

 

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