Even the Minor Names Matter

Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium

I was watching Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium again the other night, a visual spectacle which effectively builds a dystopian future which physically divides the rich and poor. While the economy of this setting isn’t fleshed out (and I struggle to find a way to make it really work) it nevertheless serves as a visual allegory for the problem of social mobility in the face of hard social stratification – a daily experience for many people in the world today. If you’ve not seen it and don’t mind a violent action romp, check it out. I’ll try and avoid spoiling anything significant here.

But I got a chuckle out of a very minor prop used during the course of the film. At one point, Matt Damon’s character Max is exposed to a lethal medical condition, and to manage this condition his workplace provides him medication. Now given that this takes place far in the future, in a dystopian allegory for an experience in the modern world, what should the writer have called that medication?

I can think of three obvious answers:

  1. Research current medications, scientific development in therapies, and project a convincing future technology based on this.
  2. Redirect the audience elsewhere and fix the problem off-stage.
  3. Make something up.

Answering this very question is something I was asking myself earlier this week when I found my own writing needed to address a future medical scenario, and it was fun to see just how different Blomkamp’s approach is to that of my current read, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a hard-SF epic where you’d expect to encounter the first option above.

This is the first novel of Robinson’s I’ve read, so I can’t comment on any pattern with his other work, but certainly a lot of 2312‘s appeal is it’s well researched look at the science of its fictional world. The book takes us on a future journey which affords us an exploration of the solar system, a place of wild and curious history, fascinating possibility, and amazing spectacle. With glimpses at uncommon facts of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the challenges of quantum computing or the effects of the relativistic precession of Mercury, it’s invokes the big picture wonder many of use go to SF for in the first place.

Along the course of 2312, main POV character Swan suffers from effectively the same condition as Max. In a novel there’s room to dig into the science of a situation, and in “Hard SF” we generally expect it. So does Swan’s therapy get a detailed treatment in this novel – option one above? No! It’s simply not the focus of the story, and medical technology isn’t what’s fuelling our sense of wonder here. 2312 instead goes with option two: It establishes there’s a wide variety of longevity treatments available, shifts the character off stage for a few pages and brings her back fully healed.

Miporol prop from Elysium, from user rkpeterson of yourprops.com

Elysium has 120 minutes to tell a thriller, but in this case we need the treatment visible, where it acts as a timer to help build tension. Being on stage it needs a name, and so the story goes with option three, introducing capsules of the fictional medication “Miporol”. We know it’s serious stuff when even people on the street know about it, like when Max says to Julio “they gave me Miporol, man.”

No doubt I’ll pick something else up from this film the next time I watch it, but for now I’m going to sit back and appreciate that Elysium didn’t choose option three as any lazy shortcut. As the story starts out, Max is an ex car thief who served time in prison and is out on parole. When he is inflicted with an otherwise agonising fatal condition he heads back to the underworld he’s been trying to escape in the hope of finding a way out, but even losing the ankle bracelet which ties him to his previous sentence he’s far from free: in the face of his otherwise terminal condition, it’s now the medication that’s his parole.

It’s Not What You Do but Where You’re Going.

My first blog, many years ago and on a long defunct website, was simply a journal of my motorcycle rides. Each weekend I’d plot a different route through the countryside near home, pack the SLR, and take the bike out to explore. It was a great experience, a way to combine several passions – motorcycling, photography and writing – into one place where I could develop and play with them. Nothing’s truly static, and as I sold my motorcycle this week I found opportunity to reflect back on the journey, and how that confluence of interests grew in new and unexpected directions. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of that reflection was recognising just how much it had shaped what I considered my identity.

Out exploring the trails

Our experience of the world around us, and our place amongst humanity, is significantly – perhaps entirely – shaped by observation. As children, we see the behaviour of our parents and the people around us, along with what they say to us and each other. At times those are at odds with one another, as in the case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ (as a parent I’d argue that this teaches us almost the exact opposite: Do as I do, but in order to fit into society, learn to say as I say). When we recall an acquaintance many years later, it’s their actions we recall, it’s what they did – and usually only peripherally do we recall what they said.

We see the same thing in fiction of course; Orson Scott Card makes this point explicitly right at the start of his book Characters and Viewpoint, noting that ‘People become, in our minds, what we see them do.’ If that seems a simplistic perspective, rest assured that he goes on to show how there is more nuance to this, and there are indeed many additional layers that define the well rounded characters that we most admire as being more than one-dimensional stereotypes. If you’ve not read it, check it out, it’s a great book.

But I’d like to take just that one dimensional aspect of people being what they do and propose that deep down inside, it’s how we identify ourselves. After all, if we’re defining others by what we observe, then we’re at least subconsciously expecting them to define us by the same measure.

For many years, I’ve owned and ridden motorcycles. I’d commute on a motorcycle, regardless of the weather. I’d sightsee on a motorcycle. My wife and I would put our kids on the back of a pair of motorcycles and ride out to the country to go camping. Motorcycling became very much a part of our identity.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Growing up, my perspective of motorcycling was mostly defined by negative media attention: motorcycle gangs, speeding motorcyclists, crashes and injury. I might have known academically that that didn’t represent all motorcyclists, but it was an abstract connection. With some artistic and engineering interest I might have admired the aesthetic design of a superbike, or the engineering required to collapse the wide variety of technology found in a luxury car onto a frame not much larger than a bicycle, but it was an abstract interest. It was only after a well respected friend started riding a motorcycle to work that I began to make a connection between this abstract motorcycling idea and the real experience of lived life.

It’s also became an opportunity to give a gift, of sorts. Giving my kids the opportunity to experience motorcycling in a positive fashion, far removed from some of those negative portrayals in sensationalist media. It allowed them to see motorcycling as an exhilarating real life experience, or perhaps even more importantly understand how exposed a motorcyclist is to the elements, to the heat of the engine beneath them, to the conditions of traffic and whims of the drivers around them. Riding the motorcycle to the office was likewise perhaps an opportunity to give that same gift to colleagues, showing (hopefully) that those motorcyclists out there aren’t invisible, but might be friends and coworkers.

Four people camping on two motorcycles, you learn to pack light.

But times change, and my work no longer requires a commute. The country rides have been replaced by the joy of a walk through undeveloped natural wilderness near my home. It’s time for motorcycling to shift from part of “what I do” and become part of “what I’ve done” instead.

When we’re talking about character and identity, I think “what I’ve done” is where we start to get very selective. After all, “what I’ve done” isn’t just the adventures or our favourite achievements, but also the embarrassing and foolish mistakes we’ve made along the way.

And I think that’s where the whole notion of connecting identity to “what we do” begins to break down. What we do is a reflection of a journey – an ever changing journey we’re all on, wherever we are in life today. We might take a mental shortcut and categorise ourselves and others as what we do, but it’s only ever a snapshot, a temporary reflection – sometimes wildly distorted and superficial – of a deeper story we’re living collectively together.

So yeah, I might not have a bike or be riding right now, but perhaps it’s time to move beyond the idea that something like this defines me. It’s a place I’ve been, a tool in the belt, a lane in the the road. Perhaps I’ll be back in it again, perhaps not.

Either way, it’s time to move on.

The Walk is Waiting and Ready

I live adjacent to some curated wilderness and parkland, through which I can walk to a number of destinations – whether cafes, the grocery store, or my local library. When the weather permits, these walks are a high point of my day. And so it was that earlier this week I had been on just such a walk to my local library for some good old fashioned research, this time on the potentially dry and academic topics of economics and economic history.

The Dewey Decimal system puts economics over in the 330s, so it was a little surprising to see a book on conservation there (conservation’s normally a tiny subsection of the 630s) in the form of Bram Buscher and Robert Fletchers’ The Conservation Revolution. Reading it though*, you can see why: Despite being wholly concerned with the topic of the conservation of nature (the subtitle is Radical ideas for saving nature beyond the Anthropocene) it found its way into the economics section for good reason: It’s central premise is that conservation and economics are inextricably linked simply because wealth and capital growth are inextricably linked with the notion that the world in which we live is itself a form of capital on which we can draw.

While this might read like anti-capitalist Bolshevik fundamentalism, and certainly the Revolution of its title prompts a leaning in that direction, there is less a well fleshed out guide or manifesto for revolution in here. Rather, the book’s push feels more nuanced: The authors seem less inclined towards an institutionalised, regulated system of balancing nature and human wellbeing, and more inclined to revolutionising the notion of conservation in the first place. Rather than choosing between various forms of mainstream and alternate conservation (ranging from cherry picking nature areas when it’s commercially expedient to setting aside vast wilderness reserves and leaving them untended on the assumption that the way that we found them was the natural optimum and human involvement is by nature harmful) they encourage another option, one in which humanity is directly in touch with nature and no longer separated from it.

We’re constantly shaping the world around us, even if it’s second hand. View on a recent visit to The Super Pit, one of Australia’s largest open cut gold mines.

I’m not a big reader of academic papers, but there are some thought provoking quotes in here. Ivan Illich appears to have been one of several significant influences in their work, the authors drawing on his philosophy in forming their proposal of a conservation which is not merely one-sided in its exploitation. I quite liked this quote:

The richer we get in a consumer society, the more acutely we become aware of how many grades of value – of both leisure and labour – we have climbed. The higher we are on the pyramid, the less likely we are to give up time to simple idleness and to apparently nonproductive pursuits. The joy of listening to the neighbourhood finch is easily overshadowed by stereophonic recordings of “Bird Songs of the World”, the walk through the park downgraded by preparations for a packaged bird-watching tour in the jungle.

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

While I did read a few other books on economics during my session, I find myself resonating with the sentiment in this. I could have driven the car to the library, perhaps listening to a classical composer’s orchestral expression of the emotion when encountering the forces of nature in the seasons, the Alps or the Hebrides, or I could get out there, leave the headphones off, and get in tune with it myself.

Another book I worked through at the same time was Fred Schwed Jr’s Where Are the Customer’s Yachts?. Its introduction by Jason Zweig, while reflecting on the effect of bull markets on Wall Street on its denizens, includes this illustration:

Late one evening in January 2000, I left my office at 50th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and got into a taxi. The driver pulled forward, and we waited for the traffic light to change. Moments later, four young men in matching power ties and power suits came striding powerfully right into the street. One of them rapped on the driver’s window. The cabbie opened it a few inches, and the whiz kid barked, “We’re going to 49th and Park” – just four blocks and a few minutes’ walk across town. “I already have a fare,” answered the taxi driver, hooking his thumb toward me in the back seat. “Throw him out,” said the hotshot, “and we’ll give you a hundred bucks.” He wasn’t kidding: Reaching in through the window, he shoved a $100 bill in the taxi driver’s face. “I can’t do that,” protested the cabbie, pushing the money away. The light changed, my cabbie shut the window, and we sped away from the scene like two maidens escaping the tent of Attila the Hun.

Jason Zweig, in introduction to Fred Schwed Jr’s Where Are the Customer’s Yachts?

The grind to climb grades of value is always there, waiting to eat us up, and eager to turn us into the sort of person that would “rather fork over $100 and shaft a stranger than go to the bother of walking four city blocks” to quote Zweig’s later assessment. Or, in my case, waiting for me to burn more liquid fossils, dump waste into the atmosphere, and leave local nature paths untrodden, rather than simply walk those few extra minutes and stay in touch with the world around me.

Maybe I’ll see you out there?

* always on the lookout for a serendipitous confluence of events, I’m not one to turn away the unexpected when it crops up in the middle of something else.

Foundation, For All Mankind. Sounds like a Cosmetics Promotion.

Foundation, Apple TV+

My recent admission into the iPhone collective included a free three-month subscription to Apple TV, which has given me a chance to catch up on a couple of recent sci-fi series I’d not seen. I found Foundation to be a very enjoyable modern re-imagining of Asimov’s epic (we shouldn’t be surprised that a 1953 novel will have some dated cultural and technical language). Seeing how the scriptwriters have taken 30 pages of the novel and turned it into an episode is an interesting study in itself.

The other SF romp which caught my attention was For All Mankind. Kicking off an alternate history with the Soviets landing first on the moon is an interesting hook and provides a decent engine to the series. While the series can’t resist weaving a few 21st century social concerns into its many plot threads, it does so in ways which mostly seem genuine to the alternate timeline it’s created.

That being said, I generally don’t spend a lot of time watching TV – I’d prefer to be either at the computer or reading (or walking) – so it’s very easy for a series to make me grab the loud handles and punch out. And one of season two’s plot threads succeeded very well in getting the whole family to give the plane back to the taxpayers.

Warning: Some spoilers ahead.

In season one’s fictional 1974, Ed and Karen Baldwin lose their son Shane, who has been previously getting up to increasing mischief with Danny Stevens as a reaction to the family’s intense focus on the work. It’s an event which is all the more harrowing for the fact that they can’t support one another: Ed is currently on the moon and, playing into how we got into this problem in the first place, entirely mission focused. It’s a critical turning point for these characters and shapes much of their subsequent journey.

In season two we continue with these characters into the 1980s. They’re ten years older, but maybe no wiser: Danny has joined the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and while on break, works at the Outpost with Karen Baldwin, where he confesses to have feelings for her, and she takes advantage of the situation to remedy the lack of physical intimacy in her otherwise mission-oriented life in an extended on-screen steamy scene which just had me want to turn the TV off right there.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty else going on in season two, and a really great escalation of tension between US and Soviet space endeavours. But if you’re going to thread multiple plot lines into a series, do you really want one that is going to alienate your viewers?

A couple of things really trigger me in here. First is that as a parent, Karen’s loss of her son is not something she’ll ever really put behind her. As his best friend, Danny will automatically be an unofficial stepson in many ways, serving to keep her in touch with that lost aspect of her family, and she has the adopted Kelly, so isn’t disconnected from her role as mentor and nurturer. In short, we’ve seen no reason to break that expectation, so this arc feels contrived, something thrown in to ‘spice it up’ and provide a bit of sauce.

For All Mankind, Apple TV+

But there’s maybe another problem which becomes more apparent if we simply invert the characters’ genders. How would we feel if a young female student character appeared to be seducing her dead best friend’s father? Wouldn’t we see that as perpetuating societal problems around grooming and exploitation? Are we saying that the way towards a society with better gender balance is to perpetuate our very worst mistakes onto the other gender, rather than to perhaps stop propagating them in the first place? And even if there is a good reason to have it as a critical plot point, how much needs to be shown, and how much can be implied?

For All Mankind is a great show with a solid concept driving an excellent platform on which it can raise questions and social commentary like this, particularly if we’re willing to not just stop and question the plot, but what drives the industry, and the audience, towards some of these decisions. And with this property having gone this direction I’ll be very interested to see how Foundation’s second season pans out. Which… will see me having to renew my ‘free’ trial subscription.


Well played, Apple TV.