Saturday, October 27, 2018

"Hotel Artemis" - Review & Cyberpunk Analysis

"Hotel Artemis" - A Review and Cyberpunk Analysis

Silver Spook AKA Christian Miller

Hotel Artemis is a cyberpunk indie film tour-de-force that got nowhere near the recognition it deserves, slipping under a lot of radars, including mine. So here's me doing my small part to remedy that. 

Hotel Artemis, written and directed by longtime franchise writer Drew Pearce, takes place ten years in the future, where riots over water privatization have ravaged Los Angeles. The Nurse (Jodie Foster) runs a high-security secret hospital for criminals that hovers precariously on the brink of chaos, bound by a heaping helping of anonymity and trust.

Artemis shares a lineage with Bladerunner in that it is a British auteur's cyberpunk vision using the Art Deco husk of Los Angeles as a scaffolding to layer a dystopian hi-tech future onto. In 1982 it was Ridley Scott that set his way across the pond, and this time, it's Drew Pearce, writer on Iron Man 3, Mission Impossible 2, making his directorial debut.

Hotel Artemis has 'cyber' in spades. It's got the hi-tech microwave scalpels cutting open low-life bank heisters. It's got hi-tech Black Mirror-esque cornea-implanted video cameras that get 8G reception through meters of reinforced steel. It's got low-life Molly Millions razorgirl-analogs using said ocular cameras to make snuff films for lower-life well-heeled pervs, two thousand miles away via satellite livestream.

It's a film unstuck in time. Jodie Foster plays a septuagenarian once-hippy turned-diehard-urban den-mother, known as "Nurse". She awakens to the Papa's "California Dreamin" on an archaic record player. After getting a frumpy grandma-cardigan that's as time-faded and threadbare as a Velveteen Rabbit, she goes to work playing Neil Young's "Helpless" on a cassette tape -- slightly less archaic than the record player by two decades, give or take. She listens to 60's counterculture rock on 80's lo-fi in the 40's-style Hotel revamped into a 2028-future hospital for LA's criminal underbelly, complete with 3D liver printers and eye-rebuilding medicinal nanotech.

There's an exquisite layering of time periods, strata of technology and culture existing naturally on top of each other -- with the newfangled gizmos as just a sci-fi icing on a fully-realized world-cake. This degree of verisimilitude is perhaps the greatest achievement of Hotel Artemis that few cyberpunk sci-fi or speculative fiction works ever manage. Most instead hyperfocus on The Astounding Capital-F Future's Blasters Holodecks and FTL Spaceships as in trad- space-centric sci-fi, or the shiny badass cyberarms, flying cars, wired, biochips and trodes in every orifice, cyan-and-magenta Photoshop filtered generic Tokyo-scape, and 100 foot holo-geishas as in schlock cyberpunk.

Artemis' degree of lived-in, thought-through speculative realism alone, more than makes up for some of the wandering story and under-utilized tensions and actors oft complained about in other reviews. But add to this several endearing performances, and a 'soul-first, money-later' spirit that permeates the entire picture, and it's clear there's a future-cult-gem of neo-noir genius buried beneath a tidalwave of mainstream audiences disappointed they didn't get a generic marvel movie, or critics paid by the actual Wolf Kings of Hollywood and the entertainment-industrial-complex, who have certain members of Hotel Artemis cast on, if not the black list, the 'very dark grey' list.

(Pearce has himself acknowledged that he had specifically gone into 'Artemis' with the mantra, 'this is an indie film that not everyone will like, but some people will love it to death' - in particular his seventeen year old self. My seventeen year old self stands in solidarity!)

Obviously this resonates with me, having spent 2 ½ years working on Neofeud, a cyberpunk adventure game labor of love that is quite decidedly not for everyone. Firstly, a LucasArts / Sierra-style point-and-click that is niche AF, and secondly the 'postmodern impressionism' art style I was aiming for is admittedly love hate. But for my own twenty year old angsty Gibson-guzzling, Bladerunner binging and Deus Ex-devouring self, Neofeud would've been the best thing on the planet.

As a native Hawaiian, I'm intimately familiar with hotels (and I also have issues with aspects of Big Tourism that's colonized my homeland but that's one of my frequently digressed digressions so feel free to binge that rant elsewhere in my 'Tube catalogue of extended livestreamed diatribes).

Hotels are sanctuaries from the daily grind of dayjob drudgery. They're places of luxury -- exclusive clubs for a wealthy, privileged elite, and if you've the rare fortune to have a stable job with mysterious things called, 'vacation time', you average Joe or Jane might get to visit an economy-class hotel, two weeks out of a year, if you're lucky.  Hotels are places of anonymity -- also a privilege in our world of Big Brother-centric surveillance capitalism and AI where Facebook, Google and China are in an arms race to build automated wardrone skynets and train world-dominating economic Hal 9000's with your every text message selfie-cammed micro expression, and online purchase.

But in this fairytale land called 'Richistan', that has none of that, that houses World Economic Forums in reclusive Swiss mountain ranges, idyllic Waikiki penthouse sunsets and private beaches. In this 'Elysium' of the elite no one asks questions when you walk in on the red carpet and check in, and the concierge would be remiss to give away patron data.

Hotels are homes for the moneyd homeless. The post-geographical cosmopolitan jet-setters doing Goldman Sachs bidding over powerlunches, smuggling Ono Sendai hacker decks and Maas-Biotek prototypes in titanium briefcases, or assassinating corporate big-wigs (the latter is the business of certain Hotel Artemis' members).  Hotels are a country whose name is opulence, whose national past-times are, 500 dollar hookers, high-thread-count sheets and four-star room service, whose citizenship card is a platinum rectangle with the word VISA on it, whose anthem is neoliberal doctrine, and whose membership requires fealty to megabanks, megacorporations, and the megarich -- all of which are fundamentally criminal entities, not unlike the occupants of Hotel Artemis.

Cyberpunk is criminals working for bigger criminals, and Hotel Artemis has that in spades also.

Hotels are for those who do Nice, Honolulu, and Acapulco in a span of 48 hours.

According to Pearce, the initial inspiration came from visiting LA during the California droughts. Two years later, Flint Michigan taps spouting lead and carcinogens, 37 US cities and over 3000 communities in America without potable drinking water as part of our cyberpunk dystopian present, and Hotel Artemis is barely science fictional.

Is Hotel Artemis cyberPUNK?

Yes, there are punk elements.

The most punk aspect of Artemis is undoubtedly the Jodie Foster character.

We discover that the 'Nurse', through musical tastes, ideological choices and backstory, is fundamentally a child of the original subversive movements of the 60's -- the Civil Rights Movement, the spiritual predecessor of punk before it was suppressed, destroyed and co-opted by 'The Man' as the boomers called it then. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, shortly before taking a 30-06 round to the head, that 'There can be no racial equality without economic equality'. And then, as Rage Against The Machine says in The Matrix' credit's song, 'Then came the shot'.

A single working parent without a high school diploma could support a family of four with food, adequate housing, and healthcare in the mid-20th century in America. As we all know, that 'golden age of aquarius' has been in steep decline ever since, with half of the country at or near poverty, and millenials with Ph. Ds barely scraping by at Starbucks, uberdriving, dog-walking, and instacart gig-economy jobbing just to afford a closet above a methlab or a 'cyberpunk' coffin apodment at age 37 like Seattlites in Amazon's home city. The technically savvy are programming in sardine-packed into flop houses, attempting to be the next startup / crypto Zukerberg, or win the killer-app Hunger Games before the Go-Fund Me for their insulin dries up. (Fun fact: the average family of four in the US now pays around 30,000 for health insurance BEFORE being slammed with countless hidden fees and charges. Outrageous healthcare costs are a #1 reason cited by teachers striking like wildfire across the nation)

Hotel Artemis functions as an exclusive healthcare club, an exclusive 'potable water club' and exclusive high-security home for wealthy criminals who've enriched themselves looting other people (and sometimes killing them). It's quite resonant to the cyberpunk present we live in, in which a criminal business and political elite have robbed the majority of us blind and left us to rot like a homeless runaway teenager bleeding out from a drug deal gone bad in a ghetto with poison for tap water.

Foster's Nurse is that good Samaritan, who took in those desperate and dying street kids, healed their wounds, and served as a surrogate parent. That is the relationship that Bautista's character, Everest, the hulking orderly, has with Nurse. He will smash your face in with his medikit, but he's like a giant little kid with her. It is one of the strongest chemistries of the film, a believable adopted mother-son relationship, right down to Nurse telling Everest to 'take the long way to get some exercise' when she has him kick an unruly guest out of the Hotel. ("Visiting hours are never!" -- Bautista has all the best zingers)

Everest is no stranger to the violence and the brutality of American street-level poverty. He reminds the clientele that he is a 'certified healthcare professional' and if you talk about fight-club- sorry.. I mean the clandestine criminal hospital, Everest will hunt you down and 'un-heal' your ass.

At the same time, Everest is completely loyal and cares deeply about nurse -- always addressing her respectfully with 'yes nurse' even when he disagrees -- because she was the only who was there for him when he was lost in the brutal concrete jungle of cyberpunk dystopia that is the US present and future.

It later becomes apparent Foster's character had taken in countless other street kids, like Everest, and had worked to heal the healthcare-less at a free clinic, until it was shut down.

This aspect of Hotel Artemis personally resonated the most with me, as someone who grew up a person of color in a US ghetto. I later went on to become a STEM teacher for inner-city kids and a social worker. Fundamentally, I was a surrogate parent for countless homeless, marginalized, parentless children whos parents were zonked out on meth, incarcerated, or just working so many jobs to keep the family afloat they just weren't around. These kids I was working with were like Everest, who saw their only possible future as becoming a drugdealing criminal, an Ice Cube-like rap star, or both. They were all striving to follow the footsteps of the Wolf King and the rest of the Hotel Artemis' residents -- as affluent globetrotting badasses. But the reality was they'd mostly end up in the prison-industrial complex making Whole Foods products and fighting California wildfires for 72 cents an hour.

I worked with several foster parents, many of them aging-hippy white ladies just like Jodie Foster's character. One in particular, she had the same frazzled grey hair, faded tye dye so ancient it might've survived Woodstock. I was teaching a Lego Robotics class to about ten kids, many from low-income housing and foster kids -- there were two Native Hawaiians, a few Filipinos, mixed-race, and an African American. Side note: Bautista is half Filipino half Greek, and grew up in poverty in one of the most horrifically unequal areas  of the US -- Washington DC. Bautista once recalled himself and his sister surviving for a week on a pot of burned beets with their single mother.

A lot of the kids I was teaching gave me flak and insisted on pretending to be Kanye West and trying to rap battle me (I occasionally obliged them and had to kick their butt to settle them down and win some respect). But eventually, we got to working on building Lego robotic arms (cause you've got to prime kids to grow up cyberpunks early!) I helped them engineer and program self-driving Lego cars, beating Tesla and Google to the punch by a decade.

But at the end of the first class, this old white lady in her Birkenstocks and a frayed old flower-sweater, very much like Jodie Foster's character came in through the door. 
"Ok boys, time to go!" she said. And about 2/3 of the class got up saying, "Yes, mom" in a tone just like Dave Bautista's "Yes, nurse", and all the black and brown kids all flocked to her and gave her a big group hug.

Everest's and Nurse's relationship is really the soul of this movie, and it is more true to reality than almost anything I've seen in the cyberpunk and adjacent genres. While American cinema and AAA games often demonize or glamorize criminals, (the latter is common in cyberpunk), most actual 'criminals' in my experience are people who are 'prisoners of their own devices' as a certain Eagles song about a hotel goes. They're people with limited options, often due to poverty or marginalization, forced to try to survive by often illegal means. Whether that's robbing banks, selling drugs or boosting cars (one of the smartest kids I taught was a literal grand theft auto convict who grew up poor and brown). 'Poverty is the worst form f violence' as Ghandi correctly put it. It isn't glamorous, it is ugly, and it is wrong. It is a wrong done to millions of people, a particularly egregious wrong in the richest country on Earth like the US. 

The work to remedy is also as unglamorous and often unnoticed as a little drab frazzly grey-haired old lady -- but it is the real work. Jeff Goldblum plays the Wolf King 'owner of half of LA' and there's a scene where Nurse is healing his wounds, and she refers to him as 'just another ex-con hippy who traded beads for bullets'. In that moment the history of America, perhaps the world, is boiled down to a microcosm. Six decades have passed since the Assassination of JFK and King, and one flower child his sold out, bought into 'greed is good' mantra of the 80's and made billions of dollars profiting as the country falls into squalor, the environment burns, water riots and chaos dominate. The other is still doing the hard but necessary social work of providing for those less fortunate even when it was 'uncool', was the safety net for those falling through the gaping cracks, healing the healthcareless. If the ratio of true-punk nurses to sell-out Wolf Kings were greater, we'd probably be in less of a global mess, right now.

Sterling K. Brown plays Waikiki, a bank heister and his relationship with his less-competent drug-addicted brother is another strong point. The brother gets them in trouble and nearly gets them killed on multiple occasions, but Waikiki stays by his side.

But on top of the heavy subtance, Artemis practically oozes style and flair. There are a fair share of action including Mexican standoffs with 3D printed guns, assassinations via coffee cup (Riddick would be proud) and Boutella (famous for kicking deadly ass with ninja-sword legs as 'Gazelle' in Kingsman) is amazing as a physical actress -- a great scene with her taking on a mob of LA gang underlings is nineties-action flick quality.

But what Artemis DOESN'T show speaks volumes, and is in senses more bold than what it DOES. A massive showdown with Bautista wielding an axe is merely implied, a bank vault goes uncracked (much to the chagrin of the drilling specialist). Oft slammed by critics for 'missed opportunities' on the contrary, I think fully revealing these would be easy, predictable Hollywood cliché, and thinking about it in retrospect, wouldn't've added much. (The film was also shot for $15 million, or about 1/3 the going rate for a major Marvel action star, and given this A-List of Bautista, Foster, Brown, and Goldblum, there was obviously some pro-bono work hours put in here.)

What is Punk?

"Punk subculture originated out of working class angst and the frustrations many youth were feeling about economic inequality and the bourgeois hypocrisy. It was primarily concerned with concepts such as pro-working class, egalitarianism, humanitarianism, etc." the inherently infallible truth arbiter, Wikipedia, tells us.

Foster's character didn't have radioactive green Mohawks, sleeveless jean jackets, or safety pins and studs everywhere, but her character was the most actually punk in the 'substance' sense. Nurse actually did humanitarian work, helped people who actually needed it, often at her own peril -- such as Everest and an injured community liaison officer. The latter act could've gotten her killed given the LA criminal godfather (played by Jeff Goldblum) owns this future-tech hospital for the criminal elite.

She's also got the 'cyber' in cyberpunk covered with all the 3D printed organs, laser-exactos, and even a broken bone-mending spray based on biohacked coral polyps. (Director Pearce describes this in detail, and experts on the movie ranged from NASA to SpaceX. The research on the movie is one of its highest points.

While its neo-noir lighting and fixtures, whodunit slow-burn sensibility and post-genre originality may not be everyone's idea of a silver screen weekend getaway, for those who fans of true cyberpunk, and tour-de-force from-the-heart indie filmmaking if you check into Hotel Artemis, like the Eagles Hotel California says, 'you'll never leave'.

(Drew Pearce probably wanted to get that song in the movie but couldn't afford the rights, so imagine it playing over the credits!)

Check it out on IMDB!

Check out the video version of this review:

Monday, October 22, 2018

Terminus Machina: Bailout (Excerpt)

Jack Newman shouldered past the six-inch reinforced alloy frame of the self-driving armored personnel carrier into SoMa town, San Francisco, shards of glass and crumbling asphalt crunching beneath his tactical boots like the rib cages of small mammals. He squinted through mean wind that tasted of burning batteries, to take in the broken majesty of AT&T park. Half of the Giants Stadium had collapsed like some 20th century rendition of the Roman Colosseum, its steel bones digested by the stomach acid of Pacific sea salt and the floor-by-floor demolition of state budgets. The more obscure consumption of the United States by its financial élite, that infestation of white-shoed tapeworms who devoured all legitimate business, all productivity, leaving nothing but stinking piles of economic feces and fraudulent bank paper where metropoli once boomed. 

The Bay itself had gone the color of bile, the ocean heaving nauseous from a trillion tons of anthropocentric carbon, vomiting itself across South Beach Harbor parking lot and playground, washing wrecked yachts across the highway against bent street signs and abandoned cars and the dark windowless husks of skyscrapers. Shoals of trash and untreated sewage festered and smothered whatever remained of the coastal ecosystem. The bodies of poisoned fish, seals and whales were left to rot, the fly-ridden flesh thin and grey and everywhere, like black and white photographs of Nazi camp mass-graves.

It’d been ages since Jack had actually seen un-mediated, unpolished urban decay in meatspace, let alone actually had to wallow in it, and it made his skin crawl with a kind of ambient tension and Rousseau-esque guilt. It made his head hurt more to think about what it meant that he felt such revulsion toward reality. Visions of the Agent Smith-Morpheus showdown asserted themselves like popup ads into his mind’s eye.

"I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I've somehow been infected by it." The smell, that’s what it was. The smell of burning ash and rotting garbage and dead mammals. All of these un-targeted, un-personalized stimuli, all this terrible ‘serendipity’, this unprogrammed experience. It was viscerally repulsive to Jack. He closed his eyes, nudged the microprocessors in his corneas awake with a three-thought Ideocode sequence -- visualising his mother's face, the melody to All Along The Watchtower, and the memory of his first successful assassination with a humanoid drone. He clicked his heels together for good measure. An Encephalock reader membraned over the tissue of his cerebral cortex, scanned the chain of neural firings in his brain, unlocking a transparent cerulean HUD of timestamp, taskbar, and compass that crept into his peripheral vision. With a wink at a virtual tab, Jack papered over the sight of disgusting reality with the clinical rectilinearity of his AR-overlayed email inbox. He felt instantly better. Even if it was a wall of X-Pandgen penis enargement gene-therapy spam and messages from his wife hounding him over some birthday party planning he couldn't be bothered with. Even the ubiquitous marquee ads for depleted uranium flechette pistols that kept chasing him across the net were a comfort as they scrolled over the tangled snarl of a sixteen car pile-up in South Beach playground. No place like home.

It was unusual, to say the least. The heavy brass had called Jack and his team of Troubleshooters out of the bunker arcology down into San Fran, demanding in-person oversight of the investigation. That never happened, especially not beyond the Ameribank City barrier. RPLCNTS and air drones were teleoperated in the field from climate-controlled C&C hubs, or programmed for autonomous detective-mode as the primary means of on-the-ground actual police work. That was the CyberSec M.O. If human beings were called out of the green zone into the battlefield, it meant someone very high up was personally pulling strings. Strings such as the fat end-of-the-year bonus that had suddenly appeared in Jack’s bank account, one which his immediate supervisor would never authorize, not even for cluster-bombing an abandoned Costco full of World Class War jobless insurgents. Not that Jack had an argument with the money, per se.

A Valkyrie drone transport was crouching near the crime scene. The Emergency medical drones had made it in time to stop the bleeding but the kid had slipped into a coma, and all the king’s nanites couldn’t put his prefrontal cortex back together again. Multiple cerebral contusions, face smashed unrecognizable- Jack hadn’t seen that kind of gutty gore since the Compton prison guard robots went AWOL from a bad firmware update, pounded the inmates’ skulls into corned beef with fire extinguishers. That incident had been a bitch to cover up. It took the cleaners six hours to scrub the goopy chunks of brain and hemoglobin from the cell walls and bars. The cover story about a facility-wide prisoner revolt had been a stretch, but necessary to ward off all the Human Rights and Anti-Robot organization limpdicks salivating at the chance to score political points against the big-box automated prison industry. Jack had pulled multiple Red Bull-powered all-nighters taking down whistleblower blogs and humanitarian sites using DDoS hacking attacks, shouting down activists in forums and chatrooms with an army of AI-run counter-poster accounts. Jack nipped all attempts to expose the incident in the bud. The spin team CGed black faces onto all the released security footage; the undying fear of the angry black man could always be counted on to sway public opinion in a pinch.

But this wasn’t an airbrush job for the corporate Elite; for the first time in months, Jack was actually being asked to solve an honest-to-Gnossis crime.

"I’m feeling like a real police officer, I think I need to up my dosage," Jack bantered into his mic.

"Book ’em, Dano." Stasia laughed back, exiting the vehicle beside Jack, ballistic leather-analog creaking as she slapped him on the shoulder.

"The boy, one Justin Diamond. Stable condition. Son of Alistair and Margaret Diamond, Divorced. Father is a senior executive at Vitanet Medical. Former governer of New Hampshire and New Jersey. On the board of the American Medical Association. Duck-hunting buddy of President Vanderlyle’s old man."

"Vitanet? Jesus. That explains, well, everything. Of course the trillionaires can afford to buy their own personal investigation into their son’s near-murder."

Jack pulled up the boy’s files into an unused section of retina real estate, thankful for the overlay’s breakup of the real-world overload. The brick and mortar was starting to grate on his eyeballs.

"Last connectivity, today, 9:34 AM. Via a dVice Ubiq." Jack fiddled through the kid’s pockets, coming up with only lint and date-rape pills.

"No dVice on him. Looks like someone out there is running around with stolen hardware. Let’s run it by the registries."

Jack examined the area surrounding the chalked outline, stepping over the metal column of a fallen street lamp, fluted green metal blistering with rust. There was another dead body, thirty feet away. A spider crawled over to the mess, scanned the face and took a DNA sample. A tiny hooked implement like a dentist’s scraper ejected from the forensic bot’s mandibular area. It used the scraper to extract a dollop from the pool of blood beneath the corpse’ head. The blood had congealed in a pothole like strawberry Jell-O.

The results for the second victim were instantaneous, and the dossier tabbed itself like a playing card beside the primary’s file.

"Amit Garcia. Ex-accountant. Former Ameribank City citizen till a few months ago when his citizenship was revoked due to consecutive delinquent payments."

"Double homicide? Or a separate incident?" Stasia hypothesized.

"Maybe. Hard to say. It’s dangerous, chaotic out here in the Bay Area. Life expectancy rates aren’t so great."

"Chaotic? Aren’t we going to at least look into it?"

"He had his citizenship taken away for failing to make payments. That means this guy’s a Deadweight. An Unemployed. He doesn’t count as a person as far as we’re concerned." Jack pointed to Amit’s former white collar office shirt, turned grey from living in the street, as if it was QED.

"As far as we’re concerned? So we’re going to look the other way?"

"As far as our bosses are concerned. We’re not being paid to investigate deaths of unimportant individuals."

Stasia performed a Premium Internet search with Amit’s facial biometrics.

"Look, there’s a video of Amit and some other jobless San Franciscan tearing at each other’s throats. A human dogfight. It’s got fifty thousand hits on the ‘Tube and is circulating semi-viral on Friendbook. It looks like Justin here wasn’t exactly innocent." Stasia held the jittery clip up in Jack’s face. Jack feigned incredulity.

"We don’t know that. It could’ve been anyone filming the brawl." Jack said.

"’San Fran Food Fite to Teh Deth’, uploaded 9:34 AM today by Darkshado, registered name: Justin Diamond." Stasia held up the streaming video of the soon-to-be-dead Amit having his head crushed against the point of a fire hydrant by another unemployed Deadweight bum. A cracking teen voice laughed and wagged a bag of fast food at the starving Deadweights, egging them into killing one another in sick gladiatorial fashion.

"It’s just high schoolers being stupid high schoolers, that’s what they do. Things got out of hand." Jack brushed the video aside.

"Jesus, somebody is dead, Jack! And this rich little silver spoon brat was directly responsible. We have to do something."

Jack sighed, pulled an Altoid tin from the inner pocket of his double-breasted trenchcoat, one of the few pieces of dumbware he kept on him for sentimental value.

"I said I feel like a police officer, Stas. But that’s not what we are. Police don’t exist anymore. We’re Troubleshooters. Sooner or later you’re going to learn what that means." He offered her one of the flat white cylinders. She turned away.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Terminus Machina Story Collection Vol 1 - Excerpt

The Ghosts of Cloud City (Excerpt)

Don’t get your head stuck in the Clouds,” my dad would say. I used to think that was why our home was miles below the Earth’s surface, cocooned down near the mantle, the warm bosom of Gaia. I thought dad kept us down there to keep us safe, away from the pollution-sickened silver nitrate skies of the surface. But the Cloud was everywhere, no matter how deep you shoved your head in the sand.

The metal slug squishes out of me with a nauseating movie-quality slurp. My vision fuzzes white with pain and I hold back the scream, clenching my jaw so tight I feel it pop. We’re pretty sure the fucks who attacked us lost our tail but we’re not taking any chances. Cyclops douses the gory hole in my arm with hydrogen peroxide, and the bubble of sizzling white foam and syrupy red blood on my tan skin makes me think of strawberry pancakes. This pisses my stomach off more, on top of the peroxide stinging like a centiscorpion. Getting shot sucks.

Cyclops and I bunker down behind the counter of a Starbeans Coffee, getting a nose and mouth full of dust and cobwebs. The cold is chewing its way to my bones, my empty stomach is eating its way out, and my arm is killing me. Figuratively of course; the 9mm round lodged in my tricep we can dig out, and granted it doesn’t infect, I’ve got a good chance in this hell of surviving. My NeuroArm, on the other hand, is literally and definitely going to kill me, and is the reason Cyclops is fishing for bullets in my nature-issue flesh arm with a long-nose pliers. It’s been acting up lately, started glitching spastic while we were in a shootout with some raiders. It’s tough to hit anything when you’ve got cybernetic Parkinson’s disease.

“We should get you to a doctor,” Cyclops finds a tray of non-recycled napkins, dyed brown to appear eco-friendly, back when such things mattered to anyone. He tosses off the top dozen moldy sheets, and uses a fresh napkin to dab at the injury.

“It’s just a flesh wound, I’ll be fine.” But not if we don’t get this AWOL prosthetic fixed, I subvocalize. Cyclops appears unconvinced.

“We’ll be at Ebayzaar in a few days if we make decent time. They’ll have a doc there for sure.” I reassure.

The peroxide we scavved up from the carcass of a MegaMart. Most the aisles were picked clean as the ribcage of a dead whale, so we were surprised to find the bottles of disinfectant floating in a mud puddle in the pharmaceutical department. As hazardous and unpredictable as they are, you can always count on raiders and cannibals to fail to think things through. Guess you can’t blame them, they are mostly the descendants of the infamously infantile Chattering Class that went extinct when the internet and everything else went bye-bye.

The MegaMart had completely computerized self-checkout registers with RFID and biometric scanners for security purposes, having decided to do away completely with human clerks just before the world went belly-up. Now, I’m no urban archaeologist, but I heard that before The Silence, the MegaMarts sold cheap, Earth-killing, slave-labor goods to people who didn’t have the economic luxury of superficial presentation, so eventually they thought why bother with the flair of a human clerk?

Starbeans, on the other hand, was targeted toward the spoiled upper classes who sipped over-designed cups of this stuff kinda like weak stims in liquid form called “coffee”, while checking their “Twitters” and “Portfolios” and discussing “The Teabaggers” and “Fawksnews”. Not that the Starbeans’ supply chain was any less karma-negative, but patrons were paying for the feeling of sophistication and moral high ground. Fancy names like Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappacino, fancy cups. They needed this thing called “experience” or “story”, which I could never understand no matter how many times old-timers explained it. I have plenty of experience, lots of stories to tell, nobody ever paid me. Sometimes I think The Ancients were all insane, maybe that’s what dad meant about getting your head stuck in the Cloud.

But the primary reason we’re in Starbeans is every Starbeans, unlike MegaMart, had several humanoid robots. Part of the simulated cafe ‘experience’ was having a human barista mix your ten dollar chai latte, but I guess the profit margin was much better if you didn’t have to pay real people once the robots got convincing enough. Lucky for me, the CLERCs (Cyber-Linguistic Empathic Relations Colleague) all come with the same line of robotic NeuroArms as the one attached to the stump where my right arm used to be. It’s a long story.

There’s one CLERC face down in the store room. It’s corroded and covered in silt, a rat's nest lined with shredded napkins and artificial sweetener packets is carved out of the android’s stomach cavity. Another is at the cashier counter, standing, hand outstretched as if patiently awaiting payment or a Starbeans Rewards Card. Frozen instantly, along with all other robots and androids as their CPUs were fried by EMPs in the Intellectual Property Wars decades ago.

Her synthetic skin is dusty and slightly sallow, but remains remarkably intact. Her face is locked in an eternal smile of a lightheartedness utterly alien in the wasteland. Creepily ironic how the only remains of the real humans, including her customer, are heaps of rag and bone on the floor while this replicant appears she might resume her conversation any moment. A fossil token of a vanished culture, caught in the amber of electromagnetic pulse. Her name tag reads, ‘Cynthia’.

“Hello Cynthia. Yes, you can take my order. One Venti Mochaccino, made with those Urban-Aggro beans please. A name for the order? Make it out to ‘Jericho’.” Cyclops laughs at my little skit even though he’s seen it before. I like to pretend. Maybe it’s my way of thanking them for letting me use their limbs. Besides, you’ve got to learn to enjoy the little things, even when you’re being pursued by psychotic sub-humans for your flesh, water, and ammunition. Otherwise what’s the point, right?

Cynthia’s ancient sleeve comes apart like tissue paper.

“Do you want the dermis too?” Cyclops holds up the naked arm.

“Fuck no. Just help me cut it open, funny man.”

Cyclops slices around the upper arm and down the length with an Xacto, pulling back like that scene in Terminator, except there’s no blood, just rubber and metal skeleton. I don’t need a womanly hand with candy apple red nail polish, and the cyborg look tends to frighten the dumber malicious riff raff. Mosquito repellant. Her NeuroArm looks factory-mint, she was probably on the job only a few months.

Cyclops unbolts it, unbolts mine. My prosthetic comes off, and there’s that disorienting feeling of soul-vertigo, that phantom-limb sense of deep wrongness. The feeling vanishes just as soon as the new arm clinks into place, somatosensory cortex settling down to luxuriate in the newfound sensory input. My personal bioelectric patterns are stored in a motor neuron implant that transcodes directly to the Neuroarm, so the new limb is operational instantly. None of that myoelectric stuff, painstakingly shrugging your shoulder, twisting your neck and squeezing your ass just to signal to your prosthetic to pick up a damn bottle.

“Better. Very much so.” I windmill the arm a bit, test the fine motor responses, pull the rifle from my backpack and take aim at the center of the peeling ‘S’ on the cracked glass storefront of the Starbeans. No jittering.

“It looks good, Jerry,” Cyclops says, putting away the Xacto and pliers.

He’s lying, of course, being a good brother. Cyclops doesn’t see the world like most people do. His eyes are blind as a cave shrimp, but he’s got some brain mod that pipes electromagnetic radiation directly into his frontal lobe from his shades, like some kind of third eye. Seriously bleeding edge tech, just before the world fell off the edge. However, a side-effect is he definitely can’t tell whether my new arm looks, “good” or not. The cortical implant bypasses subjective aesthetic valuation centers, old mammalian emotion modules buried deep, a floor above the reptilian brain stem. For him it’s pure abstraction, numerology; seeing a sunset is like reading instantly a spreadsheet on a sunset detailing the frequencies of red, yellow, and orange light due to Rayleigh scattering, seeing the pointers rather than actually experiencing all that qualia-rich, heavenly glory. 

Kinda how the ancients kept their heads surgically buried in their “smart” phones, experiencing sunsets, rock concerts, sex, their newborns’ first steps, life itself through empty 70-character nibbles of text, their worlds reduced to two inch touch screens. In consolation, Cyclops’ eyes apparently facilitate sensitivity to a certain monastic, Einsteinian beauty in seeing the “superstructure of the world”. That’s what the brochure said, anyway. At any rate, he’s truly clueless as to the appeal of my latest prosthetic fashion accessory. But it’s the thought that counts.

We search the Starbeans for any other useful material, but it’s been cleared out long ago. It’s not worth it to dissect the other CLERC for the extra arm; besides the fact that it’s covered in rat shit, these Starbeans are so goddamn abundant. I mean there’s one right across the street, what is up with that?

We pop open the Reebok knapsack, empty it out on the ground. A small can of pork and beans, a twisty-tied packet of a dozen raisins. It’s almost comical, except starvation has this peculiar way of filtering all the funny out of the world, especially when it comes to food. Cyclops’ head and thin shoulders slump, the skin is draped loosely over his emaciated bones like sheets over old furniture. A gust of cold evening air blows daggers and Cyclops starts shivering, so I shake the dust out of an Armani suit left in a booth next to a briefcase and wrap him up in it.

“We’re not going to make it this time, are we?” He stares at a raisin in the palm of his hand, shriveled and stale to the point of petrifaction. Closes it.

“Hey. Hey, look at me.” I squeeze his hand tight over the raisin. “We are going to make it, I promise.” He is suddenly so small and fragile. Everyone grows up so fast out here, there are no childhoods in the wasteland. It’s easy to forget he’s just a fourteen year old kid.

“But you said it’s a few more days if we make good time and we’re stuck here with no food, and it’s cold and those raiders are out there-“

“We’ll make do. We always do. They’ve got more food than you could ever eat at Ebayzaar. I hear they even have ice cream. You remember ice cream?” The corners of his mouth pull up, and I can see the episodic memories of birthdays back in the vault spooling through his mind like a freshly opened bag of jelly candies. The smell of icing and melted wax, adults in labcoats and military brass serenading out-of-harmony, no bed times for one night.

“Remember that time dad got me a bb gun and tried to teach us how to shoot cans in the water purification room?”

“Yeah, I was still crap at using my vision mod and kept shooting you guys in the butt. At least I couldn’t shoot an eye out.” Cyclops taps his bionic eye and we both laugh.

“Remember how he used to tell us those crazy bedtime stories when we were real little?”

“I always liked the one about the people who built their city on the Clouds.”

“They forgot about the real world down below. One day the Clouds evaporated, and they came crashing back down. ‘Their ghosts still haunt the surface to this day.’”

“I miss dad.” Cyclops pulls his knees together and the Armani suit tighter around himself. His machine eyes lack the tear ducts to cry, but I know him well enough to know when he is crying inside.

“Me too, Cy.” I gather up his Italian wool-swaddled body in a hug. I’m lying, about us making it. We’re at least a week, maybe two from where this Ebayzaar “Mecca of the Wastes” supposedly is located, according to an X on a map we plucked off a vulture-pecked body in a ditch on the interstate. For all we know, Ebayzaar is a ghost town, or worse, and out here, the universe’ dice are weighted towards “worse”. Maybe we’re the ghosts, haunting the city that fell to Earth, their streets, their steel-girdered castles, their simulacra of ‘the real world’ run and barista-ed by robot actors. Maybe we’ll fade away, at last, like the faux finished signs on storefront windows.

Desperation is an acid that will eat you faster than any cannibal.

And aside from the vague glimmer of someday finding our dad, Cyclops is all I’ve got keeping me going out here. 

So I lie, because I am a good brother.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

On Feudalism and Neofeudalism

I started to respond to a comment in this Neofeud let's play, and it ended up turning into an essay, lol.

JULIE FISHER: "Elections? Profit? All very Neo-capitalist, rather than NeoFeudal." 

Feudalism is fundamentally about the structure, the hierarchy. The supreme ruler, i.e. a king, gives titles, estate, powers to the lords, who in turn hold allegiance to the king and carry out the king's will. In the medieval period, this could involve managing the peasants, collecting taxes, providing military support during war, etc.  But in a modern setting, corporate structures could potentially become feudal if capital was concentrated into a small enough number of hands. The ultra-rich could effectively become "rulers" who through controlling shares determine the executive "lords" of  said corporations, who in turn manage the serfs (factory workers, waitresses, scientists, etc) to work the "land" that is their capital/assets (offices, factories, laboratories). By extension, even democratic republics, given a lack of separation between money and politics, could potentially begin to resemble feudalism, as the kings (capital owners) "appoint" their allegiant lords (representatives provided with the resources necessary to win elections) to carry out their will (cutting my taxes and shredding any regulation that stops me making money even if it hurts people would be nice, thanks!).

While not expressly spelled out, it is alluded to in the scene above that this may be the case, as the executive and politician clearly are at the whim of the Princess.

What is the same in pre-Enlightenment feudal Europe, a neofeudal corporation or neofeudal representative government is that the supreme ruler gives privileges, powers and responsibilities to subordinates, who in turn carry out that will, and who can appoint their own subordinates and manage serfs -- like Karl. You could certainly have a very nice, enlightened supreme ruler, who decides to command all of his/her lords to give healthcare, benefits, and a generous 100k salary to each of the peasants (maybe because robots do all the work now, who knows), but the structure would still be feudal. I believe it was the Greek philosopher Plato who described the "Philosopher King", who ruled the happy utopian city Kallipolis. A tyrannical king could of course make life quite horrible for you, as they could take literally anything they felt like demanding; be it your title, your money, your food, or your life, on a whim. (Or maybe he makes you work 16 hours a day, with a broken leg, with no vacation or sick leave!)

While kings are in name supreme, what determines how effectively "supreme" a ruler is, is in practice complex. Lords themselves can rebel against the king, conspire to overthrow him, and the peasants can potentially revolt if the situation becomes dire enough. In a modern setting, what determines the "supremeness" is even more complex as our world is much more complex technologically, economically and socio-politically. To be too obvious, too overt about one's actual power could actually decrease it, which is why, if one were particularly powerful, one might want to couch that power beneath a layer of democracy, law, equality, good deeds, PR, etc. etc.. (Of course, if things get too actually democratic, that could be bad for business, couldn't it!? :) )

The particular scene in the video above is an important one in Neofeud where the nature of this feudal hierarchy is revealed. These individually powerful lords (corporate executive, mayor etc) are feeling very high and mighty, until a more supreme entity (Princess Sybil) enters the room, and must immediately kneel.

In Neofeud, as various individuals and groups vie for power, the machinations, power-plays, and conspiracies at every level are rife, as they were in much of the Middle Ages, particularly the War of the Roses. This period inspired much of A Song of Ice And Fire / Game of Thrones, which in turn was a big inspiration for Neofeud. :)

The fundamental difference between the feudal era and the post-Enlightenment Era, particularly after the French Revolution (a major peasant uprising that ended in the beheading of the King, among others), is that, at least ostensibly, we have "egalite, fraternite, liberte", "equality, fraternity, liberty", and more specifically, democracy, that is, rule by the people, for the people, rather than by one absolute unelected autocrat.  The power derives from the people, who are equal in that each person has one vote, on specific issues or for representatives who carry out the will of the people in the government. One criticism of corporate capitalism, which came after the French Revolution, is basically that corporate structures equate to one dollar, one vote -- rather than one person one vote -- and so they are fundamentally non-democratic in nature. It could be argued that the error of the 19th century was to compartmentalize "politics" and "economics", and to believe that you could create democracy in one, without the other. Neofeud speculates that, unchecked, sufficient power accumulation in the economic sphere could effectively subvert the political sphere.

Incidentally, Princess Sybil's decision to call her organization, "The Egalite Cooperative", suggests a revitalization of these ideals of egalite, fraternite, and liberte behind the French Revolution, but with additional democratization of economics, as a cooperative is essentially a corporation, but democratized. (Of course, whether she actually intends to be a magninimous, good-hearted, "Philosopher Queen" and make good on her promises... well, you'll have to play and find out, won't you!? )

Of course, no system, including democracy is perfect -- mob rule can get stupid and bloody, like that episode of The Orville where a planet decides who gets the death sentence or goes scott-free based on a reality-TV text-in-your-vote "trial". A big theme in Neofeud is that humans (and potentially transhumans/sentient machines) are fundamentally imperfect, and so any political/economic/etc. system they are involved in will always be imperfect, and reality will always be far more complex and weird than we think. But, as cars have gotten safer and more efficient/less polluting, so too can we always make improvements on our institutions, if we do so while there's still time. :)

This site has a pretty good summary of what precisely feudalism is; that is, it's scope, and how it can exist in tandem with a variety of other political systems, including absolute monarchy, oligarchy, and (potentially) with a capitalistic  plutocracy.

At any rate, you should definitely check out the rest of the above let's play, which includes a lot of very insightful commentary by Dr. Brian Ballsun-Stanton.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Silver Spook Podcast #18 - "Gemini Rue" Creator Joshua Nuernberger


In this episode, Christian "Silver Spook" Miller talks to Joshua Neurnberger, creator of Gemini Rue, a stellar, award winning adventure game, including PC Gamer "Game of The Year" 2012 in the adventure category. Discover a world where life is cheap, identities are bought & sold, & a quest for redemption can change the fate of a whole galaxy.

Topics include:

-What it was like making Gemini Rue over the course of 3 years as a solo project.
-Influences behind Gemini Rue.
-The art design choices in Gemini Rue (limited purple / green color palette, use of visible brush strokes over pixelation)
-The storytelling techniques in Gemini Rue such as the use of dual narrative and adding key twist reveals during a gun fight to heighten tension.
-The benefits and drawbacks of procedural generation vs fully scripted, directed experiences.
-A wide range of sci-fi and cyberpunk media including Blade Runner, Cowboy Bebop, Inception, Neuromancer / Snowcrash, System Shock, and more.
-Dave Gilbert's army of testers.
-If there is any chance of a Gemini Rue sequel (listen to find out!)

Josh's website:

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Silver Spook Games' next project "Dysmaton":

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Altered Carbon - A Cyberpunk Review / Analysis By Silver Spook

Altered Carbon. I did a two-part video review, but here's my short answer: "While Altered Carbon is resleeved in the glitzy robes of Netflix' 190-country spanning 120-million-user imperial protectorate, it manages to lay bare the mutilated corpses, the human fallout of world- assymetrical- and class-warfare."

Here's the text if you don't have time:

First up - There've been a lot of bad reviews piling up, but Altered Carbon was great. Set your eyeballs to binge, no matter what the 280-character attention-spanned press and the bought-and-payed for media matchmaking algorithms are telling you. In the post-truth, post-fact world, you need to see cyberpunk content with your own two eyes (or eye, or ears, for the visually impaired). In particular this technoir artifact.

Here's something I wanted to respond to, written about Altered Carbon on the cyberpunk site io9: "The other big weakness of Altered Carbon is the investigation itself... and pretty much everything that happens inside that damn police station. Martha Higareda is good as Detective Kristin Ortega, and I love the inclusion of her family to represent those who refuse to re-sleeve for religious reasons. But, for as much time as we spend with Ortega and Bay City’s finest, nothing ever happens."

I found the police station to be particularly illuminating, actually, as a part of the internal mechanisms of a neofeudal, post-social democratic society. Lieutenant Ortegas continual struggle to do her actual job -- protecting and serving the public -- is continually thwarted by the hollowed out and corrupt police department which is essentially just the leg-breaking force of the ultra-rich "Meths" like Bancroft. Captain Tanaka repeatedly orders Ortega off of actual cases investigating the deaths of murdered girls. Tanaka, and the department does the bidding of Meths, even outright telling Ortega, "You can try to do a little good here and there, but this world is owned by the Meths -- don't take me down with you," citing his mortgage and pension as the "leash" the elite keep him complicit with. Oumou Prescott, Bancroft's lawyer, is similarly a "grounder", but rather than bunkering fearfully into her cushy crony position and trying not to rock the boat, she aspires to rise through the ranks of 'insignificant human "fireflies", as one meth calls them. She has a Macbethian ambition to climb the hyper-corporate ladder, by lieing, cheating, stealing, backstabbing, and "getting rid of all of the human baggage" to become a Meth herself. Scenes between Tanaka and Prescott reveal this, "You just wish you were one of them," Tanaka accuses. "I WILL be one of them," Prescott retorts.

This for me is Altered Carbon at its finest and most cyberpunk, where it shows the real meaning of "a future dominated by megacorporations". It shows the way in which public institutions like the rule of law, and defense of the public good are subverted, and left as window-dressing, a charade of badges, uniforms, and meaningless courtroom "theatre" to lull the common serfs into believing their government and institutions are 'by the people for the people'. As Bancroft himself says, "In this world, you are either the purchaser or the purchased," It is fundamentally barbaric feudalism, and something all too extant in our world today. In the US, 98% of all political campaign finance comes from less than 1% of the population. Court cases are not rational and fair examinations of facts leading to justice but barbaric cage fights between corporate warlords of who has the most money for lawyers, fees, pul. Peter Thiel throwing over a hundred million to crush Gawker in court is a relatively benign example. Look at the millions who lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis after 30 second "sham hearings" before a judge sweating bullets to turn 100 grannies homeless by lunch. Or look at HSBC, the giant criminal bank that admitted it was the money laundering arm for murderous drug cartels, and journalist beheaders working for Al Qaeda, Hezbolah, ISIS and other enemies of the state. HSBC's "leashed Tanakas and Oumous", the so-called regulators asked them for a 2% cut of 80 billion dollars and let them continue committing crime, treason, slaughter of over a hundred thousand Mexicans. For a more recent and cyber exhibit: take the FCC's evisceration of net neutrality led by crooked ex-Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai -- a Prescott-esque lawyer certainly looking to become a "Meth" in the Verizon or Comcast castle one day.

This is for me is the raging core of Altered Carbon, and the fundamental problem of extreme inequality, and by extension, the broken system that creates such. The "R Greater Than G" -- what economist Thomas Piketty identified as the return on investments exceeding growth -- Achilles Heel of the capitalism Colossus. Although a race of undying, moral-free trillionaires inhabiting stratospheric "Palaces at Versailles" would undoubtedly exacerbate the catastrophe, we don't need immortality to create a separate race of "destructive ubermensch", because we already have one now in 2018.

Kovacs origin story and the related Quellist attempted revolution against the Protectorate and cortical stack technology itself had some of the best acting and storytelling of the show. In particular, Will Yun Lee's portrayal of the young Kovacs. Some of the best of the show, barring perhaps Quell and the AI hotel manager whose residual-self-image is Edgar Allen Poe.

The protagonist of the story, Takeshi Kovacs, was raised by an abusive and murderous father, whom he barely survives along with his only sister, Rei, on one of the extra-solar colonized planets (Harlans World in the book -- a reference to Harlan Ellison, author of deeply absurd and violent cyberpunk-ish spec-fic including I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream). Kovacs is found, as a boy barely at puberty, by the Protectorate, an interstellar 'federation' that polices the galaxy taking out 'terrorists', 'warlords', 'Yakuza', and other 'enemies of the transplanetary state'. (Morgan's book version serves as a pretty thinly veiled critique of a particular imperialistc superpower's serial invasions of other countries under pretenses of 'rooting out dictators, taking out terrorists spreading democracy, and fake 'Weapons of Mass Destruction').

Young Kovacs is informed by commander Jeagar in virtual that he can 'help protect people from the bad men' like his father if he only signs up for the military. Staring down false murder allegations, Kovacs enlists, and becomes essentially a child soldier as in Beasts of No Nation, but with a man's body. He later defects, for spoiler reasons, and joins up with a group of freedom fighters (classified as terrorists by The Powers). The protagonist has known literally nothing but violence, a series of bloody wars, both domestic and foreign, in which the stoic, alienated man was forged. At the heart of Altered Carbon is a Chandleresque neo-noir story,as is the heart of much cyberpunk including Blade Runner and Neuromancer. Morgan himself has commented on this extreme violence, which many commentators have criticized both the book and the TV show of relishing in.

Here's a quote from a 2008 Clarke's World Magazine interview with AC author Richard K. Morgan:

"I think one of the problems with the sickness, if you like, that we've got in Western culture is that we're scared to acknowledge these things. We're afraid to actually take them on board. That idea—that you sort of got a sick enjoyment out of killing—is just not acceptable currency, because we're told we must see our soldiers in these glowing, honorable terms, rather than seeing them as human beings. One of the aspects of American policy having to do with military matters is that there's an enormous amount of emphasis on the troops, as long as they are standing up and holding their arms, but as soon as you ship them back home broken or damaged or unable to cope, suddenly no one wants to know about them anymore. The amount of coverage there hasn't been of all the post-traumatic stress, and the incidents of guys coming back from Iraq who just cannot cope with what's been done to them—that stuff just isn't covered. The media has no taste for it. But we are talking about human beings, and human beings are complicated mechanisms, and when they get damaged, that's complicated, too."

This was a fundamental aspect of film noir, or the WWII-era existential literature and cinema of the 40s. Humphrey Bogart, the star of Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon was in fact an navy veteran, wounded in WWI. This post-traumatic-stress-ridden "Human fallout" of all of these soldiers returning from the field and unable to integrate back into society, the darkness, cynicism and apathy resulting from having seen and done horrible things on the battlefield (or more terrible- having enjoyed them) is the cold gunmetal heart of noir. Kovacs is the neurochem-augmented 23rd century Rambo, coughed up after multiple tours of napalm bombing off-world rice patty farmers and cutting down unionizers and rebellious sweatshop workers with full-metal-jacket rounds. An unwanted, despised criminal, the lost soldier tears the limbs off of everyone and everything in his way, questioning his very existence and almost icing himself after nuking his mind with every illegal drug he can find in finest Burroughsian fashion. The sort of mid-twenties male brooding introspective nihilism, often to the point of extreme drug use and suicidal tendencies is the deeply-lodged, lingering bullet fragment in the mind of cyberpunk.

Here's an excerpt from William Gibson's Neuromancer to further illustrate: "A part of him knew that the arc of his self-destruction was glaringly obvious to his customers, who grew steadily fewer, but that same part of him basked in the knowledge that it was only a matter of time". This truth, of noir and neo-noir as the post-traumatic failed-warrior-male re-integration and cultural fallout of war is rarely made more clear than in Richard K. Morgan novels. The truth that the foreign violence is only the beginning; the domestic violence is where war often hurts the most.

There is indeed much violence, mutilation, scenes of extreme torture in Altered Carbon -- at one point the protagonist is locked in a Matrix-like sim in which he is repeatedly tortured to death in a variety of ways including immolation, only to be resurrected and killed again. Kovacs himself kills more people than Neo does in the Matrix (I suppose you could argue he merely causes terminal organic damage to sleeves but the distinction is somewhat semantic in a visual medium). But perhaps the grotesque and 'uncomfortable' aspects of the violence are in part to remain faithful to the book and simultaneously to not 'sanitize' the results of the violence. The world of Altered Carbon is a science fictional dystopia, after all, and thus the repulsion to it by the viewer is part of the point: we should really try not to produce this future. If you watch Black Mirror or Blade Runner 2049, and immediately want to produce that reality, you may need psychiatric help, in fact.

I think a lot of the critics who came out with negative reviews of Altered Carbon, or saying, "I don't think Altered Carbon has much to say," may be suffering a case of corporate 'tunnel vision', a 'purchaser's blindness'.

One of the scenes which was particularly poignant and on-the-nose (in a good way), was Bancroft's 'ministering to the masses as a living god' scene. In it, a rich philanthropist attempts to show just how much he cares about the underserved by entering into a quarantine zone to distribute food and toys, and dying live, on camera, from their highly infectious disease before warping into a new cloned body.
This particular scene really hit home for me. As I've mentioned previously, I was a STEM teacher and social worker whose job it was to help and provide opportunities to at-risk and underserved communities in Honolulu. The majority of the children I taught were minorities, immigrants, about 30% were homeless, and all were at or below the poverty line. They didn't have terminal sci-fi nano-tech illnesses, but many of them didn't have medical care to take care of the staff infections in their feet from walking around without any footwear. What frustrated me the way that high-level politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats would come down once a year or whenever they felt like it, some fair-skinned wealthy man in a 5,000 dollar suit holding the hand of a poor brown kid, to win some sort of photo-op contest, justify some huge bonus or salary to pay for $25,000 a year private school for their kids, a multi-million dollar mortgage in Waikiki, a yacht payment. The ultra-rich abusers, these committers of the greatest violence, however obfuscated by shell companies, newspapers, media corporations they own, social media and tech companies they deal with, and all other ways of taking their demonic selves and buying their airbrushed saintly-images, relishing in "godlike" worship as philanthropists is the most sickening aspect of it all, for me, personally.

Wired also gave an unfavorable review of Altered Carbon, writing: "To what lengths are the poor willing to go in order to get the bodies they want for themselves, or the people they love? What about, say, transgender people, who might find the opportunity to switch bodies a profound and essential liberation?" Suggesting that Altered Carbon had many potential interesting topics to explore, but barely explored them, or didn't at all.

Perhaps the reviewer was (understandably) dizzied by all the fuschia neon bloom FX and ten hours of near-Blade Runner 2049 production values. As I previously mentioned, the scene where a husband and wife are reduced to a zero-g gladiatorial match for the mere 'entertainment' of Bancroft's elite Great Gatsby-esque party is a perfect example. Being forced to kill your loved one over and over every night sounds like a pretty far and nasty length to go to get a better sleeve. Or how about "Prick Up", where disenfranchised women and men sell their bodies, often literally allow their Johns to create live snuff-films of them  (recorded by undiscerning AI hotel owners for future use). Being strangled, having ones forehead caved, or stabbed every night while being forcefully penetrated seems a pretty horrible job the poor have to do to get by.

As for transgender individuals, I think Altered Carbon really illustrates the way that unchecked capitalism ruins everything and everyone, including those who feel bodily dysphoria. It's an interesting conundrum, because testerone pills and genetic reassignment surgery might become moot, as you could simply dislodge a hexagon of Elder Alien Tech from your head and insert the consciousness-coin into the X or Y chromosome-fabricated body of your choice. But Altered Carbon takes it further -- it shows that in a future with mind-transfer tech, this problem of feeling alienated by ones body is not limited to "souls born into the wrong sleeve" as is the case today. In the beginning of the show, a 7 year old girl who was murdered gets resleeved as per her victim compensation program. Unfortunately, she gets resleeved into the body of a middle-aged woman, much to her and her parents horror. There are several cases of 'finding oneself in the wrong flesh', including the wife of Vernon Eliot, who gets resleeved in a man's body, or the reskinning of a Hispanic grandkids abuelita into a racist skinhead criminal's meat-chassis. Takeshi Kovacs himself is a half-asian half-hungarian man in a Nordic body ( I have to admit I wish  the trans-ethnic dysphoria could've been portrayed a little better by Kinnaman).

Even today, the testosterone or estrogen hormones, surgical operations that a transgender individual might want can cost into the tens of thousands of dollars. It is already something reserved for those with the privelege of access to quality healthcare. Altered Carbon shows a world in which being slotted into the body of not just one's preferred sex, but also one's preferred race, age, size, health, attractiveness, strength and ability may all be determined by one's class. And in a forgone capitalist system of infinite immortal accumulation, it's likely even more people will be 'mal-sleeved'.

It's also interesting that there are several references to "Sleeve Mortgages". As I mentioned, mortgages and pensions are fundamentally methods of "leashing" the common individuals to the neofeudal capitalist elite, commanding fealty of lawyers, police, workers of every kind who live in an ostensibly 'free democratic' society but are truly slaves to their corporate masters, like Tanaka. The pundits are free to say whatever they want within their master's set-Overton Window of acceptable speech, academics are free to think whatever increasingly corporatized and for-profit universities allow them to think, police are free to arrest anyone the rich allow, and no one is allowed to question the brokenness and malfeasance of the entire system or risk termination for disloyalty. The sleeve mortgage, paying rent on one's own body is just a further literalization of the ownership of the serfs and peons. Pay-up, with money that we fabricated into existence by entering numbers into a privileged central bank server and/or "earned" by sitting back and letting our money make more money, or we will literally take your body and shelve your consciousness in our 'asset vault'.

A few more quick points:

Favorite scene: Reileen and Ortega fight. This scene, which involved eight body doubles and a great deal of (justified) nudity and thus vulnerability from the actresses involved really pushed the envelope of film and showmaking, in the way that the bullet-time fights in The Matrix did. Awesome work.

Best character - (Can't say who because of spoilers) but there is a particular character who goes from being a commoner to an immortal, and amoral, meth.  It was a variation on the old koan, "Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely". In this case, eternal life causes the devaluation of humanity, whom this meth later references as 'fireflys'. Insects, again with the theme of dehumanization and turning of individuals into objects, property. This character arc was one of the strongest and most interesting in the show.

Fun cyberpunk facts:

Takeshi Kovacs' first name is a fairly obvious reference to Beat Takeshi Kitano, a Japanese comedian, mega-personality in his home country, and auteur film maker who has produced some great and extremely violent modern Yakuza-gangster films. It's readily apparent in the Takeshi Kovacs book series that Morgan is a huge fan and draws great inspiration, especially from ultra-violent Japan-noir Yakuza gangster films of Kitano's like Hana-Bi, Boiling Point, and Aniki (Brother). The stoic, deadpan lines, random and brutal violence, katana sword fighting, and obvious presence of Yakuza are just some of the techniques, themes and tropes Morgan borrows.

Another fun fact: Takeshi Kitano plays the role of the menacing Yakuza boss hunting down Keanu Reeves' human-hard drive character in 1995's Johnny Mnemonic, and also plays the role of Section 9 boss Aramaki in Ghost In The Shell.

I always found the extrapolation of an intergalactic Yakuza "interesting" however unlikely in the far future of Altered Carbon, but I chalk this up to artistic license, an incongruous love-letter to the dragon-tattooed shoulders Morgan is standing on. I am guilty of this sort of post-modern homage often, some reviewers might argue to the point of cheapening the serious and complex themes, but I disagree. I think a good reader (or viewer) can deal with a gonzo-wacky comedy wrapped around a core of cancer-serious dystopian tragedy. For example, in the case of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, there are several ludicrous, hilarious scenes, including a man condemned to death due to a simple bureaucratic error being literally smothered in a tornado of semi-sentient paperwork. The comedic and silly bits can in fact enhance the impact of the serious parts, and provide some much needed 'breath' to the often asphyxiating, depressing onslaught of dystopias. (This was certainly my aim in Neofeud).

Finally, another recent thumbs-down article on Inverse suggested shows like Altered Carbon, "turned cyberpunk into a consumer product, effectively declawing the genre’s entire aim." While I understand where the author was coming from, I must slowly snap my mirror shades on and give them the finger.

In fact, I actually think Altered Carbon is more 'clawed', it has more anti-megacapitalistic retractable scalpel-punches to the throat than both Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost In The Shell combined. Yes, it has been resleeved in the Netflix 190-country spanning 125 million-hours-of-eyeball-time-per day imperial robes, but it retains its cyberpunk critique of extreme predatory captalism despite its production by a world dominated by extreme predatory capitalism. Which is some kind of one-in-an-Avogadro-number good luck, given the miracle of Blade Runner 2049 not being utter cash-cow crap. It must be a glitch in Nick Bostrom's Superintelligent Aliens' matrix who happen to be CP lovers and are farming our reality for cultural products.

Final Silver Spook Verdict:

Altered Carbon - 4 ½ crying Rutger Hauers out of 5 on the cyberpunk scale.