On Being Batman

I have to admit to spending too much time playing the games in the Batman: Arkham series over the past week or so and not nearly enough time writing. With the arrival of the newest game in the series, Arkham Origins, I knew that I had to force myself to put ass to chair and fingers to keyboard lest another day disappear in the murky dark of Gotham City. While I can congratulate myself for managing to do that much at least, my mind is still focused on the superstitious and cowardly lot that so desperately deserve the swift boot of justice.

 

The Arkham games are unique in a couple of ways, not least being they are super-hero video games that are actually good. Despite being a  genre defined by larger than life characters and huge science-fantasy action, super-heroes have not often translated well to the video game medium. Of course, the genre had the same difficulty with motion pictures for many years, with only a few diamonds (Donner’s Superman, Burton’s Batman) among a great deal of coal. I think the same elements that allowed comic book heroes to make a successful transition to the big screen — advances in technology, creators who took the stories seriously (but not too seriously), and a cultural zeitgeist amicable to heroism — are in place to do the same in the video game medium.  The Arkham games have been consistently strong and there are some other examples like the various recent (non-movie tie-in) Spiderman games. If developers start applying the super-hero genre to other video game genres — that is, not assuming that every super-hero game has to be a third person open world actioner — we’ll likely see a lot more good super-hero games.

 

But more than just being good super-hero games (and good games in general) the Arkham games do something else that few games manage to do: they make you, the player, feel like Batman. Not only are all of Batman’s skills and tools at your disposal in play — not just batarangs and grappling hooks, but smoke pellets and CSI -like evidence analysis — but the look, sound and atmosphere of the game is everything you would imagine from living as the Dark Knight. This is important because when it comes to combining games and storytelling, long the province of table-top RPGs and point-and-click adventure games, immersion is key. When you are attempting to do so with a character like Batman who is well known, beloved and has had many different successful iterations over the decades, it is doubly important. Each element of the overall product is bent toward enhancing and enforcing that sense of being Batman on behalf of the player. All the player has to do is relent and psychologically put on the cowl.

 

From a storyteller’s perspective, this achievement in immersion is worth examining. An immersed audience is, by definition, invested, and an invested audience buys into whatever stakes the storyteller has presented. When that happens, the outcome of the story suddenly matters, at least for the time that the audience is immersed. Whether a film or novel or comic or video game, a work that draws (or drags) the audience in is more successful (for certain definitions of success). Certainly there are times when we want the audience to experience a story or part of a story from a detached perspective. You see this a lot when storytellers shift points of view from the protagonist to that of either the villain, who is supposed to remain mysterious and/or inscrutable, or a hapless victim. The creator pulls back, bringing the audience along, to get an aerial view instead of an internal one. The opposite is true sometimes, too, when what the storyteller wants is a visceral but uncertain experience on the part of the audience, Suddenly, we are seeing through another’s eyes and only getting limited information filtered through pain, fear, desperation or what-have-you. But both of these shifts in immersion are temporary, where the kind of immersion experienced in being Batman must be carried through the entire storytelling experience.

 

The next time you sit down to write for writings sake, try creating a truly immersive narrative based on a well established character. Let your reader become Sherlock Holmes or Superman or Richard Nixon. Without the benefit of music and high resolution digital imagery, you’ll have to rely on the key components of what makes the character iconic and then transfer those not just to but into the reader via prose. Good luck.

 

And now, I think I see the Bat Signal alight in the sky…

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Alien Intelligences: Superior, Inferior and Vastly Different

One of the most enduring themes in science fiction (and both fantasy and horror to a lesser degree) is that of the alien intelligence, the Intellectual Other. While this theme is most often exemplified by actual alien beings in fiction, it also includes everything from future humans and artificial intelligence to animals (both mundane and uplifted) and non-human hominids. Alien intelligences are notoriously difficult o write well by virtue of their very definition: being alien, they are hard o comprehend and, for the writer, imagine. Too often, the depiction of such intellectual others becomes caricature of specific human intellectual archetypes: the very opposite of “alien” in fact.

There are a few basic “types” of alien intelligences to consider. The first and most obvious is the so-called “superior” intelligence. The idea seems basic and comprehensible: aliens that are smarter than us. But what does that mean, precisely? We all know people who are incrementally smarter than ourselves, and most of us likely know someone who is intellectually inferior, either in our opinion or due to some mental or medical deficit. Superior intelligences, though, are not simply “smarter people” and inferior intelligences aren’t simply “dumber.” The difference is not that e tween you and Stephen Hawking, but between the average chimpanzee and the average human. Both are “intelligent species” but they are so far apart that human endeavor, art and civilization and war and technology, are utterly incomprehensible to the chimpanzee. Equally so, the things important to the chimp are so base, so rudimentary that we, as humans, cannot grasp their value o that “inferior” intellect.

Imagine, then, a species as more intelligent than us as we are to chimpanzees. In the same way that advanced mathematics, poetry and reality television are incomprehensible to the chimp,whatever intellectual pursuits occupy our superiors would be so incomprehensible to us. The sciences, arts and entertainments they produced would at best confound us and most likely seem opaque o the point of nonsensical. As such we might not even recognize such a species as intelligent at all, especially if encountered on their own world (space ships tend to mark one as intelligent), and just like the chimp lashing out at the human researcher, we might attack rather than study or consider. Equally likely, assuming we are in the median of universal intelligence, is the possibility of contact with a species notably less intelligent than we. Even giving that we would recognize such a species as intelligent, chances are we would default to pity at best and paternalism or indifference at worst.

Related is our own interactions with the animal kingdom, specifically rose species like elephants and dolphins that are assumed to be “less intelligent” but are also notably alien (as opposed o the chimp, who we consider to be a proto-human intelligence). What does a single manipulative digit or a life in the open ocean do in regards to the development and exercise of intelligence? Do we consider animals to be stupid because we cannot comprehend them, not because of their (arbitrarily rated) intellectual inferiority? Given that human tend to label those who do not think like us as “stupid” (whether ethnic minorities who don’t know the dominant language or political extremists whose philosophies are very different from our own) how could we possibly label non-hominid animals as “intelligent”? And if we were to boost he intellectual capacity of an apparently intelligent species, why do we think that would make them more like us, intellectually, rather than making them even more alien? All this, of course, assumes that biological intelligence is an independent process rather than an aggregate of biological needs filtered through a neurology of a particular level of complexity. If that is the case, then a smarter animal would indeed be more similar to humans, since we too are animals. That in itself holds profound philosophical implications regarding human nature and where our fellow Earthling species fall in relation to us.

The final category of alien intelligence common to science fiction is artificial intelligence. It is telling that AI is so often presented as anathema to biological intelligence, or constrained by rules that define its relationship to biological intelligence. Moreover, AI often fits into the “superior intelligence” category, and occasionally in the “animal intelligence” category, particularly in the aspect that an AI functions in a very different environment than humans. All that said, I think there is a different reason why AI provoke strong reactions in science fiction: AI can be alien because they can represent a purely practical or “logical” intelligence,which is as alien to human intelligence as a being living in Zero-G or one extremely long or short lived. Humans are anything but practical, basing extremely important decisions on emotions, superstitions, intuitions and strongly held but otherwise unsupported positions. AI, on the other hand, can be cold and calculating, mathematizing life and death in a way we cannot.

Interestingly, science fiction does not reserve cold logic for AI alone. The genre is lousy with logical alien species like Star Trek’s Vulcans. These serve as effective stand ins for AI. Other artificial beings are often so much like us that they can hardly be considered alien at all, such as the replicants from Bladerunner. In the end, what constitutes an alien AI falls under the same rules as what constitutes any alien intelligence: is it sufficiently different from us to demand a category of its own. Most often, the answer is a resounding “no” since most aliens in sci-fi qualify as stand ins for humans of a certain kind or specific political, social or philosophical bent.

Tomorrow’s Land Surveyor, Today!

I am a licensed land surveyor by trade. My job is primarily about geospatial location of concrete information (sometimes literally!). I spend a lot of time on construction sites, from bridges and roads to schools and office buildings. Less often than I used to but still occasionally, I tromp through the woods searching for evidence of property ownership that may be years, decades or even centuries old. In Connecticut, fieldstone walls, ancient wire fence and cedar posts, and very large trees are all potential boundary markers.

 

For any given piece of land or construction project, there is a huge amount of geospatial data associated with it. These things can be boiled down into categories: limits (from property lines to wetlands setbacks), existing structures (both old and recently built) and potential structures (both those proposed in the project and those that *might* exist due to spotty recordkeeping). Moreover, each of these things exists in at least three dimensions, and oftentimes four (those pesky potential structures I mentioned, in particular).

 

So what does any of this have to do with writing, particularly the writing of speculative fiction? Well, when it comes to writing about could-be and might-be worlds, it is important, I think, to imagine how those worlds operate not just in the action set pieces or dramatic dialogues, but in the everyday world outside the windows of your characters. Usually, we use technology to describe that world, and it so happens that land surveying, as old as it is a profession (I think we rank third, after prostitution and bartending), is highly technological. We adopted the use of electronic distance meters, laser levelling, computer aided drafting, 3D scanning and GPS into our work and nothing suggests that we will not do the same with emerging technologies. So I want to look at what the future of surveying might look like, both for my own amusement (I am a long way from retirement) and as an example of how we as SF writers can take what is otherwise a pedestrian, mundane element and apply our prognosticating abilities to it.

 

What really got me thinking about this subject was Google Glass. Augmented reality has existed in fiction and film for quite some time and there have been a few minor attempts to integrate our smartphones into AR in recent years, but it is Glass that is really the first step into an AR world. Sure, Glass is ugly and nerdy and stinks of hipster, but it is the future. Whether it is Google or Apple or some yet-unknown startup that turns it from niche to necessary, augmented reality is the next world changing consumer technology. It will infuse everything from warfare to medicine to amusement parks, and it will certainly be used in land surveying.

 

Imagine standing in an open field, recently bulldozed of a dilapidated townhouse so that a multi-story elevator parking garage can be built. Today, you would have a roll of maps in your hand, a field computer and data collector weighing down your survey rod and an expensive robotic instrument sitting off site, either unprotected or guarded by a paid employee doing very little else. You might have determined your starting location by tying in to municipal or State survey control, or you might be using GPS. In either case, you have to translate that starting location into angles and distances from your instrument and pray for line of site.

 

Fast forward ten years, perhaps less. Instead of holding a survey rod weighed down by a field computer, you are wearing OSHA approved safety glasses with a built in heads up display. Those same glasses are linked to GPS and RTK location networks. Instead of a roll of plans showing you where the futuristic car park is to be built, a ghostly image of the structure fills your view. You can banish it at whim, or add or remove detail with a word. You can see the property lines and building setback limits on the ground as surely as if they were marked with paint, and when it is time to place a stake for a column location, it became a pulsing target accurate down to the thousandth of a foot. The plans for the garage are themselves stored in the cloud, so when the architects and engineers apply changes to the plans, they are updated automatically. Your roll of plans can never be out of date. In addition, as you work and the structure itself is built, it is scanned by your glasses and added to the virtual building and site information.

 

Obviously, augmented reality holds a lot of promise for land surveying, and it is not too far off. Like the newest robotic instruments and GPS systems, it will take time for the technology cost to come down so midsized and smaller firms can afford it, but the largest companies will be early adopters as they were with 3D scanning and CAD/GPS machine control for construction.

 

There are some other emerging technologies that will change and empower the land surveying profession. After augmented reality, the most valuable may be the commercial use of drones. Currently, surveyors make extensive use of aerial photography and photogrammetry. These are expensive though, since you have to hire a plane and a pilot. Very soon, I think, those companies will switch over to drone use, cutting both costs and delivery times. New radar and scanning technologies will likely increase the value of aerial photography, as well.

 

Another useful technology yet in its relative infancy is GIS — Geographic Information Systems. All sorts of field make use of GIS, tracking everything from land data to demographics. When fully integrated into an accessible, cloud based data hub, GIS will be a huge asset for both augmented reality in surveying as well as planning and property development.

 

Farther in the future, 3D printing on a large scale, such as was recently suggested for building a lunar base, will have an impact on land surveying. However, this impact might not be positive for either surveyors or the construction workers who fabricate office building and parking garages. With the structural and architectural information uploaded and raw materials at hand, large scale 3D printers could raise complex structures in a fraction of the time required by manpower.

 

Finally, automation might be the nail in the coffin for the land surveyor. As robots get smaller, more mobile, more versatile and ultimately more intelligent, when combined with augmented reality and GIS systems, they could easily and effectively take over for human surveys much as they have with more confined manufacturing work. Swarms of microbots could easily survey large sites and buildings with laser scanning, while more specialized larger robots could plant stakes faster and more precisely than any human.

 

It is impossible to say what will happen in the future, even a few short years out. No one can predict random, or seemingly random, events that shape the future, and fewer can effectively model for human quirks in their futurism. Always, there is the potential for an unforeseen technological or scientific leap that changes everything, such as the rise of electronics in the mid 20th century. But when imagining futures, both our own and those of the characters in our stories, it is important to remember the nuts and bolts of the world. Imagine what your profession will look like in the future about which you are writing.

 

Comic Books and Genre Freedom

I recently purchased a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, a Netflix like service from Marvel Comics that lets you read tens of thousands of older (from the earliest days to just six months old) Marvel Comics. I dove right into The Mighty Thor series from the 1960s, specifically Walt Simonson’s run. Those stories always seem to top “Best of” lists not only for Thor but for Silver Age Marvel Comics in general, and since I am not nearly as well versed in Marvel lore as I am DC, I thought it would be worth my time.

 

And boy has it been so far. The most surprising aspect of the run is how modern it feels, relatively speaking. Both the art and the writing would have me place the book much closer to the 1980s, when I started reading DC Comics. The other thing that struck was just how Out There the stories are, not only steeped in Norse mythology but also science fiction and cosmic horror and, of course, super-heroic derring do. If you have never read the saga of Beta Ray Bill, alien champion who wins the mantle of Thunder God, I urge you to do so at your earliest convenience.

 

The “Out There” quality is what inspired this post, as recognizing it helped me coalesce a thought that has been swirling about in my head will-o-the-wisp like for ages: in comic books, it seems to me, one has license to break the rules of genre as nowhere else. That is, in comic books, be they superhero tales or science fiction, fantasy and horror stories, there is an implicit freedom to go a little gonzo and let your imagination run wild. Sure, there are many slice of life, realistic and even “hard” sci-fi and “low” fantasy comics out there, but by and large, comics are a place where creators are keen to indulge their most extreme flights of fantasy, often to the benefit of their readers.

 

Allow me to present a personal example: I have had, for some time, this idea about a “reverse Superman” of sorts — a human character from Earth who, when he travels to another planet, he gains super-human powers. In this tale, the “planet” is actually a system of moons around a super-Jupiter, and it is the strange radiation from that world that gives the protagonist his powers. The hero is the fiance of an alien princess who was “slumming” on Earth before her pre-arranged marriage but fell in love with our hero. When she was forcibly escorted back by the agents of her father and husband-to-be, he stowed away and only upon their arrival did he learn of his powers. The moon worlds are all pulp sci-fi environment worlds — and ice planet and a desert planet and an ocean planet, etc… — and his adventures are equally operatic.

 

It used to be that this sort of non- or wrong-science adventure was the province of the pulp magazines. Over the years, though, prose science fiction and fantasy has gained a certain level of respectability, or at least there is a level of expectation from fandom that works will be either “realistic” or, at the very least, quite serious in their treatment of fantastic elements. But in comics, that unwritten rule has never taken hold. In comics, John Carter can still adventure on Mars and Thor, God of Thunder, can team up with a genetically engineered cyborg hero to fight demons from a dimension beyond space and time.

 

Why is that? When Simonson was writing, at least, one could point to comics as a medium aimed at children, so adherence to any sort of scientific or internally-consistent standard was unnecessary, even unwelcome. My response is: Perhaps, but that does not explain why comics continue to be that way now. We still accept an alien from Krypton who can fly under the power of our yellow sun’s radiation and who fights cyborgs powered by pieces of his dead homeworld. Ridiculousness, to be sure, but both acceptable and preferred, even. Comics readership has gotten older with each passing decade, and more and more speculative fiction media, including the newest in the form of video games, tries to enter the field with solid grounding and “realistic” speculative elements.

 

I think it because strange ideas, the kind of things present in the pulps of yore, are more easily conveyed through the juxtaposition of image and art and that we, as a community of readers of speculative fiction, still need a little gozo to go with our hard sci-fi, low fantasy and psychological horror. In a few strokes of an artists pen and a few captions of a writer’s words, whole worlds can be created. Moreover, because most of us do come to comics when we are children or adolescents, we retain a childlike wonder in engaging comics and are more accepting of the wondrous in panels and thought balloons.

 

Sometimes I worry that I am simply being “lazy” wanting to write comics instead of prose, but the reality is that often what I am looking for is not ease of creation — it is said Allan Moore’s scripts are longer than most novels, and he is perhaps the greatest of all writers who embrace the gonzo aspect of comics storytelling — but the freedom to use ideas I fear are not “acceptable” for prose, like humans made interplanetary superheroes by way of gas-giant radiation belts.