(this article contains unmarked spoilers, including ending spoilers, for: void star, a memory called empire, madoka, and to the stars)
back in 2019, I wrote an essay called "alien intelligences." it's sprawling and overly wordy, and it's about a lot of things, including ai in fiction and reality, early germanic law codes, incompatible models of consciousness, dogs and ants, school and prison. but on the deepest level, it's about freedom slamming into the constraints imposed by regimented society. despite its flaws, it remains my favorite thing I've written, and the most personal
to quote, emphasis new:
most people are made to flow through the machine. but the people dear to me are those who cannot stomach it, cannot manage it, or else are simply spat back out. my father told me when I was in the process of flunking out of school that, unlike my mother, he knew it was all bullshit but "you gotta play the game." this attitude repulsed me, and I took great pride in my boldness in scorning the game
it's hard to say how much is an inherently rebellious will that succeeds in remaining unbroken, how much is the attempt at breaking serving to harden a spirit that may well have devoted itself to a better master. if we were born under a vigorous authority, one which showers its loyal children with gifts worthy of their merits yet ruthlessly grinds its enemies into dust without hesitation, would we find ourselves in dress uniforms or the gibbets? if I were born in the sunnier springtime of our culture, would I be a naval officer, or a pirate? feted as a great artist, or burned as a witch? the possibility of anything in between does not even enter my mind
I recently read two scifi novels that perfectly encapsulate the dichotomy I feel. two radically different societies, one where I'd rebel, another where I'd serve. void star by zachary mason and a memory called empire by arkady martine
void star presents a very dismal version of the near future. actually, one so bizarrely close in the details to my own pessimistic case that I assume the author and I must have both paint-by-numbered it from the same kit. maybe it's just the techie-adjacent zeitgeist. something in the water
for the most part, void star extrapolates from current trends, with a general theme of incrementalism wedded with decline. engineering improves to alter the texture of life, but science has no great breakthroughs to radically change its constraints. planes are drones, cars are self-driving. ai models churn out products and profitably trade on markets, but can't truly think or communicate in a way that humans find meaningful. existing as data, they fail to understand reality, and thus cannot reshape it
favelas ring all the major american cities, where illegal construction drones pour concrete dozens of stories high, building algorithmic kowloons. police have mostly been replaced by professional operators for the rich and lawlessness for the poor. there hardly appears to be a middle class at all. private war and private armies begin to reemerge, as the state loses its ability and will to monopolize violence
longevity can give you another half-century, if you have the kingly sums required. a rare few humans have digital implants, a mostly failed experiment in augmentation, now abandoned by the whims of the market. a rotting space elevator pierces the sky, never used, a modern babel
on the whole, void star is the most eager and direct tribute to neuromancer that I've ever encountered that isn't just a derivative of it. it lifts the spirit of the work, of high tech and low life, privatization and deprivation, but replaces the 80s-inspired setting with the polities and tech (and sea levels) we can see on the horizon from our neo-20s. the plot follows the same broad trajectory as well: renegade individuals clash with faceless megacorps, memories and identity are not what they seem. a lurking superintelligence is uncovered and "dealt with," in both senses of the phrase
this isn't a review, though I'll say the book was quite "literary." the author loves to say words, which is occasionally tedious, but often quite beautiful. the end is optimistic in some ways, but states outright the trajectory of the world is about to inflect down from decline into dark age. so it goes
but the base setting, before any of the plot, is kind of where it seems like we're headed, absent great invention or intervention. I have mixed feelings
on the one hand, the world of void star is worse than our world by any sensible standard. on the other hand... if you're a pathologically unsensible person, like me, and a lot of my friends, it sounds kinda fun?
again, from "alien intelligences":
every culture that has passed through its wild phase has stories of the lone wanderer who survives on his strength and skill alone. the knight errant, the youxia, the ronin. the gaucho, the cowboy. this archetype is so regular you can swap the stories between settings without changing anything else. most people would never choose to live outside their era's protective aegis whatever form it may take. but the romance of doing so is near universal
there are many who sing elegies for exit, convinced they would turn their backs on the world, but alas the option is closed forevermore. "o, to have been born in a time of possibility!" this kind of excuse-making is truly timeless. if possibility does not exist, we must create it. there's simply no other choice to make
I still believe in the frontier. I still believe in freedom
if you want to predict the future, you need a model of history
guessing at the details is impossible, there's too much variation, too much can happen. there's a joke in gravity's rainbow:
It occurred to [Brigadier Pudding] to focus his hobby on the European balance of power, because of whose long pathology he had once labored, deeply, all hope of waking lost, in the nightmare of Flanders. He started in on a mammoth work entitled "Things That Can Happen in European Politics." Begin, of course, with England. "First," he wrote, "Bereshith, as it were: Ramsay MacDonald can die." By the time he went through resulting party alignments and possible permutations of cabinet posts, Ramsay MacDonald had died. "Never make it," he found himself muttering at the beginning of each day’s work—"it's changing out from under me. Oh, dodgy—very dodgy."
this expresses my meaning
but the details don't really matter like the flow does. you won't predict particular events, but you get a sense for where things want to go, where the attractors and undercurrents are, on long enough timescales. for that, you just need your model. that and an opinion on human nature
whigs, for instance, see social progress as a curve toward heaven, an inevitable process whereby man's demons will be tamed, and all will live as brothers. malthusians see infinite growth in a finite world, with finite resources. the human animal borrowing on credit, and someday the bill will come due. technooptimists expect immortal science to save us from our mortal failings, whether they're of the postscarcity or singulatarian sect. doomers see unarrestable decline, a bleeding out of vital spirit, the strength of men soon to fail
for my part, I believe in cycles. a bit of spengler, a bit of autoregulation, a bit of balance of power and practical limits to central coordination. a lot of study of various societies and time periods until all I can see in history is rhyme
technology is different. it isn't magic, it isn't inevitable, and it doesn't always make things better. there may be a handful of equations, undiscovered physics and unclear computer science, that determine whether the end state of humanity is totalitarian hive, garden of eden, or red in tooth and claw
technology isn't necessarily a force for good, but it changes things, in a fundamental way. it alters the constraints we're subject to, distorts the playing field, rewrites the rules. human nature doesn't change, mean regression is the norm for civilizations, but tech can shatter the cycle. that's why it matters
I also think that human nature is bad. in line with xunzi, who I adore. but that's an entirely separate post
the world of void star is interesting because it's harsh, but it's free. it's plausible, it requires no new physics or tech, but the iron grip of power on the reins of humanity has loosened. people can do what they want
of course, it's also a carnival of suffering. desire is not enough to make you capable
it is tragic, and maybe unsolvable, that the majority of people born in our world never learn how to exert themselves on it, or are prevented from doing so by circumstance, economics, accidents of birth. I really wish I could see a world where everyone could strive toward a destiny worthy of them
but fantasizing about the frontier is for identifying with the heroes or villians of history. you don't do it to self-insert as the serf, no matter what the odds of that outcome would be in an actual scenario. it isn't "good" or "right" that the world is becoming more unsparing. it's only, if this is where things head, and if we can't really stop that process from happening, at least we can try to swim in it
the society in a memory called empire, which I read shortly after, is the most extreme opposite of all this I can imagine
empire is, technologically, a fairly standard scifi setting. ftl, space marines, orbital habitats, ai. but while the tech is perfunctory, the culture and ethnography are sumptuous
the eponymous empire, teixcalaan, is refined, genteel, and self-obsessed. its word for its capital, its empire, and the world as a whole are all one in the same. entry into teixcalaanli space requires passing the imperial exams, which test the applicant's knowledge of the language and literary canon. when the main character arrives on-world, she takes a car with her cultural liasion, who provides a tour by reciting ancient poems about the city's architecture, freely improvising within the meter to account for changes over the centuries.
I affectionately call the setting coruscantinople, for the way it lifts the luster of classical empire and gives it to a futuristic city-planet. it even has its own purple, more fitting its mesoamerican flavor: red and gold, blood and sunlight
teixcalaan isn't good or bad per se. it is simply massive, and pays no more than a passing glance to anything except for itself. the new ambassador for lsel, a mote of a nation on the empire's borders, must engage in diplomacy and spycraft to protect the interests of her people. lsel's fate veers between preserved and doomed, often not for reasons of deliberate politicking, but simply because it is, in gymbro terminology, "too small to see"
imperial society for its own, by contrast, is idealized and loving autocracy. everyone's movements are tracked at all times, by the devices they carry with them. but the devices are not a burden, but a right, for free citizens, because the stream of information they constantly feed you is how you feel connected to the polis. the protagonist is taken as a political hostage, and nearly killed, but spared and set free because she has a spiritedness her captor finds noble. characters break into government buildings and kill lurking assassins, but the authorities always know they haven't really done anything that merits punishment
the city itself is run by, or simply is, a network of ais, which citizens regard as a person, with adoration. its algorithms are considered incorruptible, until they're corrupted, but a bit of political maneuvering sets them right again. and the denouement of the book is up there with the battle of five armies in how all the competing factions set aside their grievances the moment an outside threat crests the horizon
while lsel feels general-purpose spacer, the author heavily seasons teixcalaan with aspects of aztec and mayan civilization, extrapolated to a mighty spacefaring polity. flowers and poetry dominate their culture, orthography and physiognomy are suspiciously similar, and there is a suggestive mention of a character's fondness for a certain ball game. it gives everything a fresh atmosphere compared to most space opera that I liked quite a lot
one interesting detail is that blood oath and blood sacrifice never became taboo in teixcalaan. but they're virtually nonexistent nevertheless—as would be expected in an advanced society, if only for practical reasons—under very different logic. there's a feeling that human sacrifice is simply too powerful, too grand, and too selfish. "sacrifice" means a sense of duty, and the little things people do for their empire every day earn them their piece of honor from the gods. how self-centered, to sacrifice your life in august ritual, and steal all this honor for oneself!
this is the kind of extrapolated history that I really love, that really makes a setting alive for me. thinking about patterns that accomplish a purpose, and working backwards through history to evolve them out of different raw materials. this is the kind of novel I wish I can write someday
I am fully seduced by teixcalaan, but that's kind of the point of it. the main character herself is too, and her ambassadorial predecessor before her. the book is broadly anti-colonial, and teixcalaan is poisoned honey, a venus flytrap. it's perfect and beautiful, and you can't help but love it and be awed, let it draw you in and take you into itself. and that is the threat that every high empire poses to its borderlands, beyond the simpler threat of conquest
japanese and korean intellectuals bringing hanzi and buddha home. jurchens and manchus conquering the center of the world, and then dissolving into it. and the mongols and khitans, who marked well the threat, and organized their entire societies around not letting themselves be consumed
the eternal mark left on europe by the glory and grandeur of rome, a thousand years of germanic imitation, a different people chasing a ghost. the many torchbearers of the toltecs settled in the central valley, and the indelible impression their legacy had on the wandering and rude mexica, before they themselves built their own marvels to surpass their predecessors
java and kalinga, the mideast and mecca. armenia and constantinople. the world, and the united states of america
the world of void star could easily exist, may even be the default future, if we don't do better on the way. but I'm not sure teixcalaan is even in principle possible. it's too perfect, it's too true to be anything but fiction. I go back and forth on this question
we live in the preeminent global empire, and we feel it in decline. everywhere we see laziness, corruption, decadence, decay. but has it ever been anything but? I'm really not sure
I know america well enough to know what a swamp it's always been. you can point to any of the peaks. the founding of the nation, the reconquest of the south. the gilded age and second industrial revolution. the conquest of western europe and the trumanite mandarinate: perhaps the apogee of the american civil service, and american public-spiritedness in general
all of them were infected with disease, despite the glory. always people are selfish and petty, poisoning the commons, exploiting the masses, betraying the people they claim to protect. always they cut corners, cut deals, steal for themselves, conspire against each other. to say nothing of the true horrors: slavery, genocide, nuclear fire
is there ever a period in any empire when things simply work? or do we always have to spend $3 in graft to get $1 in value? has there been a time where people do what's good for their countrymen, and it actually matters? when they get what they deserve in return, and aren't just being taken for a ride?
I know enough about rome and china to have no doubt they were never much better than us. maybe it is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. never cooperate, always defect, look at the payoff matrix, what are you even thinking about this for?
or maybe there really are islands of stability in the muck. confucius was thwarted, and li si depraved, but duke huan spared guan zhong, and what they accomplished together echoes for eternity. the alignment of skill and power, will and vision, and the longevity to see it through
nothing lasts, after all. wilhelm had bismarck for a time, shenzhong had wang anshi for a time. napoleon held the world in his hand, for a time. it doesn't need to be perfect to be alright
I doubted the master, when he said:
One who rules through the power of Virtue is analogous to the Pole Star: it simply remains in its place and receives the homage of the myriad lesser stars (2.1).
Is Shun not an example for someone who ruled by means of wu-wei? What did he do? He made himself reverent and took his proper position facing south, that is all (15.5).
it struck me as silly and naive, at the time. even emperor wu governed as a legalist, and merely aspired to be a confucian
but I think I understand now. laws are only really for when things go wrong. as a ruler, you need charisma, magic, the spirit-like state, if you hope to make things go right. and if you display virtue, those who serve can eagerly array themselves under you, to accomplish more than petty outcomes, as "when the wind moves over the grass, the grass is sure to bend" (12.19)
I don't know if I could ever serve, but I hope to at least see that magic someday
there's an interesting contrast between void star and empire that both have characters who aspire to become methuselahs. in the former, it's a megacorp tycoon willing to use any means, no matter how vile, to achieve nation state-level power and sovereignty. the latter, it's the emperor of the world, trying desperately to hold his empire together
in the end, both men are foiled
the tycoon's selfishness proves to be his undoing, betrayed at the eleventh hour by his benefactor due to the avenging machinations of a woman he'd hunted for his own gain
the emperor, on the other hand, is the victim of mere circumstance. so he selflessly sacrifices his very blood, without hesitation, to short-circuit a succession crisis, avert a civil war, and refocus the hearts of his people on fighting an invading species that would doom them all to oblivion. and the most remarkable thing of all is it works
a world where people do what they can, and one where they do what they must
which brings me to one scifi story that, above all others, has completely taken over my mind: to the stars by hieronym
to the stars is a long-running fanfic set in the world of puella magi madoka magica
I love introducing it like that after praising it so highly because it has a certain whiplash to it
madoka is, for those who aren’t familiar, a magical girl anime that deconstructs the genre by spotlighting the underlying horror that would be inherent in any system where random adolescent girls are given magic powers and forced to fight for their lives against evil creatures for the sake of humanity, and also absolutely have to keep it a secret from everyone they know in their regular lives
to the stars is set in the same universe, with the same characters, 400 years in the future, after magical girls unionized to derisk the demon-hunting business, then created their own shadow government and shadowy megacorps and black ops teams and criminal underworld, invented all the tech needed to create a postscarcity interstellar society, in secret, and then revealed themselves to regular people, who they regard as essentially a different species as them by now, 20 years before the story starts, because cuttlefish aliens are omniciding human worlds, and nothing but magical girl power has even a hope of turning the tide. magical girls effectively take over the military and rain slaughter and destruction on the technologically superior invaders with heartless and even eager brutality
it's one of the best things I've ever read in my life
I've only read half of it. I had to stop, and I don't think I'll pick it up again for at least a year, and when I do, I'll start again from the beginning. it's impossible to explain how badly I want that world to be real, and I think, without a girl to share that feeling with, the longing might just kill me
their society is postscarcity, but it's far from a utopia. everything has a seedy underbelly, everyone has skeletons in the closest. magical girls in the past couped governments and massacred criminals. they let billions die in a civil war a century before the start of the story because they thought maintaining secrecy was more important. and now they openly take over the government, the military, every organ of human power, yet don't even feel human themselves
in a world where cloning and elective biomodding are abhorrent to civilians, they still have to hide the "inhuman" way they treat their biology. they install sapient computers in their spines to boost combat effectiveness and everyday multitasking. they merge their minds with staggeringly powerful ais to run the world: one character, a high-level government official, proudly announces a full 73% of herself is present at a holiday party, since it's such a special occasion. they treat their bodies as disposable and mass-produce replacements to reinstall their soul gems into, for when they're "killed," but not annihilated.
but where the public would recoil in horror, the girls treat this with good cheer and gallows humor. the magi caeli—the navy's extravehicular shock troops, warriors of the vacuum—have such absurd soft-death rates that their motto is "your gem your cockpit, your body your wings." macedonian warriors, including alexander's own generals, were not allowed to recline at dinner as full men until they'd killed a boar with a spear without using a net. the magi caeli rite of passage into full sisterhood is the first time you've been corpsed
taking a theme from madoka to its most extreme conclusion, to the stars depicts magical girls as their society's dark knights. normal humans only work if they have to, and aren't even allowed to volunteer for the military until after their first century of life, to ensure they've seen all it has to offer. mention is made that if the alien invasion gets worse, society might have to "return to capitalism," a fearful prospect for people used to getting everything for free. they sleep easy, under the watchful eyes of their protectors
but the girls must struggle and suffer from the moment they contract, usually as mere adolescents. the protagonist, a young girl with a faustian soul, whose only wish is to see the universe and find her own special place in it, enters basic a week after her transformation. her first experiences of "war" are time-accelerated vr simulations of her and all her comrades being mercilessly slaughtered despite all their efforts to defend or counterattack, to test how the new recruits perform under stress. and it's hardly weeks until she's shipped off to the front to experience it for real
but in exchange for their suffering and sacrifice, the girls are held in awe by the humans they fight for. they can do things that no one else can, but with those duties comes respect, even love. the crucible of existential peril has brought mankind closer together, and the living warriors who protect them from extinction are universally revered for their selflessness
essentially, to the stars combines the high trust of empire with the brutal struggle of void star. the people who just want to live out their lives can do so contentedly, whereas the people who dream of glory in battle can join it to the fullest extent of their ability. you can live for centuries and work on your research or write your epic, or just raise a family or enjoy life. or you can ship out to the front and stack on as much risk as you can bear and give your absolute all in service to humanity
if there's any critique I can make of to the stars, it's that it's competence porn. this is, of course, part of why it appeals to me. and again, like empire, I know it can never be true
none of the girls are unstained, and few are noble, but every single one of them is fucking good at whatever they do, no matter what it is. the coups are masterful, the criminal takeovers perfect. the sacrifices are meaningful, the victories are awe-inspiring. the propaganda is believed utterly by the masses, and seen through like glass by anyone whose decisions actually matter
the girls are effective, whether they're soldiers or prophets or generals or gods. the government is effective, the conspiracies are effective, even the aliens are effective
but the setting is not devoid of conflict. rather, it's exactly the opposite. the conflicts are massive and all-consuming
everyone is struggling and bleeding and dying to accomplish great things, going up against enemies who are doing just the same. everyone is trying their hardest, putting in superhuman effort, and when things work, it's because they suffered enough to make it happen
the other night, with a new friend, between getting drunk off everclear and swordfighting behind her house, I said the ultimate fantasy for me is that everyone becomes 10x more capable, but everything gets 30x harder to compensate. she said that's the fantasy of every autist. maybe that's true
but that's the fantasy, the one that to the stars depicts with stunning clarity. a world where anything can be done, even outright miracles, as long as you're willing to suffer enough to make it happen. a world where sufficiently advanced medical technology ensures that as long as you aren't killed outright, you heal from grievous injury as if it never happened. where battle can be joined with joy and lust because "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" is biological reality
a world, harsh and hostile, unforgiving and unrelenting. but it's ok, because your team is there with you. they have your back, and you have theirs. they can handle their shit just as well as you can. tender, reliable, loving, and powerful
you can trust each other utterly, even if you're not the trusting type, because the conditions make no other choice possible. you can bond, deeply and permanently, relying on the fires of war to weld together hearts that cannot form attachments in peace
it's the kind of world that the brain in survival mode craves. "what if everything worked like it feels like it's supposed to"
I've had my flights of fancy and delusions of grandeur and I like to think I'm getting more grounded now. the problem with leaning into the fantasy is that it's easy and safe to tell yourself stories about how you're on your way to fulfilling the ideal. it's much harder to do the work that actually moves you in that direction
"the work" is hard in a different way than the fantasy. it doesn't require insane bursts of energy, manic flashes of insight, emotional self-mutilation, or mortification of the flesh. it requires patience and diligence and humility and years of toil
it's sad, in a way, but it's the difference between ideal and reality. that's where I'm trying to get, anyway. telling stories is easy, but it's what you do that counts. it does feel nice to retreat into fiction though, as a vacation, or a treat
or maybe the real point of fiction is to give structure to reality, to feel part of a tradition or lineage. to have an ideal to live up to, without running from what's real
there's nothing new in this idea either. the reason a macedonian warrior had to kill a boar to become a man is because that's what heracles did. the fact that the stories we tell are bigger than we are doesn't mean we have to be small
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