'Round and 'Round We'll Go

And everywhere an indecent haste prevails, as if something would be lost if the young man of twenty-three were not yet "finished," or if he did not yet know the answer to the "main question": which calling? A higher kind of human being, if I may say so, does not like "callings," precisely because he knows himself to be called. He has time, he takes time, he does not even think of "finishing": at thirty one is, in the sense of high culture, a beginner, a child. 
- Friederich Nietzsche, "Twilight of the Idols"

I'm not generally a fan of quoting Nietzsche. Entirely too many people do it entirely too often, with no regard to the larger context of their quotes or even the actual understanding of the concepts, that quoting Nietzsche often seems like one of the fastest ways to out yourself as rather on the pretentious side. And yet, while going over Twilight of the Idols (or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer), which for the record has one of the best sub-titles ever, I was struck by the above comment. Much as my liberal utilitarian socialist techno-utopian beliefs are utterly anathema to Nietzsche, and vice-versa, every now and then we can at least agree on a beginning, if not necessarily an ending.

For instance, we both thought this was a pretty bad idea.

But this is Forward the Future, not Forward the 1890's, so why am I talking about Nietzsche? Well, because way back then, at the tail end of the nineteenth century, he identified an issue that has only grown more ludicrous and problematic over the intervening century-plus. Namely, expecting young people to be 'finished' at an early age, to be ready to step out the doors of school and into the rest of their life. As though the shape of 'the rest of their life' could be decided by twenty-three!

The future isn't just about technological change, though of course that's the flashiest and most obvious way things change. Under the flash and chrome, however, there are more fundamental changes, ones that relate to conceptions of 'a good life' and morality and purpose and civil participation. One such change that's just starting to take shape, slowly rising from the rare and occasional to the more common-place, is that of the way we approach post-secondary education. To really understand what's coming, though, it's important to lay out the foundations of the change. 'Why' is always the most important question.

For the first and only times in their lives, these men have the right idea.

There are two forces driving this. The first is the increased productive life-span. The way a society whose people only generally reach forty or fifty, and are often of limited productive value well before that, approaches the labour force is going to be very different from that of a society whose people work until seventy, and live until ninety. Three or four years of specialized education in the early twenties just doesn't work if you're still going to be working thirty or forty years after that. And at the same time as people are working longer, corporations are getting more mobile, forcing labour to grow increasingly competitive to anchor good jobs in a community. As trade liberalization and deregulation continues globally, and there is no reason to think it won't in spite of certain catastrophic results, the competition for the remaining good jobs, which is to say non-retail, full time, benefit-carrying employment opportunities, is going to grow increasingly fierce. The concept of 'good enough' is already falling by the wayside, though curiously it's happening at the same time as so many people are finding themselves 'overqualified'. But that's another topic entirely.

So. We have people who are living longer, and need to work longer, and in order to work need to be increasingly well-educated and knowledgeable. It's difficult to conceive of any resolution to this issue but to have post-secondary education transition from being a one-time, early-twenties endeavour to one component in a work-'retire'-retrain cycle of labour life. Any lingering stigma attached to non-twenty-somethings in first or second year classes will have to fall by the wayside, as older adults are increasingly forced to supplement their existing accreditation or even branch out into entirely new areas of study and work. And with that will have to come a change in the construction of post-secondary, itself. As a twenty-something with a fair amount of time and relative economic security, I can afford to spend half the total time for my Political Science degree on non-Political Science courses; if I were a forty year old looking to brush up on my understanding of public policy or international relations, on the other hand, spending half my time filling up electives with history and english classes would be as wasteful as it would be expensive. At the moment it makes a certain amount of sense for universities to drag degrees out like this; each 'customer' will probably only be there once, for a limited amount of time. It's in the university's best interests to extract as much money from them as possible. But as university transitions from a once-a-lifetime endeavour to something you return to every fifteen or twenty years, a whole new understanding of the value of an education is going to come into play.

Nietzsche and I aren't exactly on the same page, of course. From the rest of Twilight of the Idols, and his other writings, it's likely what he meant was that young men shouldn't worry because the true man sets his own path in life, regardless of what anyone around him thinks. Its unlikely in the extreme that he thought, like I did, that life was going to be long enough that every man, and woman too, would have to have not just one 'calling' but three or four or more over the course of their life. But wherever we may diverge along the path to our answers, we certainly agree that rushing twenty-somethings out the doors to start their 'real lives' is pointless at best, and potentially problematic at worst.

Yeah... 'Potentially'...

Of course, Neitzsche might have put it a little more artfully than I.


The Fourth Sphere Pt. 4 - Fast Attack

Whoo boy, here we go.  After the trainwreck that is the Ethereal the last two installments have been fairly low-key; not so much how to make a bad thing good as how to make a decent thing better.  But the fast attack slot contains arguably the worst unit in the whole of the codex, which is really saying something.  That's right, today we're taking a good, long, hard look at...

The Vespid.

The question 'what does this unit do' is perhaps nowhere more essential than with the Vespid.  Because, quite frankly, what do they do?  They're expensive, they're poorly armoured, they're average shots with close-range, low-output guns, they're average combatants, and if they lose their Strain Leader (sergeant) their leadership is completely in the tank. Usually, with a unit that's not quite competitive, you could just say 'cost cut' and make them at least moderately useful. But even if you could spam Vespid it's difficult to see how they could be useful, because they are simply, terribly designed.

Here's the problem.  To be of any value, Vespid have to get close to their target; their guns have a 12" range.  And since they're one of the few sources of AP3 in the Tau Empire, presumably you're meant to use them to hunt Marines.  To do that effectively you need to not only be within 12", but within 12" and with no intervening cover to give those Marines an invulnerable save only slightly worse than the one the Neutron Blaster is stripping away.  But Vespid are only average shots, hitting half the time, and it's entirely possible for a full-strength squad of Marines to survive a volley of fire from a full-strength squad of Vespid.  And what then?  Well, the Vespid can charge, and with I5 they'll get to hit first, but they're not very good in close combat and they're not very strong, and when the surviving Marines hit back, and Marines will survive to hit back, their 5+ saves are not going to do them much good.  They'll probably hang on for a turn or three before the odds whittle them down, and then maybe they'll make it out alive and even more maybe-ly they'll regroup and contribute something.

Given that a full-strength Vespid squad costs 188 points, that's pretty unacceptable.

So, what would make them better?  Well, the answer to that lies in their purpose; to kill Marines.  The gun they have to do this with is suicidally short ranged, but that's not necessarily a deal-breaker.  Rather than increase the range, the Vespid would be well served by increasing their ability to kill up close.  With T3 and a 5+ save they're clearly something of a glass cannon, so let's run with that.  Giving the Vespid rending, for example, would go a very long way towards making them worthwhile.  They'd be frightening indeed on the turn they attack, blasting through power armour and then charging in to tear the survivors to shreds, but they'd remain vulnerable to long-range fire, and anything they couldn't swarm and kill immediately would still have a good chance of taking them apart in return.  They'd remain something of a specialist unit, still struggling to compete for space against Pathfinders and Piranhas, but at least that way they might beat out gun drone squadrons for a slot.

There's a second option, as well.  At the moment the Vespid have Fleet, which is frankly useless; nobody is ever going to forego shooting to run and charge with these guys.  Their guns are the only things worthwhile about them.  Instead of Fleet, then, why not let the Vespid enjoy that most quintessential of Tau strategies, jump-shoot-jump?  Jet pack Vespid would be significantly more survivable, especially if they held on to the Skilled Flyer USR, which would let them pop in and out of cover to deliver their close-range blasts into the most vulnerable of targets.  It's not a bad change, but personally I prefer the first option.  The Tau Empire already lacks any particular degree of variation in its units, and making another JSJ-anti-MEq unit wouldn't do much to alleviate that.

But the Vespid are bugs, giant space bugs with blisteringly powerful guns and diamond-hard claws that they use to tunnel through floating mountains.  These guys should be terrifying on the charge, and squashable at all other times.  It fits the fluff, and it fits their role on the tabletop, a rare win-win in 40K.


A Singularly Utopian Delusion

Although I'm a techno-utopian by inclination, even my belief that things will get better has its limits. And one of those limits is the Singularity.

Well, I think that about sums it up, don't you?  Class dismissed?

The Singularity, for those who don't know, is something of a quasi-religious belief among certain techno-utopians, and like all religious beliefs it comes in a variety of forms. The one I'm most concerned with, here, is the idea that, at some point technology will become so advanced, so all-powerful and all-encompassing, that the fundamental nature of humanity will be irrevocably altered by it. We might all become code running on atom-sized supercomputers spread across the length and breadth of the solar system, or we might 'evolve' into beings of pure mental energy held in a grid projected by our omnipresent nanobots, or we may well just be perfect versions of ourselves, mobile but in a sense suspended forever in amber, kept at the peak of our physical and mental abilities through the most esoteric of methods. The point is, come the Singularity, everything is supposed to be fantastic, and fantastically different, for everyone, for ever.

But what technology has ever reached everyone? The home computer may be omnipresent in rich, infrastructurally solid Western nations, but they're significantly less so in Latin America and South-East Asia, and Africa has largely leap-frogged over home computers to smartphones and PDAs. Even within those rich, infrastructurally solid Western nations, technologies that would be considered commonplace in some areas are pearls beyond measure in others; for instance, just try to get cutting-edge broadband internet access in rural America, or northern Canada. The absolute best case scenario sees customers paying a king's ransom for what in an urban city centre would be sub-par access, and that rests on the assumption that such access even exists. In many small, isolated communities it doesn't matter how much money one has to spend – the access simply is not there.

"I'd trade every iota of this island paradise for one episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  And a hat."

And that's with a technology that doesn't confer immediate, personal and most importantly relative benefits on those who have it. Being a hyper-intelligence running on the distributed platform that is the information network of the solar system might be wonderful, but for many people out there it would be even more wonderful if there are still non-uplifted humans to lord over. Sharing the internet is one thing. Its greatest value is in its ability to link content producers, so having an isolated and private little internet is largely of no value to anyone.  Sharing the kind of technology that would make the elites, those who have undoubtedly invested huge amounts of whatever resource obtains at the time to bring this change to fruition, completely redundant is something else entirely. And something that, given the general thrust of, oh, all human history, seems decidedly unlikely.

And that's the real problem with the Singularity. It may be that it's possible to invent the sorts of technologies necessary to underpin the Singularity, paradigm-shiftingly-advanced though they may be, but it's another thing entirely to assume that the sorts of people who would provide resource backing to make it happen would be in favour of making it freely available to all. For a comparison, I'd invite anyone to look back at Nikola Tesla and his plan to provide world-wide free energy, and the response by his principal backer, J.P. Morgan. There's no reason to assume that those inventing the foundations of the Singularity-enabling technologies wouldn't face their very own J.P. Morgans, interested in nothing more or less than stopping such change dead in its tracks. The sorts of people who most benefit from the status quo are those least likely to tolerate changes to it.

This is J.P. Morgan.  He does not give a damn how many people you can uplift 
if he can't personally charge each and every last one of them a service fee.

The Singularity is a paradisaical dream, nothing more or less than that. Something approximating it may, some day in the far future, come to pass. But existing elites and institutions will fight it tooth and nail, and while they may not succeed in the long term, there is every reason to assume they can hold its implementation back for a very, very long time.


The Girl Who Waited, and Then Was Completely Ignored

'The Girl Who Waited', the latest episode of Doctor Who, is on the surface a story of love and devotion across the decades, interspersed with some decent action scenes (at least for Doctor Who) and set in a very striking aesthetic space. The story concerns Amy, the titular Girl Who Waited, being stuck in a divergent timeline for thirty-six years, and what happens when the Doctor and Rory manage to track her down again. Moments for them, a lifetime for her.

But as I was watching it, I was struck by something I don't think the writers quite intended. You see, when the Doctor and Rory realize what's happened, that Amy has been living there for nearly four decades on her own, under constant threat of death and utterly isolated from any other sentient life form, they understand how hard it must have been for her. How it must have hurt her. Not just that she was afraid, but that she felt abandoned by the two most important, and ultimately the two most reliable, men in her life. And they decide that they should do something about this. Now, that's all well and good; if you have a time machine, and someone has had a bit of a rotten life, I'm sure your first impulse would be 'let me just pop back a few decades and set that on a better path for you'. But old-Amy doesn't want them to do that, for the very simple reason that doing so would mean she ceases to exist. That she would die in favour of a younger, prettier, more liked version of herself, who in thirty-six years would grow into a totally different person. Unsurprisingly, this is not exactly a great argument to make for ending the existence of a human being, and old-Amy is never really convinced of it.

"Wipe myself out of existence because you don't like my wrinkles and attitude?  I've got a sword, y'know..."

And that's where the episode's morality went rather off the rails for me. It's a problem you often find in stories that involve clones or duplicates or some other kind of replica, this idea that the original's existence is somehow more privileged than that of the copy. Doctor Who itself took this very idea to task in the recent two-parter The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, wherein the idea that the Flesh versions of the people there, including the Doctor himself, were any less worthy of respect and existence than the original versions was treated as rather heinous. The primary antagonist in those episodes was a woman who seemed dead-set on killing the Flesh versions for no reason but that they weren't 'real', and that's pretty much exactly what seemed to be happening in The Girl Who Waited. Old-Amy may be a human being, but she's not the 'real' Amy, so it's okay to erase her from existence to make things easier for the 'real' Amy.

The question of who, or what, is 'real' is one science fiction has been tackling pretty much as long as there's been science fiction. It's perhaps the central issue surrounding Frankenstein's monster and the replicants of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and it's a recurring issue for the Tanks and Silicates and Chigs of Space: Above and Beyond and the clones in Schwarzenegger’s often-unappreciated The Sixth Day, with as many more examples as a perusal of What Measure is a Non-Human (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WhatMeasureIsANonHuman) can provide. The question is such a recurring one, of course, because it's the purest metaphorical device for the many different 'versions' of humanity that societies have decided, over the course of thousands and thousands of years, aren't quite human enough. There's a very good reason many of the groups science fiction holds up as being non-human but still deserving of human rights and respect are bound up with labouring and servitude, after all. And an equally good reason why so many robot uprisings are led by servant-class robots; it's rarely the military machinery that actually gets the ball rolling, but the robots who are most personally involved with human affairs. The fact that actual slave uprisings were both more rare and less successful than robotic uprisings is beside the point. Science fiction is attempting to warn by pointing to the worst possible outcome, not simply recreate the past with more pistons and brushed steel.

Though there are occasional, glorious exceptions.

And one of the best things about science fiction's treatment of non-humans is that, so long as they're not mindlessly or unceasingly hostile, like the bugs of Starship Troopers or the Tyranids and Necrons and Orks of Warhammer 40K or the Martian tripods in War of the Worlds, the moral of the story is always to err on the side of rights and respect. Just because Data was built in a lab, or the Tanks were grown in tubes, or Frankenstein's monster was stitched together from the pieces of corpses, doesn't mean they're not just as human-like as the actual humans that surround them. Indeed, in the case of Frankenstein's monster, the original science fiction treatment on the subject, it's rather more human than its creator, to said creator's ultimate detriment. It is Victor Frankenstein's gross failings as a human being that turn his creation into his monster, not any kind of inherent quality in the creation itself. As one of the characters in the Hellboy comics put it, to be different from human is not to be less than human.

This is all bound up in autonomy, of course. The surest way to tell when a sentient is being repressed in fiction is to find a sentient who is being denied the most basic autonomy. The replicants of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are told they can't live on Earth, no matter what they want, and killed if they try. Data is only considered non-human property when he attempts to resign his Starfleet commission. And old-Amy, in The Girl Who Waited, is utterly incapable of deciding she wants to live and having that decision respected. To his credit Rory initially responds to old-Amy as just Amy, who happens to be a bit older than the last time he saw her. It is the Doctor who initially decides it's possible to go back and rescue young-Amy, but once that idea is put forwards neither men treat old-Amy as any kind of possessor of autonomy. Even the one decision she makes that they seem to abide by, that she will help rescue young-Amy so long as they both get to continue existing, is nothing more than a lie; there was never any intention to allow her to continue to exist. Her autonomy was never real, merely coincidentally aligned with the desires of the 'real' people.

"Old-Amy, as seen by Rory and the Doctor."

The worst thing, of course, is that from a storytelling perspective there are tons of alternatives. The easiest would've been to simply switch old-Amy and Rory's reactions; to have him determined to make things work (two millenium as the Last Centurion didn't do him in, why should thirty-six years finish off Amy) only to have old-Amy determine that she'd rather not have spent the time here in the first place. There are other options as well, that's just the first that leaps to mind and doesn't have a slightly ugly undertone.

This season seems to be about the Doctor overstepping himself, something of a return to the dangers of the Timelord Victorious. In that sense, you could make an argument that this is appropriate for his character. But it's still the antithesis of the morality of science fiction in general, and the Doctor in particular, and it's something I hope doesn't set the tone for the rest of the series.


To Boldly Stay Here

It was brought to my attention recently that, for the first time in several decades, there are no American network programs featuring people on spaceships.  There're still scifi shows, and the more vague 'genre' shows', being put out, of course.  But nobody is going boldly at the moment, and it doesn't sound as though that's set to change any time in the immediate future.  But does that matter?

Personally, I would argue no, and that's coming from someone who would personally punch out every last SyFy executive over the cancellation of SGU.  The reason for that is that scifi, particularly television scifi, is never really about its setting anyway.  The best programs make full use of the potentials of their setting, of course, but at its core scifi is simply using its setting as a metaphor for current realities.  That being the case, then, why does it matter if the issue of the day is represented by an alien who's black on one side and white on the other, or an artificially gestated 'tank', or a group of monotheist terrorists?  The story is what ultimately matters, and while I enjoy a good space opera as much as the next scifi fan, the fact that people are travelling through space on a ship to make for a good series.  I'd take an episode of Eureka over Andromeda any day, and as great as Firefly was it could have been just as great if they'd had an airship instead of a spaceship.  It's not the setting that really matters, it's what the creators do with it.

And the scifi creators out there are doing a pretty good job of it.  Eureka, Miracle Day, Outcasts, Falling Skies, Chuck, Sanctuary, they're all doing varyingly well critically, though in some cases that hasn't been enough to save them from cancellation, a fate every scifi fan knows to expect and dread in equal measures.  And with Terra Nova coming up, scifi television is making a pretty solid return to the major American networks.  Just because it doesn't have spaceships in it doesn't mean it's not worthwhile science fiction, after all.