Tommy Douglas: Father of Medicare, Grandfather of Cyborgs?

The cyborg is a common feature in science fiction, so much so that it has transcended its particular genre audience to develop a pleasant little place for itself in pop culture at large. Ask someone on the street to name a cyborg, and chances are good they'll be able to, at least with relatively little prompting on your part; Robocop, the Borg, Inspector Gadget, Darth Vader, something along those lines. Those more attuned to current events may even be able to come up with the name of the South African runner, Oscar Pistorius, whose attempts to compete in the Olympic Games was questioned based on his prosthetic legs. And of course, there are the now utterly mundane real-life cyborgs, people with cochlear implants, pacemakers, and artificial limbs that run the gamut from 'barely better than a peg-leg' to 'actually functional robotic hand'. The cyborg is no longer the fever dream of the science fiction writer, but more and more they're the reality of your neighbour or your coworker.

And that raises a pretty fundamental question in a capitalist society; who's paying for all these cyborgs?

And how do we make sure they don't cheap out on them?
Traditionally, fiction has usually looked at the cyborg as being a piece of private investment, either on the part of the individual or a corporation. Robocop is legally the property of OCP, after all, and Emperor Palpatine appears to have paid for Anakin's en-Vader-ing himself, since there's not a Property of the Republic stencil to be seen on any of the extremely complicated and expensive medical equipment around them. And when it hasn't been the preserve of the rich, it's usually the result of a particular purpose, spies and assassins being upgraded by their government employers to make them better at their jobs. Cyborgism is a reward as much as a status, and tied with a certain elite classification in fiction. The cyborg is a main character, antagonist or protagonist. Sure, there's Lobot and Geordi and the like, but as secondary character cyborgs they're the exception, not the rule. As cyborgs become less fantastic, however, and more just a societally normalized response to people who have lost some degree of 'human standard' functionality, it becomes less clear why that elite status should be so. This is particularly the case in advanced non-American countries, where the state already pays for citizens' health care. In those cases, why is it that the state can afford to implant a pacemaker, but not fit a pair of 'cheetah legs'? Or introduce the kind of brain-computer interface that can restore damaged nerves and retrieve functionality in extremities? Obviously purely cosmetic procedures could be exempted from national health plans, in the same way that current, purely cosmetic procedures are, but as the technology progresses the definition of non-cosmetic prostheses is only going to grow more and more broad. Because of course, there is not actual 'human standard'.

States like America may at first decide that it's every (rich) man, woman and child for themselves when it comes to personal enhancements, but there are plenty of 'friendly' states that could challenge America's '99% human, 1% cyborg' distribution of enhancements across society as the norm. And what about less friendly states? What about, say, China? Think about it for a moment. A large, prosperous state, with a great deal of accumulated savings, and no history of the citizens being treated as anything but extensions of the state. What would it mean if, ten or fifteen years from now, when the technology has advanced far enough, the government of China paid to have every citizen fitted with a computer-brain interface that provided them with a fundamentally significant advantage in the knowledge-based economy? Or what if they provided increased-functionality sensory suites, little clusters of cameras and audio pickups and the like, that gave every Chinese person 20/20 vision and perfect hearing, and allowed them to record everything they saw and heard while they were at it? If China decided to invest in even 1% of its billion-plus population, the definition of 'human standard' could certainly start to inch away from 'a healthy un-augmented person with a full range of naturally-provided functionality' and towards something a little more competitive. And the higher the bar is raised as far as the maximum possible achievements of a human being, the more pressure there's going to be on everyone else to catch up. If you live in a world of people who can run as fast as a car, lift a piano, compose software in their heads and enjoy absolutely perfect recall, what choice do you have but to try and match those people?

 She can do everything you can do, faster and better.  And she fills out that leotard pretty well, too.  Why should they hire you, again?
These ideas, far-fetched as they may sound, are still safely on the conservative end of the predictive spectrum; in another generation, it's entirely possible the technology could have already surpassed much of what we see even in the more imaginative works of science fiction. And once it has, there will be enormous pressure, from all sorts of groups and institutions, to put it to some kind of use. After all, why just have one Darth Vader, a 7" tall killing machine with the ability to hold a human being off the ground with one hand and casually snap his neck, who should have increased endurance to go with that strength, whose wounds can be instantly healed thanks to the wonders of plug-and-play technology and who could have a permanent audio/visual up-link with headquarters, when you could have whole special forces teams of Darth Vaders? Or whole armies of them?

Once the replacement parts surpass the parts they're replacing, the entire equation changes. At the moment there's no sense chopping your hand off, or gauging out your eyes, just to become a cyborg. Current prostheses are fine for replacing damaged or non-functional parts of our bodies, but they have yet to really out-do what an average, healthy human being can accomplish with their normal body. But technology progresses, sometimes slowly and steadily, sometimes vaulting ahead in great leaps and bounds, but always moving forwards. So soon enough, well within my own lifetime and probably within that of my parents', the day will come when a prosthetic isn't a second-rate replacement, but an upgrade. And when that happens, society is going to have to decide a few very important things. What is a 'human'? What is 'normal'? And perhaps most importantly, who is going to pay to make sure all 'humans' are 'normal'?

And you thought Canadians were sensitive about their health care system's performance before...


Munitorum Series #2 - Bolter

So, Saturday has come and gone, and with it the second in the four-game tournament series Black Knight Games is running.  And how did I do?  Read on, and find out!

Round 1

Opponent: Blood Angels (Craig Simms)

2 x 10 ASM w/2 x Meltaguns, Power Sword, Sanguinary Priest
10 ASM w/2 x Meltaguns, Power Sword
5 x Sanguinary Guard
2 x Vindicator

Deployment: Pitched Battle
Major Objective: Capture and Control
Minor Objective: Headhunter (Points for Close Combat Kills)

As far as starts go, this was a less than auspicious one. It's hard to imagine a list Tau would struggle with more than deep striking Assault Space Marines with Feel No Pain, and a less realistic Minor Objective for Tau to go after than Headhunter. My opponent lost the roll-off and I decided to take first turn; I was fairly certain he wouldn't deep strike his Vindicators, so at least I could hope to deal with those before they caused me too much trouble. I deployed as spread out as I could be, hiding my objective in a small ruin off to my left with 6 Fire Warriors and one of my XV88s camped out on it, while my suits hid behind my two Devilfish and the Hammerhead, my other XV88 snug behind some rocks on my right, my other on-foot Fire Warriors clustered around that XV88. His two Vindicators deployed together behind a small copse of trees on my right, the Librarian hiding behind it. He rolled a 2 to Seize Initiative, and we were off.

And boy, was I ever off. My Pathfinders managed to put one markerlight token on the Vindicators, which I used to boost my Hammerhead to hit on 2+. It managed that, but only just barely, and against the AV13 front its penetrating roll of 1 didn't help me much. Nor did the inability of the XV88 on my left to hit, or the XV88 on my right to roll more than a 1 for its own penetrating roll. The Vindicators endured my firepower utterly without concern, which seemed a remarkably bad omen. In return, he managed to blast my Hammerhead to shrapnel with his own heavy tanks, though thankfully it didn't kill anyone when it went. On turn 2 I had spread out enough that my Deathrains could threaten the leftwards Vindicator's side armour, and a few solid missile strikes managed to tear the massive cannon clean off. My XV88s, meanwhile, immobilized the other tank, which was pretty much useless, and stunned it, which was slightly more. Again I spread out, one squad of Deathrains going up the left behind a Devilfish, the other squad going up the right, while my Fireknives and my Shas'el's squad covered the middle. I was hoping to be able to dance around his army as it came in piecemeal, and hopefully at least threaten to defeat it in detail. Alas, it was not to be. His Sanguinary Guard and one of the Priest-backed squads turned up from reserves; the former dropped in, shot up and broke my Fireknives, while the latter put down one of my 'El's bodyguards. Just like that, I'd gone from 5 plasma rifles to 1, before they ever had a chance to fire.

Predictably, my Deathrains, Fire Warriors and Devilfish were unable to put wounds on the Priest-backed Assault Space Marines, and the one plasma rifle left managed to miss them, while the Sanguinary Guard went unmolested. With no loss to his army on its first two, weakest turns, there was no hope of holding them off when the rest of them turned up on turn 3. He left one squad around the back, to hold his objective, while the rest rampaged through my cadre, slaughtering with near-impunity. Amusingly, the two best killers on my side turned out to be my Devilfish, one of which took out three Assault Space Marines with its Flechette Dischargers, and both of which exploded, killing a few other Marines when they went up. The rest of my army was utterly ineffectual, my XV88s failing to even destroyed his Vindicators (they were smoking crippled hulks, but still not dead) before they were overrun, and my suits mercilessly hunted down and dispatched. The game ended on Turn 6, not because of the dice, but because there wasn't a single Tau model left on the field. I had been tabled.

Results: Major Loss

Round 2

Opponent: Necrons (David Quirk)

2 x Lords w/Resurrection Orb, Gaze of Flame
2 x 20 Warriors
2 x Monoliths

Deployment: Dawn of War
Major Objective: Capture and Control
Minor Objective: Thin the Heard (Points for Getting Squads to Half Strength)

Once again, I wrote the Minor Objectives off before the game started; he could give up a maximum of 2 points, while I could offer a whopping 8. This was actually my first game against Necrons, and I went in not knowing much of what to expect. We deployed 4 objectives, more or less in the four corners of the board, and I won the roll-off, picking the side with greater cover, and first turn. I put my 'El's squad in the centre, so they could use their Blacksun Filters to take potshots early, and deployed a Fire Warrior team in a Devilfish, for cover to hop back into. He put down his Warriors together on the left side, one one of the objectives, a large landing pad in the midfield on that side hiding most of them.

Turn 1 did not go well. I brought my army on save for two squads of Fire Warriors left in reserve, my XV88s getting decent rolls to put them in position on the flanks of the table, while my Hammerhead blocked the left approach, the Pathfinders' Devilfish came up to sit beside the Fire Warriors', and my suits spread out along the back of the board. My Hammerhead scattered its shot well off the Warriors, which was my only real shooting, as I couldn't see anything else so far. I sent a Deathrain squad up the right side and one to reinforce my Hammerhead on the left, and hunkered down. I did not, however, hunker well enough. His Monoliths and second Lord arrived, and while the latter did little but try and catch up to his squad, the former were devastating. They managed to blast my Devilfishes to pieces, killing the Fire Warriors and all but 1 of the Pathfinders; my mobile bunkers/terrain, one of my scoring units and two Minor Objective points given up, from the get-go. Yikes. Thankfully, my XV88s rallied on Turn 2, taking advantage of the Monolith's utter inability to find obscurement (seriously, those things are -tall-!) to railgun one of them into pieces. My Hammerhead and Deathrains sent as much fire up the left as they could, knocking down a few Warriors, while my other Deathrains headed up the right, keeping terrain between them and the surviving Monolith. The centre of my army didn't manage much, being mostly unable to see their opponents without getting dangerously close to the Monolith, which had claimed the centre-left. It floated up onto the landing pad and lashed out at my Hammerhead, tearing the railgun from it, and teleported the forward Warrior squad up there, putting them in threatening range of the remains of my Hammerhead and my Deathrains. Thankfully, my 88's dealt with the surviving Monolith next turn, leaving it a matter of manoeuvre and concentration of fire, neither of which, sadly, I could quite manage well enough.

His forward Warriors shot up my Deathrains and their Lord detached to charge and kill my Fireknives, earning him a third and then fourth Minor Objective point and therefore putting it safely beyond hope of contesting. My Hammerhead's burst cannons and the 'El's squad chipped away at the forward Warriors from another angle, the second Deathrain unit continuously poking away at the Warriors on his objective. I claimed my own objective on my 5th turn, my Fire Warriors finally sitting most of the game out right when they were least threatened, but I simply could not fight through the first Warrior squad, nevermind shift the second. With both of us claiming an objective and nobody in range to contest, it came down to the Minor Objective to decide the winner.

Result: Minor Loss

Round 3

Opponent: Tyranids (Clayton Carkner)

2 x Tyrant Prime w/bonesword, lash whip, deathspitter

2 x 25 Termagants

24 Termagants

7 x Genestealers w/toxin sacs

6 x Genestealers w/toxin sacs

5 x Ymgarl Genestealers

Doom of Malantai w/mycetic spore


5 x Raveners w/rending claws

Trygon w/adrenal glands

Deployment: Spearhead
Major Objective: Annihilation
Minor Objective: Breakthrough (Points for Non-Vehicle Units in Opponent's Deployment Zone)

Okay. So. On top of 'ASM with FNP', I think I can safely add 'Doom of Malantai delivered via mycetic spore' to the 'list of things Tau seem incapable of handling'. Sweet Christmas, that thing was an absolute monster!

But I'm getting ahead of myself. After a brutal beating first game and a narrow defeat second, I went into this one feeling moderately confident. It was Annihilation, and he was drowning in units, just waiting to be blasted apart by my superior long-range firepower. I won the roll-off and chose an urban ruin with a pathway in on the two sides and a third 45 degrees up the middle, leaving him with a wide-open plain. I left the Fire Warriors in reserve, used my Devilfishes to block the side entrances, placed my Hammerhead and 'El's squad forwards on the middle, scattered my suits around the backfield and prepared to engage.

It went well, at first. For once I didn't lose anything at all first turn, and even managed to do some damage. My railgun submunition and airbursting fragmentation projector chewed up the front edge of the aggressively-deployed termagant squad, while burst cannons, drone carbines, and missile pods pecked away at them around the edges. One of my XV88s was supposed to be safely deployed up on top of a tower, a good 2" tall structure, with the other hanging at the back, but in an utterly flabbergasting move my opponent just charged his hormagaunts straight up the outside wall on his turn. I should have called him on it, but I was just so stunned by the sheer audacity of the move that I didn't say anything until we'd already fought a round of combat, and at that point I felt embarrassed to bring it up. Silly, but there you go. And it cost me, too; he could only get a few hormagaunts up there, meaning the combat kept drawing turn after turn, leaving his squad completely protected from my shooting. Maddening! Not that my shooting would stay threatening for very long, though. The aforementioned Doom of Malantai, deployed via the equally aforementioned Mycetic Spore, dropped into my backfield second turn, and just started laying the place to waste. That 3D6 LD test, with a wound for every point over, is brutal against Tau, whose elites are lucky to get LD8; just its presence killed one of my 'El's bodyguards and most of my Fireknife squad, along with half the Pathfinders. I hid the latter in my Devilfish, which didn't last long when a unit of Raveners came calling, while the Fireknives were dragged down by infiltrating Ymgarl Genestealers and I lost the last bodyguard to a bit of psychic shooting from that bloody Doom.

Outside the ruins my Hammerhead, supported by a Devilfish and the Deathrain's flamers, managed to completely destroy one of the termagant squads, moving up into his quarter as they went, but inside the ruins things were too bleak. The Doom blasted my Hammerhead apart, the surviving Ymgarls and a second squad of outflanking Genestealers (not declared before game; I really have to get better at forcing that issue) chewed up my XV88, surviving Fire Warriors and my 'El, and the Raveners chased my forcefully disembarked Pathfinders into a shattered building, where they were set upon by a squad coming in from the plains and hideously killed. His Trygon didn't make it onto the field until Turn 5, but at that point it was just the icing on the cake. I had a few units in his deployment zone and three kill points, while he had most of his army in my zone and more than twice as many kill points.

Result: Major Loss

Overall Result: 17th, of 18 entrants


So, what did I learn? Well, sadly, I learned that Tau are even more under-equipped to deal with particular armies than I'd thought. It's true I'm not a very good general (a better one could have beaten that Necron army, I'm confident), but there are just so few tools in the Tau kit to deal with threats. I can't fight Assault Space Marines, or any close combat unit for that matter, I can't shoot through 3+/FNP, or even through any 3+ reliably, I can't block psychic powers, I can't get rid of invulnerable saves... It's a poor craftsman who blames his tools, perhaps, but I think the army and I need to share pretty equal amounts of blame on this one. This codex is just so dang far behind the curve.

Now, that's not to say it's impossible to do well, even win. Dealing with deep-striking, FNP'ing Assault Space Marines is always going to be the next best thing to a fantasy, but I had the Necrons on the ropes; another turn or two and I could have contested his objective, maybe even have forced a Phase Out as I picked away at his Warriors, and he didn't have the speed or range to seriously threaten my units or objective. And if I'd played more aggressively against the Tyranids, broken out earlier and forced him to chase me rather than trying to blast him to pieces from inside the 'safety' of the ruins, I might've been able to blunt the damage the Doom could inflict when it arrived, preserving some of my units and blasting a few more of his squads apart in the process. It's tough to know just how aggressively to play Tau, since they're so fragile and vulnerable to even a halfway-decent counter-assault, but I think I'm going to have to start erring on the side of risk. I don't have the numbers in my cadre for a gunline, so it's got to be manoeuvre and defeat-in-detail if I'm to have any hope of coming out on top. It goes against the grain to fight forwards like that, but I'm not sure I can see an alternative with my cadre and the enemy armies I tend to face around here.

There's another 1500 point tournament, the Two Day 40K event, coming up in the end of November. Let's see if I can't apply a little hard-won wisdom, there, shall we?


Who Doesn't Like Saying SCOTUS? Really?

For all the commenters raining praise down on Vonda N. McIntyre's SCOTUS Defines Personhood, you'd think there was some, I don't know, content there.

I'm as big a fan of the corporatocratic dystopian fiction as the next guy; heck, I've got a series of short adventure stories set in the Incorporated States, a universe of my own devising, though one in which I wanted to demonstrate that corporations are not by definition evil, and that a corporatocratic system would no more have to be tyrannical than a democratic system has to be egalitarian.  I absolutely agree that our current construction of a 'proper' capitalist system is unsustainable, not least because it privileges those who produce nothing of value so much more than those who still provide a good or service that benefits society.  There is simply no justification for a wage gap as high as the one that exists between, say, the Walton family and the people who actually do all the work at any given Wal-Mart location.  The CEO of Wal-Mart simply does not work a thousand times as hard as the store's employees.

And yes, exaggeration for the purposes of satire is a fine tradition, in science fiction as much as in any other genre of artistic expression.  I doubt Orwell really believed the future of 1984 was exactly what was going to happen, any more than Alan Moore thought V for Vendetta was a reliable prediction of the future of Britain or Margaret Atwood thought genetic engineering was just a few years away from exterminating nearly the entirety of the human species.  Just because a work is over the top doesn't make it bad, though it usually means it has to work harder to be good in order to balance out the goofiness of such exaggeration. 

And yes, the ruling by the SCOTUS that the First Amendment protects corporate spending during an election is a worrying one.  And yes, corporate donations and funds spent on lobbying just go up and up, year after year, election after election.  And yes, President Obama had the exact same sorts of people working on his economic recovery plan as those who caused the disaster in the first place.  And yes, and yes, and yes. 

Still.  With all due respect to Ms. McIntyre, this story is just... well, there's just nothing to it, really.  It's a hodgepodge of background and worldbuilding, without much of an actual story hanging from its bones.  Its 'flash fiction', true, but that doesn't excuse it from at least having some kind of narrative structure.  And just because it's written in the form of a newspaper article doesn't excuse it, either, since most newspaper stories are written with exactly the sort of narrative structure that gets people invested in a work and reading through to the end.  Really, it's not even that it's bad, it's just that it's, well, it's not much of anything at all.

And just to raise a quick point; while it's an interesting idea, such a fundamental change to the status quo would be bitterly resisted by the most profitable corporations and wealthiest individuals precisely because it is a change to the status quo.  These entities made their money based on the way things are.  The last thing they want is a massive change.


About as Much as Meets the Eye, Actually

As a child of the 80s, I've never really needed to grow up; the entertainment industry apparently decided to prey on my nostalgia long ago. Which explains why, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, I still find myself immersed in the saga of the Transformers. And why the most recent book I read, relevant to this particular blog of course, was Alex Irvine's Transformers: Exodus.

Read, and quite enjoyed.

Irvine was given an interesting task with this book, which was to basically fold together as many different Transformers backstories as humanly possible. Now, this is no mean feat, because even when they were first introduced back in the 80s the Transformers had two different, nearly incompatible backstories given, and that number has only reason as the series has been reinvented time after time. At this point, trying to come up with a coherent system that can incorporate the 80s cartoon and comic book, which diverged from each other quite quickly, along with Beast Wars/Beast Machines, Transformers: Prime, the War for Cybertron video game and Michael Bay's movies, is roughly equivalent to asking someone to write the definitive version of, say, Power Girl. And if you don't know why that would be problematic, take a quick read-through.

But I digress. Irvine was given a rather difficult task, and he manages to pull it through quite nicely. He incorporates historical events and locations not just from the original or most recent series, but from a variety of sources all along the life span of the franchise. And in an interesting twist, Irvine himself has stated that the descriptions of the Transformers themselves are sparse to non-existent on purpose, to allow readers to slot in whichever version, or versions, they think most appropriate. It's a very nice touch, and one that raises the enjoyment level of the book noticeably, especially given how polarizing certain depictions of some of these characters have been. That degree of consideration for the fandom is largely seen throughout the rest of the book as well, with Irvine managing to do interesting things with a rather well-worn narrative, both in terms of the Transformers in particular and fiction in general. Two brothers, or 'brothers' at least, torn apart by civil war, rising to lead opposing forces until there's nothing but hatred between them, isn't exactly a new story, but Irvine puts a solid spin on it, and keeps the action moving along at a good enough clip that it never gets bogged down by the weight of its own tropes. Which is good, because there are a lot of them.

As is often the case with licensed media, it's tough to say whether this book would appeal much to a non-fan. There's not a great deal of context provided beyond the immediate, and the lack of descriptions, for instance, would rather hinder someone who doesn't already have favourite versions of the characters to slot into their mental slideshow. As well, some of the characters' actions wouldn't resonant nearly as much with those who don't already have a vested interest in them, particularly the now-ubiquitous 'one shall stand, one shall fall' moment, which leans heavily on the gravitas of earlier engagements and is rather slight on its own.

But at the end of the day this is licensed media, and the chances are that if you're picking up a book that says Transformers on it, you know what you're getting into. So long as that's the case, Exodus is an entirely enjoyable read, a Transformers tale that can easily stand shoulder to shoulder with the best the franchise has offered in the past.  Whether that will be good enough for you, in the end, depends entirely on how much that franchise's past means to you.


Dusting off the ol' Cadre

So, with my regular 40K opponent a good two day train trip away until January or so, my evening class securely placed on Black Knight's Open 40K Night and a standing engagement with friends on Sunday afternoon, pre-empting Black Knight's General Open Gaming, it's been rather a while indeed since I was able to take to the field of battle.  And hence, quite a while since I've had anything worth talking about.

Thankfully, there's at least a small change coming up.  The second of Black Knight Games' four-part Munitorum Series is coming up next Saturday, and good heavens am I ever looking forwards to it!  It's 1500 points, a 500 point jump from round one, and I've been tweaking and squeezing my list for some time now.  In fact, I'm still doing so, as I can't quite figure out how best to use about seventy or so points left over after filling up on must-haves.  A piranha?  A third scoring squad?  Shield drones and vehicle upgrades?  Decisions, decisions.

For the moment, at least, my cadre looks like this:

Shas'el w/Airbursting Fragmentation Projector, Missile Pod, Multi-Tracker, Hard-Wired Blacksun Filter
2 x XV8 Bodyguard w/2 x Plasma Rifle, 2 x Missile Pod, 2 x Targeting Array, 2 x Hard-Wired Multi-Tracker, 2 x Hard-Wired Blacksun Filter

3 x XV8 w/3 x Plasma Rifle, 3 x Missile Pod, 3 x Multi-Tracker

3 x XV8 w/3 x Twin-Linked Missile Pod, 3 x Flamer

3 x XV8 w/3 x Twin-Linked Missile Pod, 3 x Flamer

6 x Fire Warriors in a Devilfish w/Disruption Pod, Flechette Dischargers

6 x Fire Warriors

6 x Fire Warriors

Fast Attack:
6 x Pathfinders in a Devilfish w/Disruption Pod, Flechette Dischargers

Heavy Support:
XV88 w/Advanced Stabilization System

XV88 w/Advanced Stabilization System

Hammerhead w/Railgun, 2 x Burst Cannons, Multi-Tracker, Disruption Pod, Blacksun Filter

So, there we are; hopefully, 1500 points worth of death-dealing.  I may yet swap out the third Fire Warrior squad, a Pathfinder and the HQ's Blacksun Filters for a Piranha with Disruption Pod, Fusion Blaster and Targeting Array.  The Piranha would give me one more hull to block enemy movement with, and a hull that isn't needed to protect objective grabbers at that, but in exchange it would be one less unit to grab said objectives with.  So hard to choose...

There's Hope, Yet

In Time

See, now this is what I like to see in science fiction filmmaking.  Yes, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots the movie looks like fun, but In Time seems actually willing to play around with big ideas, and explore how it would change society to have something like this running around.  Just the fact that you can't tell someone's mother from their daughter, that alone seems really weird, but in a delightful way.

So, here's hoping that In Time is worth our time!


The Fourth Sphere Pt. 5 – Heavy Support

So, here we are; the heavy support section. After the elites section, there is no slot on the Force Organization Chart more sharply competed for, or more key to the success of a cadre. There are four choices here, and two of them are so powerful it's something of a no-brainer. It's possible to find cadres without Hammerheads, or more rarely without XV88 Broadsides, but unless someone is trying to specifically create a terrible list you literally will not see a list without one or the other. And since Hammerheads come singly and XV88s are 1-3, it's very easy to rapidly fill up the heavy support section, and therefore very difficult to squeeze anything else in. The Skyray can occasionally take the place of the Hammerhead, using its markerlights to buff the units around it and providing mobile heavy cover with its AV13 front. But the fourth choice? Oh, the fourth choice.

The Sniper Drone Team looks good enough, on paper. A 36" S6 AP3 gun is pretty good, and three of them for 80 points, with a Stealth Field for protection, isn't terrible. And you can stack three of them together in a single heavy support choice, so you can have nine of those pretty good guns scattered around the field, equipped with Target Locks so they can concentrate or spread their fire as much as you want. It sounds kind of alright, doesn't it? Unfortunately, for those upsides, there are some pretty steep downsides.

For one thing, you get three drones and a Fire Warrior with a drone controller for those 80 points, and if the Fire Warrior dies, he takes the rest of the squad with him. Given that he's T3, W1 with a 4+ save, killing him is not that difficult, so the squad is ludicrously fragile. And of course, the other three drones are just as easily dispatched. Especially since, being drones, it's extremely difficult to get them cover saves; as relatively small models, they tend to either be completely obscured or out in the open, no middle ground. Worse, for whatever reason their jet packs don't make them Relentless, so they can't manoeuvre for good firing positions or take advantage of the Tau's signature jump-shoot-jump technique, because their guns are Heavy 1. And those three fairly decent guns? They're mounted on BS3 platforms, which means these upgraded drones are arguably slightly worse at shooting than regular, BS2 twin-linked gun drones. So, three drones who can't hide, don't shoot well and are extremely fragile for 80 points, or six drones who shoot with an average skill, can JSJ and don't have to worry about losing a drone controller for 72 points; it makes the humble Gun Drone squadron look pretty solid by comparison, doesn't it? And hardly anyone takes Gun Drone squadrons!

So, what's the prescription for these guys? Well, more than any other unit, I think the Sniper Drone Team needs to be fundamentally reworked. My first suggestion would be to drop the Fire Warrior with the drone controller, perhaps replace him with a marker drone or another sniper drone, and make the remaining drones capable of fighting on regardless, but the Fire Warrior is a pretty solid piece of pewter (probably resin, now) and there's literally no chance that GW would just stop making and selling them. So, how do we make these three drones and a Fire Warrior work?

I think the key to making this unit work is the philosophy behind their Target Locks; independence. So, let's turn that up to eleven, metaphorically speaking. Under the new rubric, not only do the drones have Target Locks, they're excused from the constraints of unit cohesion entirely. They can be deployed anywhere, with no requirement that they be near each other or their controlling Fire Warrior. But the individual drones remain weak, and at 80 points for three rail rifles and a markerlight, which are ten points each whenever they show up on other units, they're still not terribly competitive. So, another small change; in place of their standard stealth field generator, let's give them O'Ralai's 'Eclipse' shield generator, from his Imperial Armour entry. This gives them a 4+ invulnerable save, and if they don't move they get the benefit of the stealth field as well. This protects them if they need to re-orient or re-position, and once they're settled they can be difficult to winkle out, which is appropriate given how much they cost. They'll still be somewhat slow and unwieldy, unless we give them Relentless too (which is a debateable move), but it makes them more survivable, and given that you can get a T4 W2 2+ XV88 Broadside for nearly the same points, survivability has to be taken into account. There's just no way for SDTs to compete if they're fragile, immobile, clustered, and one failed 4+ save away from losing the whole unit.

There are a few other, smaller tweaks worth making, too. A variable squad size wouldn't be a bad idea. Say, each SDT is 2-5 drones and a controller, and you can still field three teams for a single slot on the Force Org chart. And like all drone units, they really should be able to automatically pass break tests; these guys have a fairly good chance of fleeing as soon as they lose one drone. And giving them the Acute Senses USR makes sense, because why wouldn't you load your sniper drones with the best sensor package available? And, frankly, a bit of a price decrease wouldn't hurt, either; these things are never going to compare, point-to-point, with a Broadside. They have to go with quantity over quality, and that means they have to be cheaper. But I think, more than anything else, the ability to deploy these things anywhere you want on the board, and hide the fragile controller while you're at it, is the single most important fix that could be made to this unit.

And even then, it's still going to struggle against the two powerhouse units it shares its slot with.


Let Them Eat Crake

So, Margaret Atwood. Canadian literary icon. In my book, she earned serious points for her recent efforts in Toronto, playing a part in rallying public opinion against major cuts to libraries. But this isn't a blog about Canadian politics, much as I could fill no end of space pontificating about all the various quirks and questionable decisions going on in the various capitols scattered through the Great White North. This is a blog about, amongst other things, science fiction. And when it comes to science fiction, well, Ms. Atwood and I rather sharply part ways.

I09 has the introduction to Atwood's new book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, and quite frankly it's a lot of stuff and nonsense. While Atwood again claim's her resistance to having her books classified as scifi isn't about avoiding the literary ghetto, nothing in her opening argument does much to back that up. That she starts off initially by conflating science fiction with the shallow worlds children invent isn't damning, but it's hardly an opening that suggests a respectful take on the genre. But it is her attempt at defining 'nomenclatural allegiances', or a 'system of literary taxonomy', that is the real problem here. One cannot help but suspect that Atwood sat down with the conclusion that her books are not science fiction, and constructed this article backwards, from conclusion to thesis, in order to justify it. Which is why this argument contains the strangest, most hair splitting definition of science fiction I think I have ever seen.

"What I mean by "science fiction" is those books that descend from H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters-things that could not possibly happen-whereas, for me, "speculative fiction" means plots that descend from Jules Verne's books about submarines and balloon travel and such-things that really could happen but just hadn't completely happened when the authors wrote the books."

So, for Atwood there is 'science fiction' and 'speculative fiction', and unlike nearly everyone else who uses the term 'speculative fiction' it is not a subset of science fiction, but its own distinct genre. This is a curious argument to make, because to the best of my knowledge 'speculative fiction' is not a genre well-known by any particularly large group of people, and many of those who do recognize the term will hardly recognize Atwood's definition. For most science fiction fans, speculative fiction will be a type of science fiction, usually set 'Next Tuesday, A.D.' as it were, which involves some small but relatively important invention that allows the author to explore how society would change. Ralph Peters' War in 2020 is speculative fiction, for example, because it's about tracing the geopolitical impacts of foreign policy decisions and pandemic outbreaks to a potentially logical conclusion. It's also science fiction, because it involves fancy gunships with railguns and some sort of audio/EM weapon that puts victims in a permanent coma. It's both, at the same time, because speculative fiction is a subgenre of science fiction itself. Atwood then tries to muddy the waters, by claiming that

"In a public discussion with Ursula Le Guin in the fall of 2010, however, I found that what she means by "science fiction" is speculative fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classifies under "fantasy." [...] In short, what Le Guin means by "science fiction" is what I mean by "speculative fiction," and what she means by "fantasy" would include some of what I mean by "science fiction." So that clears it all up, more or less. When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance."

To some extent, of course, it is true that science fiction is often defined as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart did pornography; 'I know it when I see it'. Atwood mentions 1984, and wonders whether it is science fiction, and in some cases it's fair to wonder. Is Cormac McCarthy's The Road science fiction? What about The Book of Eli? Or Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Libeowitz? Or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Or Brazil? The borders are a bit blurred at times, and it's not always easy to determine exactly where some works fall. For Atwood, I would even give her The Handmaid's Tale as not being science fiction, since there's nothing inherently science-y in it. But the entire story of Oryx and Crake is driven by genetic engineering, with the storyteller taking to a species of newly-created and newly-sentient cat-people who were created in a laboratory to replace humanity. Nothing in that is 'speculative', as Atwood means it, because none of it could actually come to pass in any kind of reasonable way. You'd have better credibility classifying it as fantasy than some potential future for humanity, though I can't imagine the fantasy crowd would much want it wandering in their midst.

Of course, I don't particularly want it in science fiction, either. But it is, and the sooner Atwood stops trying to split the finest of hairs to try and escape it, the better off we'll all be.


There's an Energy Crisis Coming, and It's Not What You Think

It's not peak oil, or nuclear, or renewables. No, the real looming energy crisis is a crisis in personal energy. In the amount of energy, the amount of excess, free, personal energy, the individual has. And what's driving this crisis?

Progress and productivity.

Yeah, this?  Apparently, it's a pretty big problem.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but it's not. The hours a person works, per day, per week, per year, have been steadily coming down since the Industrial Revolution started up. But at the same time, the amount of stuff we can make, whether it's food or clothes or houses or iPods, has shot up into the stratosphere. More people now make more stuff, in less time, than at any other point in human history. And there's no indication that this is a trend that's going to change any time soon. People are working on serious, potentially useable prototypes for things like the replicators of Star Trek's Federation, and even if they never rise to the magic levels of those seen on the show, the ability to buy a device which can produce plastic objects or foodstuffs in the home will raise productivity and drop individual effort through the floor. The age of massive factories, eating up the labour and energy and time and, yes, even lives of hundreds and thousands of workers are over. Factories are smaller than they've ever been, even as mass production allows for greater productivity, and they're going to get smaller still. It would not, in the least, surprise me to live to see an age where there simply are no factories, anywhere, producing anything.

Now, here's the thing. People like to work, at least to some extent, and at the moment people need the wages of work. So what will happen to society when there is no work, and no source of wages that can meet the needs of people? What does a society do when nobody has to put in more than a few hours or work a week, or even can? What do workers do when employers don't need them for more than an hour or two a week, or a month, or a year? What happens to a capitalist society when nobody has any money, and nothing costs anything anyway?

"They give up using pockets?"
"Ooh, good try, chief!"

Science fiction has tried to answer this, in various ways and various media. Perhaps nobody has done it better than Iain M. Banks, in his Culture novels. Banks does a good job, or at least as good a job as possible, at visualizing the organization of a society in which there is no need for labour, and thus no source of money, and thus no functional economy as we could understand it. But of course, the problem is that Banks is one of us, and if we can't really understand it, neither can he.

The most fundamental problem, however, is not that we have no model for the next major stage of social development. We have dozens, hundreds even. The absolute most basic issue, instead, is that nobody seems to have any idea of how to get there from here. The period between late-stage capitalism and early post-scarcity is pretty much a white space marked with 'Here There Be Dragons' on the map that is science fiction. And that's a problem, because outside of deathly dry academic texts, science fiction is pretty much the only format that's going to address this issue with any hope of depth or scope. There aren't really any other cultural platforms that can, because nothing else is really set up to approach fundamentally changed visions of the future; heck, even science fiction is, more often than not, just the past with more chrome and lens flare. But it doesn't have to be, and it's pretty much the only thing for which that can be said.

I'm not saying it has to lead us by the hand through the coming turmoil. But make no mistake, that turmoil is absolutely coming. And it wouldn't hurt to have, if not a map, at least a few decent second-hand directions to help us find our way through it.


Take a Look, It's in a Book

A professor of mine recently posed an interesting thought-experiment. Imagine, she said, that you are thrown back four hundred years, to the early seventeenth century. For the sake of not having you simply die in a ditch, assume that you can speak the language and communicate with those around you. How do you live? There were a variety of ideas put forwards, though several of them were immediately discarded because the person answering missed that it wasn't some hypothetical Renaissance man being thrown back, but you, yourself. The others were fairly similar in tone. Become a prophet. Invent something. Marry a nobelwoman. Join the military.

To be fair, they'd apparently take anyone.

Notice something? Pretty much all of these ideas are based entirely on the idea that you have access to several hundred years of infrastructure, whether it's physical or social, technological or ethical or cultural. If you're dropped back four hundred years with nothing but your wits, what are you going to have to offer a noble for his daughter's hand? If you're not a captivating public speaker with a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of early seventeenth century religious trends, and possibly things like the exact timing of earthquakes or eclipses or floods and the like, how are you going to become a successful prophet? If you're not already a noble, joining the military (assuming you can find a standing army to join in the early seventeenth century) isn't really going to get you very far, because there is literally no method for advancement and no real way to earn a living except while you're actually at war with someone.

But it was 'invent something' that really floored me. People talked about discovering electricity, or inventing the lightbulb or the cannon, or four-stage crop rotation. But this is a class of social scientists, a third-year Political Science course. There aren't a great deal of mechanics and engineers here, nevermind knowledgeable agriculturalists who are familiar with pre-industrial methods of production. And yet person after person seemed convinced that, if thrown back four hundred years, before most of the Western world had paved roads nevermind a relatively educated populace with excess capital, they could invent some modern piece of technology without understanding the decades, or even centuries, of development between now and then.

Ash is the exception, people, not the rule.

And that's where science fiction literature comes in so handy. Most of the non-genre literature out there deals with people in established social settings, safely bound up in relatively affluent social circles. And of the rest, much of it deals with people who are used to a different way of life, so used to it that certain fundamental aspects simply aren't discussed. But science fiction literature routinely uproots protagonists, lifting them from one circumstance and depositing them somewhere very different, then leaving them alone to get on with their lives. It doesn't really matter whether the transition is from the past to the future, or from a spaceship to a planet, or from the opulence of a post-scarcity imperial centre to a colony of back-to-nature subsistence agriculturalists. The details aren't what's important, but rather getting one into the thought-space of visualizing other times and places. It's no surprise that science fiction has been identified as the literature of the immigrant and the colonist alike, because time and again it is, at its core, about dislocation. Whether it's the dislocation of immigration, or of colonialism, or nationalist or imperialist expansion, or of some sort of expulsion from society, the function of dislocation remains central to much of science fiction literature. What does a character do, novel after novel asks and at least tries to answer, when they are no longer where they're used to being?

That's not to say that other literature can't do that, or even that it doesn't. There is some. But if you look at the big-selling books in various genres, in the general fiction and the romance and the thriller and the mystery sections and all the rest, time and again it's about people in their own comfort zones dealing with issues they're at least generally familiar with and have both personal and institutional supports available to deal with. The dislocation is far and away the exception, and not the rule, when it comes to non-scifi literature. And given how disconnected the average modern person is from any kind of physical or unskilled labour, where would they learn about these things if not through the books they read (and the shows and movies they watch, of course)?

Some options are more informative than others.

So, read science fiction. Learn to expand your horizons. Learn to think outside the box. Imagine yourself in the past and the future, in elite social circles and on frontier planets, fighting slavering bug-like aliens or dueling with other cyber-wizards through a jack in the back of your neck. All of these things, and more, are out there. And reading about them is useful, not because they'll prepare you for those specific experiences, but because they'll prepare you to think about preparing for unusual situations. Sure, sometimes it's 'what would I do if aliens/zombies/robots attacked', but other times it's as mundane as what would happen if the power went out, or you were stranded somewhere, or you had to get along without the kind of basic conveniences you take for granted. And that, that is the true value of science fiction literature.

And for the record, my own suggestion? Start off as a manual labourer, and leverage your understanding of fundamental social organization (sanitation, roads, reasonable taxation to prevent revolution, the careful balance of church and state and the population, etc) to be a solid adviser to whoever's in charge. I've spent years studying the social sciences, after all, what else would I do?

 "Listen, I'm telling you, supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, 
not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.  And yeah, I totally thought that up myself."


Now I've Made Myself Nostalgic

I don't generally think much of the mainstream media's commentary on science fiction (or any other genre) output. But I must admit, Macleans has actually managed to put together a piece that actually goes deeper than stale jokes about Trekkies in their mom's basement and nerds obsessed with Gillian Anderson. And it raises a pretty good question, given the current state of genre television.

Instinctively, I want to say yes. But is that just optimism, or even blind devotion to the format, talking? Fringe is currently doing well for itself on Fox, no mean feat for a series that involves parallel universes and super-science on a network that though Firefly was too high-tech, but it hasn't come close to the cultural high-water mark of that earlier Fox foray into the paranormal, The X-Files. Falling Skies was critically well received, though it didn't make much of an impact at all on the public, and Terra Nova has just launched with a two-hour event. But other than that? For the first time since 1997 there will be no new Stargate episodes. Eureka has just been wound down, despite still putting in a solid performance. Blood and Chrome appears to be in no hurry to put in an appearance. Space is full of 'reality' ghost hunter-style shows, and Sy-Fy airs a big block of wrestling. And as I09 pointed out a little while ago, this is the first time in a long time in which American network television has not included a single spaceship in its lineup.

Is sci-fi television in a slump? Absolutely. And honestly, I'm not sure what could pull it out. Oh, I have all sorts of suggestions, but many of them seem to have been tried, and found wanting. Doing well-written, character-driven stories didn't save Stargate: Universe. Lighthearted, easily-accessible 'adventure of the week'-style storytelling didn't keep Eureka from getting dragged under. For all the superhero energy coming off the big screen successes, neither No Ordinary Family nor The Cape could carry their premises. The Event's attempt to recapture Lost's fire fizzled. Is it the fault of the networks? Sure, Fox cuts down promising scifi television like it's going out of style and Sy-Fy dropped SGU and Eureka, but SGU simply was not pulling in the ratings, and even Fox' continuing and baffling refusal to try and recapture the slow-burn success of The X-Files can only explain so much. Is it the fault of the viewers? SGU was axed because its ratings were in the basement, and Battlestar Galactica, probably the closest sci-fi television has come to the level of The Wire or The Shield, routinely placed low enough that it would've been cancelled in a heartbeat on any major network. Is it just the state of the world? The immediate future seems to be growing increasingly bleak for more and more people, so maybe it's no surprise nostalgia, like Boardwalk Empire, PanAm, and The Playboy Club are in and visions of the future are out. Is it that they just haven't put the 'right' show on? Between Firefly, The Sarah Conner Chronicles, Eurkea, SGU, The Event, No Ordinary Family, Dollhouse, FlashForward, Century City and others, something must've been the 'right' kind of show; they've tried everything!

The strangest thing is that television sci-fi is in a place quite unlike its contemporaries in other media. In the world of video games, some of the biggest sellers lately have been sci-fi; Halo, Gears of War, Resistance: Fall of Man. On the big screen Avatar rakes in the money, while Thor and Captain America manage to be both critical and box office darlings, and Hugh Jackman is set to open Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots: The Movie. Even non-live action sci-fi television is doing well enough, with Transformers Prime, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Thunder Cats, Young Justice, Generator Rex and the like. Literary scifi may be in a somewhat less rosy position, but that's true of all literature at the moment, as the industry struggles to move from the old bound-paper paradigm to the new online one. And speaking of the internet, how much original fiction, and original video production, has been taking place? As computers become cheaper, faster and more powerful it becomes more and more feasible for individuals and small groups to put together their little little opuses. The achingly beautiful Voices from a Distant Star, after all, was the result of pretty much a guy and his computer in the garage.

So, can sci-fi be saved? Maybe. To be honest, I'm not really sure what would have to happen for it to be saved. But I do know one thing. The only sci-fi that article is talking about is live-action network television; for the true fan of tomorrow, there's a whole wide world of quality work still being put out, just waiting to inspire the next generation of dreamers.