This piece spoils the films Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Henry Fool (1997).
In the film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Hollywood director John L. Sullivan decides he’s unhappy with the silly comedies with which he’s made a name for himself, and wants to do a serious movie about the plight of the poor. For research, he dresses up like a hobo and sleeps in shelters, but he returns to his wealthy life whenever things get too dire, and never really understands what it means to be poor. Finally, through a mishap, he’s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and put in jail under a different identity. There, sentenced to hard labor, he sees that the prisoners receive great relief from watching silly comedies and escaping from their difficult lives. After finally securing his release, he decides to make comedies again, realizing their value.
Sullivan’s Travels is in the Criterion Collection, consistently listed among the best movies ever made, and holds a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I hate Sullivan’s Travels. And I hate it because of its intensely superficial estimation of the value art, and the way it pats itself and the entire Hollywood film industry on the back not despite of its tendencies towards status-quo reinforcing mindless pablum, but because of it. And I hate the way it implies that we must accept being poor and downtrodden as an inevitable condition, and the best we can do for them is to entertain them for a while.
The central conceit of the film is that some narratives are escapist and some are non-escapist, and that escapist art is still important and valuable.
[While this is a good antidote to the snobbish thinking that divides art into “art” and “trash”], I tend to dislike this entire way of thinking about narrative. To me, narrative is about creating meaning in the world around us. Even something as ostensibly escapist as Star Wars helps people understand the world they live in, to see themselves in the Jedi or the rebels or what-have-you, which is why people love to paint their enemies as the Dark Side and themselves as the Light. The question then isn’t whether the narrative helps you escape or not, but what meanings the narrative is creating and for whom and how. What do we think a work is trying to tell us about the world we live in, and how might people interpret that work differently? (And granting that what the creator intended may have no relation to what people see in a work, cf. Lucas creating the rise of Palpatine in the Prequels as an intentional critique of the Bush administration while the Republicans simultaneously refered to Nancy Pelosi as “Darth Pelosi” and compared themselves to the rebels.)
Which brings me to my favorite film of all time: Henry Fool (1997) written and directed by Hal Hartley.
Recently released from prison, the title character Henry (played by Thomas Jay Ryan) lets a room in a townhouse in Queens where middle aged Mary (Maria Porter) lives with her grown children, Fay (Parker Posey) and Simon (James Urbaniuk). Henry is a writer and, despite no publishing credits to his name, he fronts like Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Norman Mailer rolled into one, a walking embodiment of a certain 20th century ideal of literary masculinity. Here is how he describes the memoir he’s working on:
I’ve been bad. Repeatedly. But why brag? The details of my exploits are only a pretext for a far more expansive consideration of general truths. What is this? It’s a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic-book proportions. It is, in the end, whatever the hell I want it to be. And when I’m through with it, it’s gunna blow a hole this wide straight through the world’s own idea of itself!
Despite the title, Henry is not the hero of this movie. That’s actually the son Simon, a garbageman who is so quiet and unprepossessing that growing up people thought he was mentally disabled. Henry notices that Simon has an interest in poetry and begins mentoring him, gradually coaxing him out of his shell.
This story might easily have followed the format of other stories about an eccentric master mentoring a young talent, like Finding Forrester or Good Will Hunting. But it’s not that kind of story. Henry, you see, is an awful, awful person. When he says he’s been “bad, repeatedly”, he isn’t kidding and, like one of Raskolnikov’s Great Men, he seems to think his artistic powers gives him license to do whatever he wants. At one point he actually rapes Mary, having sex with her while she’s so drugged up she can’t really consent, an act he seems incapable of understanding as wrong. (She straight-up calls him a rapist; the film knows what he is even if he doesn’t.)
And so part of Henry’s method of training Simon is to take him to strip clubs, to encourage him towards violence, to invite him to “impose himself” on women he’s attracted to.
But while Henry believes in Simon, nobody else does; his sister and mother laugh at his literary ambitions, and the publications to which he sends his work reply with shattering rejections (for example: “this tract you’ve sent us demands a response as violent as the effect your words have had upon us. Drop dead.”).
And yet, it gradually becomes clear that what Simon is doing isn’t just good, it’s miraculous. Hartley intentionally never actually lets us see or hear Simon’s poetry for ourselves. We only see its effect on people. And that effect is dramatic: A woman who has been mute since childhood reads it and bursts into song; it makes his sister’s period come early; some teenagers read some of it and put it in their yearbook, causing a media furor over its perceived pornographic elements.
Finally, Henry convinces Fay to put the poetry up on the nascent internet and with all the magic of computers on film in the 90s it takes off like a rocket and catapults Simon almost instantly to the kind of fame no American poet has attained since Allen Ginsberg or maybe Robert Frost.
Of course, the central irony becomes that while Simon’s poetry is spectacular, Henry’s memoir is unreadable dreck. Henry insists that Simon use his newfound fame to get the work published anyway. Simon refuses:
Look, Henry, I did it! I wrote. I wrote poetry because you told me to! I worked! I worked while you sat back and comfortably dismissed the outside world as too shallow, stupid and mean to appreciate your ideas.
In other words, while Henry was prancing around being someone’s idea of a hard-drinking, misbehaving writer, Simon was actually doing the work. Simon evolves into a self-possessed and sensitive young man, someone who doesn’t need Henry-style antics to prove anything to himself or the world. Simon outgrows Henry.
There’s more to the film, so much more, including a Pat Buchanon-esque politician who decries the loss of family values and the fanatics who follow him and denounce Simon’s work as pornography. There’s Henry’s romance with Fay which crashes predictably but not before they have a child. There’s the unspeakable reason Henry was sent to prison which when revealed drives us straight towards the ending. A more conventional film might have Henry turn into a more straightforward villain by the end, so that Simon and Henry could have a proper climactic showdown of some kind, probably with a tragic ending. Instead, Henry is given something of a redemption in a last terrible, heroic action which sends him once again on the run from the law. (And this is not to at all bring up the film’s two sequels which shockingly recontextualize the narrative as well as the character of Henry.)
Henry as a character is a bit harder to stomach now in the age of #metoo when the consequences of men who feel like they’re entitled to women’s bodies has been given a much more appropriate spotlight. Stories about awful men given last shots at redemption ring more hollow these days and Henry is perhaps all too sympathetically portrayed in the film for a guy who does the kinds of things he does. I don’t blame anyone who shuts the movie off mid-way because they can’t put up with it. And it’s not helped that the two primary female characters, Fay and Mary, mostly exist in the story to react off of what Simon and Henry are doing. (This is rectified to a great extent in the sequel, in which Fay is the lead character.) I will note though that the film isn’t about giving Henry a pass because of his great artistic ability, because he doesn’t have any, and the crushing of that delusion is the focus of his whole arc.
As a counter-point to Henry, let’s talk more about poor Mary, who seems to have unspecified psychiatric disorders for which she’s heavily medicated. At one point Simon finds her playing the piano to herself, something she apparently never does, resulting in this exchange:
That was nice what you were playing.
Yes, it was nice. But it was unremarkable.
Simon waits. Eventually…
Does that matter?
(looking right at him)
Yes. It does.
Soon after, Mary finds Simon’s poetry and reads it for the first time. When Simon arrives home, Mary is lying cold in the bath tub with her wrists slit.
So here in the film we have three ways people can view artistic talent: Henry assumes he has it and is inherently special because of it; Mary assumes she doesn’t have it and is inherently not special at all; and Simon who starts writing just because it gives him a voice in the world that he wouldn’t have otherwise. Simon who just does the work.
And it’s not that he doesn’t get discouraged—unlike Henry, he takes other people’s opinions seriously. It’s that whether or not he’s discouraged he’s going to keep working anyway.
And ironically, this is exactly what Henry tells him to do in one of my favorite scenes in the film. Simon has been assaulted by neighborhood bullies and propped himself up on the floor of the bathroom with fractured ribs. Henry has found Simon’s notebook and read his work for the first time. Henry vaults into the bathroom:
Are you willing to commit yourself to this? To really work on it? To give it its due? In the face of adversity and discouragement? To rise to the challenge you yourself have set?
Simon just blinks, looks away and wonders.
And don’t gimme that wonderstruck ‘I’m-only-a-humble-garbage-man’ bullshit, either.
It hurts to breathe.
Of course it does.
It’s not that Simon is a genius and Henry and Mary are not. That reading is shallow and not justified by the text, despite the quasi-magical powers Simon’s work ultimately has. The point is that neither Mary nor Henry can face the disconnect between who they are and who they want to be. Henry meets this disconnect with denial—he is who he wants to be and it’s the rest of the world that’s wrong. Mary, meanwhile, simply takes herself out of the world entirely. Simon doesn’t have pretensions. He doesn’t presume that his art is going to ‘blow a hole in the world’s own idea of itself’. He just wants to make it because it fulfills something inside him. And that’s why he succeeds.
This all isn’t to say there aren’t commercial considerations to artistic production, or that there’s some problem with meeting a market when and where you find it. There’s nothing wrong with treating art as a job, and one that should pay. In reality, becoming commercially successful isn’t as simple as just throwing your work on the internet and hoping for the best, as any self-publisher will tell you. You can follow your passion and give it your all and still fail, utterly.
There are so many easier ways to make a living.
But when art is good, it’s good because it resonates with someone, even if that someone is only yourself.
In reality, people don’t ‘make it’ simply because they deserve to, even though that’s an effective narrative device. Perhaps this fact has something to do with why Simon’s success is so meteoric and magical (he wins the Nobel before the tale is out). It signals that this is a fantasy, that Simon’s work takes off not because it’s real but because it’s true, which are two different things. Simon’s success gives meaning to our story.
And that is, after all, what stories are for.
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Marketing towards boys accelerated following the video game console crash of 1983. Then-dominant Atari had flooded the market with cheap and poorly produced games and the result was a loss in consumer confidence paired with the idea that the new multi-purpose personal computers had made dedicated consoles obsolete. And so it was when, in 1985, the Japanese company Nintendo decided to bring their new Entertainment System to the North American market, they packaged it with a little toy robot that would follow the player character around on the screen, so that it could be marketed not as a game console at all but as a toy. The console migrated out of the electronics shops and into toy stores.
As anyone who’s entered a toy store knows, the toy market is starkly gendered, with girl products in their rows of bright pink cordoned off from that of boys. Nintendo’s research said that boys played more games than girls, and so (as had happened with personal computers) they marketed their products exclusively to boys, creating a feedback loop attracted more boys while excluding girls. It wasn’t that girls couldn’t enjoy these games, it was that the company told both kids and their parents that this was a boys toy for boys.
In 1992 the Genesis gained two titles that would make it infamous and marked the natural result of the prurient bro-boy marketing strategy: Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Originally in the arcades, Mortal Kombat was a fighting game whose characters literally pulled skeletons out of bodies amid geysers of blood. Night Trap involved the player watching ‘live surveillance’ of a family home where five teenage girls disappeared. While tame by today’s standards, the game’s focus on watching young women in scanty outfits get assaulted by vampires became caught up in one of the periodic video game moral panics and led to Senate hearings.
While console games fled fast into a single, boy-focused marketing segment, computer games had followed a different tack. Unlike consoles, basically anyone with a computer could make software that ran on these machines, and so a much wider variety of content appeared on them, including adventure games.
Adventure games had begun as text-only programs, where the player would get a description of a room or environment and then type a command of what they wanted their character to do. Quickly, graphics were added to these games, until companies like Sierra and LucasArts were turning out what became known as “point-and-click” adventures, where a character walked across a screen and the user would click on the objects or people they wanted to interact with. In this way, the player could explore a world, solve puzzles, and take part in an unfolding narrative.
While these games (like all computer games) were played predominantly by boys, the creators often pitched them towards a much wider audience and dreamed of a future where the computer game would stand beside mediums like film and television, enjoyed by people of all genders and age groups. With the dawn of the CD-ROM drive and the massive amounts of data it could store (many times that of the default storage medium of the time, the floppy disk), the imaginations of many game developers turned to so-called “interactive movies” using live action actors. As Sierra CEO Ken Williams put it, “I always thought the future of storytelling was on the computer. I predicted that computer games would be bigger than films, and still believe there is huge potential with story-telling games – if done correctly. Watching a story from the inside is more exciting than from the outside.”
But the true future of gaming would come not from the big name companies dreaming of celebrity castings, but from a rag tag group of men in their 20s operating out of a rundown riverfront house in Shreveport, Louisiana who came to call themselves iD Software. Their first game became a huge hit in the small Shareware scene of indie games at the time, a platformer in the Mario Bros. model, unflaggingly wholesome in both name and content: Commander Keen (1990-1991). (Shareware was a model in which software was distributed in part or in whole for free with the user paying for the rest of the program, or documentation, support, or simply to support the game makers. The tradition lives on in software trial periods, Patreon-funded developers, and so on.)
For their next game, they aimed for something more ambitious, and much more graphically violent. Deciding to make a shooter, they chose a homage to one of the original of the breed, Castle Wolfenstein (1981). Instead of the top-down view of the original game, or the side-view of a platformer, iD would place you inside the head of the protagonist, looking out on a 3D world. And the game would strip out everything but the barest essentials: here are Nazis, shoot them before they shoot you.
Two months later, a long-anticipated A-List game came out with a similar 3D, first-person perspective—Ultima Underworld. And while the first person play was far more well-realized in this game (for example, you could move up and down, which you couldn’t in Wolfenstein 3D), as an RPG game the gameplay was far more cerebral, with puzzles, clues, maps, and skill leveling. There was a plot. Ultima Underworld was a successful game, but Wolfenstein, a game which had taken far less time and effort to make,ran absolute rings around it and became the game of 1992.
For their follow-up, iD improved the 3D engine to match Ultima Underworld, allowing true three dimensional views and movement and multi-level environments. They created a much wider variety of weapons, and instead of Nazis, the player would face all manner of creatively imagined demons and monsters. There would even be a handful of minor puzzles, places where the user had to, for example, push a button to open a door in another location. They would make the game that would lift them once and for all out of the indie, shareware world and into the stratosphere of the top mainstream game companies, creating a franchise that would last for decades. Doom.
Meanwhile, back in 1988, two brothers operating out of their parents’ basement in Spokane, Washington, were inspired by the new graphical development tool Hypercard (1987) for the Macintosh. With it, they created three children’s games focused less on achievable goals and more on simply exploring worlds, and founded the company Cyan, Inc. to sell them. By 1990, they decided to make a game for adults using the same system called Myst. Much as iD had stripped the action game down to its barest essentials, Cyan stripped down the point-and-click adventure game. Instead of a player-character walking around the screen, their game placed you inside the head of the protagonist, looking out on a 3D world. While this game would have bits of live-action video, the bulk of time would be spent exploring, finding puzzles, solving them, and unraveling the mysteries of the backstory and characters.
As first-person, 3D games Myst and Doom are actually quite similar. The primary difference between the two is philosophical.
In Myst, your character fell through a book into a world of fantasy. In Doom, your character was sent to a space station to put down out monsters. Gameplay in Myst involved exploration, unraveling a mystery, and solving puzzles. Gameplay in Doom involved shooting demons. Myst required a CD drive and the latest in SVGA graphics. Doom fit on a few floppies and ran on common VGA graphics. Myst had been released first on the rarefied Macintosh. Doom had been released first on ubiquitous MS-DOS machines. Myst was the game you bought to show off your new machine. Doom was the game you played on whatever you had. Myst appealed to a broad demographic, and actually, finally, had more female players than male. Doom was marketed to the same core demographic of pubescent boys who’d eaten up Mortal Kombat. Myst was beautiful. Doom was cool.
To be clear: it’s not that girls and women can’t enjoy shooting games. It’s that they’re not who these games were marketed to, targeted at, or who parents would think to give them to in our gender normative culture. Stripped down shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom left in only mindless violence, which our culture associates primarily with masculinity.
Like Wolfenstein, Myst ascended from its humble origins to outsell the biggest, most expensive games on the market. It would have been the game of 1993, except of course that year also saw the release of Doom.
The sales numbers for these two games exponentially dwarfed most of their competitors. In a world where selling a few hundred thousand copies was considered a major hit, Doom moved over three million units, and Myst more than six million, and in doing so these games ushered in the era of the PC game blockbuster. And while it is true that Myst sold nearly twice as many copies as Doom, that statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. Like Commander Keen, Doom was distributed as shareware, which meant that the first few levels of the game could be freely copied and passed around. And those free levels traveled far and wide, making it onto store shelves in shareware compilations, as free giveaways with magazines, copied from person to person on floppies and CDs, and showing up on the dial-up bulletin boards, Gopher sites, newsgroups, and the primitive websites of the period. And so, while fewer people paid for Doom (and to be clear, many, many people still paid for Doom), an order of magnitude more people played Doom.
The end result of all this would take years to become clear. Companies fell over themselves to duplicate these games, in hopes of duplicating their sales. Doom-style games like Doom II (1994), (the aggressively sexist) Duke Nukem 3D (1996), and Unreal (1998) continued to sell like gangbusters. Meanwhile, Myst-style games like Zork Nemesis (1996), Lighthouse: The Dark Being (1996), and Obsidian (1997) were commercial disappointments. (Though Riven: the Sequel to Myst (1997) was successful, selling 4.5 million units.) And with them the point-and-click adventure fell out of fashion along with the dream of the “interactive movie” for the whole family. More and more games began to look like Doom. Other types of game play and game-player were pushed to the cultural periphery. The war had ended and Myst lay in a pool of blood and nostalgia.
So what happened? Why did the children of one blockbuster succeed while those of the the other failed?
People bought Myst for its beautiful graphics and intriguing story, and learning to play was as easy as clicking on things. However, the difficulty curve on the puzzles was sharp. The creators of Myst would later remark that most people probably didn’t make it off the first island/time period of the game (out of five). (I should also mention here 7th Guest (1993), another puzzle-based, point-and-click adventure game that sold well in part by showing off the potential of people’s computer systems, released in the shadow of Myst and benefitting from its favorable early reception.) But the failings of Myst as a game (even if it turned people off of similar games) does not alone explain how the once booming adventure genre fell into decline, and why companies like Sierra and LucasArts largely stopped producing them, especially since Myst’s own sequel was a success. People sometimes blame ‘moon logic’ for the fall of adventure games, the tendency in them to have puzzles that were ill-thought-out or illogical. But LucasArts games were known for being largely absent of such issues and their games got rave reviews, so that explanation alone doesn’t cut it. (Though Jimmy Maher of the Digital Antiquarian opines that the LucasArts games actually did suffer in quality following 1993.)
As we saw earlier, after the rise of Nintendo, video game marketing focused almost exclusively on boys, turning gradually more stereotypical and toxic. The 90s were a decade that saw massive growth in PC home ownership from 20% of American households at the beginning of the decade to 50% by its end. Further, as home consoles and PC ownership rose, arcades—once the primary way kids played video games—declined. And so as the boys who had been marketed to in the 80s and early 90s grew up into teenagers, they became the dominate block of what came to be known as Gamers. And game companies under the capitalist impulse towards massive growth didn’t want to chase moderate success, they wanted the blockbusters they now knew were possible. Even LucasArts decline in quality can probably be attributed to the companies renewed focus on action-oriented Star Wars games. It wasn’t so much that the adventure game audience left as game makers left them.
And yet, what the similarities between Doom and Myst show is that there’s nothing about the first-person, 3D game that inherently means the primary activity must be violent. That’s a choice, and it’s a choice that game makers keep making even when trying ostensibly to make their games more narratively rich, thoughtful, and meaningful. Games like Half-Life (1998) would successfully mix the first person shooter with elements of adventure games, developing stories and characters and puzzles to be solved, demonstrating that there was still an audience for this type of thing, and future games would follow suit, absorbing, for example the dialogue tree method of interacting with characters. And yet because the core mechanic hasn’t changed, there are a huge number of people who will never discover the nuances of Bioshock (2007) or Mass Effect (2007), et al, because they have no interest in a game where you have to shoot people over and over to make the story go.
Of course, adventure games never completely died, and the rise of the internet, smartphones, and tablets have proved a fertile ground for new indies and revivals of classics. There’s even a much-touted VR adaptation of Myst on the horizon. But these are all on the fringes of what has become “gaming culture”, or, like casual games (think Candy Crush (2012) or Angry Birds (2014)), an ignored or ridiculed thing that is not part of that culture at all. Today, excluding sports games, almost any list of the most popular games is dominated almost exclusively by action games in the Doom mold. Myst might have been the last time (maybe the only time) a top-selling game of this class had more female players than male ones. Game companies essentially stopped trying to market to them at all.
Again, it’s not that girls can’t enjoy such games, it’s that they’re not the target audience of the game-makers. And it’s not that games like Doom are bad per se. The problem is with the methodology of slicing off a demographic, targeting to it relentlessly, encouraging people to associate brands with their self-identity, making what they sell not just a product but a lifestyle. It’s with aggressively crafting and marketing that brand through toxic masculinity because it sells, without any regard for the repercussions. And the result is what’s become “Gamer culture”. And when people have tried to point out that maybe some of this stuff is sexist, retrograde, or tasteless they’ve been shouted down, demonized, and literally terrorized, and from this toxified loam rose GamerGate.
GamerGate has been written about elsewhere at length better than I could hope to, but in short what began as a jilted ex trying to slut-shame an indie game maker by pointing out that that she’d slept with a gaming journalist ballooned into a campaign of harassment and persecution against women in gaming in general and women who pointed out sexism and lack of diversity in games in particular. And this provided a template for harassment campaigns against supposed “social justice warriors”, a festering cesspool of white, male grievance from which shooting rampages happen. (As Slate pointed out, the actual connection between real shootings and video games is not violent games causing violent behavior directly as hang-wringing moralists and bad-faith gun activists have claimed, but rather the culture that has risen up around them.)
There was a moment in the 90s where this seemed like it wasn’t going to come to pass, where the popularity of Myst and the drive towards narrative games aimed at a wide audience might have created a gaming culture more like the general culture, an audience as wide and vast as that of other mass media. But a capitalist would argue that this result was simply the law of the marketplace: First Person Shooter games sold better and so their rise was inevitable. But choices had been made all along, beginning with the marketing computers primarily to boys at the dawn of the PC, which meant that even when Myst was popular with women and wider audiences in general, the culture didn’t exist for them to become a part of, while Doom found a massive audience primed and waiting. The war had never been a fair fight, the entire playing field tilted in favor of Doom and its successors.
Of course, video games are now more popular among ever wider audiences, and adventure games are having a bit of a revival. Maybe, while everyone’s distracted by ‘esports’ and streaming celebrities, a new kind of gaming culture is just beginning to emerge.
Special call out to Jimmy Maher at the Digital Antiquarian (https://filfre.net) whose work covering early video games I drew on extensively.
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Content Warning: Suicide, sexual abuse, rape, grooming, and extreme sexism.
The 1970s were a time of death and rebirth for the comic book industry. Traditionally, comics had been sold at newsstands, but the newsstand market was drying up and people predicted the whole industry’s demise. However, inspired by the hippy head-shop scene where underground, independent comics had been sold since the 60s, the first dedicated comic book stores started opening and with them the first dedicated distributors. While this development helped close off comics from the general reader and gear it towards the enthusiast crowd who came to dominate its fandom, the newly abundant shelf space in need of filling became amenable to small publishers and self-publishers in a way the medium had never seen before.
It was in this environment, in 1977, that a 21-year-old Canadian artist/writer named Dave Sim produced the first issue of Cerebus the Aardvark, a parodic mash-up of two popular comics of the era, Conan the Barbarian (based on the pulp stories from the 1930s), and funny animal in the modern world comic Howard the Duck, and aimed squarely at the heart of the burgeoning geek audience. One of the early successes of comics self-publishing, Sim would continue producing his comic almost every month for the next 30 years. Over those years, Sim became an exemplar of the kind of idiosyncratic, iconic artist who did exactly what they wanted however they wanted, and in so doing would push medium in strange and exciting directions.
And Cerebus might be primarily known in these terms, a cult phenomenon from before the dawn of the web that paved the way for utterly singular and independent visions in narrative media like, say, Homestuck. Except that if you’ve heard of Dave Sim, one thing about him overshadows everything else: Dave Sim is a misogynist.
Now, Sim himself will talk at length about how he’s not a misogynist, he’s simply “anti-feminist”. And the truth is, he’s not a misogynist the way your uncle who watched Fox News is, or in the way we see misogyny in the world around us all the time. No, much as his comic book is bigger and weirder than anything else, his misogyny is bigger and weirder than anyone else’s. Everyone talks about the big break in the middle of the Mother’s and Daughters storyline where a barely fictionalized version of Sim cuts in to explain how women are psychic vampires, voids that feed off of male light; where he writes things like “If you look at her and see anything besides emptiness, fear and emotional hunger, you are looking at the parts of yourself which have been consumed to that point.” That’s when most sane people threw the comic away and went about their business. But that was barely half-way through the series’ run. Before it’s over, Cerebus the Aardvark dresses up like the superhero Spawn but with a Charlie Brown shirt and stilts and a scorpion stinger tail to pose as some kind of demon and lead a rebellion in which women who are too uppity get executed unless they’re too pretty to execute, in which case they’re put in a kind of garden preserve so they can be ogled until they’re old enough that they’re not pretty anymore and can safely be executed.
That’s the sort of misogynist Dave Sim is.
And yet–and this is true–Sim forces anyone who wants to so much as talk to him sign a document affirming that they don’t think he’s a misogynist. He doesn’t hate women, he wants you to know. He just thinks they’re incapable of rational thought and should be stripped of all rights, completely subservient to men. What’s misogynist about that?
More recently, much has been made of Sim apparently grooming a 14-year-old fan for sex, though he claims this is okay because he didn’t actually have sex with her until she was 21, which is kind of the definition of grooming. (Dave Sim is not a good person.)
If you know anything else about Sim, you probably know that he’s mentally ill. He was diagnosed with “borderline schizophrenia” and does not treat his condition, and it’s very easy to read through the Cerebus volumes as a document of his deteriorating mental condition. You see, there was a point in the mid-80s, before Mothers and Daughters and everything after, when he self-identified as a liberal and Cerebus was hailed as a comic with well-rounded female characters, celebrated by feminists because its women characters had complexity and depth so often lacking from other comics of the period. And what a strangely magnificent and magnificently strange comic it was at its peak of popularity.
According to Sim’s self-mythology, in 1979 he discovered LSD and, enamored of its effects, ate it basically continually for a week and a half. This resulted in a nervous breakdown during which his wife had him committed to a mental hospital. There he received both his diagnosis and a creative epiphany about his future: he would transform his little, humorous aardvark comic into a vehicle to tell the story of his character’s whole adult life until death, an epic fantasy narrative that would take 300 monthly issues. The fact that he actually went ahead and did what he set out to do as a drug-addled 23-year-old is nothing short of miraculous, a testament to sheer will.
Cerebus had always been a vehicle for parodic characters, beginning with ones related to his fantasy milieu like Conan flame Red Sonja or Michael Moorcock’s Elric the Albino (who becomes “Elrod of Melvinbone” and speaks and acts like Foghorn Leghorn). The comic takes its first strides into brilliance with the introduction of Lord Julius, who is simply Groucho Marx as the leader a medieval city state. The move not only gives Sim an easy way into political satire—as demonstrated by Duck Soup (1933), making the comically venal and fast-talking Groucho into a head of state is inherently satirical. (Sim also has a knack for comic pastiche, nailing Marx’s vaudevillian sense of humor as he later would that of comedians from Rodney Dangerfield to the Three Stooges.) Further, it creates an avenue where Sim can introduce other real people into the narrative to increasingly post-modern effect as Chico Marx, Mick Jagger and Keith (or “Keef”) Richards, and even obscure historical figures like Adam Weishaupt (the founder of the Order of the Illuminati) all become players on the political stage as Cerebus is manipulated into becoming the prime minister of a city-state himself and ultimately pope. Cerebus also makes an excellent foil for all the pretentiously self-important and manipulative people around him by remaining a stubborn and single-minded simplification of the already simple character of Conan. (His first command when becoming pope is that everyone, everywhere must bring him all their gold. Cerebus is not a good person.) Throughout all this, Sim’s art improves from its modest beginnings to masterful levels, and he brings in a background artist named Gerhard who gives his world palpable depth and texture.
The pope storyline climaxes in the surreal, as President Weishaupt and Cerebus battle for an orb that will create a spinning tower who’s surface is carved entirely out of skulls. Upon winning the battle, Cerebus walks up the side of the tower to the moon. There he meets the Judge, a parody of Marvel Comics’ omniscient character The Watcher who for some reason looks like an actor who played a judge in the obscure film Little Murders (1971). The Judge tells Cerebus a story about the beginning of the time, where a male void rapes and shatters a female light, giving birth to the universe.
Wait wait, you’re thinking, wasn’t Sim’s whole game about female void and male light? Why would he make a metaphor that appears to condemn toxic masculinity and sexual abuse? (And he makes this explicit, saying that men break women and tell them they were ‘asking for it’.)
Sim himself later calls this the “ultra-female” reading, setting up the revelations that would come later after the judge is revealed to have been “lying”. At any rate, it shows how the deep the gender issue went in his personal cosmology, serving as the climax of the story.
When Cerebus is sent back to Earth, we discover that in the chaos and war leading up to and following his ascent, his region of the world had been conquered by the Cirinists, a fascistic matriarchal cult. Still, it’s not yet clear that something is terribly wrong with Sim and the story he’s telling; other than all being women, the Cirinists more closely resemble the right wing, with the women all wearing masks a la conservative Islam and with social order and activity kept under tight control. I mean, one of the Cirinists is Margaret Thatcher, for Pete’s sake (and she’s delightfully creepy). We don’t yet know that the Cirinists are Sim’s idea of feminists, of leftists, of what his incoherent fever dreams imagine as liberal’s endgame. That they’re just “feminazis”.
Perhaps this is somewhat unfair; there’s a second group of feminists called the Kevillists who oppose the Cirinists and want freedom and equality in a way more recognizable to the modern reader. (These are the “daughters” who oppose the “mother” Cirinists that value motherhood above all else.) Their leader is a woman named Astoria, whose schemes made Cerebus prime minister, and who comes off as a fascinating character torn between ends and means. One of the earliest Cerebus scenes that people took issue with was after Cerebus becomes pope he has Astoria imprisoned and rapes her. (Cerebus is a piece of shit).
The impression of this scene is bifurcated by what comes later. At the time it seemed Cerebus’ rape was, like his demand for gold, another example of how everyone thought he could be manipulated because of his simple-minded and unbridled self-interest, only to discover that giving power to a monster benefits no one. (One thinks of certain contemporary political figures who also seem like a cartoon in a world of humans.) It’s also a canny send-up of the whole concept of the “barbarian hero”, showing that someone who behaved like Conan would be less of a anti-hero and more of a straight villain.
But of course this interpretation of Astoria and the Kevillists is later contradicted. During Mothers and Daughters, Sim even has Astoria claim she manipulated Cerebus into raping her in hopes of having an aardvark child, who in this world are figures with great destinies. The rape is, in other words, the woman’s fault. The Kevillists are just amorally self-interested users of men, no better than Cerebus himself.
Following the big pope/moon story, Cerebus’ adventures become much more small-scaled and introspective. The next storyline is about Cerebus hiding out with his love interest Jaka, who’s married another man, and it’s mostly just this quiet unrequited love story, with Oscar Wilde poking about and delivering one-liners. (The scene where Wilde meets Groucho Marx is one of the all-time classics of the series.)
The story climaxes when the Cirinists arrest Jaka for illegally exotic dancing, summarily executing her incel-like employer. There’s an emotional scene where the Cirinists reveal to her husband that she aborted the child he desperately wanted, and he hits her and they punish him for it. Sim calls it a story without a villain, and despite a cringe-worthy sequence where Jaka is interrogated by Thatcher and seems to have no sense that her dancing has any sexual component at all, the portrait of her has depth and nuance, with a series of flashbacks to her childhood fleshing her out as a character. The ending came off as much more thorny before you knew Dave Sim’s feelings about abortion.
Amid all of this, the storytelling techniques Sim deploys, his layouts and pacing, the expressiveness of his figures, even his lettering are so compelling and original that it’s hard not to get swept away; it’s with Jaka’s Story, I think, that it becomes clear that Sim is one of the most skilled comics artists working. Also during this time, Sim championed self-publishing in comics, helping to create the “Creator’s Bill of Rights” for comic book artists and giving boosts to lots of up-and-comers, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when that was still a self-published, black-and-white comic no one had heard of, and Jeff Smith’s Bone.
After this storyline we get, unexpectedly, an elaborate adaptation of the last years of the life of Oscar Wilde, making extensive and compelling use of extracts from his letters and with no hand-wringing at all about the man’s homosexuality. (In this world Wilde was punished by the Cirinists for a lack of “artistic license” rather than for sodomy by the courts of Victorian England.) In the previous storyline, Wilde had even stood up to Jaka’s employer and his homophobic insults. This is fascinating since later Sim becomes ardent in decrying the homosexualist agenda, and has said that he thinks homosexuality “belongs at the margins of society and behind closed doors.” But clearly he loves Wilde and is rapt by the same dramatic fall which has long since made him the gay martyr.
After this, it’s the four-book arc of Mothers and Daughters, whose lose plot climaxes when Cerebus finally confronts Cirin, leader of the Cirinists and a fellow aardvark, and the whole thing is entirely overshadowed by the textual insertions where Sim lectures us about the world. He describes a new, inverted version of the Creation, with male light impregnating the female void and builds to the famous issue 186, where all pretenses are ripped away. “It’s not your body they’re after but your soul,” Sim helpfully tells us when explaining how women siphon the power of men, and how they must be held tightly in check. Women have no business working or voting or doing much of anything besides rearing children and having sex. They’re not really people in the same way men are, they can’t reason, they can’t be trusted.
And we’re now confronted with a floodgates-open display of his mental illness. One of his many claims about women, for example, is that they can literally read minds, and the names of the sub-volumes of Mothers and Daughters spells this out (“Women Reads Minds, Guys”). (Technically the first volume of Mothers and Daughters is Flight and Guys is an epilogue, but whatever.) Everything in the universe it seems, even abstract concepts like Birth and Death, are gendered in Sim’s mind and this gendering reveals secret truths about the workings of the universe. (In later issues, Sim even genders the laws of physics, positing, for example, that hydrogen is female (because it desires to “merge”) while helium is male (because it doesn’t).)
It’d be nice to attribute his turn to misogyny entirely to this psychotic break, to say he just went crazy. Did he really write the Judge’s version of creation just to knock it down later? Did he really think of Astoria and Jaka as psychic vampires incapable of reason even has he wrote them so sympathetically? It’s impossible to know for sure, but the Cirinists were introduced as early as issue 20, when Sim still described himself as a politically liberal. If Sim himself is to be believed, he felt this way about women for a very long time. In any case, his mental illness appears to have taken his misogyny and ballooned it to monstrous proportions.
Reading about Sim online, I get a little frustrated when I see otherwise intelligent people claim that Sim isn’t really mentally ill at all, or that his mental condition has no bearing on his work, even while they also tell you that Cerebus can be properly read as a document of the inside of the man’s head. Someone who thinks that women are telepathic, that they syphon all rational ability from men and are incapable of differentiating between [humans] and animals is not someone in touch with consensus reality, and the only way to make that claim is to avoid describing his beliefs in depth.
And Sim’s mental illness has had tragic consequences for his own life; he’s alienated almost everyone he knows personally including Gerhard, and become a virtual hermit and self-described “voluntarily celibate” (though he sometimes rewards himself with trips to a local dance club so he can ogle young women).
At the climax of Mothers and Daughters, Cerebus is spun off into space again on a floating cube that brings him to Pluto where Dave Sim personally speaks to him as a voice in his head. Sim confirms something a character previously said, that Cerebus is in fact intersex, with both male and female sex organs, this assumably explaining his over-emotionality. He berates Cerebus for never learning his lesson, for still wanting to be with Jaka. Cerebus asks for Jaka to love him unconditionally, and Sim shows him several alternate futures where Cerebus is abusive, Cerebus is a cheat, where Jaka kills herself in remorse. (Did I mention that Cerebus is fucking awful?) Finally, he’s sent back to Earth.
Sim himself has said that the Cerebus narrative essentially ends with Mothers and Daughters, and everything after it is postscript. In the following books, the character is barely a lead, drinking in a bar for page after page before Jaka shows up again, and then they go off and there’s books where Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald appear and Sim examines their lives in a way which doesn’t really directly connect to anything else in the series.
Jaka, the once great character, is here reduced to a shrill bimbo, and Cerebus ultimately rejects her when they travel to meet his parents only to find out they’ve died while he was away and this is somehow Jaka’s fault for being a distraction. (Notably, Dave Sim refuses to talk to his own parents.) He then leads a final revolution against the Cirinists which results in the Spawn-dressing and uppity women executions I described earlier.
After this, Woody Allen wanders in with the literal Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Sim, once an atheist, at some point had a complete religious conversion where he decided he was simultaneously a Christian AND a Jew AND a Muslim (but really a kind of syncretism of the three of his own devising). Allen and Cerebus spend several issues on an exegesis of the book of Genesis in which the details of Sim’s new beliefs are outlined. Genesis, when read correctly we find, secretly tells the story of a war between a male diety, God, and a female diety, YHWH (Yahweh in the Jewish tradition, though Sim refers to her derisively as “Yoowhoo”). Which is to say that his “light and void” idea of creation is not a metaphor, or an interpretation, or even a theory as we once might have thought, but the capital-T Truth found in holy scripture. (As pointed out by one of the excellent posts on the subject of Cerebus by Tegan O’Neil, it takes a certain chutzpa for someone to look at Genesis, the most read and reread book in the history of world, and decide he’s the only one that knows what’s really going on with it.)
In Sim’s belief system, we live in a kind of fallen world, an age of the Female Void. “We are already past the point of no return,” he wrote. He believes civilization’s been on a downward slope towards feminization since the death of the prophet Muhammed, and rejects basically all post-enlightenment philosophy as “bafflegab”. He does not have a cell phone or an email address (though he bought a computer some years ago which he says is specifically for Google Image Search). He claims artists who use computers in their work aren’t artists at all but “technicians”.
Cerebus came to its intended conclusion in 2004, with the lead character, as predicted by the Judge, dying alone, unmourned, and unloved when he trips, farts, falls and is sent to Hell. (Sim at least knows Cerebus is not a good person.)
In the following years, Sim released a few comics projects including Judenhass, a straightforward retelling of the story of the Holocaust which relies heavily on primary sources, and Glamourpuss, a parody of fashion magazines that also included a serialization of a history of the now unfashionable “fine line” comics art style which he practices. Because he stridently believes in creator ownership, he gave Gerhard half ownership of Cerebus, and has been progressively buying back those rights from him.
In February 2015, Dave Sim started suffering from an unknown condition causing tremors in his hands and hasn’t been able to draw since. He’s refused any modern medical treatment because he doesn’t “believe in medical science,” which also explains his lack of a diagnosis. He sees the condition as a divine test of some kind because “any other assumption… begs credulity.”
Since then he’s released a series called Cerebus in Hell, in which public domain art like that of Gustave Doré is collaged with old Cerebus artwork in order for Sim to continue expounding on his ideas about the world. Recently, he’s produced a free Coronavirus special packed full of flaccid jokes about how we’re all panicking over nothing.
Cerebus stands as curious thing. It’s an indelible part of comics history by one of its most skilled practitioners whose whiz-bang pyrotechnics of graphical storytelling–framing of pages, sequencing actions, establishing a mood, communicating emotion, are virtually unrivaled. It’s plot seems to meander off into whatever Sim happens to be thinking about at the time and has very little relation to classical notions of structure or character development, with long textual passages and virtuosic pastiches of the styles of other writers and various comedians. It is the singular and untrammeled vision of a creator, and in a world where every marginally notable piece of art is hailed as unique, it can truly be said that there is nothing even remotely like it. And it’s an example of how someone can make it completely on their own, earning a good living creating precisely the art they want unencumbered by interference from major corporations.
It’s also thousands of pages of unbridled hate speech.
And so it’s difficult to recommend reading Cerebus to anyone at all. Perhaps it will be a rich vein for academics of 20th century graphic storytelling and popular culture. And perhaps artists in the future will find ways to mine and remix its innovations. In this way, and despite itself, Cerebus may finally find its legacy.
One of the first things I learned to play on piano for myself, rather than for a piano teacher, was the Pink Floyd song “Nobody Home” when I was 12 years old, an ode to “having a strong urge to fly” but “nowhere to fly to”. The song comes from The Wall (1979), a theme album (and subsequent film (1982)) about a maladjusted, mentally ill rock star who becomes progressively more isolated, building up a “wall” between himself and the world around him. As a narrative it’s less a plot with characters than a cycle of emotional states layered on top of each other, more poetry than prose. The kind of thing that’s perhaps too easy for a moody young person to identify with. That is, at least, up until two thirds into its run time when the lead character has a breakdown, completes his wall, and it’s revealed that he beats his wife and he subsequently (whether in fantasy or reality, it’s not clear) becomes a Neo-Nazi leader out to route out the Jews and the coons and the queers.
It was a twist I didn’t get at all at the time. Up until this point, the lead character (“Pink Floyd”, a joke on how the band’s name was always confused for a person’s) is portrayed as victimized, oppressed by his mother, his school system, his adulterous wife. He’s sympathetic, if entirely in a bourgeois kind of way (cue the SNL skit about “white male rage”). In fact, he’s similar in broad strokes to the put-upon, adulated, Messianic white male protagonists of other ‘rock-operas’ of the era, such as The Who’s Tommy (1968) or David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972).
But there’s nothing sympathetic about becoming a Nazi, and no direct references to Nazism in the build-up to the twist that would give you a clue that it’s coming. And anyway, Nazis? I’d grown up with them as like this cartoonish villain, as real and present as Viking raiders or pirates. Why was this what Pink Floyd had decided to depict?
As an adult looking back from the vantage point of 2020, however, the arc of the character strikes me as not only ringing true, but prescient in ways I never could have anticipated.
At my high school there was a guy who oversaw the computer lab, fresh out of college and not so much older than me at the time. (This was the kind of upscale Connecticut public high school that had a computer lab in the early 90s.) We started talking about computers, but soon the topic turned to politics and he was ecstatic to turn me on to the wonders of Libertarianism and the wisdom of Ayn Rand.
This was before the Web had become ubiquitous, before Google, before you could just go online and research something. I didn’t really have context for Libertarianism. But this guy was friendly and exuberant and I was lonely and soon I found myself reading The Fountainhead and parroting Libertarian talking points like the benefits of abolishing income tax and privatizing schools and roads and just about everything else. Submitting to Rand’s unrelenting selfishness-as-political-philosophy made me feel powerful and special and destined for greatness like the hero in her book.
One of the people I knew at school tried to warn me away from the guy–after all, he’d also been known to talk about “racial problems” and reference The Bell Curve. “What do you call ten people talking to a Nazi?” My acquaintance asked, invoking a very old expression. “Eleven Nazis.”
But how could he be a Nazi, I thought? Libertarians were about freedom and Nazis were about authoritarianism. The phrase “the Libertarian-to-Fascist Pipeline” had not entered the public consciousness. (The shortest explanation for how Libertarians become Fascists is that because by “freedom” they primarily mean property rights, they see Fascists as the only ones who can absolutely guarantee property rights against the inferior masses that might seek to take them away from their betters–this is what figures like Peter Thiel mean when they say they “no longer think freedom and democracy are compatible“. In other words, an even shorter explanation might be “racism”, because it’s inevitably minorities who are seeking to take your property away with absurd demands like ‘taxes’ for ‘health care’ and such.)
And as for the race question, well, I obviously didn’t agree with that, but of course I wasn’t racist so what did it matter if he was as long as he wasn’t racist against me?
When you’re insecure, you’ll do anything to not feel insecure. And so when someone offers you a narrative where you’re actually powerful and special, you grab ahold of it with both hands and refuse to let go. And thus, as the album would have it, the worms ate into my brain.
When we talk about the related subjects of the rise of the Alt-Right and the rise of Trump, what you’re talking about is a mass of people who feel loss and aggrievement over their fallen status. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that white male voters backed Trump because of the perceived threat to their dominance in society. As has been pointed out by others, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like discrimination. White people, and white men in particular in this country, feel humiliated and powerless. They resent the so-called “left wing media” for trying to make them feel ashamed of their history and heritage just because their ancestors enslaved Africans and murdered off and displaced native peoples.
At the near end these feelings of aggrievement gives you your average Trump Supporter, eager to keep out the mythical Mexican coming to take his job, and at the far end this metastasizes into full-on Neo-Nazis marching with torches and chanting slogans about the Jews. This mirrors how the rise of Nazism in Germany was directly related to the feelings of disempowerment and shame felt by the German people after their loss in WWI and the crippling economic conditions the war debts put them under especially during the Great Depression.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of books on masculinity and the Neo-Nazi movement, talks about how many men feel “aggrieved entitlement … that sense of entitlement that can no longer be assumed and that is unlikely to be fulfilled.”
Many of [the Neo-Nazis], especially the American guys, were sexually abused, beat up, bullied as children. Some of them have basically the same sort of profile as the victims of the Catholic priests. Growing up they were deeply ashamed of themselves; they didn’t do well in school, they didn’t have friends, they were sad, miserable, and they escaped into themselves. That just made them better targets, and the far right drew them in.
The camaraderie of the community validates their masculinity, and – even more importantly than that – gives them a sacred mission. That is really powerful for these guys.
Which brings us back to The Wall. Pink’s embrace of Nazism isn’t a strange side-track in the story of his feelings of emasculation and shame from his mother, teachers, and wife. They’re a direct outgrowth of them. Indeed, the (admittedly sexist) focus on overbearing mother and cheating wife (literally making Pink a cuckold, that most Alt-Right of insults) jibes well with this idea of a Right driven by the threat of emasculation. Pink embraces the narrative of Nazism because he needs something to hold onto now that the wall between himself and the world is complete. And there’s a neatness to the fact that the ideology he chooses is the same one that killed his father as a soldier in the Second World War, a way for the narrative to come full circle.
Trump voters and Nazis alike want to feel powerful again. And so Trump supporters love ‘owning the libs’ because by making liberals freak out they’re asserting their own dominance, giving themselves a thrill of schadenfreude in lives where they feel like they have no control. They see no problem with separating families and putting children in cages. Cruelty, and the power it represents, is the point.
Back to myself as a disgruntled teenager, Ayn Rand made me feel powerful where in the rest of my life–especially my social life—I felt utterly powerless and confused. In the long run I was saved from this ideological slip-n-slide in no small part because I was surrounded by left-leaning people in my little bubble of educated, privileged North Easterners. But it’s not hard for me to see how things could have gone in a different direction. Even just living somewhere else, with others who shared these ideas waiting to show me camaraderie and make me feel like I belong, and my belief system might have become different. This fact haunts me in ways I still find hard to admit.
Racism makes white people feel powerful. That’s the tool that rich slave owners used to make poor whites hate the poor blacks with whom they actually had much more in common. And it’s the tool that someone like Donald Trump uses to fuel his cult-like political tsunami.
And so The Wall works because racism has nothing to do with logic or reason, as much as racists might protest otherwise. It isn’t about reading The Bell Curve and suddenly understanding that racism is science. If that were the case, then something like Shaun Skull’s epic 2.5 hour deep dive into the book which exposes exactly how the studies it’s based on are fundamentally flawed and intentionally misused would put a rest to the whole thing. Racists will proudly proclaim that they’re simply willing to go where the facts take them, while they blithely ignore facts that contradict what they already believe.
No, racism, and the drive towards fascism with which it’s fundamentally bound, are both about making people feel powerful and providing cover for dehumanizing behavior. And the people who most need to feel powerful are people like Pink–sad, sad boys (and girls) desperate for something to reach out and hold on to. For something out beyond the Wall. Even if doing so transforms them into something monstrous.
I don’t think Roger Waters–Pink Floyd’s bassist, lyricist, songwriter, and architect of the album–could have remotely anticipated the irony to come when masses of Trump voters would shout “build the wall”. But as I said, when you’re insecure you’ll do anything to not feel insecure, and that goes for building a wall around your country as easily as it does for building a wall around yourself.
It would have been an easy thing for Waters to make Pink a more sympathetic character all the way to the end. He could have taken the tack of a film like Joker, which portrays its protagonist in such a way that his horrific actions are somehow justified and even celebrated by society (the problems of which are explored in depth in an excellent essay by Film Crit Hulk). But it doesn’t. The Wall looks straight at its protagonist and doesn’t blink. From the moment Pink sings “I need you, babe/to beat to a pulp on a Saturday night”, you see the creature he’s already become well before the descent into Nazism. Pink isn’t a hero. He’s a warning.
Finally got the Wall episode out! If you liked this please tell folks about it, since word-of-mouth is how shows like this grow.
I want to thank my Patrons, Nancy Rosen, Arthur Rosenfield, JF Quackenbush, Ben Pence, IndustrialRobot, and Not Invader Zim. If you support this show on Patreon for as little as $1 an episode at Patreon.com/ericrosenfield you get access to show notes where I talk about how I produce episodes and the current state of the show.
In the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D, the government organization Captain America and the Avengers have been working for, has long since been infiltrated and taken over from within by the Nazi splinter group Hydra. After battling these compromised government agents for most of the film, our hero discovers that Hydra has taken control of three enormous Helicarriers linked to spy satellites with the goal of ‘stopping threats before they start’.
And so Captain America picks up a protest sign and peacefully marches as the Helicarriers take off.
I’m just kidding, he actively sabotages them, destroying millions of dollars in government property. But it’s fine because his ally, the Black Widow, appears before a Senate subcommittee and explains everything, and everyone in the Senate and the public accept that destroying the Helicarriers was the right course of action, the end.
This appears to be a deliberate tactic on the part of the police. Commit violence, watch as violence is instigated in turn, and then point to that as justification for further crackdowns, and the media goes along with this framing because the media values sensationalism even while the police are spraying them in the face.
There’s a lot of talk about how the rioters were white anarchists and not the black protesters, or out-of-town opportunists, or they were cops trying to make the movement look bad, or white supremacists doing the same.
And I’m here to tell you that none of that actually matters. How many times now have we peacefully protested? How many times have we flooded the streets? Athletes started peacefully protesting at their games, and people lost their minds. Peaceful protests have not stopped the police (and others) from murdering black people with impunity. Peaceful protest has not freed the children in cages on the border. Peaceful protest has not brought an end to this criminal presidency. And historically, rioting can lead to real political and social change.
DC Comics did a storyline beginning in 2000 where it was not George W. Bush who won the presidential election but Superman arch-villain Lex Luthor. Luthor’s an interesting character; in the beginning he was a mad scientist, a cheap knock-off of the (original) Captain Marvel villain Doctor Sivana. By the 1970s Superman movie, he’d become “the greatest criminal mind of our time”, a figure a la Professor Moriarty. In the 1980s, he was cannily transformed into another kind of villain: a greedy businessman with near endless resources. Luthor would emblazone his name in huge letters across his every project, build giant black towers in Metropolis, and then be elevated to the highest station in the land.
While in power, Luthor frames Superman by claiming that he was controlling a kryptonite comet headed for Earth, a claim for which he provides no evidence (but you would believe it if you saw it, we’re assured). He rounds up some other superheroes to apprehend Superman (they fail or switch sides). In the end he takes the drugs the Batman villain Bane typically uses to ‘roid out and gets into a kryptonite backed fistfight with the superhero. In the midst of this drug-fueled battle, he confesses to allying with the evil dictator of an alien planet, Darkseid. Batman records this confession, everyone accepts the clear revelation of collusion between him and a hostile foreign power on its face, and Luthor is removed from office while missing and presumed dead.
Meanwhile in the real world a supervillain more cartoonishly evil than Luthor could ever hope to be responds to the protesters with a quote from a racist 1960s police chief, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a statement that as clearly as possible expresses the sentiment that property is more important than human lives. He uses the National Guard to clear out peaceful protesters (whose right to protest is guaranteed by the Constitution) from in front of the White House with tear gas and flash bombs so he can have a photo-op holding a bible in front of a church.
The government is the body given monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In the super hero world, allowances are also made for heroes, though this is often debated with various programs to regulate and control superhero violence by the government causing “civil wars” among the heroes, but ultimately always rejected. Superhero powers are, after all, typically (though not always) intrinsic to the hero’s body, and therefore regulating it would be like regulating people themselves. With this is the idea that the superheroes are, in a word, heroic, in a way that the government too often is not. In the film Captain America: Civil War, the Captain puts it succinctly: “What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there is somewhere we need to go, and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect, but the safest hands are still our own.”
You’ll find no better of example of the disillusioned veteran than Captain America. And like him, we as a people do not trust the government to always do the right thing. Because we’ve seen what their monopoly on violence looks like in the real world, and it looks like a knee on a man’s neck until he dies. And it also looks like drone bombings and the mass deaths of civilians in the name of bringing them “freedom”.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to abolish the police altogether?
Part 3. The Paw Patrol
As someone with a three-year-old child, I’ve been subjected to more than the recommended dosage of Paw Patrol. From the beginning of the series, the show is about a team of puppies with various different vehicles and specialties–Rubble has a bulldozer, Marshall has a fire truck, and so on. Most of the adventures these canines go on don’t involve defeating villains, but mundane issues like rescuing a treed kitten or a beached whale or helping some baby turtles get safely to the sea.
But there’s a special episode in between season 7 and 8 where a mysterious meteor comes to town and grants the Paw Patrol members superpowers. It also grants superpowers to the nephew of the mayor of a rival town and the he and his uncle become antagonists with whom the Paw Patrol must do battle. This is, of course, all very G rated and as non-violent as superhero action can be (much like the similar show PJ Masks, which eschews any punching and kicking and always ends with the bad guys slinking away).
This change completely reframes the series from being about civil services organizations that helps out in the community to a crime fighting unit that must defeat the enemies of law and order.
A counter-intuitive example, I admit, in a piece about Superheroes fighting against a corrupt state, but of course the PAW Patrol are overtly modeled on government services like the police, the fire department, recycling services, search and rescue teams, etc. And while their funding as far as I can tell is murky, they operate like public servants without any apparent monetary reward.
And so there’s a sense in their transformation from a rescue operation to superheroic crime fighters that they’ve moving from serving the public to fighting an enemy.
Some More News did a great piece on how the police have been overtaken with a warrior mindset, trained to do battle and become predators. And this has been exacerbated by a military unloading surplus onto them, providing even small town police departments with military vehicles, armor, and equipment and turning them into a virtual paramilitary force. The police have been trained to see the very people they’re supposed to be serving and protecting as the enemy they must war against, as if they’re in a foreign country and we’re all insurgency.
After all, if the only problem with police were a few bad apples, then why aren’t the “good cops” arresting the “bad cops” for the egregious battery they’re performing on protesters that we’ve seen in video after video? Have any of those arrests happened? Has a single good cop of their own accord stood up to a bad cop and arrested them?
If there’s only a few bad cops, why are so many of them literally cheering the Buffalo officers who pushed down an old man and sent him to the hospital in broad daylight and on video. Why are they talking about calling in sick in Philadelphia in solidarity with an officer who was arrested for beating a college student with a baton?
But we why this all is. Consider the case of Adrian Schoolcraft. Adrian Schoolcraft was a police officer who reported misconduct and the falsifying of reports. As a result he was hounded, harassed, and forcibly committed to a mental hospital. The truth only came to light because he recorded his superiors committing their crimes.
The police actively drive out good cops. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It’s almost as if the police don’t actually exist to uphold the law. It’s almost as if they exist to protect the property of the rich and terrorize the poor into submission.
Which is why it’s taken days of protests and riots to even get a small group of police arrested for murder that was caught on video in plain daylight, and it remains to be seen whether prosecutors will actually do anything meaningful to them.
But, I still hear you say, this all just means that the police need to be reformed. Not abolished.
Indeed, the idea of abolishing the police altogether might seem bizarre, especially to white people raised on a culture of lionizing the police in every cop and crime show on television. It’s kind of astonishing that we find ourselves at a place where such a stodgy news organ as the New York Times is published a piece advocating defunding the police. (Of course, they counter this by publishing an op-ed by Tom Cotton saying we should send in the military and treat our own populace like enemy combatants.) Abolishing the police, like abolishing prisons, is one of those ideas that has appeared in leftist thought for ages but always seemed impossibly out of the public consciousness. Now it’s definitively inside the Overton Window.
I know what you’re thinking: what about murderers? Who’s going to apprehend Charles Manson? And if you abolish prisons too, what will you do with him?
The vast majority of crimes investigated by the police are never solved anyway, as explained in the book The End of Policing by Alex S Vitale( available now as a free ebook). And most calls to police for things like domestic disturbances or people with mental health issues aren’t things police are well trained to deal with anyway. Some places, like Dallas, have actually started responding to some 911 calls with social workers instead of police officers, with great results. Things could further be improved by decriminalizing recreational drugs, like they did in Portugal, which would lead to us ceasing to treat addicts like criminals and more like the victims or innocents they actually are. Alcohol prohibition only made money flow into the hands of violent gangsters, and drug prohibition has had the same effect, while punishing the very victims–the drug users–it ostensibly seeks to protect. The same can be said about other victimless crimes like prostitution and gambling.
So what about Charles Manson? Well, here’s the thing about old Chuck: The arrest that landed him in prison was the third time he’d been arrested. He’d been in and out of prison for years. It’s almost like arrest and imprisonment didn’t deter him at all. It’s almost like he had serious mental health issues that were never addressed by the present system.
Our current criminal justice system practically breeds recidivism; ex-cons have difficulty finding work because of their records, difficulty finding housing, and they’ve often spent so long in prison they’re maladjusted to life on the outside. It’s a formula that, rather than helping them reform their lives, actually incentivizes them to return to crime and imprisonment.
And it would be easy to argue this is all by design, since in America prisoners are essentially used as slave labor for various corporations, funneled into for-profit prisons, paid pennies or nothing at all. After all, it’s painfully clear who this ‘tough on crime’, ‘law and order’ system benefits and who it punishes.
Which is why we need to start defunding and demilitarizing police, massively reduce prison populations with an eye towards shuttering them completely, and use the funds saved for efforts that reduce criminality from the source. We need to replace the police with unarmed civil servants with active community and independent oversight and make them part of the community rather than aligned against it.
The idea of the superhero is aspirational; they’re supposed to represent how any of us, if given extraordinary abilities, could go out and do good for the world. And over and over again we’ve been given examples of superheroes fighting against corrupt systems in the government and the establishment. Well, I’m here to tell you those corrupt systems are here, except instead of Hydra being in control of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s white supremacists with permission to deploy violence against minorities and the poor without consequences. It’s time for that system to be replaced with something better.
This is not a ‘ far left’ idea. This is clear and obvious sense.
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This piece spoils the entirety of the film 12 Monkeys (1995), written by David and Janet Peoples and directed by Terry Gilliam.
It’s 2020. A science fictional sounding year. You wear the mask your wife made and a pair of latex gloves to go out for groceries. Everyone on the street wears masks and it adds a layer of weirdness to just walking around, like you’ve stepped into an alternate reality of the neighborhood you know and love.
You hurry to the supermarket a few blocks away. The line to get in stretches around the block, everyone trying to keep their distance, if not strictly the recommended six feet. You’d use services like FreshDirect or Amazon Fresh, except it seems impossible to get a slot. Besides your wife is concerned that the slots there are should go to people who really need them. And so the simple act of getting groceries has become a fraught proposition, and you can never be completely sure if you’re going to bring home the plague.
While you wait, you fiddle with your glasses because they’re fogging up over your mask, though you’re not supposed to be touching your face. After about half an hour, you get inside. You try not to touch anything other than what you want to buy, and probably don’t pay as much attention as you should to keeping six feet from other people in the claustrophobically spaced aisles of a New York Supermarket.
Once home you follow a strict routine: leave the shoes at the door, strip off the gloves, the mask, the coat and sweater, haul whatever you bought to the sink so it can be washed unless it’s in a cardboard box in which case you put it by the door and don’t touch it for 24 hours since that’s supposedly how long the virus lasts on cardboard. Take off your pants and put on pajama pants, wash your hands for 20 seconds, disinfect the phone and the AirPods and the wallet and the keys by rubbing them over with a Clorox disinfecting wipe. You wash the groceries and put them out to dry.
You live with your wife and daughter in a 1.5 bedroom apartment in Queens. You talk about what to do if one of you gets sick, isolating them in the bedroom. But since you can go up to two weeks without showing symptoms, if one of you gets sick all of you are probably going to get sick. And if it gets bad and all three of you are feverish, you don’t know what you’re going to do.
It’s 2035. James Cole (played by Bruce Willis in the prime of his abilities and popularity) is “volunteered” for a trip to the surface world from the cage in which he’s kept for unspecified violent crimes. Enveloped in a transparent space-suit with an elaborate, Gilliamesque breathing apparatus, he wanders a ruined, overgrown, and snow-laden Philadelphia. A lion stalks the roof of a building. Cole collects a huge beetle in a jar and is startled by a roaming bear. The bear wanders away. Cole stalks an eerily empty and ruined department store.
Back underground, Cole is thoroughly hosed down and scrubbed with long brushes by men in similar suits. He must draw his own blood sample to be tested for any trace of the virus which has wiped out the bulk of humanity.
Good news: not only isn’t he sick, he’s impressed the scientists with his diligence and his memory. They have a special job for him.
It’s 2020. Sometimes you think everything is normal and then you realize the only car traffic you hear is ambulance sirens and you remember what’s really going on. You live a short walk from Elmhurst hospital, the epicenter of the epicenter of the outbreak. There’s a large playground in front of it where you used to take your kid, and a fantastic Thai restaurant across the street.
You and your wife have been working from home for weeks now. You’re happy to have jobs–people you know have lost theirs, others had their pay cut. The day they shut down the nursery school, your three-year-old daughter saw the nanny in the morning, realized she wasn’t going to school, and burst into tears. You’re nervous about still giving the child to the nanny, but if she were home it’d be difficult to keep working and you both need to keep your jobs.
Every day you check the numbers on the nyc.gov website and update a spreadsheet you’re keeping of cases and deaths in the city. Hundreds of New Yorkers drop off the face of the earth every day. It’s the kind of thing where if you don’t know people who’ve died you know people who know people who’ve died. One of your friend’s grandmothers died of it. Another friend’s aunt died of it. One of your wife’s co-workers had 6 members of her family die.
Some of your friends and family literally haven’t left the house in weeks, prisoners of the virus.
It’s 1990. Cole has been sent back in time to gather information. He’s supposed to find a pure original sample of the virus that can be used to synthesize an antidote. He quickly ends up in a sanitarium, where he meets patient Jeffrey Goines (played by Brad Pitt at his twitchiest in a breakout role which would earn him a Golden Globe and his first nomination for an Academy Award).
Goines has some ideas about why they’re really all locked up in a mental institution, giving us much of the film’s thematic material:
Very few of us here are actually mentally ill. I’m not saying you’re not mentally ill, for all I know you’re crazy as a loon. But that’s not why you’re here, that’s not why you’re here, that’s not why you’re here! You’re here because of the system. There’s the television. It’s all right there. All right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray.
Commercials. We are not productive anymore, they don’t need us to make things anymore, it’s all automated. What are we for then? We’re consumers. Okay, buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen.
But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then I ask you? You’re mentally ill!
Cole is brought before a panel of psychologists at the institution. He explains to them what happened:
Five billion people died in 1996 and 1997, most of the entire population of the world. Only about 1% of us survived.
Are you going to save us Mr. Cole?
How can I save you? This already happened. I can’t save you, nobody can.
It’s 2020. “In a city ravaged by the coronavirus, few places have suffered as much as central Queens, where a seven-square-mile patch of densely packed immigrant enclaves recorded more than 7,000 cases in the first weeks of the outbreak,” reports the New York Times.
At least one person in your apartment building has reported to the co-op board of feeling Covid symptoms and self-isolating here.
You hold the front door open for an elderly woman hauling two overstuffed grocery bags, every inch covered except her eyes which peer from behind thick glasses over a ski mask. “Hold your breath,” she says in her muffled voice as she goes inside. Is she saying that as a general precaution or is she the one with the virus? According to the letter the board put under your door, the person is self-isolating, but how could they enforce that?
You hold your breath until she’s well on her way.
One person you know who works in the food industry said that there’s an estimate going around that 75% of restaurants in the city won’t reopen when this is all over. Here, in the greatest restaurant city in the world. Most of the restaurants are already shuttered for at least the duration. You order Thai food once (not from the place across from the hospital) and it takes 2.5 hours to arrive. Another time you order a pizza and pick it up. Otherwise, you cook your own food, more cooking than you and your wife have ever done in your years together. New Yorkers are famous for eating out, for not knowing how to cook, and why should you when when such an abundance and variety is waiting outside your doors. Was waiting.
Your wife likes cooking. It takes her mind off everything that’s happening.
The board puts up a sign-up sheet for people who want to help those in the building who might need it. You sign up. They send out a message that no one has asked for help yet. No one wants to feel helpless, you guess.
Every night at 7PM the neighborhood erupts in clapping, banging on things, horn blowing, bell ringing, and otherwise making noise. Your daughter loves it, clapping enthusiastically out the window. You’ve read that the first responders in the hospital appreciate it. Still, it feels like just something given for us all to do so we can feel like we’re contributing something, anything at all. After all,“essential workers” (at least outside the hospital) are often less heroes than hostages forced to work in dangerous conditions for very little money or starve.
It’s 1996. Cole has been sent back again. He kidnaps the psychologist who’d been treating him in 1990, Dr. Kathryn Railly (played by the underrated Madeleine Stowe, whose grounded performance does much to help the unfolding insanity work even if she’s inevitably overshadowed by the larger-than-life turns of her costars). He forces her to drive him to Philadelphia where he believes he can find the group behind the virus, the “Army of the 12 Monkeys”.
On the way he repeatedly sticks his head out the window to breathe the air and exults at the music on the radio.
Love this music. We don’t have this, we don’t have anything like this.
They listen songs from the 50s and 60s. All the film’s cultural references are similarly dated, with a Marx Brothers movie making an appearance, and an Alfred Hitchcock film. A modern film where someone time traveled to the 90s would ostentatiously remind us of the decade, this one has no need to evoke the year the viewing public would already be in. Instead, by digging into what would be their past, it evokes the nostalgia Cole would be feeling for the world he watched die as a child.
In Philadelphia, they discover that the “Army of the 12 Monkeys” is run by his old fellow patient, Jeffrey Goines, and further that Goines’ father is a world-famous virologist.
Cole subsequently tracks down Goines at his father’s house, but fails to do anything except find out Goines got the idea to kill the world from Cole when they were back in the sanitorium. Cole becomes enraged, attacks Goines, shouts,
We live underground! The world belongs to the dogs and cats! We live like worms!
At the edge of his wits throughout the story, Cole finally cracks and decides that Railly was right all along, he is crazy and so he gets to live in the ‘real world’ of 1996 where he can breathe the air and drink the water and doesn’t have to ‘live like worms’ underground. Unfortunately, it’s at this moment that he’s spirited back to 2035.
It’s 2020. Everyone’s obsessed with a TV Show about the godawful people who own private zoos and the godawful things they do to each other. The godawful things they do to the animals gets far less focus, buried under the weight of their collective inhumanity to one another.
A tiger at the Bronx Zoo catches Coronavirus from an infected handler. Fortunately, the case is mild and the animal is expected to make a full recovery.
It’s 1996. After several of Cole’s predictions come true and other circumstantial evidence is uncovered, Dr. Railly becomes convinced that Cole was telling the truth all along and tries desperately to circumvent the apocalypse with what little she knows. Outside the headquarters of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, she finds Cole stumbling towards her. He tells her he’s come to his senses. 1996 is the real world. He played the future scientist delusion like a fiddle and convinced them to send him back one more time, and now he’s ready to get treatment and become healthy again.
Now it’s she who convinces him that the world is ending. They leave one last message for the future, and then decide all they can do is buy disguises and flee to Key West to ride out the coming plague. (Cole has never seen the ocean.)
Jeffrey Goines and the Army of the 12 Monkeys raid the Philadelphia Zoo and release the animals from their cages. Lions, tigers, and bears run riot through the streets. This was their plot all along. All they wanted to do was save the animals. Free them.
“I think we’re gonna make it,” Railly says, laughing as they pass a giraffe in the cab on the way to the airport. She thinks the virus won’t happen after all.
But, of course, the film has a secret villain, a character who appears briefly in all of three scenes. His name is Dr. Peters (played by a perfectly cast David Morse, who oozes with detached psychopathy), an assistant to Goines’ father. I only know his name because I looked it up. Why does he want to release a plague to kill everyone in the world?
He tells us in his longest piece of dialogue, delivered to Dr. Railly while she’s distracted and barely listening.
Surely there is very real and very convincing data that the planet cannot survive the excesses of the human race: proliferation of atomic devices, uncontrolled breeding habits, the rape of the environment, the pollution of land, sea, and air. In this context, isn’t it that “Chicken Little” represents the sane vision and that Homo Sapiens’ motto, “Let’s go shopping!” is the cry of the true lunatic?
This critique of consumerism jibes with what we heard Goins say in the earlier scene, and it’s easy to conclude that diegetically (in-story) the two characters know each other (certainly possible since the one works for the other’s father), and non-diegetically (in reality) the screenwriters wanted to make sure they got their point across. (And characters having similar ideas actually works in favor of a movie as dreamlike and with as much repeated imagery as this one, where in a more mimetic film it might grate.)
One might complain here that we have the same problem we saw in the Doctor Who episode “Kerblam!” last episode. Indeed, Goines’ speech in the sanatorium or Peters’ speech here might not have sounded odd coming out of the terrorist character from Doctor Who, if that script had had a tenth of the teeth and savvy this one does.
But here’s the key difference: at no point does anyone tell either Goines or Peters that they’re wrong in their philosophies. Certainly, no one wants Peters to murder everyone, but the film takes the correctness of his general criticisms as a given. People tell Goines to calm down. No one tells him the system is not the problem.
Equally, it’s significant that Peters is barely in the film, hardly a character at all. Why is he like this? What’s his backstory? What sets him off? It doesn’t matter because it’s not the point. Peters might as well be a natural disaster, or a systemic threat vast to the point of insolubility. Peters is an oncoming, implacable storm.
It’s 2020. The president hawks untested drugs in which his family has investments at his press briefings like the two-bit snake oil salesman he is. He and his party have so eroded faith in the media that millions of people ignore advice on how to stay safe, call the whole thing a liberal hoax, and pack into churches. And so simple safety advice during a pandemic is transformed into part of a larger culture war, chucked out along with facts and science in general.
Dr. Peters has a coherent philosophy behind his death-dealing, a kind of twisted altruism. Our real-life villain is simply a soulless charlatan who has miraculously ridden a wave of rage and racism into the highest office in the land and proceeded to use it to enrich himself, dismantle oversight and regulation, and punish his enemies while his party refuses even the remotest accountability as long as he fills the courts with their contemptible cohort.
Writer Ted Chiang says we wouldn’t believe this story if we read it in a book because it’s an “idiot plot” where everyone acts like a fool. I think he’s off the mark. We wouldn’t believe this story if we read it in a book because the antagonists are too one-dimensionally evil, because we wouldn’t believe that the system could be so utterly corrupted, because we wouldn’t be able to believe that it could all go so wrong so easily.
Trump is one inheritance and an obsession with big cats away from being a character on Tiger King; which is to say, someone without moral scruples and an almost psychotic need for attention. You don’t identify with characters on Tiger King so much as you gape at them in disbelief. Reality consistently makes a less satisfying story, because real people are often horrible and inhuman to one another in a way that the average movie audience would find ‘unsatisfying’.
And yet you write all this, only to discover that a disturbing percentage of people have a positive opinion of the Tiger King subjects–between 30-40% of viewers—with the lowest approval ratings going for the most innocent character, who happens to be a woman. Something which one wry Twitter user notes, is why Trump won.
You can’t even.
It’s 1996. Cole and Railly arrive at the airport and buy plane tickets under assumed names without any ID, and you remember how innocent a time this really was. Railly discovers that Dr. Peters is in the airport, remembers him from the lecture, coincidentally sees in the newspaper a picture of him with Goines’ father (recently tied up in a monkey cage at the zoo by his son), and puts the pieces together. Peters has a bag full of virus samples and he’s on his way on a world tour of death. Symptoms won’t even begin to appear for a week, this incubation period giving the plague ample time to spread among the populace.
A fellow time traveller arrives at the airport to give Cole a gun. “Who am I supposed to shoot?” he asks, just as Railly runs up to tell him the news. On first viewing, you think maybe they might actually stop Dr. Peters and give the whole story a different shape. This is their chance.
If you’ve been paying attention, though, you know this isn’t going to happen. Throughout the film, Cole is haunted by a dream in which a man is gunned down in an airport. But it isn’t a dream; as a child, Cole watched it happen but repressed the whole thing. The man is Cole himself, shot dead by the police while running with his gun towards Dr. Peters.
It took a Google search for me to figure out why the scientists had set him up this way. They needed him to identify Dr. Peters as the culprit. Though couldn’t the fellow time traveller have just waited until he found out and asked him?
But as Cole had said before, this all already happened. He couldn’t change it, he couldn’t escape, he couldn’t save anyone. Dr. Peters doesn’t even notice him.
It’s 2020. In one week, three people commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of the 7 train, which goes through your neighborhood. Economic collapse has a vivid human cost.
While other countries cover 70-80% of laid off workers’ income, we pat ourselves on the back for giving billions to wealthy corporations while giving most people a one-time check equal to a month’s worth of our absurdly low Federal minimum wage, excluding students, the elderly, and many of the disabled. Republican officials and pundits alike tell us that we should reopen the economy as soon as we can even if it means hundreds of thousands of deaths, because not to do so will ‘kill the country’. Astroturfed protestors even storm state capitals demanding the right to get infected. Never before have we seen so clearly that the Right cannot conceive of any system that takes care of people without demanding they work for it, no matter how many lives it costs.
Of course, a percentage of homeless people starving in the street was always considered a viable cost to them, so this position isn’t new, it’s just exposed on a grander scale. The minimum required to survive in this world should be a right, but it isn’t, and so we accept an economic system where farmers are plowing over fresh produce and dumping milk and eggs they can’t sell to restaurants while food banks don’t have enough to provide for the needy, because all that matters is whether one can turn a profit.
The real solution is obvious and simple. Putting aside the fact that the Federal Reserve can literally print money and that it’s unlikely to cause the dreaded hyper-inflation in this particular situation, fantastically few people are still hoarding massive amounts of wealth. The government can simply take this wealth (in the form of taxes) and redistribute it in the form of a UBI [https://qz.com/1355729/universal-basic-income-ubi-costs-far-less-than-you-think/] or whatever [https://www.iftf.org/uba/] and keep people alive. Rich people will be a little poorer, and poor people will survive.
But elements of our society have spent generations convincing poor people to hate other poor people and think anything that smells like socialism is the same as Stalinism. And so Trump keeps poor whites hating immigrants to distract them while he raids the government apparatus for the profit of himself and his friends. This is hardly a new observation, and its age actually makes having to restate it again and again all the more exhausting.
It’s 1996. Dr. Peters gets on a plane to San Francisco with his suitcase full of virus samples, embarking on his voyage of global cleansing. Next to him is a woman you recognize as one of the scientists who sent Cole back in time. They make small talk. She tells him,
I’m in insurance.
The film ends. The assumption is that, thanks to Cole’s information, she gets the pure virus sample the scientists have been after so that they can synthesize a cure. Cole did make a difference after all. Yes, the bulk of humanity still dies, but on the other side of unthinkable trauma there’s hope for the future. They can rebuild.
It’s 2020. A pandemic has largely stilled the machinery of capitalism. For a brief, terrifying moment, homo sapiens’ lunaticcry of ‘let’s go shopping’ has been put to bed. The air is clear and clean. Dr. Peters would smile.
Further, the ethos that one must work to survive, even if no work is forthcoming, has been shown a murderous lie. It should now be clear to all that a for-profit health care system is one that considers the poor expendable. We may now be ‘living like worms’ and the streets ‘belong to the dogs and cats’, but we have a unique moment to consider–to demand–that things be different.
There’s a Medium essay going around about how we can build a better world out of this if we only overcome the inevitable gaslighting that the corporate interests will engage in once this is over, to try and convince us that everything can go back to ‘normal’ and that’s okay because ‘normal’ was good.
But ‘normal’ didn’t address the fundamental problem, called out in this movie 25 years ago. Capitalism is still destroying the planet and consuming our lives.
It’s justifiable to ask how much we can realistically hope for. How much we can realistically do. The reigns of power are still held by the most contemptible, and our best hope is a presumed Democratic nominee who promises “nothing will fundamentally change” and thinks he can work with the same Republicans who refused to give an inch to the previous administration (of which he was part).
And while stay-at-home orders have caused the disease to plateau nation-wide, it’s not declining, and experts say it won’t decline without much more aggressive testing and contact tracing which we don’t seem to be ramping up nearly fast enough. Meanwhile, suicidal states are already opening back up, which will only make things so much worse.
You give to charity, for what it’s worth. It’s not like you can lead a revolution, raise your pitchfork high while you drag the billionaires from their mansions and lead them to the guillotines. You’ve got enough to worry about paying the mortgage and keeping your family safe.
And so like Cole, we’re all caught in a system beyond our comprehension, manipulated by forces we cannot understand, barreling towards a future we cannot control. And like Cole we do the best we can with what we’re given, and hope we’re making a bigger difference than we understand in the moment.
And so you’ll put on your mask, and your gloves, and head out to the grocery store.
Sorry this episode is later than usual, it’s longer and was difficult to write.
I’d like to thank my Patrons Arthur Rosenfield, Jason Quackenbush, IndustrialRobot, and Not Invader Zim. You can become a patron of this show for as little as $1 an episode and help support it at patreon.com/ericrosenfield.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Unfortunately, the film 12 Monkeys is not on any streaming service as far as I know, but you can rent and buy digital and physical copies from the usual locations.
There’s a moment at the climax of the Doctor Who episode “Kerblam!”, where the titular time traveling alien known only as the Doctor confronts a terrorist. This villain seeks to murder hundreds of innocent people in an effort to disgrace and collapse the Kerblam! Corporation, an interstellar Amazon.com analog he blames for rampant unemployment as it’s automated the bulk of its workforce.
“We can’t let the systems take control!” He exclaims.
“The systems aren’t the problem,” the Doctor replies. “How people use and exploit the system, that’s the problem.”
These sentences have been justly seized on as reactionary by segments of the viewing public, including a recent article in the Guardian. In context, if we’re being charitable, the Doctor is specifically referring to the AI itself, consistently referred to as “the system” throughout the episode. Therefore, the idea is that the computer itself is a tool, and it can only be judged by those who wield it. But it’s just another way in which the episode refuses to face or even acknowledge the actual problem it’s trying to grapple with in any real way.
The premise is simple and fairly typical Whovian fare. The Doctor gets a message asking for help from the homeworld of the far-future Kerblam! Corporation. She and her human companions infiltrate the corporation by acquiring jobs, and there they proceed to ferret out the mystery of why employees are turning up dead.
Part of the narrative is how most of the employees have been replaced by robots, and the robots and their AI controller are assumed to be the most likely culprits (fitting in with a long tradition of Who episodes where contemporary technological fears are channeled into tales of murderous androids and megalomaniacal computers). This is, however, a feint and in truth a relatively clever one, where the culprit actually turns out to be the aforementioned terrorist, whose plan is to essentially put a bunch of bombs in boxes Kerblam! is shipping out to cause a backlash that will shut down the corporation which has automated away so many jobs. And the message asking for help was actually sent by the AI itself.
And even the human jobs that Kerblam! does have are described as completely unnecessary, dull, repetitive labor only assigned to humans as a sop to laws that require an at least partially human workforce. “Work gives us purpose, right?” Says one of the people thus employed. “Some work, maybe,” accurately replies one of the Doctor’s companions.
The Kerblam! Corporation is shown to be completely unregulated; it’s even responsible for policing itself, leaving no one to call as people are murdered throughout the episode. And while this point isn’t dwelled on, it’s a self-evidently horrifying end result of a corporation being beholden to no one.
The episode, in other words, presents some evidence of knowing what the real problem is: rapacious, unchecked corporate power and dispelling the myth that creating bullshit jobs that no one really wants is a suitable solution to technological unemployment. Except the climax and denouement undermine all of this, where the only person really trying to change the system is portrayed as a terrorist, the system itself declared not a problem, and ultimately the corporate functionaries vowing to solve the problem by filling the company with more humans working bullshit jobs. And so terrorism (even in failure) is the only thing that succeeds at creating material change, but really that material change is hardly anything at all. Which could be seen as a satire of capitalist society, if there were any evidence the episode wanted it to be seen as such.
Missing completely from the equation, after all, are the owners of the company, the executives, board members, and investors, who actually have power over the situation. In all the talk of rampant unemployment in the galaxy, there’s no mention of a wealth gap, of the wealthy at all, simply a “system” nebulously being “used”. The real question hanging over everything is never asked: who’s fault is it that people are starving simply because they don’t have jobs? Why should they need jobs at all when most of the jobs can be automated away? What’s the purpose of forcing your population to starve or work boring, soul-crushing jobs when the jobs are completely unnecessary and there’s enough wealth for everyone to live a fulfilling life if we simply shared it more equally?
And so we arrive at the expression coined by Slavoj Žižek (paraphrasing Fredric Jameson) that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism, something proven over and over again by Doctor Who’s depiction of the former and lack of depiction of the latter.
Terrorism as a response to automation has real-world antecedents. In the early 19th century, English textile factory owners began replacing highly-skilled artisans with mechanized looms that could be run by low-paid laborers. In 1811, the artisans began to respond to the sudden loss of their livelihoods with violence, breaking into factories and smashing looms to pieces. In the manifestos these artisans would subsequently release, they’d credit their movement to one General Ludd, a fictional, Robin Hood-like military leader.
The British government responded by making the destruction of looms a capital offense and sending in the military. Many artisans were gunned down, others hanged, still others merely shipped off to penal colonies in Australia. The back of the movement broken, the textile companies were free to “modernize” their factories and the term “Luddite” came to refer to anyone who hates and fears modern technology.
Missing from the typical version of this narrative is the fact that the Luddites weren’t originally opposed to mechanized looms. Resistance only happened when it became clear that the factory owners were going to replace them with cheap, unskilled labor. And the artisans’ first response was to suggest measures to preserve their quality of life–a minimum wage, guaranteed pensions, and the establishment of safety standards for these dangerous new machines. After all, the owners stood to make more money than ever. Why shouldn’t they share it with the people actually doing the work? This logic might in fact have carried more weight in earlier decades, but the writings of Adam Smith had been recently published, and the minds of the ruling class swam with ideas of the fundamental value of self-interest and the “invisible hand” of the market working to the benefit of all.
While concerns at the time that mechanization would lead to mass unemployment would turn out to be unfounded, as the 19th century wore on the bulk of skilled artisan jobs transitioned into relatively unskilled industrialized wage labor. And with no check on business owners’ exploitation of their employees, the leisurely lifestyle of the artisan (who could dictate their own hours) gave way to a situation where by 1890 a US government study found that laborers across industries worked an average 100 hours a week. And the hazards of factory conditions during this period are the stuff of legend, with workers routinely ending up maimed or dead without any of the modern expectations of workers’ compensation, health care, or life insurance.
This state of affairs wasn’t an accident of industrialized capitalism, it was the obvious end-result of it, where business leaders and their investor co-owners do whatever they can to maximize profit over all other considerations, especially the welfare of labor.
Workers unions and their allies in the Progressive movement battled against this system (often literally as the police, military, and mercenaries were turned against strikers) and ultimately won concessions including the 8-hour-day and the 2-day weekend that we now take for granted. Part of the rational for these measures, taken during the Great Depression, was to reduce unemployment, since businesses would need to hire more people to do the same amount of work. Indeed, there was a tantalizing idea in the minds of Progressives at the time that mechanization could actually free us from work. Economist John Maynard Keynes, for example, famously predicted in 1930 that people would soon work 15-hour weeks with no loss of pay. By the middle of the 20th century, taxes on the wealthy had gone up dramatically, social security had been created, and things had greatly improved for most Americans in economic terms. That all shifted with the resurgance of laissez-faire free market ideals in the form of Neoliberalism beginning in the late 70s, where tax cuts and large-scale deregulation gave the wealthy the means to begin the process of destroying the hard-won middle class.
Keynes and his cohort would have seen the modern rise of technological unemployment as an opportunity rather than a crisis, where we as a society could reduce the number of hours people have to work just as progressives did during the Great Depression, or even do away with work as a prerequisite to survive altogether using strategies like Universal Basic Income or better yet Universal Basic Assets or some other scheme funded through expanded progressive taxation of the wealthy few who can afford it better than ever.
But conservatives, as alluded to in the Doctor Who episode, would have it that humans need work to give us purpose. However, spending the bulk of your life in the soul crushing tedium of a position that could just as easily be performed by a robot doesn’t sound like much of a purpose, especially while the children of the rich have unlimited opportunities to make their life however they please simply by virtue of their birth.
In a world where the middle classes have been gutted while the burgeoning lower classes find themselves at the sword point of the aforementioned rise of technological unemployment, “Kerblam!” represents a situation where the house is on fire and someone just wrote a parable where the villain wants to blow up the house with everyone in it to put the fire out and in the end the heroes resolve to stay cool by drinking more ice water.
And yet, for so many, this seems to be the limits of their imagination, not just for this problem but all the major problems our society is currently facing. It’s apiece with telling those concerned about Global Warming to drive electric cars and recycle more. The problem isn’t the system, after all. It can’t be the system. I mean, there’s nothing better than the system. As Margaret Thatcher would have it, there’s simply no alternative.
And so there’s nothing left for us but to be thankful we have jobs at all while the world around us burns.
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Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, please tell people about Literate Machine. Word-of-Mouth is how things like this grow. Everyone stay safe and don’t forget to wash your hands!
The first election I remember is the presidential election of 1984. I was 6 years old, and the results came as a shock; my parents and, it seemed, every adult I knew voted for Democratic nominee Walter Mondale and yet Reagan took the prize in a historic landslide. For the first time I glimpsed the chasm between my small corner of the world and the rest of the country. Mondale won only a single state–Minnesota–unthinkable today in the era of “red” states and “blue” states. Indeed, 1984 was the last time a Republican candidate would win New York. (The last time a Democrat won Texas was Carter in 1976.)
The same year, my family bought our very first computer, an Apple //e. It had a screen resolution of 140×192 pixels in glorious 16 colors, had two 5½” floppy disk drives, no hard drive at all, and 64k of RAM which we upgraded to 128k and thought we were pretty hot. And it ran my favorite genre of games: text adventures.
Explaining text adventure games nowadays often results in confused looks. They’re computer games with no graphics. In text, the game describes where your character is in second person, and you navigate the game by typing simple commands, eg. ‘go north’, or ‘take lamp’, or ‘kill ogre with sword’ and so on. In the early-to-mid 80s, text adventure games were produced by dozens of companies and represented some of the best sellers in the young medium.
To understand this, you have to understand that the primary way of interacting with computers at the time was the command line–a place where you would type commands to the computer and get responses. While graphical interfaces and mice first hit the mainstream in (coincidentally) 1984 with the introduction of the original Macintosh (though less successful products predated it, including the Xerox Star and the Apple Lisa), the concept didn’t become ubiquitous until eleven years later with the release of Windows 95.
So in a world where you already typed instructions into your computer, there’s something magical about the idea of typing instructions to a fictional character instead–at least there was to me as a child–as if the computer is a direct portal into another world, and specifically to the world inside of a book. When you’re a bookish, socially awkward kid, there might be nothing more appealing.
My favorite text adventure games were written and designed by Steve Meretzky, who watched the same election of 1984 with apprehension and horror, unsure how to process so many people getting things so very wrong. And so, he did the only thing he felt he could; he took his frustration and poured it into his chosen medium. Into a game.
Legendarily, Meretzky had once hated computers. During his time at MIT studying construction management, he’d refused to even touch one. (This was a time when you could get a degree at MIT without touching a computer.) And yet he became chummy with the fellows in the school’s famed computer lab, who frequently cooked up games for fun in their spare time. Ultimately, a bunch of guys (they were all guys) from the lab left the school to start one of the first software companies, Infocom, with their first product a fantasy text adventure called Zork. Meretzky’s roommate after graduation happened to work as the company’s only beta tester [Edit: After reaching out to Meretzky, he wrote to correct me that Meretzky’s roommate was a tester, not a beta tester, who were outside players they brought in for testing later], and he brought the game home one day to show it off. Meretzky made a show of refusing to, but over time the roommate starting noticing that the keyboard or items on his desk had moved slightly. Finally, Meretzky copped to secretly playing the game and asked for a hint.
Zork became a genre-defining smash hit on release in 1980, and Meretzky would go on to become the second beta tester at Infocom. Soon enough he graduated into creating his own game, Planetfall (1983), about a luckless space janitor and his robot pal wandering an eerie, ruined world.
Planetfall took off, which lead to his next hit game Sorcerer (1984), and then the plum job of creating the official adaptation of Douglas Adams’ bestselling book series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1984). This became the company’s best-selling title after Zork (Adams himself was a text adventure fan, and worked with Meretzky on it). And so by the time Meretzky came to his employers with the idea to do a political game as a response to Reagan’s Neoliberal policies, the company let him do what he wanted.
The game he finally produced, A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985), wouldn’t be anything like what he’d done before. Or really like anything anyone had ever created before. It invented a new genre of gameplay that would later be called an “environmental narrative game”, or more critically, a “walking simulator”. A typical text-adventure involves the player character encountering puzzles to be solved–a sheet that must be ripped and tied to make a rope to tie to a railing to climb down out of a window to escape a room, that sort of thing. For most of its run-time AMFV does away with this artifice. Instead, what you’re doing is recording a world over the course of several decades as it steadily goes mad all around you.
The year is 2031. A charismatic right-wing Senator-cum-presidential candidate is pushing through a plan that will radically remake the economy of the Country. The Plan for Renewed National Purpose (anticipatory shades of “Make America Great Again”) is a raft of proposals reminiscent of those that spill out of right wing think tanks past and present: Cut taxes in half, cut regulations, decentralize the government while increasing the power of the (right wing) president, end licensing for guns (and cars!), radically increase border security, ramp up policing and prison sentences, plus mandatory conscription for criminals and “troublemakers” (while this last isn’t something that’s come true, it does have a resemblance to the current situation where prisoners are effectively used as slave labor).
You play PRISM aka Perry Simm, an artificial intelligence raised in a precise simulation of a fictional town in South Dakota. Your job is to visit versions of your home town under this plan at intervals of 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 years in order to see how things are going and deliver a recommendation to congress. To gather evidence, you record yourself doing ordinary things like going to a restaurant or movie, talking with a priest or a city official, riding public transit, reading a newspaper, and most notably visiting your simulated wife and child in your middle-class apartment. Much of the joy of the game is in wandering the massive town, soaking in the details, and experiencing how the various locations change across time.
The game is not subtle.
10 years on and everything seems to be working. The streets are clean, violent crime is down, construction is booming and there’s plans for a lunar mining operation. Wife and child are happy and healthy.
However, as the years progress, things deteriorate rapidly. Forests are replaced by strip mining. Police casually raid apartments and dorm rooms looking for any evidence of crime. An extreme religious order rises in power (beginning by occupying public land, similar to what would happen with Ammon Bundy’s group in 2016). Public transit closes down for lack of funding. The death penalty is increasingly used until the local sports stadium develops into a place to watch first public executions and then criminal-vs-robot or -wild-animal gladiator matches. The government is subsumed by the religious fundamentalists who put all non-believers in camps (a particularly climactic moment takes place when your grown son has your wife taken away for thought-crime). And finally, 50 years on, civilization has collapsed entirely and marauding groups of survivors wander the ruins attacking anyone they come across. In the end, back in the real world, you play the only puzzle-focused act of the game where you have to stop the Senator from shutting you down and burying your report through your control of the automated systems of the building that houses you.
If the notion that Reaganite policies would lead to an apocalyptic collapse seemed a touch hysterical in the 80s, it feels distinctly less so now. Imagine, if you will, the same premise applied to our world as it actually unfolded from the year of the game’s original release.
It’s 1985. By some Weird Science-style 80s technological magic, an AI is able to enter perfectly accurate simulations of the future.
In 1995, things seem to be going rather well. The Cold War is over, the stock market is booming, unemployment is low, cities are cleaning up, and America is in an unprecedented state of peace. Plus, there’s this thing called the Internet that sure seems promising! Tax cuts made during the Reagan administration (and are still in place) don’t seem to have harmed much, and the president is even paying off the budget deficit for the first time since 1969. Sure income inequality is starting to rise. And sure, there are draconian prison sentences for minor drug crimes and the prison population as a result is expanding to never-before seen levels, but crime is on the downswing nationwide so who’s complaining? And scientists are talking about something called “global warming” but who’s got time to think about that now?
Now it’s 2005. An attack on the US has led to two Middle Eastern wars. Muslims are blamed and persecuted. A president who won without the popular vote has put Christian fundamentalists in the highest positions of power and they’re promoting policies that further persecute the LGBTQ community. Teen pregnancy spikes drastically under abstinence-only education. The prison population has become the second highest per capita after Russia. While the economy is recovering from the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the decline that followed the 2001 attack, the government responds by passing historic tax cuts for the wealthy. A regular pattern of mass shootings has started with two high school students in 1999, and the NRA-backed congress and president refuse to even talk about gun control. A major American city drowns in a hurricane caused by the slow-motion climate disaster in progress, and the government’s laughable response to it causes a humanitarian disaster.
It’s 2015. There’s a black president (hooray). The economy is recovering from the biggest crash since the great depression, and while things have picked up thanks to a stimulus program, the banks responsible are bailed out with taxpayer dollars and no one has been prosecuted for the vast network of fraud that lead to the crash. Meanwhile, a Supreme Court case has functionally eliminated all campaign finance restrictions leading to what amounts to open bribery of elected officials. And in response to the Democratic White House, a billionaire funded quote-unquote “grass roots” movement has taken over large swaths of Congress who literally shut down the government on a regular basis in order to put through what amounts to an anti-agenda–a movement to transform the legislative branch into a body that does nothing except lower taxes and blocks liberal judges (and rubber-stamps conservative ones). The prison population in the US is now the highest per capita in the world. The changing climate causes more cities (and countries) to be hit with monstrous hurricanes, and large stretches of California routinely catch fire forcing mass evacuations. Horrific shootings break out continually, schools across the country have regular shooting drills, and elected officials offer only their thoughts and prayers. The Democratic president deports more immigrants than any president in history, and no one talks about it because it doesn’t fit the narrative. America is continually at war with no end in sight, a never-ending conflict like something out of the novel 1984. (Note that this was written before the recently announced peace deal with the Taliban, about which I could say a lot. But for now let’s just be cautiously skeptical considering that US forces are still in Iraq more than eight years after that war officially ended, and more than two months after the Iraqi government officially asked us to leave and we summarily refused.)
Of course, worse is on the horizon in 2017 and beyond, the con man in the white house and babies in cages and everything else. The progression may not be nearly as cut and dry as the one in the game, and you might not be able to divine all of it by walking around a random city and reading the latest newspaper. But taken in slices, the pattern clarifies.
In an interview from 2012, Meretzky saw much of the Bush administration in his game, but felt hopeful about Obama. “There’s different issues I’d focus on today, compared to 1985,” he says and mentions gun violence and the anti-science denial of evolution and climate change. Still, “the Republican Party feels exactly the same as the Republican Party of 1985, only even more so.” The understatement of the decade. Even Reagan (who backed things like a path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants and gun control) would be considered too far left for the party of Trump.
AMFV did not sell well, and Meretzky moved back to more commercial fare. In any case, computer graphics improved rapidly over the 1980s and text adventures, which had once seemed the burgeoning of a new literary medium, came to look like simply a fad. In 1989 Infocom, the standard bearer of the genre, shut down entirely.
In those days before the Internet gave us news at the touch of our fingers, I didn’t find out about the shuttering of Infocom until I asked a sales clerk a local software store (remember those?) when the next game would be coming out. Some time before I’d received the final installment of the official Infocom newsletter, The Status Line, but that had promised a new full-color magazine to replace it called ZQ which never materialized.
This came as a blow to someone who’s dreamed of growing up to write text-adventure games, of the futuristic-seeming promise of the interactive novel. After Infocom’s demise, a former Infocomer founded Legend Entertainment and put out new text adventure games (with accompanying graphics) for a few years, including a cringingly bawdy series of sex comedies about wizard school by Meretzky himself. But this was a last gasp, and soon the era of text adventure as a commercial proposition was over. In its place, an enthusiast community rose up, creating and passing around games for each other’s enjoyment. In that way this situation could be compared to other art forms with enthusiastic creators and little commercial viability, like poetry, but without that form’s institutional and cultural support (there aren’t many professors of text adventure games or grants for their creation).
Meretzky himself moved on to a noted career in casual games and now serves as the vice president of game design at King, the makers of Candy Crush. While this strikes me as a sweet gig, it’s not exactly one that allows for much political commentary or science fictional extrapolation.
AMFV stands as a lonely reminder of what we lost when we embraced Reagan-era Neoliberalism and began down the path to the present, with Meretzky as a Cassandra who saw the problem clearly decades before most people did.
And so rather than waking up inside our favorite novel, as per the old Infocom tagline, we’ve all woken up inside my favorite game.
Heaven help us.
Bibliography and Further Reading
I could not have written this piece without the website The Digital Antiquarian and its many excellent articles about Infocom and Interactive Fiction by Jimmy Maher
See in particular his series of posts on A Mind Forever Voyaging, beginning with this article.
This post also draws on Jason Scott’s documentary about text adventure games, Get Lamp, more information about which can be found at the official website.
“All golden ages look like bronze from the inside.” – Barry Malzberg, Breakfast in the Ruins
‘Snatched from university’ by the Great Depression, as she would later put it, Catherine Moore switched to vocational school and landed a job as a secretary at a bank in the early 1930s. Every spare moment she would practice her typing, tapping out random sentences to improve her speed and facility. Soon, to pass the time, she began to work on a weird space Western called “Shambleau” in the mode of her favorite magazine, Weird Tales. Once she finished, she sent it off to the magazine–why not?–thinking if it got rejected she’d go on to other things.
The editor of Weird Tales bought the story on the spot for the then-impressive sum of $100 and, according to legend, shut down the offices for the rest of the day to savor it.
The story appeared in the November 1933 issue under the name C. L. Moore, which Catherine claimed was not to disguise her gender but simply to hide what she was doing from her employer. Still, all the pseudonyms Moore would later use would be male, and female authors hiding behind male pseudonyms was a common practice at the time.
Reading “Shambleau” nowadays, we might cringe at the racially tinged title character, a brown-skinned cat girl hunted by a lynch mob along the canals of Mars, concealing a nest of Medusan serpents beneath a red leather turban–a seductive, persecuted Other revealed in the end to be truly monstrous. None of this was an issue in 1933, though, and its style, novelty, and sensuality caused a sensation and immediately established Moore’s career. “It is probably impossible to explain to modern readers how great an impact that first C. L. Moore story had,” editor Lester Del Ray would write in 1976. “Science fiction has learned a great deal from her many examples. But if you could go back to the old science-fiction magazines of the time and read a few issues, and then turn to ‘Shambleau’ for the first time, you might begin to understand.”
Moore soon quit her job and began churning out stories full time for the pulp magazines–so named because of their cheap paper stock. And “churning out” is an apt term. The same Great Depression that had reoriented Moore’s life had created a down-and-out public with a seemingly limitless demand for cheap entertainment. In this age before television, with paperback books as we know them not yet invented (they first started appearing in 1935 and didn’t reach their full maturity until the 1950s), the pulps boomed, brimming with thrill-a-minute, scintillating tales, and selling in the millions of copies. The money flowing into the publishers’ coffers didn’t precisely trickle down, however. The Depression had created demand, but it’d also provided supply, with every unemployed, would-be writer having plenty of time for the typewriter. Publishers paid on a work-for-hire, per-word basis– writers got a flat fee and no royalties or rights to speak of no matter how well that work sold or into what mediums it was adapted. This created an unusual situation, where low rates but high demand meant that to make a living a writer simply had to pump out as much material as they could as quickly as possible. The result was writers in the mold of Lester Dent or A. E. Van Vogt who routinely produced 200,000 words (about 700 pages) a month.
Often, as not uncommon at the time, Moore would write so many stories in a given month that she’d use pseudonyms for many of them so that they could appear in the same issue of a magazine.
In 1936, a young writer sent Moore a fan letter thinking she was a man. His name was Henry Kuttner, and he made ends meet while he developed his writing career with a low level job at a literary agency. (While there he incidentally discovered Leigh Brackett’s work in the slush pile, one of the few woman SF writers to publish under her own full first and last name at the time, and launched her acclaimed career.)
Moore and Kuttner began a romance and married in 1940, commencing a unique writing partnership where they collaborated on almost every story. The two worked so seamlessly that often neither could remember who wrote which part of a given piece, one making way for the other at the typewriter often mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence.
And by this time, the markets were changing. The generation who’d grown up on pulp fiction was aging out of the kind of cheap thrills they’d specialized in, while the younger generation increasingly turned to comic books, just now hitting its stride as a medium and taking all the air out of the pulps of yesteryear. Weird Tales, the magazine that had launched both Moore and Kuttner’s careers, entered a long decline.
In response to these changing tastes, when editor John W. Campbell took over the pulp Astounding Tales, he soon changed its name to Astounding Science Fiction and began aiming its contents at an older, more sophisticated audience. Campbell wanted to create something that felt like a contemporary fiction magazine of the future, with stories that didn’t require lengthy explanations of technology and would instead foreground human behavior. (This is first of many times the paraliterature of science fiction would reinvent itself in an effort to gain adult respectability.) For this work, Campbell was willing to pay higher rates than many of his competitors.
Moore and Kuttner became part of Campbell’s core stable, and this involvement increased from 1942 when many other writers headed off to war (including Campbell’s star, Robert Heinlein). The paper shortages of the war took a heavy toll on the pulps, but Astounding soldiered on. Many of Moore and Kuttner’s best stories stem from this period, at the height of their demand in Campbell’s (still freelance, work-for-hire) employ.
In 1943, Moore and Kuttner published “Mimsy Were The Borogoves” under the name Lewis Padgett, perhaps their most frequently anthologized tale (and one adapted in 2007 into the film The Last Mimzy). In this story, two children discover a box of toys sent back from the far future, and it slowly begins transforming their understanding of reality much to the confusion and consternation of their parents. This proves an excellent example of the period’s movement away from page-turning plots into something more cerebral and emotional, and it anticipates some of the later work from Kuttner’s protégé Ray Bradbury like “Zero Hour” (1947) and “The Veldt” (1954) where children’s open and frankly alien minds allow them to understand things adults never could.
In 1946, Moore wrote (mostly without her husband) what is arguably her masterpiece, “Vintage Season”, published in Astounding under the pseudonym Lawrence O’Donnell. It concerns a group of time traveling tourists who voyage back to the idyllic past of 1946-or-thereabouts to witness an apocalyptic event. The protagonist is a young man of the present who can’t understand why these odd people are so interested in his run-down house, not knowing it will have the best view of the coming pandemonium.
As the 1940s neared its end, the war was over, the atom bomb existed, and America had changed on a fundamental level. Science fiction grew darker, thick with visions of nuclear annihilations. In 1948, Moore and Kuttner, getting older and perhaps wearying of the word rates necessary to continue supporting themselves writing, went back to school for English degrees so they could supplement their income teaching.
Anyway, things weren’t so rosy at their primary market, Astounding. Campbell, once a paragon the scientifically plausible, had become enamored of pseudoscience like telepathy and psychic powers, buying more and more stories featuring them, while his personal and political views–idiosyncratic, right wing, and outright racist—became ever more apparent. Finally in 1949, Campbell edited and published the first appearance of his friend L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics in the pages of his magazine, becoming an outspoken convert to the system that would evolve into Scientology. Writers of any credibility scattered from his pages. Campbell, for his part, descended ever further into reactionary thought, to the point where in 1965, in response to the Watts riots, he suggested that black people were happier as slaves, and in 1970 he implied that the student protester victims of the Kent State Massacre had it coming. Famously, he also rejected a story by Samuel R. Delany with an explanation that his audience didn’t want a story with a black protagonist.
But back in 1950, a new boom was about to begin. Paperback publishers finally seized upon science fiction and writers found they could score good deals and actual royalties. New magazines started to proliferate along with now trendy (if typically shlocky) sci-fi movies, and venues like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy stepped into the position of primacy vacated by Astounding. Pay rates rose and folks like Heinlein and Bradbury broke into mainstream magazines like The Saturday Evening Post which paid very well indeed. Everything seemed on the up-and-up until, perhaps inevitably, the boom became a glut and ultimately bust.
In 1954, numerous magazines shut down as the oversaturated market spread the audience thinner than it could sustain, including Moore and Kuttner’s original mainstay Weird Tales.
Bad turned to worse in 1955 when the largest distributor in the country, the American News Company, had a major strike. More than half of all magazines in the US at the time were sold through the ANC, as well as 25-35% of popular books, and it also owned a system of newsstands that made it the largest magazine retailer in the world. And so, while the company refused to settle with the strikers, boxes of stock sat in warehouses for months or got returned entirely unsold to their publishers, crippling any magazine or book publisher without the resources to weather the storm.
In 1957, capitalist machinations delivered what would prove to be the killing blow for much of the industry. An opportunist investor realized that the American News Company’s commercial holdings were undervalued, bought the whole thing for a song, sold off its properties at a huge profit, and liquidated the company. The result of the sudden disappearance of the country’s largest distributor and retailer was a massive contraction and dieback in magazine and book publishing.
Just as in the late thirties Moore and Kuttner had shifted from weird fiction to science fiction, by 1956 they’d seen the way the wind was blowing and primarily moved to writing detective and mystery novels while making overtures towards television, where in addition to a steady salary they might even be able to get health care.
The 50s was the decade where television had finally transformed from a new curiosity into a mass medium, and had also served to take attention and dollars away from written fiction. In 1950, just 9% of US households had television sets; by 1955 it was 65%; and by 1960 fully 87% of US households owned one.
In 1958, Moore and Kuttner finally received their first television script assignment. On the cusp of the next chapter of their writing careers, Henry Kuttner died of a stroke in his sleep at the age of 44.
A month earlier, SF writer Cyril Kornbluth had died of a heart attack at the age of 34, and there was a palpable feeling among their fellows in the trenches that these men had died from the constant need to produce in the pay-per-word mills, especially through the long crunch of the mid-to-late 50s. “I was only twenty-three, then,” writer Robert Silverberg would say later, “but I somehow realized right away that these two men had literally died from writing science fiction and I was afraid that I was going to die too. I had some bad months.”
More writers would fall away over the next few years; Mark Clifton dead of a heart attack in 1963 at 57, H. Beam Piper a suicide in 1960 at 60. Still others quit prose fiction altogether. Isaac Asimov, for example, turned to cranking out nonfiction books at his customary breakneck pace and wouldn’t come back to fiction until the ’70s. Leigh Brackett took up a noted film career, including scripts for Rio Bravo (1958), The Long Goodbye (1973), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), among many others.
Moore for her part completed the transition to television, writing for Maverick, Sugarfoot, 77 Sunset Strip, and other shows under the name Catherine Kuttner. But in 1963 she remarried a physician and quit writing altogether.
It’d be easy to speculate that her new husband didn’t want his wife writing, but she herself said in a later interview, “Since I don’t have to write for a living anymore, I just don’t have the motivation to resume writing, although I wish I did.” There’s a sense in this sentence that the pressures of commercial fiction had sucked out whatever passion Moore had once had for writing–all that giddy glee in which she’d typed out that first story for fun back in 1933–transforming it into just another job. And when the need for that job evaporated so did the desire to do it.
In 1981, Moore received both the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the Gandalf Grand Master Award at the World Fantasy Convention. Later in her life (I haven’t been able to determine the exact year) she was nominated for the Science Fiction Writer’s Association Grand Master Award as well, but her nomination was withdrawn at her husband’s request because her Alzheimer’s had progressed too far for her to be able to attend the ceremony.
Catherine Moore passed away from complications with Alzheimer’s in 1987 at the age of 76.
When the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” occurred is still a matter of debate. People tend to mark the beginning at 1937 when Campbell took the reigns of Astounding and began the movement away from thrill-a-minute pulp yarns to more modern science fiction. The ending is sometimes marked at 1942, when so many writers went to war and magazines closed because of paper shortages; sometimes it goes to 1946, 1949, or all the way to 1953. Others have argued (notably Robert Silverberg) that the boom from 1950-1953 was the real golden age, and produced some of the most notable works of the era.
Sometimes you can catch modern writers pine for the days when you could throw a manuscript over an editor’s transom for them to find in the morning, when a short story could pay your month’s rent or make your career, and when demand was such that writers rarely got rejected or even had to rewrite their work. However, Catherine Moore is a useful lens to look at how, for the creators on the ground, the period was marked by rapacious exploitation at low wages, zero benefits, no job security, and ruinous market volatility. Writers were notorious for living hand-to-mouth and only a handful of big names like Heinlein managed to successfully escape the treadmill.
If that sounds familiar in this age of the ‘gig economy’, know that the way our economic system is structured isn’t accidental. Creators exist at the mercy of capital. Still, you never know what you’ll find on the other side of the apocalypse from the latest vintage season.