19 September 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution & Rule 34 - Progress, Law, Science Fiction

Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of completing both the new Deus Ex: Human Revolution, by Square Enix/Eidos: Montreal, and Rule 34, by Charles Stross. I can say unequivocally that both of these new releases were very good storytelling laid over very old plots, and as such they add to Science Fiction incrementally, but they do not open any new doors. They do, however, prompt us to look at the implications of a relationship between SF and an equally venerable subgenre of Mystery - the Police Procedural. What comes next involves spoilers. (TL;DR at the bottom as well)
The story of Deus Ex brings us to the early years of this century - just a little down the road. The world's geopolitical realities are entering a state of flux due to the financial breakdown of first-world nations, the rise of countries like China, the increasing power of multinational corporations, and the rapid pace of technological advances. Your main character, Adam Jensen, is a stock ex-cop type working for Sarif Industries, one of the world's most powerful biotech companies. This company is in the business of making "augmentations" - technological implants for humans that increase physical, sensory, and mental abilities at the cost of replacing the limbs/organs/nerves they are modeled on. When your girlfriend, the most brilliant scientist in the company, is kidnapped by a rival organization, you are recreated Six Million Dollar Man-style and tasked with solving the mystery of why she was taken. This you do, sneaking, hacking, blasting, and persuading your way through all obstacles to the revelation of one global conspiracy transfixed by the pettier aims of the corporations and twisted geniuses that fused their conflicting goals to its standard until the time was right to throw their respective wrenches in the gears.

There are two important points to make about this: 

1. The game assumes the plot of a Police Procedural - the point of gameplay is to accomplish all the technical feats of the Procedure in order to solve the mystery, the perpetrators of which are more or less known at the outset (but not their motives). See Law & Order, CSI, Fringe, or a dozen other recent television shows for a recap of this genre's modern popularity. These modern Police Procedurals require the protagonist(s) to use advanced technologies to solve their mysteries.

2. This is laid on top of a totally standard cyberpunk setting - a dirty future in which power elites exert immeasurable, secret control, the wealth gap is huge, and those with the right connections and resources are able to act outside the law. Thus the entire game is rife with cynicism - to enforce the law in a lawless world, Adam must step beyond its pale, committing crimes to serve justice. The result is that, to maintain a coherent sense of good vs. evil, Adam Jensen (the in-world proxy for us, the audience) is forced to seek out his own idea of right and wrong as the ultimate measure of justice. Social "law" is replaced with individual "principle" as the arbiter of morality and ethics, and the game ends in a test of this transformation - it is Jensen the individual who must ultimately make the choice of how to spin the game's cataclysmic ending to the rest of the world, to essentially pass judgement on the events.

An insightful mind over at Rock Paper Shotgun sees in this computer game a relevant and powerful investigation of Digital Rights Management (DRM). The essential conclusion of his essay is that because one cannot trust people to misuse powerful technology, one cannot afford to let it be used without DRM-like controls to regulate and control its use. While I respectfully disagree (one could argue at this point in history that the only misuse of atomic weaponry occurred before its "DRM" was "cracked"), the point is taken - DE:HR is all about the control vs. the distribution of scientific know-how and the technology it spawns. 

Taking this general thrust of the story and applying it to the problems with copyright infringement via lack of control and customer rights infringement via controlling DRM technologies is both apt and incisive, but the ethical conclusion reached by the author as a result indicates that the message the game delivers after the credits roll was not taken to heart. 

This game is a prequel - that is to say, the events of its story occur before and inevitably will lead to a future set in stone by a past game (in this case, the original Deus Ex). And in case that message wasn't clear, no matter which decision Adam Jensen makes, after the credits one hears the voice of his genius girlfriend discussing the creation of a virus that will set in motion events leading to the world the first game imagined - a world in which technology continues to advance inexorably and uncontrolled. In other words, what Jensen decides is irrelevant to all but himself. DE:HR does not just allow the player to weigh the pros and cons of controlling or not controlling the spread of technology (which today and in future days will boil down to the control of information via DRM); in true noir style, it forces the player to accept that their individual decisions, even elevated by luck to the height of influencing the entire world's perception of a world-altering cataclysm, are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Information conquers all, and if it is not allowed to spread, the situation is ultimately only temporary. If this is true, then the only beneficial purpose DRM and like technologies serve in the long run would be to slow the advance of technology to a pace we can understand and deal with. In the meantime, such controls will (as proven so devastatingly in the game) provide power elites many opportunities to oppress others.

Returning to the idea that this story is a Police Procedural in computer game format, I draw the conclusion that DE:HR is the kind of SF that says human laws will forever be subverted by technological advances. In other words, that at least social law is essentially in conflict with a law more like the law of gravity - Information spreads through social networks and cannot be stopped. I kind of like this because it would mean that Science Fiction is like some kind of cool subversive samisdat that abets an eternally-right revolution, but never mind. 

This line of thinking terminates here, having arrived at Charles Stross's latest confection: Rule 34. If DE:HR sees Information forever subverting human law, Rule 34 finds a near future in which information's spread through social networks traps humanity inside its own laws, enforcing them with its own brand of justice. As expressly stated by characters in the book, the plot revolves around how a botnet essentially becomes a nascent Panopticon Singularity (there's also the fact that it becomes conscious in the process, but this worrisome leftover of wishful AI thinking can be left behind while still acknowledging the power of the idea: even as it says in the book, after a certain point, what does it matter whether a computer is actually aware?). Before we think Stross is deeply invested in the tinfoil hat market, however, it is worth noting that he has also created a more-or-less benign Panopticon Singularity in the form of the Eschaton from his first book, Singularity Sky  - so the value of this occurrence is still up in the air as far as the author is concerned.

In any event, the point is that Stross sees emergent, inexorable technological advances as something that might actually enforce laws - although not necessarily our own - rather than constantly subvert them. In Rule 34, the plot again takes the form of a Police Procedural to make this point. Interesting...

Both works use the guise of a Police Procedural to investigate the Singularity. They come to opposite, yet apposite conclusions about the results of attempts to control propagation of information through social networks. Obviously a rich dialectic is to be found here, but I have neither the ability nor the inclination to enter into it. I wish only to note that a popular and successful vehicle for contemplation of the Singularity in SF seems to be emerging: the Police Procedural. It allows for a very direct confrontation between notions of the control/restraint of scientific advance and the promotion of free scientific advance, something which both stories seem to be ambivalent about.

Such a direct approach is indicative of the conscious effort both stories took to explore the dialectic, and that is something I think SF has been heretofore unwilling to do directly. Surely it has been dancing around the issue, or essentially dismissing the argument by making iconoclastic, sweeping claims about it, for decades. But now the genre is attacking in earnest, using fictional sleuths to unravel a hard real-world problem with a pop-culture story-telling mechanism. In short, it aspires to assert itself as the gateway to understanding for the masses.

I suspect that this trend, and its success, means anyone wishing to make it in SF in the years to come will have to be willing to grapple with, and even find answers for, some of the "hard problems." That means stories taking bigger risks, becoming more cerebral, and in general a revival of Hard SF. As an inevitable result, there should also be much more disagreement within the genre soon, even perhaps among the publishing giants. This sort of diversification and heterogeneity hints at a solution to the very problem DE:HR and Stross are grappling with, I think. The news couldn't be better, from my point of view!

TL;DR - SF these days loves Police Procedurals. It seems to be the MO for exploring the hard problem of technology: whether to control its advance or not. I think this means SF is becoming more willing to take risks and attack its biggest elephants in the room directly, although I'd be hard-pressed to guess why now. Not sure, but people on the Internet seem to actually be getting at least half the point now, which is better than could be said before. In any and all cases, I think this new diversification of the field is, like most diversification, a good thing.

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