Loyalty is a Flaw

I grew up watching Airwolf like a lot of other kids. Either on NBC, or later on syndication on Channel 20. There were a lot of episodes I gravitated towards. But one in particular still sticks with me: “Severance Pay.”

The plot focuses on Larry, an operative and analyst with the FIRM (Airwolf’s CIA stand-in). The day of his retirement, he discovers there may be a mole in the FIRM and dutifully reports it, as he’s done for 20 years. Imagine Robert Redford’s character from 3 Days of the Condor if he’d had an uneventful career. He and his partner, Joe, go to get their retirement checks and bonuses from the pension office. But, the FIRM still has them classified as ‘temporary’ workers. They are due no retirement bonuses. Worse yet, Joe has a heart attack at the pension office and dies in Larry’s arms. We later learn it Joe’s widow isn’t getting anything from his death: as far as the FIRM is concerned, they received medical benefits they were not entitled to and need to reimburse their former employers. No dignity, even in death.

Larry does what any reader would do: he goes to war against the FIRM. The plot escalates and involves the mole, and a termination order. But the part that always stuck with me was the questions of loyalty, and hard work, and how in the end it got them nothing. That’s what sticks with me.

The stories we tell about work, about how it’s supposed to make us feel, about what we expect from it in the end, say a lot about who we are and what we hope for in the US.

While it’s aimed at a cold, unfeeling bureaucracy I honestly see “Severance Pay” applying to corporate thinking, especially in the days since the philosophy of “Shareholder Profits Above All” took root in America. Employees are not assets, valued and given fair treatment for their work. They’re used and disposed of, with no reward for the uncounted hours spent on its behalf. One good visit from a ‘management consultant firm’ and suddenly, your experience and knowledge base is gone. The American Dream was, from what I understood, the fact you could find a good job you enjoyed, work hard, get due promotions, and then be able to retire with comfort, knowing you’ve earned it.

The American reality is very different. A worker is a liability. You have to pay them a salary, give them benefits, and the longer they stay, the harder it is to give them less and less. When a company needs to make profit expectations but sales are not up, people go. Overhead, cut from the bottom line. Then, of course, the pension funds are raided for more money back. Everyone is asked to do more with less. People start working multiple functions and when their work degrades, they get fired. More money back for the company. By any means necessary, the quarterly numbers must be met.

Before you think the non-profit world is any better, talk to someone who worked there. “Non-profit slave” is bandied about quite a bit. You’re asked to give up so much time and effort for no pay to help the cause. “We work until the work is done.” And never mind the consequences. It can create an atmosphere where people break themselves. I wonder how many non-profits run on the backs of people who don’t realize they’re being under-rewarded for their work.

In the US, we turn work into another kind of faith, thanks in part to the Puritans and their beliefs. Work and success are signs of divine grace. If one is poor, or sick, or mentally ill, it is the Lord casting down judgement on their sins. This flows into the prosperity gospel, which John Oliver took on. Success means god loves you. Only the wealthy will enter into heaven. So if you aren’t doing well – if you are not succeeding at your job – it’s your fault. It’s a character flaw. It’s inherent sin. Never mind you may not like, or be suited for the job you’ve been thrust into. Never mind your career progression path has been so chopped up you’re not sure where you’re going. You, and only you, are responsible for your success or failure. No one is ever set up to fail. And those who have grasped success, they deserve admiration, no matter how they did it.

Chuck Wending wrote an amazing Twitter/Storify essay on his father, and how he related to the bosses in his business. I really encourage you to read it, because it captures how the narrative of the American work ethic, and the truth of how American capitalism and ‘merit’ work run in stark contrast. It also shows that when the narrative we’re fed as children does not turn out they way we wish, it’s easy to push the anger on others. And not on management.

These narratives make it easy to blame workers for terrible working conditions, workers in other countries for lost jobs, and anyone but folks who actually make these conditions. When, for example, a new manager comes in and begins assigning people to jobs they are not trained or suited for, and they don’t do well – it’s obviously the worker’s fault. After all, if they were good hard workers they would be successful.

When workers are laid off in favor of technology – it’s not the corporate managers who decided they were not getting a good RoI by giving folks a living wage. It’s foreigners. It’s the workers who asked for too much, like health care or the ability to work with pride. They asked for too much. They could not compete. If only those workers had gone into real jobs, gotten business degrees or… you get the picture. These narratives enable exploitation, and more.

So, how do we change things?

We need to change the narrative. We need to tell different stories. Maybe ones where we don’t value wealth over humanity? Or maybe stories about people finding jobs they’re good at, and being allowed to work there and improve, without having to jump to another position they hate. Is the idea of being paid well for a job you love so strange?

On the same day I re-watched “Severance Pay” I also saw the film Your Name. At the very end one of the protagonists, Taki, is job hunting. In the interviews, he explains he wants to be an architect because he wants to create places in Tokyo which bring warmth and good memories to people. And as I watched, I hope he would find a good place that let him do just that, and appreciated what he wanted to create.

I’d like to see a story where someone, in the modern world, finds a job that they can appreciate, and can appreciate them. But maybe that’s why we call it the American Dream –  we have to wake up at the end and face reality where the workers we admire, the ones we put in our highest office, are these guys:

 

This Was Not the Corporate Dystopia I Was Promised

The other title for this post is “We Need The Punk In Cyberpunk Now.”

Recent events has me thinking on a big influence on my formative years: the literature and the aesthetic of cyberpunk. While many grew up with images of the space age, with (white, western) humanity cementing its manifest destiny among the stars, I grew up when a certain generation of authors looked at the great space wheel of 2001: A Space Odyssey and wondered how many of the components were built by globalized companies using third world labor.

This was a world were the buds of the modern internet first took root when we started connecting home computers into telephone lines, then immediately used it to trade porn and complain about movies. Cell phones first hinted at the idea we wouldn’t be tied to cables and trunk-lines forever. And corporations grew, adopting a “Shareholder Profits Shall Be the Whole of the Law” attitude which still rules today. Conversations like the one ceased to be dialog out of Alan J. Pakula thrillers:

“We can make tones of money using these quick-term stock scams and hiding the results overseas. Now it’ll crash the economy-”
“What about the quarterly profits?”
“Oh, we’ll see a massive spike before total devastation.”
“We can blame the immigrants. Do it, and we’ll be rich enough to not care.”

And instead became standard operating procedure for every global company out there.

Take all of the above, mingle onto it the visual aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the paintings of Patrick Nagel, and Michael Mann’s visual palette from Miami Vice, and you have the birth of a neon-drenched corporate dystopia where the wealthy live in technological splendor, while the same technology alternately imprisons and liberates those scrambling to survive day in, day out. The tools of the oppressors became ways we could give them a massive “Fuck You.”

But while we have cyberpunk’s technology for the most part (No wicked cybernetics, but re-read Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. The book opens with someone killed by a drone strike, folks), and we certainly have the ever-present corporate domination (Get and watch the Max Headroom collection from Shout Factory. Check “Grossberg’s Return” for the shocking idea of the media creating news, not reporting it –  *cough*InfoWars*cough* – while “Lessons” talks explicitly about education treated as a commodity to keep it out of the hands of the poor), we are missing some things.

The aesthetics for one. I think Starcadian best expresses this longing for a familiar vibe in the video for “Chinatown”

The other part we’ve lost – and some would argue never really had – was the punk part. That rebellious growl at seeing our future stolen, at dehumanization, and at the abuse of power. The part of the aesthetic born from folks like Stiff Little Fingers. Listen to “Suspect Device

They take away our freedom
In the name of liberty
Why can’t they all just clear off
Why can’t they let us be
They make us feel indebted
For saving us from hell
And then they put us through it
It’s time the bastards fell

Don’t believe them
Don’t believe them
Don’t be bitten twice
You gotta suss, suss, suss, suss, suss, suss
Suss, suspect device

Tell me that’s not the punk part of the equation in a song?

This is what we need in the world right now. We need the punk side of cyberpunk. We need our Suspect Devices. We need our Edison Carters, though these days he’d be working for ProPublica, not Network 23.  It’s out there, but right now it’s controlled by people who think swatting a lady for not appreciating the dick picks you sent her after seeing her Steam profile. We need to take it back. We need to use what we learned from our CyberPunk forefathers to take this world and cast it into ugly, sharp relief. We need to channel the growling anger of punk and it’s children, and focus it on the folks who’d take away our freedoms in the name of liberty.

When I see an article posted about how our new administration is taking pages out of Totalitarianism 101 (Say, by de-legitimizing a free press or picking targets for ‘true patriots’ to rail against), I don’t react with a sad face. I use the angry one. And I tell them exactly how they can fight – Maybe not with their fists, but with dollars, votes, and showing up at a town hall meeting with a ZIP code on your chest while getting into a legislator’s grill.

I think anyone writing contemporary SF who felt something shiver inside when they watched the opening minutes of Blade Runner, saw Synners spelled in a unique way, or heard the sky described as television tuned to a dead channel, should do the same.  Or as Henry Rollins put it:

henryrollinsjoestrummer

So, borrowing from Joe’s bandmate, Paul – when they kick down your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head? Or on the record button of your cell phone, streaming live and direct to the world?

It’s cyberpunk time.

I’ve Seen The Future, Brother, It Is Murder

I couldn’t help but bring Leonard Cohen into this. He’s one of the many artists whose loss gouged great wounds in our hearts. But Leonard’s poetry will live on in everyone he’s touched, and in every story he’s inspired.

This month’s post is about the future. It’s about two different futures, though. One is personal – my hopes and ambitions for the coming year – and the other is about a dominant theme for 2017 in my opinion.

Let’s talk about the big things first:

An image from when my corporate cyberpunk dystopia also was stylishly designed and beautifully filmed. Alas, we know it’s a dystopia by the fact only the worst will come and we won’t have any of the cool features. If you don’t believe me, check out the new Ghost in the Shell trailer. It had me running back to my copies of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex for the definitive adaptation of the material.

But as I was watching, and thinking about the themes of the series, especially the second one, I started to feel how it would impact our world in 2017.

The first series, dealing with the Laughing Man, introduced the idea of a Stand Alone Complex but the second series brought that idea to a more terrifying place: the idea that the phenomenon could be harnessed, with the right manipulation, to political ends.

As I watch it now, I realize this is rooted in something deeper I’ve been touching on in other entries: narrative control. Our world today, moreso than any previous time in our history, is vulnerable to active and directed efforts at narrative control. Information is spreading so fast, and people accept it so readily, one can use this to easily control a post-truth world.

We’ve been seeing this building for many years. But what once were ‘whisper campaigns’ or coded statements have become very open attempts at narrative control, and misdirection. The atmosphere has become so permissive, that people will shoot up local DC pizzerias based on deliberately created lies.

This upcoming year, I see Narrative Control becoming a key battleground for the spirit of the world we live in, but it will be done in tandem with something I’m calling ‘narrative distribution control.’ It’s not enough to create a narrative and set it lose in the world, then back it up. You’ve got to suppress counter-narratives or, even worse, actual facts.

I heard a description of a small mid-west rust belt town from a former resident. He said everyone listened to specific radio stations, which carried specific songs and messages. Listening to anything else got you odd looks. You only believed certain information sources. Challenging those would get everyone looking at you, saying ‘your education is showing.’ And Gods help you if you deviated from the norm.

It honestly sounded like descriptions of North Korea, except in this case the narrative control, and the choking of information to ‘approved’ sources, comes from the community and not the government. What’s more terrifying? A government imposing a narrative on you, or your own neighbors doing so?

So how do we stop this? How do we prevent us from becoming a less colorful version of The Village?

Do not not be pushed. Start small rebellions. Find these communities and the dissidents within. Let them know they’re not alone, that you know the narrative they’re being fed is not the whole truth. Create alternate narratives and find ways to deliver them to occupied areas.

We need to become the pirate radio station intercepting and countering the control narrative. We have to speak the truth, with proof and citation, and sneak the truth under the wire to those who need it. Learn from those fighting authoritarians elsewhere. Fight them here.

And don’t be afraid to yell “You lie!” when needed. They were willing to do so to support easy falsehoods, you have to do so to support the complicated truth.

Now, on a more personal note…

As with all years, I discover a bit more about myself as a writer, and then immediately get angry at college me for not realizing this. Time is the biggest enemy. But here is what I have learned:

Comfortable structures work best: Now, by comfortable I do not mean ‘comfort zone’ or anything similar. I mean finding a structure that works like a good hammer, or a pen that’s just the right size so it doesn’t dig into your hand the wrong way.

In this case, the comfortable structure is the one I was first trained to use: Screenplay outlines and treatments. During November, I cranked out several short stories at a speed which surprised me. And I realized the key was not only having a good old Syd Field outline for the story and writing up a treatment with scene breakdown beforehand.

I’m still working on how to scale this up, and start layering it for multiple plots, but the focus it conveyed contrasts heavily against the way I wandered around on Metaphysical Graffiti. Even using a plot outlining structure there, it lead to a lot of bloated beginnings and boring middles. I’m going to have to tear down the whole project at this point. But I think it’s for the best. I’m still unsure if I am ready to write this book yet.

Short Stories vs Novels – the battle continues: These days, with the limited time I have, my energy has gone into short stories and the submission grind. I’m still working on novels – still developing long form projects – but they are not my sole focus at this point. Right now, short stories are letting me further development my craft and try to get them out in the world. I won’t pretend I’m the second coming of Ted Chaing or Aunt Beast, but the chances of me getting stories published and developing a name is still greater than my chances of getting a novel subbed at this time.

Speaking of novels…

Generating Stories: Here, I come back to the great question – what stories do I want to tell? What do I want to read? I’m developing bits and pieces of backgrounds, thinking about the stories I want to tell, but finding the right voice for them proves difficult. I know the feeling I want to generate – a feeling I can’t get elsewhere – but grabbing onto it is taking a while.

But I’ll keep working on it. Can’t do much else – the stories aren’t being quiet.

Give yourself time: If this November taught me anything, I need time. Concerted, focus time where I can write. During this November’s write-ins with my group, I was able to put down words at a rate I can’t manage when sneaking out time after work, or in the wee hours before my job drains me of everything but anger.

The hardest part? The part of me, brought from a very Slavic upbringing, that says this isn’t real work, and I should be spending this time on the weekends fixing the fireplace. I think the biggest issue I have to overcome is the continued, nagging sense that this is not a worthwhile activity, even though I’d probably go mad if I couldn’t do it….

So, what am I going to do in 2017?

  • -Continue to write short stories, at least one a quarter, and keep pushing them out into the world to see who grabs onto them.
  • -Work on adapting Screenwriting structures to plotting
  • -Find characters and settings that will let me tell the stories I want to tell.
  • -Fight the part of me that won’t give time for writing
  • -Work on connecting with others and building a support network.
  • -Re-plot Metaphysical Graffiti
  • -Brainstorm the type of stories I want to tell and find characters within them
  • -Anger is an energy. Use it.

Talk to you all in the future
-> Andrija, Dec 2017

The End of November

November is, to most folks who write as either a hobby or professionally, NaNoWriMo month. People set themselves up to crank out over fifty-thousand words in one month’s space of time. For those on a certain side of the political spectrum, it’s probably a been a rough month. For others, they’ve probably beaten their numbers, though I’m unsure if policy briefs and manifestos count as ‘novels.’

Me, I set myself up to fail. And I did so in the most spectacular way possible.

My goal wasn’t to write a set number of words. Instead, it was to write at least three short stories by the end of the month. My writer’s group, as part of their NaNoWriMo prep, sectioned off five hours of time at a local library just for writing. During that dedicated time, I was able to crank out about 5k words per session.  Most sessions ended early, so my rate is a little over 1.5k words per hour. Had this been extrapolated across the month, I could have cracked the goal again.

But my goal was reached. Three short stories written, and a fourth almost completed. One has already been submitted to the intended market.  So how do I feel about losing?

8ec

I regret nothing because I learned a lot.

  1. Screenplay outlines are my happy place – I was able to plot out the stories and get everything set because I returned to my home, the good old-fashioned Syd Field screenplay outline.  It helped me know exactly where I had to go, what each scene had to do, and how to ensure I was never lost in the woods of ‘Well, what should I write now?’
  2. Given a clear vision, I can write and research at the same time – some of my stories involved looking up real events, or people. I was digging through and confirming information at the outline stage, but also as i wrote.
  3. Time is my enemy and friend – if I have time and I can focus, I can produce quite a bit.

So what was the hardest part? The usual: “that’s five hours wasted – think of all the chores you could have done” or “Hey, shouldn’t you be working on trying to cross-sell to all of your clients even if they don’t need a product?”

My brain is still wired to never see writing as a ‘useful’ act.  It’s not work. It doesn’t earn money (so far) and won’t get me life insurance, mortgage payments, etc. I have to constantly fight my wiring and says, “I need more than a salary in my life. I want to tell stories. I hope, some day, someone reads those stories.”

At the end of November I know, the biggest enemy I still have (next to time) is this guy named Andy Popovic.

Two Updates for October

(Image by the great Ron Spencer)

It’s the waning days of October and, here in the DC area, it finally feels like October. Morning air bites you on the cheek. Leaves rattle on the asphalt in slow-motion tornadoes. ALIEN ARTIFACTS has seen print. I’m still focusing on writing short stories, especially now that three new anthologies have opened for submission.

If you’re interested, click here.

Which leads me to my first update: This year NaNoWriMo is more about getting short stories finished than anything else. I’m finishing up one, and I’ve got at least three more I hope to write over the course of the month. If nothing else, t his is going to give me a good supply of stories I can rework and shop around at a later date.

Now, is the focus on short stories a good strategic one? Well, there are a few factors here. First and foremost: writing is not my full-time job. My goals here are not economic. This means, I’m more worried about getting my name out there and being seen for producing good stories, working well with editors, and adding to my publication credits.

Will I stop work on the novel(s)? No. Working on the novels(s) have taught me a lot and I’m still learning from the experience. But the short stories are giving me something immediate to focus on while, in the background, I can think about novels in a larger, more structural framework. In either case, I keep writing.

This is the second update. It’s more a follow-up on my last entry on writing horror.

I’ve started reading short stories in alternation with my massive stack of novels. My copy of People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror! came in. Silvia Garcia-Moreno’s opening essay talked about her experience watching horror films from America, or reading stories where everyone was well-off, white and trouble-free until they discovered their idyllic house is on a Native American graveyard!

She rooted for the ghosts in those cases.

I immediately thought about going to see The Ruins with some friends. We expected a trashy horror film. We didn’t expect to have the theater almost to ourselves. And what I didn’t expect was to be rooting for the carnivorous plants right from the first five minutes.

“Oh, I hope these privileged little shits die horribly.”

Most American horror falls on the conservative side of John Carpenter’s spectrum: there is evil out there come to sap our precious American bodily fluids! We must do all we can to defend our white picket fences against these terrors, be they atomic-powered ants, Satanists, or ethnic folks.

For the most part, I couldn’t take those films seriously. If the dumb teenagers got cut up, was their own fault. There’s literally a crazy old guy telling you about the murders! What do you need, a Greek oracle?

I felt more for the people in Alien and The Thing. They were just trying to survive, same as the creatures they faced. Of the suburban horror films I enjoyed, they were usually handled by Wes Craven. The Nightmare films, at their core, are all about kids paying for the secrets and lies spread by their parents. Suburbia isn’t a thing to defend – it’s a prison hiding everyone’s sins.

What happens when you sympathize with the monsters too much?

Or, think of it this way: What happens if I do start with a human I sympathize with? Someone who’s struggling to make it through the day, is happy he doesn’t get pulled aside for a more detailed search while going to a game, has depression and a mess of issues? And then I sic some terrible traumatic horror on them, destroy their world, rip them to pieces…

My first thought was, “Why isn’t this happening to his douchebag of a boss? Isn’t life tilted enough in the dudebro’s favor that even the monsters don’t go after them?”

Yeah, there’s my world of horror:

One day, the great monsters dwelling in the outer dark will see you, weighed down by stress, anxiety and the grind of surviving this world. Instead of torturing you they will just sigh, pat you on the head, hand you some antidepressants, and go to haunt the $1.4 million dollar home your boss bought for himself and his mistress while working into an early grave.

But that’s not horror then, is it? That’s just a lovely, lovely fantasy.

Oh, The Horror. The Horror….

Oh, The Horror. The Horror.

I love horror fiction, and films. The weirder, the better. But, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to successfully write it. I’ll explain why after this gloomy self-portrait of Sir William Fettes Douglas:

If there was a philosophy to my early childhood, it’s this: “The world is dark and full of terrors.” (Apologies to George R.R. Martin.) I remember growing up in terror of the world, both outside the house (Stranger danger! Don’t run out into the street! Don’t go into that old shed! Don’t play on that tire, you’ll get tetanus!) and inside the house. My family wore feelings like flags. If someone was angry, the entire house knew it. You couldn’t deaden the yelling. It was like living in an emotional bombing zone at the best of times.

Later in life, I realized how lucky I was that this was the extent of my traumas, but that’s another topic.

Fear ruled my life. Some would say it still does but then, my fears were more tangible. They dug into everything I did: I wouldn’t see a movie, because I heard there was a scary part in it. I wouldn’t listen to a record because I heard it drove people to suicide. The constant protective fear I experienced left my emotional skin very thin. I had to thicken it up myself.

I did it with repeated listening of the story record for The Black Hole, with its gurgling audio of Anthony Perkins’ death at the spinning blades of Maximilian, the single most terrifying robot I’ve ever seen.  The pictures of his scowling red eyeslit combined with one of the nastiest deaths in a supposed ‘space adventure’ burned into my brain.

I went through a wilderness of knives with Young Sherlock Holmes and the sacrifice of the young girl, smothered alive by hot wax in a pseudo-Egyptian ceremony. (At that age, I could actually feel the claustrophobia and suffocation she must have experienced). And in my dreams, I fought off the horrifying painting of one of my ancestors which stood in the house, glaring at us with his wire-brush beard and dark Serbian eyes. It made the portrait above look positively cheerful.

Over time, though, the fears of the dark and  what lurked inside faded. I grew to love the fictional horrors out there. I’d dive into films, and books. Junior high was my first deep dive into terrors, as I found Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural edited by Henry Mazzeo with illustrations by Edward Gorey in the Thomwas W. Pyle Jr. High library. The fictional terrors comforted me. Outside the library were real horrors, ones encountered at a young age and kept encountering all my life.

When going to school terrifies you because of the people waiting there, and going home is just as terrifying because of the people waiting there, what’s in a book becomes comforting. Now that I’m entirely too grown, fictional terrors on TV, the big screen, and in literature are a cozy blanket and warm cup of tea for me. I taste terrors the way some taste wine: enjoying the complexities, but never losing myself to the alcohol.

Why? Because every day, at work, I face a monitor which runs CNN constantly. I listen to political feeds, hear twitter conversations, read about the worst parts of humanity. I’ve lived through seeing both sides of my family go from obscure countries no one cared about to shorthands for mass murderers and despots. In my world, when someone racks up a body count which rivals any hockey-masked golem, the first response is: “How can we capitalize on this? Quick, send out a press release blaming the welfare state.”

I’m convinced that, in this world, the horrors of literature would be drowned in the banal horrors of humanity. A dark cosmic void pointing to our insignificance is actually far more inspiring and magnificent than a distant board of executives who consider me just another liability which can be ditched if we don’t make our annual profit margins. At least alien biomechanoids consider me a valuable resource on one level…

John Carpenter said once there are fundamentally two types of horror: external or internal. Internal horror is about confronting the darkness within ourselves – our actions have led to a horrific consequence. External horror features a malevolent force attacking us and all we hold dear. But both start one deep assumption: there is some value in the status quo. It may suck, but at least you’re not being assaulted by undead creatures or your dad isn’t possessed by some entity out to kill you. Right?

I don’t think so. Horror gives us an enemy. You can focus on the terrifying thing caught in a home movie. You can try to defeat it. How do you defeat the fact your neighborhood was red-lined into persistent poverty?

True horror is a private security firm’s attack dog with its teeth red from the blood of anti-pipeline protesters. True horror is an athlete caught raping an unconscious woman, let go after three months because he’s a white kid from the right school, with a sympathetic judge. True horror is a neighborhood dying from toxins in the soil and water because they’re too poor to register on anyone’s political radar.

This is why I can’t write horror myself. Because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write anything as terrifying as humanity at its worst.

This Is Not My Future: Gundam Unicorn & Generational Conflicts

For those who didn’t shell out to get the blue-ray OAV releases, Bandai is broadcasting a re-edit of Gundam Unicorn. Mecha addict that I am, even though I’ve seen it before, I’ve been re-watching the series and it’s and finding more depth to it the second time around.

First, the opening theme as a spoiler break:

It’s really rare you open a series with a song trying to convince someone not to keep harming themselves. But in a way, Unicorn Gundam or UC as I’ll call it is the perfect vehicle for this song. Because the entire series is about wounds – old and new, inflicted and self-inflicted – and trying to grow beyond the pain into something better.

First, you’ll want to read up a little on the Unversal Century timeline in Gundam. You can check out wikipedia for some starting points, but ther eis also an amazing timeline here.

The key places to look are the main series (Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta Gundam, ZZ Gundam, Char’s Counterattack) and the OAV’s 0083 Stardust Memory (which bridges Gundam and Zeta Gundam) & the ongoing Gundam: The Origin. For those in a reading mood, Gundam: The Origin is a beautiful manga retelling of the first series and I really recommend it. The Gundam Unicorn appears at the end of this timeline, 17 years after the start of the first series in Universal Century 0096.

What was to be the start of man’s glorious new future in space has, instead, been a century of war and horrors: environmental damage on Earth lead to forced migration of poor populations to space. A terrorist attack on the Earth Federation’s prime minister created a totalitarian atmosphere over the Earth sphere. Conflicts bloomed between those who remained on Earth (Earthnoids) and those who lived in space(Spacenoids). Exploitation, colonialism, nationalism and greed dominate humankind.

Even the idea of a “new type” of humanity, adapted to space and able to use psi gifts to communicate and increase understanding, is twisted by the rulers of the Dutchy of Zeon into an ubermench style philosophy. Political tensions come to a head in 0079, when the One Year War begins between the forces of Zeon (ostensibly representing spacenoid independence movements) and the Earth Federation.

The One Year War sees the death of billions. Even the hippiesh idea of a “NewType” is turned into a weapon of war, where pilots with these gifts are pitted against each other at the behest of their superiors. The series that follow deal with the aftershocks – entrenchment and pro-Earth fascism (0083 and Zeta), resurgences of Zeon by remnant forces (ZZ Gundam and Char’s Counterattack). Throughout it all, colonies are destroied or dropped on earth, along with several asteroids. When the series starts, there’s been about 3 years of peace.

And then, a mysterious foundation makes an offer to the NeoZeon remnants – a secret which will shake the Federation to the core. The dark heart at the center of the Universal Century.

The main trio of protagonists all grew up during the war years, and they all bear burdens based on legacies their parents & grandparents left.

Banager Links: An engineering student at the Anaheim Electronics school (leading builder of civilian and military mobile suits), Banager discovers he is the illegitimate son of Cardeas Vist, head of the powerful Vist foundation and holder of the LaPlace box – the key to the Federation’s power in the Earth Sphere. He’s given the Unicorn – a mobile suit designed to respond to(and destroy) NewTypes. It’s the map to the location of the LaPlace box.

Mineva Zabi: We first see her as a small baby in the original Mobile Suit Gundam series. Heir to the Zabi family, the ‘royalty’ behind the Dutchy of Zeon, she’s trying to prevent the Vist foundation from giving the box to the Zeon remnants under the command of the terribly named Full Frontal, as this may cause yet another war. Her grandfather, uncle, aunt and father were responsible for the start of the One Year War and all the horrors which ensued. History weighs heavily on her.

Riddhe Merceas: A Federation mobile suit pilot, assigned to the Nahel Aghama, part of the Londo Bell fleet. Their task is to neutralize Zeon remnants. Riddhe’s father is the Chairman of the Federation council and, through the series, he discovers that his family is the dark mirror of the Vist family, helping keep the LaPlace box secret and ensure the Federation remains in power.

The main series antagonists are a former member of the Vist family, now head of Anaheim Electronics and representing the corrupt side of the Earthnoids, and the Zeon remnants lead by Full Frontal. All are fighting for both the Unicorn and the data it’s revealing about the location of the LaPlace box.

In this series, the sins of the past weigh heavily on the plot and the characters. Each one starts off trying to free themselves from their legacies. Banager is our POV into this conflict, and the Unicorn is a literal representation of his legacy both negative (it’s designed to destroy NewTypes and the propaganda they represent for the Zeons) and positive (it literally responds to his will – a beast of possibility that grows with him).

And that thought of legacy, of paying for the sins of our parents and grandparents, is key to this show. At every turn, our protagonists are sincerely trying to avoid starting another war – Minevea’s whole character arc is about trying to fight against the Zabi’s genocidal legacy – but decisions they had no part in block the way. Riddhe eventually drowns because of his poison legacy, turning against his former friends and crew until the very end.

The show takes a lot of time to show the people getting caught up in this conflict. Between showing you good pilots on both side, as well as callous ones, you start to see the dividing lines are less about Earthnoid vs. Spacenoid, or Feddie vs. Zeek. It’s about power and control. Who has it? What do they want to do with it? Full Frontal is a (literal) Char Aznable clone but his plan for the LaPlace box is actually more terrifying than any colony drop – it literally involves isolating Earth and dooming it to economic irrelevance and impoverishment.

Cycles of violence are also a big part of this – do we choose to continue supporting the same cycle of violence? Mineva counters that Frontal’s plan by saying it will just flip elites, and we’ll have a generation of Earthnoids howling for blood against their oppressive Spacenoid masters. It won’t lead to a better world for anyone, just create fertile ground for the next war.

If any character represents poisoned legacies and cycles of violence, it’s Loni Garvey. Pilot of a massive Mobile Armor, it uses a psionic control system to direct fire through dozens of ‘funnels.’ It’s a system her family built, her father in specific, to tap into her Newtype capabilities and make her a weapon of mass destruction.

She and Banager connected, briefly, and on the battlefield he tries to use the Unicorn and their connection to get her to stop the slaughter. Innocent civilians are dying under the pent up rage of every Zeon remnant trapped on Earth for over a decade. And at one point they do connect. The system disarms – until the ghostly red hands of her father pushes Banager away. Literally possessed by her parent’s agenda, embodied in the war machine she pilots, she cannot stop the generational hate.

In the end Riddhe is forced to kill her while Banager watches a legacy of hate overcome the possibility of escape. It’s not the first, nor the last, tragic death in this story. But it illustrates the theme perfectly.

Given my family history, and the circumstances of my birth (GenX’er living under the shadow of the all powerful Baby Boom generation) this theme resonates with me. In the show, the Unicorn represents the ‘beast of possibility’ where we do not have to be trapped by past mistakes, and can make amends before going into the future. The show is about trying to find a better way than enforcing the same power structures and fighting the same wars over and over.

In the end, you do get a sense of hope that these kids – and they are all young kids – will be able to end the wars, escaping from their poisoned legacies and making something new. I like that idea and I do hope that our next generation can do the same.

I just despair that we won’t be able to do it – to escape, to stop the cycle, to reconcile and look for a better way – because we don’t have a Unicorn Gundam on our side. Where is our beast of possibility, or have they all been hunted down?