The content on this blog is my personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the US Navy in any way.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Anime Review: Aldnoah.Zero

I will attempt to make this mostly spoiler free, but I may end up leaving a couple hints about events in later episodes. The last paragraph in particular (starting with "finally", appropriately) will have some hints about the ending.

Essentially, Aldnoah.Zero is a science fiction anime focusing on ground combat. Simply watching various giant mecha, ships, and scenery get blown up in various ways is worth a bit of entertainment, as always, and this anime doesn't disappoint in that regard.

Mostly, though, I ended up thinking about the military and about war while I was watching it.

Part of that has to do with the massive technology imbalance. The Versian (hereafter "Martian", since Vers is just the name of the government formed by the colony on Mars) forces have technology literally generations ahead of the Earth forces. If I were drawing comparisons using modern technology, I would probably compare it to a modern armored cavalry unit attacking a trench line in WWI. On paper, there's absolutely no reason to believe the Earth forces should be able to pose any threat at all, let alone win.

Yet they do, and it's actually not horribly contrived, mostly because the Martian forces barely deserve to be called a military at all. The anime creates a picture of an almost feudal society based on the right to use their advanced technology, and the "knights" that that society produces hate working together, see each other as their primary competition, and trust far too much in their advanced technology... and they still inflict incredible casualties on the Earth forces in exchange for each knight the Earth mecha manage to take down. The Earth forces use good intelligence and quick thinking to find and exploit weaknesses in their enemies' advanced tech, but still have to take extreme risks to win and still have to retreat often when their enemies' weaknesses aren't known or can't be exploited. It seems rather realistic to me, inasmuch as that term can be applied at all to soft science fiction.

Which isn't to say I don't have problems... the most serious of which is that the Martian forces shouldn't need to come to Earth's surface at all in order to eliminate strong points. They're clearly capable of bombarding the surface from orbit, Earth just as clearly doesn't have any good weapons to take out orbital targets, yet the Martians never seem to notice or use that advantage at all. Given all the stupid things the Martian forces do in the course of this anime, though, that one is rather easily ignored.

As for some of the other details... well, I can't decide if it's a problem or simply an unwelcome reflection on the ability of military organizations to react quickly. The Earth forces, for all that they are much better organized than the Martians, don't seem to have the faintest clue what the Martians are capable of or how they should fight at the beginning of the anime. A lot of the redshirts that make up those incredible casualties I talked about simply charge into battle, guns blazing, trusting that AP bullets and HE grenades will work against gravity manipulation, plasma weapons, and advanced sensors and jamming capabilities. The good intelligence the Earth forces manage to get all too often comes at the cost of those lives... and I can't quite decide whether the anime is painting an overly negative picture of a military's ability to adapt to a previously unknown threat, or exactly the right picture.

For that matter, many of the pilots continue to charge ahead, even after they've had the chance to realize what the Martians were capable of. Some of it can be attributed to trust that the veterans among them will be able to figure out the enemy's weakness quickly, but some of it is just as pointless as it was the last time they tried it. I suppose that is the nature of the risk they're taking in order to win, even if I'd like to think that they should be trying for better intelligence.

I will take a moment here to note one more flaw - apparently the main character, a high school student, is a better pilot than almost all of the trained military pilots in this entire anime. Granted their alternate history has military training in high school after the first Martian war, so he's not completely untrained, and granted that his trainer has less armor and is theoretically more maneuverable than the actual combat model, but still, that's a little jarring. That he can also apparently think quicker and more creatively than most of those pilots is less surprising, since that ability relies less on training, but his ability to notice and exploit weaknesses, which absolutely none of these trained pilots seem to have, is still a little too impressive.

Finally, a significant portion of the anime ends up as a reflection on why wars start, what reasons people have for starting them, and how they can be ended. Both sides fumble around a bit, without seeming to have a way (or a desire) to strike at the other side's center of gravity (that term refers to something without which a country cannot make war). There are a few dramatic gestures and attempts to end the war by clearing up the confusion that shrouded the start of the war... but no, I'm not going to turn these hints into overt spoilers by saying how that turns out. Overall, I found the ending rather unsatisfying, although once again, it may be that the message the anime is trying to send isn't what I want to hear. I suppose I'll have to wait and see if the planned second season clears things up a bit, or merely weakens the themes of the first with a needless extension.

Either way, I highly recommend this anime - partly for the action sequences, and partly because I found it very thought-provoking.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

GamerGate and Representation

I was very interested in GamerGate when it first popped up. I... well, not "enjoyed" Depression Quest, given the subject matter, but I did find it to be a very powerful story, even if it's not perfect, and I was a little taken aback by the fury directed at Zoe Quinn. Saying that I was one of her defenders is probably incorrect, since I haven't really posted anything on this topic before, but if I were picking sides, it would be that one.

Nowadays my attitude is part bemusement and part exasperation. I don't know how or why people can justify defending that particular banner anymore, given how nobody has really found anything significantly corrupt about Quinn and any game journalism outlet, and watching them try to find more post hoc rationalizations is frankly rather irritating. Even if they do manage to come up with some potentially problematic issues to worry about. Especially if they try to justify the crap that was originally directed at people like Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian by pointing to legitimate problems.

Of course, even if I don't care enough to follow the whole issue closely anymore, I still happen upon references from time to time (and that usually spawns a bit of a tab explosion as I start clicking through to other new references). Such as this analogy I found on Memebase.

It did make me stop and think for a moment, even if I don't agree with the point of this particular post. So I thought I'd share what I came up with.

Mostly, that has to do with the comparison between the past's concerns about satanic messages, and the present's concern with sexism, racism, or homophobia. How the present concern is portrayed, though, is at best incomplete, and at worst deceptive. I think there's a difference between active discrimination and poor representation, and that most of the problem we have is with the latter. The former is fixed by eliminating discriminatory stereotypes; the latter is fixed by adding more stories about different kinds of people to the ones we're already telling.

Basically, I'm not trying to argue that modern games are all sexist. I do think they reflect society's prejudices (as does almost every other form of media; video games are by far not the only medium struggling with this issue right now) and that we should try and tell more stories than just "prince (or plumber) saves princess"... but that doesn't mean we'll never tell that one again.

That doesn't mean we have no problem at all with discrimination; there are still some tropes that need to go away and never be heard from again. And just because we can still tell stories about the princes of the world is no reason to make every princess in those stories a complete idiot (which is really just me restating the discrimination point more dramatically). Nor do I expect the defenders of the current status quo to be placated by the fact that many people are more interested in expanding the scope of gaming and gamers than they are with limiting what we currently have.

But it's worth pointing out that GamerGate's detractors don't really want to destroy video games or denounce everything we currently have as unacceptable. We really just want to make room for everyone here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book Report: The Handmaid's Tale

... in which I just finished reading a book: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. It's a dystopian story centered around the US as a totalitarian, patriarchal Christian theocracy - but that much you can get from Wikipedia.

As with a lot of dystopian fiction, it is not meant to be a comfortable read. Even though I'm probably not who this book is aimed at, since I'm already doing what I can (inasmuch as I am involved in political activism at all) to see that such things never come to pass in the US, it's still the sort of thing that makes one think.

In particular, I end up thinking about what my political opponents - the Christian organizations standing up to see their morals enshrined in the public square - really want, and how much this dystopia really matches their end goal.

Some of it probably does match. It doesn't take much imagination or effort to find those who think abortion doctors, gay or lesbian people, or rival religious adherents should be executed, as the Republic of Gilead in the book does. It certainly doesn't take any effort at all to find those (and not all religious people, at that) who think we need to enforce a more moral society.

But I also think of the Christians I know personally, and their ideals, and I know that they would recoil from the idea of enforcing adherence to their beliefs and moral restrictions with secret police and public executions. They just want what's best for everyone... their definition of "best" varies somewhat from mine, but I'm still confident they would not want to hurt that many people and destroy our freedom to see it happen.

I question how else they could ever get the widespread adherence to their beliefs and morals that they seem to want - or fear what they might do if or when they eventually come to believe that themselves - though. And while I don't want to say that the best intentions in the world aren't a valid defense, they're still only a valid defense if one can legitimately say that any harm that resulted was sufficiently unforeseen. I question whether that's the case when the damage done to people's lives is the intended mechanism to force them to change themselves.

In the end, there seems to be no answer but to proceed carefully and question the possible negative consequences of our own goals. We certainly don't seem capable of listening to our opponents when they point out those negative consequences.