December 15, 2014

Reframing the mainframe plot

I've ranted about this before, but the mainframe-as-antagonist (commanding an army of dumb terminal minions) was a well-worn theme fifty years ago. It's so overdone by now you can't stick a fork in it: it's mush. And yet Hollywood keeps serving it up.

Because, well, we keep chomping it down.

Conquering the galaxy since the 1950s.

Even the ending of Edge of Tomorrow (without a computer network in sight) is straight out of The Phantom Menace. And straight out of Oblivion, the previous Tom Cruise SF post-apocalyptic, blow-up-the-alien-mainframe actioner.

Making it an organic mainframe is a slight improvement, but just as dumb. The whole "hive mind" thing needs to go too.

Of course, destroying a single machine in a single place and winning the war everywhere makes for easy denouements. But if the Earth is ever attacked by malevolent aliens who know how to implement autonomous distributed network technology, we are so screwed.

That aside, though, what do the aliens hope to accomplish by attacking Earth so piecemeal? Or attacking Earth at all? (Besides giving the director an excuse to restage the Battle of Britain or the Invasion of Normandy.)

If they wanted to wipe out humans along with the infrastructure--the whole objective of the Independence Day aliens--there's no need to get anywhere near the planet's surface, as Heinlein pointed out back in 1966 with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

De-orbiting asteroids does the job nicely. And there are lots of big asteroids out there.

Another reason is: they want our water. But there is plenty of easily-accessible water elsewhere, and not at the bottom of a deep gravity well. Europa, for starters.

Then there's the "To Serve Man" plot device. But homo sapiens is a lousy food/energy source (The Matrix is dumber than dirt in this regard). That's why so few people get eaten by sharks (surprisingly few!).

Besides, a blown-up country is a huge resource sink. Hence the Marshall Plan. By 1950, the U.S. government was already regretting Article 9 in the 1947 Japanese Constitution (forbidding war) and was revving up Japanese industry to support the Korean War.

In The Phantom Menace, George Lucas tosses the politics of trade into the picture, but without demonstrating the slightest comprehension of what was being traded, why or how. The result is a blur of handwaving when it comes to the actual story.

The economic model of the Star Wars universe makes no more sense than the socialist utopianism of Star Trek, which finally gave us the robber baron Ferengi to make things interesting.

Still, Lucas was onto something. The "unequal treaties" imposed on Japan and China by the U.S. and European powers in the mid-19th century led to the Boxer Rebellion in China and propelled Japan into a regional arms race in order to even the scales.

Lots of dramatic conflict there. The thing is, China and Japan had stuff the foreign powers wanted. And at the time, a bad trade deal was a better deal for both sides than smash and grab.

And so we're back to the Lebensraum ("living space") ideology promulgated by Germany in the 1930s. (The Nazi bad guy connection certainly doesn't hurt.) The Japanese equivalent was used to justify the annexation of Korea and Manchuria around the same time.

Both Germany and Japan were doing rather well at expanding their territories (employing "unequal treaty" tactics) before they started actually invading their neighbors, after which everything went downhill fast.

So we'll assume our invading aliens are smart enough not to turn the whole thing into a scorched-earth shooting war. The problem is how to make that interesting.

A good place to start is Ryomaden, which describes in detail the "opening" of Japan in the mid-19th century, the shock to the system, the unequal treaties, the civil strife and then civil war that launched Japan on a burning quest to surpass the west.

If gunboat melodrama is what you want, (bad) diplomacy seems pretty good at supplying the necessary Sturm und Drang motivations. Kudos to Guardians of the Galaxy on this score (though I hope they dispense with the same-old apocalyptic climax in the sequel).

The problem is the interminable time frame of real politics. Ryomaden runs 42 episodes. Summing up two decades of realistic geopolitics in two hours would be tough. I suppose it really is simpler to just have Tom Cruise blow up the mainframe.

Labels: , , , , , ,


# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
After finishing Bones, Season 8, I've decided that good villainy always comes down to self-interested motivations.

Season 8 of Bones is surprisingly good overall. Yet the villain of the season, Pelant, induces instant eye-rolling. He is way, way too powerful for one thing (serial killers are NOT masterminds; if they remain uncaught, it is because the world is big, law enforcement agencies can be incompetent, and civilized society relies on people being more or less civilized--when they aren't, it's difficult to stop them).

For another, Pelant is one of those "bad for the sake of being bad" villains. That is, he isn't self-interested. Instead, he has that over-the-top self-destructive evil-mastermind thing going on that makes him care more about upsetting the good guys than protecting his back. I guess he is supposed to have a death wish . . . yawn. Give me the Wraith or the Goa'uld any day: food and power (i.e. resources) make way more sense as motivations than revenge (Ahab and Khan did it--it really doesn't need to be done anymore).

Luckily, there are only 3-4 Pelant episodes; I recommend Season 8, which includes truly excellent episodes. The Bones' writers impress me with their ability to refresh the series just when I think it's lost momentum!
12/15/2014 8:09 PM

# posted by Anonymous Dan
Live Free or Die Hard was showing on TV for the millionth time. I must have been in a cynical mood because I noticed an illogical premise in just about every scene. This time around couldn't stomach it and had to turn it off. The impossibility of using a concrete curb to launch a police car into an airborne helicopter is an obvious fantasy. But the worst offenses of the logical mind were (a) at one moment there is gridlock in Washington DC and at another moment the streets are clear so McClain can do his car stunts (b) there is a state of emergency in DC and yet a large semi-truck housing the bad guys command center is driving around unmolested (and again are not the roads congested?) (c) at any given moment communication networks are blocked or open, which is it? (d) the fallback for any failed infrastructure attack is for the bad guys to execute a remote attack, as in blowing up the "Eastern Hub" when McClain foiled the initial takeover, so why was it necessary to physically visit the plant?

Unfortunately, too many script writers choose to make the Mainframe computer / Internet a substitute for the omnipotent power that controls all things. At one point, long ago, this was an ingenious plot line. That was long ago. One wishes movie producers of today would write such tripe out of any storyline that lands on their desks.
12/16/2014 6:24 AM

# posted by Anonymous Dan
Off subject one of my favorite scenes from Die Hard is the streetview camera shot of the "Nakatomi" building that has a gas station in the foreground. The price at the pump: 74 cents regular, 77 cents unleaded. That's right, not only was gas selling for under a buck in 1987 but you could still buy leaded gasoline!
12/16/2014 7:01 AM

# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
I had more comments and decided to write a post instead!
12/19/2014 8:49 AM