Snowcrash (1992): A review

Well, it only took me about three months, but I finally finished Snowcrash (to be fair it’s long and I read slowly). Here’s my review of the novel.

Published in 1992 by Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash is considered by many to be among the perennial novels in the cyberpunk genre. It is a relatively modern favorite, written in the 90’s instead of many of its older predecessors written in the 60s and 80s, and thus has a more modern flair. The story revolves around two main characters. The first is called Hiro Protagonist (no, I’m not kidding), a hacker extraordinaire that is also a skilled katana sword-wielder. He was also one of the original coders of big parts of the online virtual world called the Metaverse. The second main character is called Y.T., and is a courier in the real world, a line of work that involves Y.T. delivering packages using an advanced form of skateboard that she “poons’ cars with (attaches a suction cup connected to a strong retractable cable) in order to weave around the traffic on the highways. The story takes place in the future, where all governments have collapsed and corporations have become the de facto countries of the world, leading their own organizations with their own areas, security, and borders with passport control.

The title “Snowcrash” refers to a new type of drug that can be transmitted via the blood, but also virtually, by looking at a specific screen online. This new scary drug is the main plot driver in the book, and the story revolves around learning more about Snowcrash, who is using it and why, how it came to be, and what it is meant to do in the future as a dangerous weapon.

In terms of Cyberpunk stories, I liked this one a little more than Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which were the first two cyberpunk novels I read before this one. The dialogue shines through in the story, with casual witty banter among the characters. The novel feels like a 20-something wrote it, or perhaps it was written for that age group, and with the deferential main character’s name the novel definitely feels a bit like a parody of other cyberpunk novels.

Still, though, the fact that a dangerous drug is on the streets was not compelling enough of a plot point for the story to keep me reading. In addition to the fact that the novel is quite long, I found myself putting down the book many times and picking it back up. AS you read you see that things happen, but the pace feels somewhat slow, especially with nothing really to build up to until the very end. Even then, I felt that things were just happening in the story, and I was following along.

Nonetheless, there were a lot of cool ideas that I picked up in this novel. The first is the idea of corporations ruling the world, instead of governments, as I feel the current reality is a mix of corporations and governments truly ruling. I also quite like the concept of loglo which was introduced in the book. Loglo is the lighting of logos on highways and the world in general.

Another favorite was perhaps one of the most overpowered pseudo-villain of all time, Raven. In addition to being highly skilled with spears and knives, his enemies are afraid of killing him for reasons that I can’t explain without spoiling the book.

One thing I didn’t like, however, is how much Stephenson likes to explain things to the reader. Early on Hiro explains aspects of his reality to the reader, as if he knows that you are reading. This was a stark contrast from reading Neuromancer, which read as if all the lingo was already common knowledge for the reader, which can be quite confusing. This wasn’t too bad, until I got to the artificial virtual character called the Librarian. This read like a teacher’s dream student scenario, with Hiro asking all the right questions and the Librarian happily supplying them, with me drearily reading the back and forth while never having wanted to know the questions or  answers. A good chapter and a half is dedicated to the Librarian explaining archaic mythology and ideas from old civilizations, something that I suspect Stephenson loves knowing about but that didn’t quite fit with a cyberpunk novel.

Despite its drawbacks, it’s a good read, just be prepared for a long novel and if you’re a fast reader it’ll be a quick read. I’d give it 8/10.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Review)

So this past weekend I finally finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DE:HR). I say finally because, although I really wanted to like it, I ended up struggling to finish it in its entirety. Here’s my complete review of Deus Ex.

DE:HR features the story of Adam Jensen, a newly hired security guard for Sarif Industries, a new booming biomedical augmentation company. On one of the first days on the job, however, the headquarters is attacked and Adam’s girlfriend and top scientist is murdered, while several other scientists are kidnapped from the facility. The attack leaves Adam critically injured, which he only survives by serious augmentations that Sarif industries decides to invest in him. The rest of the story involves Adam doing some detective work to find out why the attack happened, where the other scientists are, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

There are a lot of things that DE:HR did well, and considering that it was released in 2011, I’m sure it was probably pretty groundbreaking for what it did. However, not only is the game a product of its time and sadly now a bit dated compared to current games, but I just couldn’t get behind the game mechanics. This may be in large part due to how I play as a gamer,  which would be straightforward first person shooters like Halo. The 3rd person setting when you take up cover makes it easier to stealth than to shoot, and I struggled a lot in smoothly lining up shots of my enemies. Although DE:HR does give you the option to do stealth only, guns blazing, or a mix of the two, the game consistently rewards you for taking the stealth route, and penalizes you for going guns blazing. How? Simply because ammunition is scarce compared to how many enemies you meet and their strength, and even with multiple upgrades (which I used as much as possible) you still have very little health, meaning that you really can’t afford to take more than a couple hits. As a result, near the last few levels, I found myself switching the difficulty to easy because I had lost my patience with creeping around and simply wanted to finish the game already. This resulted in an unfortunate ending where enemies did not hurt me when I thought they should have, and a ridiculously easy ‘boss battle’ at the end. So be warned! If you set the settings to easy, you might actually be cheating yourself out of the game. This is different from other games where easy mode is not god mode and it is still a little challenging.

The other qualm I had with this game is that EVERYTHING IS IN ORANGE. Seriously, if any object has the ability to be interacted with, it will have an orange border around it. All the lights are orange, windows are orange, and the vast majority of everything you see in the game is orange. So if you care about great visuals, and don’t like the color orange, this game might not be for you.

With all that being said, there are actually a lot of great things about this game that I would now like to address.

The first is that the plot is interesting and complex, and if you can get through the story fast enough so you don’t lose sight of your goals, can be quite fun. There are also a lot of side quests, some more interesting than others, such as saving a woman in a brothel. There are a lot of surprises and honestly it keeps you guessing most of the way.

The other thing I liked about the game is how much choice you get to have. Not only can you end the game in 4 different possible endings, you can also have different conversations with people that will lead to different outcomes. You can also get an upgrade that lets you analyze the personality of the person you’re speaking with (alpha, betta, or gamma person) and then use the right words to appeal to the right senses in this person (such as being logical to an alpha, flattering to a beta, and threatening a weak gamma person). This use of psychology so clearly in a game was quite refreshing.

Finally, once you get past the orange, a lot of the locations are pretty cool. My favorite was Hengsha, a city in China that ‘became so crowded they built another city on top of it’.

Heng_sha_skyline

Checking out the nightclub there and walking the streets and looking at the futuristic light fixtures and architecture was really cool. I just wish it was bathed in neon blue and purple instead of, again, everything orange.

All things considered, I would give this game a 7.5/10. The gameplay mechanics were hard to get around for me, but the music, storyline, setting, dialogue, and variety of gameplay made it worth the time I put into it.

I recommend playing this game but taking your time with it. Although if you like stealth games like Metal Gear Solid, I think this’ll be right up your alley.

 

 

Upgrade (2018): Movie Review

Upgrade was a movie that immediately piqued my interest when it first came out, but that I figured would be a typical action revenge slug-fest where the main character, through the help of an AI enhancement chip, would give him something akin to Kung Fu moves as it took over and helped him unleash all kind of badassery.

Thus I was very pleasantly surprised by the range and scope of this movie. Although still a self-contained revenge story, there were a lot of surprises that I didn’t expect, and a lot of artistic choices that I found made this movie rise up as much more than a simple revenge action flick.

Grey Trace is a mechanic whose wife is suddenly and tragically murdered, and he is left quadriplegic for reasons unknown.

MOVIE REVIEW UPGRADE

After attempting to recreate the semblance of a life after his injury, he is offered an AI chip called STEM that promises to give him full mobility of his body back, billed as a ‘second brain’ of sorts. Once implanted, Grey goes on a quest to find out why he and his wife were attacked, through the help of STEM.

One of the things that really makes this film work is the chemistry between the AI, called STEM, and the main character, Grey Trace. STEM is voiced by Simon Maiden, whom I hadn’t heard of before, but his voicing is excellent. Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus) also gives an excellent performance, with both a wide range of emotion, action, and his ability to move his body in a highly wooden fashion as if STEM were controlling it. The way he moves his head, arms, and complete body as if it were a robot controlling parts of a whole, helped reinforce the illusion that STEM truly was in control. Another cool effect was how I experienced hearing STEM for the first time. Not only does it take you by surprise when he does speak, but only the speakers in the back of the theater projected his voice, whereas all speakers projected Grey’s voice, further creating the illusion that STEM was inside all of our heads.

The second thing that I loved about this movie was the pacing. Too many action films, in my view, rush all of their action sequences and don’t take their time, either via multiple scenes or too many shots. Not so with this movie. They take ample time to introduce characters and build up the relationship between Grey and his wife Asha.

Upgrade romance2

I noticed that after about 30 minutes, the catalyst of his wife being murdered still hadn’t happened yet. Considering the movie’s run time of 95 minutes, this was clearly a choice the director made and couldn’t have decided lightly.

Finally, the third surprising element of the film is how it delivers the right dose of humor between all the action. Many movies have been able to be successful in this endeavor, injecting the right dose of humor to lighten up the gravity of the action, usually through quirky and witty banter from the main characters (ahem Marvel), but this movie doesn’t do that. Rather, the humor is shown through Grey’s reactions to everything that is happening to him. He reacts to the AI sentience of the chip much like any one of us might react: with surprise, alarm, incredulity, and then a slow begrudging level of trust due to the abilities and polite nature of the AI. As a result, when the AI does things that are perhaps logical but also inhuman and unpredictable to the rest of us, Grey serves as a vessel of the audience in sharing that mutual reaction of “WTF is happening right now???” In this way the movie’s humor works really well.

Adding to these three elements are simply a lot of little things that work well. Technology is advanced, but not ubiquitous, as is well represented in the dichotomy of Grey’s love for mechanical diesel engines and the simplicity of a tech-free life, in juxtaposition with his wife’s big embrace of everything advanced, electronic, and technological. So when he chooses (without much of a choice) to be implanted with STEM, it makes his situation that much more ironic, but not unfamiliar for cyberpunk fans who might have seen similar situations play out in movies such as RoboCop.

As I left the theater, I found that I was struck by the question does this count as cyberpunk? There are low life elements, and high tech elements, although it’s not chock-full as Blade Runner or The Matrix is. However, the technology that is ever present is a lot more biopunk than cyberpunk.

Like, for instance, what I like to call “Hand-Guns”.

Upgrade hand-gun

 

Although there was a bit of cyberpunk, such as incidental shots of people in VR and a few VR scenes, these didn’t contribute that much to the story and therefore I’d call it Biopunk with some Cyberpunk elements.

Upgrade VR

This scene, with people randomly ambling about in the back using VR but not relevant to the story, is as close to VR as the movie gets. Although there are some drones, the most advanced tech again is implanted in bodies, thus I stand by my statement that it’s Biopunk with some cyberpunk elements. Although we do get some fun bits of dialogue such as when Grey asks “why would people want to be in VR for so long?” to which a hacker replies “maybe because for some people reality is more painful”.

Overall, I would give this movie a 9 or 9.5 out of 10. Although it’s not deep or profound like my favorite movie of all time, The Matrix, it does so much more than your average Revenge Action flick set in a quasi-cyberpunk setting. The score is good, and there are some truly beautiful scenes as well. Also, their use of camera angles to accentuate their action scenes was so much fun.

I’d highly recommend seeing it in theaters if you still can!

Check out the trailer that made me think it was nothing more than an action-revenge flick here:

Cyber Dystopia: Updates for the rest of 2018

I created Cyber Dystopia as a place to keep and cherish all my thoughts on the different media I am discovering and consuming in the realm of Cyberpunk. A vision I had for CD is for it to be a place where I could keep up with the Cyberpunk trends, including media that has been recently released, and media that is being released soon. A couple different excellent pending releases would include Akira: Battle Angel (which was supposed to be released in July of this year but was pushed back to December 2018) and Cyberpunk 2077, the new Cyberpunk video game by the creators of The Witcher that everyone is excitedly awaiting the release for.

I know I’ve been a bit MIA for the past couple months, but it’s been a busy time for me. I accepted a job to teach English at the University of Strasbourg come September, so I have been preparing for that. I also got married last week, which required a lot of planning and preparation. Now, however, I have one more month of living in the United States, before a honeymoon in Egypt and then a move to France in August. Because of this, I anticipate being able to dedicate more of my time to posting reviews and content of all the cyberpunk material I’ve been coming across, in a hope to not only keep it all in one place for myself, but also as an easy way to share it with you, the reader. A great part of this project consists in your responses as well, so if you feel the inclination, I’d love to hear your responses or any feedback about your take of the media I’m posting about. Reactions are great, and I’m sure we’ll probably disagree about some things, which is what makes this whole thing fun–where we all agree to disagree in a world without rules but instead with steadfast independent thought.

Well, for now at least.

-Alex, founder of Cyber Dystopia

 

Le Matos: Chronicles of the Wasteland

Le Matos: Chronicles of The Wasteland

Of all sounds that best fit Cyberpunk, I often find that the retro-80s roots and electronica of Synthwave are a snug fit. One great example of such an up-and-coming artistic group is that of Canadian band Le Matos.

Le Matos

Their music combines retro synthwave in a beautiful Canadian blend of Electronica. Inspired by the likes of Vangelis, John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, and other 80s movie soundtrack composers, Le Matos was founded by Jean-Nicholas Leupi and Jean-Philippe Bernier in Montreal in 2007. The group released their first singles, 88mph and 58 minutes pour vivre, in a digital album labeled Coming Soon 2007-2011. The group then released a proper debut in 2013 called Join US, but the group didn’t become as well-known until the created the soundtrack (and subsequent remix) for the incredible independent film Turbo Kid. When the movie was presented at the Sitges International Festival of Fantastic Cinema in Catalunya, it won a best music award. They also released their single, No Tomorrow featuring Pawws, with a music video that also serves as a prequel to the film. Although the music video is really interesting and explains how Apple came to be where she was when she meets The Kid, I personally didn’t like Pawws’ vocal contribution to the song. It felt too bubble-gum peppy for me, although the electronic synths from Le Matos are good as ever.

Le Matos is still growing in the Synthwave sphere, where they have also created a song called Kiyoko that went to the credits scene of the fan-made live action tribute trailer called The Akira Project (http://www.akira-project.com/ )

Akira Project OST Le Matos Album Picture

While much of their music is excellent, my particular favorites of theirs are found in the 50-track album Chronicles of the Wasteland. I stumbled upon them via Pandora, which is great because it means that they’re gaining traction in streaming websites such as Pandora and also Spotify, in addition to traditional venues such as Soundcloud and Bandcamp.

The track that hooked me was the mellow beauty called “Like Faith or Some Shit”. I actually listened to their tunes before I had ever seen Turbo Kid, and as I listened to their tracks on repeat via Soundcloud I pictured myself in the wastelands of Blade Runner or behind a tinted glass with loglo outside being driven somewhere clandestine in the rain.

Le Matos is slang for “equipment” in French, and although all members come from the hardcore scene, they are described as straight edge (no drugs and no alcohol).

If you haven’t already, or even if you have, I recommend checking out Turbo Kid again.

Turbo_Kid_poster

I’m not sure if it would qualify as Cyberpunk or not (I’m leaning towards Dystopian future with a couple cyberpunk elements in it) but it’s an excellent fun film, made particularly memorable by the quirkiness of Apple, the silly over the top gore and excellent costumes, and the unusual yet familiar storyline. What’s more, you can enjoy the film that much more if you pay special attention to the soundtrack. This is one way you can revisit old movies, after having listened closely to the soundtrack independently from the film and then upon seeing the film again you get a better appreciation for the whole product.

Listen to the full album on Soundcloud here: https://soundcloud.com/lematos/sets/chronicles-of-the-wasteland-1

For Le Matos’ website, check them out here: http://www.lematos.com/