Atom The Beginning is a curious series; unlike the precedent it would appear to follow of socially-conscious updates of traditionally simplistic hero series like Gatchaman Crowds (which like it or not explored the obsolescence of superheroes and indeed government in an internet of things-based society) or Yatterman Night (which was an able if occasionally awkward exploration of the nature of villainy in a simple black-and-white morality superhero narrative) it has yet to properly dig into any of the moral issues it would appear to focus on. The precedent is there for something rich. Astro Boy was a universe that within its child-friendly framework played on ideas of the morality of android technology and machine sentience. But Atom the Beginning is set in that era in a time before the events that led to the creation of, arguably, one of the first super robots.
In my longer review of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst I talked about how it was an ultimately anemic attempt at an activist piece of science-fiction; it failed to consider its liberal message on a level beyond what seemed to me to be the superficial. This was primarily a result of its creation of a bland dichotomy between terrorists on one end (who believed and exposited at great length that tacit acceptance of inequality made people a fair target for being killed in the name of the cause) and a peaceful progressive movement that seemed mostly to exist to make the protagonist appear to have agency. There was never a proper sense of struggle; the status quo seemed to be set up purely to hinge on the protagonist – and thus the player’s – actions.
Note: This article discusses in close detail the story of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
After creating the character of a faceless enforcer of the dystopian state in the previous story in this setting, I thought it would be interesting to characterise them as something other than the usual meathead or killer cyborg.
Thus this came about.
As my recent review suggests, I have not long finished Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. I enjoyed it, for the most part.
It reminded me that some time ago I wrote some short stories in that vein, and indeed began a never-properly-started cyberpunk-psychedelia Storium campaign with some friends to continue the idea.
It seemed a good time to revive this idea.
I love the Dominic / Jurgens / Anemone plotline in Eureka Seven far too much. As soon as I began writing an E7 inspired cyberpunk story I knew I had to run with that idea of the Establishment man sympathetic in his naivete, and so it became clear this story had to be told on two levels – Below, the world of free-running, gang crime and vague oppression, and Above, the crushing bureaucracy of terror.
What made me edit this into a pair of short stories with uncertain ends, rather than a novella or longer piece, was my inexperience of writing crime fiction; I thought it better to write something I was confident in (world-building and characterisation) than a subpar mystery.
These two short stories form together the opening to what was originally going to be a longer piece of writing which I found never quite worked out. In time I may return to it, but for now I think they stand quite well on their own.
The initial plan was to write something in the cyberpunk genre that also captured the dystopian psychedelia of Mirror’s Edge, Eureka Seven and Jet Set Radio, given my own spin via the music of Public Service Broadcasting. My aim was to create a world of postwar dreams soured into high-technology surveillance state, where overwhelming optimism was reinforced via a 1984-esque mass media reminding people over and over of the marvels of technology and the luxuries of the modern world so they come to accept it. This seemed a natural place for free-running countercultural gangs…
I am something of a fan of the “lived-in” future, the grimy industrial look of things like Alien, Star Wars and so on. It seems an aesthetic that quite suits a pseudo-cyberpunk world, one of technology abused for the purposes of perpetuating inequality. That’s where this story came from – a series of aesthetic inspirations from the deserts of Dune and The Phantom Pain to a kind of indistinct mix of Mad Max‘s post-apocalypse and Michiko & Hatchin‘s sunburned South American favelas, tied together with the voice of a character trying to maintain a punk, anti-authority facade but – like I think many people do – finding their thoughts tend to the melancholy and introspective when they are alone with them.
After all, it is easier to be angry that the water is out again than to really do something about the ownership of the means of production when the bourgeoisie are millions of miles away on another planet.
This latest short story continues in the science-fiction theme of Episode 48, but rather than being a look at the big-hero antics of super-robots takes a look at the “real robot” – the military-SF subgenre of mecha anime where the technology is less spectacular and more everyday, where the machines are not standins for superheroes and all that associates with them but tools of war.
At the same time it is heavily, heavily inspired by the wargame Infinity, currently in its third edition – a cyberpunk, real-robot wargame about high-technology superpower conflicts. A key part of Infinity is its mechanics for electronic warfare – something immensely useful in pure game-mechanics terms as a way of gaining action advantage and mitigating threat, but something which if considered from a setting perspective is possibly more terrifying a prospect than the firepower carried by most soldiers. This is not, specifically, Infinity fiction. I do not know enough about the setting to write something I would be prepared to claim as such. Instead it is my response to Infinity, and to its inspirations Ghost in the Shell, and Patlabor, and Appleseed and more.
Transistor, Supergiant Games’ follow-up to the hugely acclaimed Bastion, can be seen as a refinement of its predecessor; it is a similar isometric action-RPG, with similar mechanics, challenge rooms, modular upgrades and difficulty mods. It even has a similar aesthetic/narrative design, with an omnipresent narrator making up for a mute protagonist. Yet calling it a simple science-fiction themed refinement of Bastion’s theme is underselling it significantly; it is a more ambitious, more tactical and much more challenging title.
My previous article about Patlabor on Television suggested that – much like its feature film iteration – it was a kind of disguised cyberpunk story, replacing explicit reference to transhumanism and corporate unaccountability with an emphasis as much on unequal access to technology, and the inability of some to benefit from the world of the future that is supposedly being built. Yet it is a story, it is worth remembering, from the perspective of the police. The authorities – governments, police and corporations – of cyberpunk worlds are traditionally better-equipped than the “people”, less accountable, and inherently compromised ethically – a self-serving trifecta, often. Ghost in the Shell, another sizeable franchise within the genre, explored this tension directly by pitting its protagonist police against criminals whose motives were often understandable.