Saturday, December 9, 2017

Tunnel Visions: The Helsinki Metro

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

In the land of confusion that is this twenty-first century, it's almost comforting to know that there's a transit system where smiling is specifically allowed everywhere -- because who doesn't love commuting, am I right? It's a system that reached further than any other, of a system orange like no other is orange, where some stations have three names and where you can be connected to the world while in the middle of a tunnel. I didn't know what to expect, not really, especially not from a language that was occasionally as reminiscent of Japanese as it was English -- somewhere there's got to be someone spinning conspiracy theories from the similarity of the Japanese kippu and the Finnish lippu, both of which mean ticket. But no matter what language you're speaking, metro means metro.

The Helsinki Metro was the newest of the Nordic countries' three metro systems, the smallest, and the least used -- at least until I remembered that Denmark is also a Nordic country, and that by opening the Copenhagen Metro in 2002, Denmark ruined everything -- but I'm not here to compare so crudely. I've never even been to any of the other ones. Riding it was the first chance I've had to evaluate rapid transit in a country outside the Anglosphere. Some things caught my eye, some things made me wonder, and some things I'd never even considered, let alone see before, but in the end, every metro is meant to move people.

Incidentally, a note: between taking the notes for this project and writing this post, the near-mythical Länsimetro extension opened, taking service west to Espoo and adding eight new stations to the map. As much as I'd like to incorporate the new bits into this work, flying from Toronto to Helsinki is a bit expensive. Having a system update itself while I'm still evaluating it isn't something I've ever had to worry about for one of these, but I feel like it's appropriate here. Out of all the metro systems I've touched on in this series, the Helsinki Metro took me further than all of them.


A train crosses the Vuosaari Bridge near Rastila station, bound for the western end of the line.

The Helsinki Metro is the northernmost rapid transit system in the world, and unless Reykjavik gets ambitious, that record isn't likely to fall any time soon. Its northernmost station, Mellunmäki, sits at 60 degrees, 14 minutes north, but you'd never know it just standing on the platform there. It's simple, straightforward, unpretentious -- much like the network as a whole. Finland isn't part of Scandinavia, but I can see echoes of that clean, no-nonsense Scandinavian design in the shape of the Metro. At the same time, there's an appealing roughness to it, exemplified to me by stone-strewn trackbeds that look like what you'd find on a regular surface railway.

European systems tend to have a reputation for complexity -- look at the multicoloured spaghetti plates of London, Paris, or Berlin -- but the Helsinki Metro is easy to wrap your head around even if you can't tell the difference between Finnish and Quenya. It's shaped rather like a tuning fork with trains running on two services, M1 and M2, but between Tapiola in the west and Itäkeskus in the east, there's a substantial service overlap. All trains service Rautatientori, connected to Helsinki Central Station and one of the city's gateways to the rest of the world, and the monolithic Kamppi Centre -- a bit of a change from when I was there, when the overlap ended at Kamppi and only half the trains continued on to Ruoholahti, which was the westernmost point in the system for twenty-four years. It reminded me of Boston's Blue Line, with one end of the line still in the central city.

To be honest, speaking as an Anglophone, the most complex part of the Helsinki Metro was getting the names straight. Names like "Rautatientori" were easy for me to stumble over with my English-language brain, and I often found the stations' Swedish names easier to remember, but that will only take memory so far. While Kamppi's Swedish name is "Kampen" -- not much of a stretch -- a lot of these stations are named not for streets, but neighbourhoods with actual, meaningful names. To an English speaker, Ruoholahti and Gräsviken may look like they have no relation at all, but they both mean the same thing; roughly, "Grass Bay." Helsinki's nature as a bilingual city makes it clear why the stations were named like this, but it's an interesting counterpoint to the other bilingual-city metro I've covered, the Montreal Metro. If Helsinki's naming policy was used there, Côte-Vertu station might be known in English as "Virtue Coast." In the interest of keeping things straightforward, I'll use the Finnish station names throughout this article.

No, what's really striking about the Helsinki Metro is that more so than a lot of other systems I've used, it feels almost like a system of wormholes. From what I understand, Helsinki didn't start developing in earnest beyond its 19th-century core until the 1970s, and it shows. Take Sörnäinen station, only a few stops away from the central railway station, deep enough in the core to be connected to Helsinki's streetcar network. Two minutes east puts you at Kaisatama, an infill station surrounded by what feels like a completely new urban district under construction. Two minutes past that takes you to Kulosaari, which serves a leafy green island with a quiet, suburban feel. It's a significant difference from Toronto, where subway lines built under former streetcar routes gives a certain continuity to the shape of the city, and where big divergences come mainly from past city boundaries or line extensions.

Helsinki Central Station, Rautatientori and Kaivokatu, looking east. If only I'd thought to take this picture on a day that wasn't overcast.

The metro is well-integrated with the rest of Helsinki's transit infrastructure. From Rautatientori, for example, you can catch a ring rail service to the airport, one of the commuter trains that reach across much of southern Finland, or long-distance trains to Rovaniemi or even to Russia. Seven of Helsinki's streetcar lines serve Rautatientori as well, connected to the underground station by a transferway in the median of Kaivokatu, similar to the transferway that existed at Yonge and Bloor in Toronto before the construction of the Bloor-Danforth subway. Every station from Ruoholahti to Sörnäinen is served by streetcars, and beyond them, bus connections are available. The level of integration between services is closer to Vancouver's style than Toronto's, though -- whether transferring to a streetcar or a bus from a metro station, there were fare-paid zone lines in between.

Incidentally, one issue about that transferway -- it's not entirely prepared for the sudden, drenching rain that seems to be no stranger to Helsinki, because otherwise my encounter with it during my time there must have been an extremely lucky roll. Hell, if there's more than one streetcar waiting at the stop, and yours is the one parked behind the one in front of the shelters, you'd better be ready to get wet.

Nevertheless, this integration helps ensure that a lot of people use the metro. In 2016, it carried 64.1 million passengers in a service area with a metropolitan population of 1.4 million, or 45.7 passengers per person per year; this is close to Toronto's figure of 51.3 passengers per person per year. It's not a system that's easy to get lost in, and with only nine stations not served by both lines, if you do take a wrong turn it's easy to correct it. In my experience, the Helsinki Metro didn't demand much cognitive effort to get around. It was only when I was aiming for Mellunmäki or Vuosaari that I ever had to pay attention to where I was going at all, and that's one of the critical tests of a transit system. People have enough to worry about in their lives without having to negotiate a maze of a metro.

Still, if you need some help finding your way, you won't lack for information. This wasn't the first time I'd been on a system that used more than one language, but in many places, the Helsinki Metro is trilingual; beyond the translated station names, the signage is provided in Finnish, Swedish, and English. I even saw one or two that were quadrilingual, with Russian being added into the mix, but these tended to be of the "danger, do not touch" variety. You can get around easily while knowing barely a word of Finnish, because I did, and I do; though I'd recommend at least "anteeksi," because it's better to excuse yourself if you have to navigate a crowd. You'll likely also pick up "kielletty" within the first twenty-four hours, considering how often it shows up in signage.

My only regret is that while an English speaker can tease an understandable meaning out of the Metro's Swedish signage, Swedish doesn't play by the same pronunciation rules. Kulosaari's Swedish name is Brändö, but no matter how much you might want it to be otherwise it only has electric lights, and not electrolytes.


Daylight and shadow meet on the Rastila station platform.

I have my suspicions that if I do ever end up accidentally killing myself, it'll probably be in a subway station rushing for a train. See, in Toronto a lot of the system is still not only grounded in a mid-century aesthetic, but a mid-century sense of what's feasible, and what wasn't easily feasible in the 1960s were next-train countdown timers. When I first arrive at my station, the only sense I have of an incoming train is that subtle shift in air pressure and a whispering breeze coming from below -- the sort of information asymmetry that leads me to take the stairs two at a time. Sometimes I hit the platform just as the train's pulling in, sometimes with just enough time for the train's doors to close in my face, and sometimes the wind was just an eastbound train pulling in. The point is that I don't know, and the longer I do it for, the greater my odds of missing a step and breaking my neck.

That wasn't the case in Helsinki, and not only because there I was a tourist with no demands on my time. But I'll get to that.

With the November 2017 opening of the first phase of the Länsimetro extension, there are now twenty-five stations on the Helsinki Metro with another five under construction, from Matinkylä in the west to Mellunmäki and Vuosaari in the east. In August only sixteen of them were open, and I visited all of them. Between them, the stations make a good introduction to design philosophies of the last thirty-five years, from the subterranean entry plaza at Rautatientori to the bright, uplifting combination of earth and sky at Rastila and the cave-like nature of Ruoholahti. You won't find any of Toronto's mid-century washroom aesthetic here, nor the ISO Standard Outer-City Metro Station. There's no architectural sameness, and aside from Herttoniemi, none of them struck me as ugly.

Most of the stations are either underground -- and where they're underground, they tend to be deep underground -- or on the surface. The main exception is Kalasatama, an elevated station that stands three or so storeys over a construction zone that looks like it'll be a hyper-modern glass-and-steel neighbourhood in a couple of years. Kalasatama is also one of only two side-platform stations, an artifact of it being an in-fill station built around existing rail; the other, Itäkeskus, serves three tracks from its two platforms as it's where the northern and southern branches diverge.

In keeping with its centrality, Rautatientori was my introduction to the system, and my first response was amazement at the sheer scale of the place, with its platform level having as much space available as half a dozen Toronto stations. To a degree the same is true of the other central-city stations, with Kamppi, Ruoholahti, and Helsingin yliopisto in particular sharing this design ethic, feeling less like built environments and more like natural caves that were converted into stations. As cities with metro systems go, Helsinki isn't that large, but these stations could easily accommodate morning crowds at Bloor-Yonge and still have room for a symphony of buskers. There's a good, if sobering, reason for this openness, and it doesn't have anything to do with planning ahead for future demand patterns -- these stations were meant to double as attack shelters. After all, the system first opened in 1982, one year before the world nearly stumbled into nuclear war twice, and the Soviet Union was then less than a hundred kilometres away. Still, this gives them a wide-open, welcoming feeling that I've rarely experienced underground.

Even before I entered Rautatientori proper, I was impressed. It reminded me strongly of the Montreal Metro -- maybe that feeling of openness combined with a lot of concrete. Its main entrance is in a sunken plaza beneath the railway station, surrounded by retailers, with enough space to keep rush-hour crows flowing. What's more important, both here and elsewhere, is that there's no need to rush ahead without knowing what's coming. Because the system tells you what's coming.

The main entrance hall of Rautatientori. And a giant digital billboard with English-language advertising.

Flanking that advertisement, not entirely readable thanks to my phone's camera, are eighteen minutes of train arrival times. There's going to be one bound for Ruoholahti in a minute, then a Vuosaari-bound in three, and another making the trip west in four. With the length of those escalators, I'd be hard-pressed to make it down to the platform in under sixty seconds.

You'll find similar signs outside the other stations, complemented by screens above the platforms themselves counting down the next two trains' arrival times. Plenty of systems do this now, but Helsinki's way stands out because it's optimized for clarity and information. In Toronto, the next train arrival timer is smashed down into the bottom tenth of a TV screen that's otherwise dominated by news, weather, and advertisements -- and that's if there's one of those screens at your end of the platform. In Helsinki I always knew what I was getting into.

Even waiting around was an opportunity to let off stress, because the Helsinki Metro's internet infrastructure is like nothing I've ever seen. Not only was its easily accessible, no-login-needed free wi-fi a lifeline for me, but even with so many other people on the platform hooked into it, the service was faster and smoother than what I often get at home. Considering Finland's telecommunications heritage, I'm not surprised; just impressed. My experience with in-station access in Toronto tends more toward rolling into a station while the page steadfastly refuses to load.

The tight integration of stations with retail was something I saw again and again in the system -- Helsingin yliopisto's entrance is in the middle of a modest underground mall, reminiscent of Vancouver's Granville station, with everything from a convenience store to a casino -- but with a particular twist to it that I don't often see. Beyond the ubiquitous R-Kioski convenience stores and near-ubiquitous Hesburgers, I could see a grocery store from either the platform or the main entrance of most stations I visited. To me, it echoes how corner grocery stores prospered along streetcar lines, allowing people on their way home to stop in quickly for staples rather than making food shopping a once-a-week, car-filling odyssey.

Not that the system bends its knee to drivers at every opportunity. Unlike North American systems, the Helsinki Metro doesn't feel like it was designed around the primacy of the automobile. Sure, there are allowances for parking, particularly at the terminal stations, but they're nothing compared to the commuter lots you'd find at the ends of the Toronto subway, even adjusting for population differences. Take Vuosaari, with space for two hundred and twenty-two parked cars, and two hundred and forty-three bicycles. At Kulosaari, not too far from the city centre, I counted forty-two spots on a Monday afternoon and a fair number of them were empty. Of course, part of this is a result of shifting priorities; Vuosaari opened for service in 1998, after all. Itäkeskus, one of the original 1982 stations, has room for two hundred and forty bikes and four hundred and twenty cars.

One aspect where the Helsinki Metro doesn't particularly stand apart from other systems I've been on, however, is the cleanliness factor. At first, when I was still taking in the basics, it seemed pretty clean to me, but the more attention I paid the more grit and disorder I saw, and the further I got from central Helsinki the more obvious it became. At Rautatientori, it wasn't much more than an anti-NATO sticker on a free magazine rack, but down the line graffiti and vandalism -- usually scratched into the station benches -- became more common. The trains themselves weren't spotless either, with the usual discarded commuter newspapers and plastic wrap and other crap that had made its way to the floor, the kind you find on pretty much any transit system. Herttoniemi was singularly impressive, in its way; not only was there a big, bright tag on the tunnel wall where an ad would ordinarily go, but someone had tagged the third rail. In fact, referring back to my photos, it appears to have been multiple someones.

That's... impressive?

Graffiti taggers looking for blank canvases have a lot of opportunity in Helsinki Metro stations, as well. Compared to other systems I've been on, it felt very ad-light, and not just because I couldn't read most of them. I didn't encounter any station domination campaigns, like how right now in Toronto, Dundas station is entirely given over to a radio station advertising its all-Christmas playlist to such a degree that the ads have escaped the poster borders and are coming out of the walls. Advertisement in the stations tends to be limited to wall-side posters that aren't packed nearly as densely as they could be, given the space, and the video ad screens that line the escalators in the deep underground stations.

What struck me most about advertising in the Metro was how much of it -- and here, "much" is "greater than 0%" -- was in English. Granted, most of them were by the same company, and you could make the argument that it takes more mental effort to process something that isn't in your native language, and so English-language ads in a non-Anglophone country get more unconscious attention for free. I couldn't help contrasting it to Toronto, though, where despite the galaxy of languages that lights up this city, pretty much the only things you'll find in the subway that aren't exclusively English are very occasional safety instructions and the rare government advertisement.

Fortunately, advertisements aren't the Metro's only diversion; there's a lot of art to be found in the system, from the tiled labyrinth motifs at Ruoholahti to the sharp, metallic "Roots of the City" at Kamppi and to Riikka Puronen's interactive Sirenan kielet sculpture just outside Myllypuro, the Metro hasn't been lax in taking advantage of its own blank canvas.

It's something to think about while you wait for your next train, unstressed because you know exactly how long you have to wait -- perhaps with a drink you got from one of the platform vending machines. Those machines are everywhere in the system, selling chips, chocolate bars, bottles of pop and energy drinks, and they accept euro coins and credit cards. If only I'd thought to dump all of my leftover change in one before I left the EU. Whatever you sip, just make sure it isn't the hard stuff; the Metro specifically prohibits drinking alcohol aboard.


M100 car 142 leads a train bound for Mellunmäki at Kontula station.

My first and, honestly, lasting impression of the Helsinki Metro's trains is simple: such orange. Orange exteriors, orange interiors, orange-dominant advertisements, and even the lighting felt tuned to emulate a K-type star. Maybe it's a simple case of complementing colours; blue is one of Finland's national colours, and in the eighteen-hour-long nights that Helsinki gets in winter, orange must stand out. There are three varieties of trains running on the system -- the oldest M100 cars came with the system when it opened, the M200s appeared in 2001, and the M300s only entered service in 2016 -- and their differences reflect the last thirty years in metro design.

From a traveller's point of view, the differences are slight. The seats are universally hard plastic without upholstery, and look like the sort of furnishing Ikea might make if they were in the train business. I found the M100 and M200 trains most reminiscent of Vancouver's Mark 2 SkyTrain sets, with trains consisting of multiple individually-articulated cars rather than the whole-train articulation you see on the Toronto Rocket, the London Underground S Stock, and other Bombardier Movia trains. Only the new M300 trains have that kind of end-to-end access, and while they're as orange as the others, observant transit riders can recognize them from the dotted white bicycle silhouettes and from the car numbers that start with "3."

What these trains have in common is that you can hear them coming from a long way off. In Toronto, I'm used to trains announcing themselves with their headlights reflecting off the tunnel walls and the rails, or perhaps a faint gust of wind. In Helsinki, they're preceded by a sharp, distant, keening screech. Considering the vast airiness of the underground stations, it's only natural that the gust front created by an oncoming train would have plenty of space to dissipate.

Boarding a Helsinki Metro train feels not so much like stepping into the future as it does stepping into a future, perhaps one that diverged from our timeline at some point in the 1980s. The free internet offered in the stations extends to the trains themselves -- though the station-based and train-based networks are both named "METRO," entertainingly enough -- and rather than a banner of advertisements along the tops of the walls, the ads were served up on video screens. It was a very Total Recall vibe... by which I mean the objectively superior 1990 version. That movie's scenes were filmed on the Mexico City Metro, but if you wanted to depict a futuristic, non-specifically-located-but-presumably-American transit system, you wouldn't go wrong with Helsinki's.

The only thing that really tripped me up about them was how often the doors opened while the train was still gliding to a stop. Nothing that would imperil rider safety, considering how long those doors take to open, but when Toronto's subways can stop and hesitate for five seconds or longer before the doors wheeze open, it struck me as a bit overeager.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

An array of ticket machines at the entrance to Rautatientori station.

If the Helsinki Metro ever used turnstiles, they're long gone now. In another hint to its modernity, there are no fare barriers in any of the stations, and in fact not even a hint of where you might put them. Passengers ride on the honour system, tapping their fare cards at readers on the way in, and enforced by occasional fare inspections. My experience, while limited, implies they happen fairly regularly. I first encountered inspectors on my fifth or sixth metro trip, whereas in the two years I relied on Vancouver's SkyTrain -- which, at the time, used a similar barrier-free regimen -- I don't recall encountering inspectors even once.

With no fare barriers, it falls upon riders to make sure they've paid their way before they reach the platform. The ubiquitous R-Kioski stores sell fare media, and you'll find at least one ticket machine at every metro station, though in a pinch you can buy tickers from bus or streetcar drivers, and with the HSL's mobile ticket app, you can buy them on your phone as well. As of this writing, single-use mobile and machine tickets cost €2.90 ($4.39 Canadian, $3.41 USD), which sounds a bit steep at first, but these are all-zone tickets that let you travel everywhere in the Helsinki metropolitan area. I got around on a three-day ticket, clocking in at €18.

This lack of barriers adds to the stations' feeling of openness, though it does mean the sort of integrated transfers that Toronto's in-station streetcar platforms and bus bays don't happen in Helsinki. Instead, bus transfers are organized similarly to the transit exchanges run by TransLink in Metro Vancouver, particularly at Itäkeskus and Vuosaari.

Perhaps as a result of being designed later in the 20th century and perhaps just because of giving a damn in the first place, all Helsinki Metro stations are equipped with elevators for accessibility. Otherwise, platform access is primarily by escalator, some of them seemingly as tall as good-sized buildings. Unlike so many stations in Toronto, where the designers figured that one up escalator and one down escalator was sufficient, the central-city stations are equipped with banks of three or four. Whether they're mostly-up or mostly-down can be adjusted, depending on traffic patterns, but in my experience all but one of them were set to go up, and -- in a FAQ that warms my heart -- Helsinki City Transport, the operator of the Metro, specifically requests that people stand right and walk left. Refreshingly, in a nod to environmental stewardship, the escalators aren't left constantly running; if they don't detect people for long enough, they will stop.

Signage across the system is easy to follow. Destination signs on the trains and above the platforms tell you which tracks go where, even if in August the destination of westbound trains was often hidden beneath blackout paper -- at the time, one of the few indications that the Länsimetro actually existed. Signs pointing to the exit and the emergency stop buttons are easy to find, and each station also comes equipped with an information display that has a map of the station itself with exits marked, a map of the local area and any surrounding points of interest, and a summary of how to ride the Metro in Finnish, Swedish, and English.

The information display at Mellunmäki station. Somehow I get the impression that not many tourists bother to travel this far. I can't imagine why... I mean, northernmost station! In the world!

Included in that summary is a request that riders "take note of the Metro train's precise stopping place on the platform." What this means is that the Metro was, like Toronto's Sheppard line, built with future passenger numbers in mind, and four-car trains are often swallowed by platforms that could easily accommodate six cars. The stopping areas are indicated with floor stickers and blue lights, but they're easy things to miss or just not notice if you don't think to look for them.


Elevated tracks soar overhead outside Siilitie station.

Before my first sight of Rautatientori station, when I was worn down from jet lag and the discovery that my baggage had liked Keflavik International Airport so much that it took its own impromptu vacation there, I had no preconceived notions. Everything I knew about the Helsinki Metro came from Wikipedia, and Wikipedia is no substitute for experience. For those first few days the Metro was my familiar refuge, a place I could find some peace and connection while I tried not to dwell on whether I'd ever see my big green suitcase again. It was familiar in a way I hadn't expected; there are spots in Rautatientori where all the words you can see are in English.

From the simplicity of the system, to stations that made me forget I was underground, to an integration of art to the extent that one of the entrances to Helsingin yliopisto replicates a cave complete with cave art, I was impressed. Granted, Helsinki locals who have to use the network every day would have a more nuanced opinion, but at no point in the days I used it did I have to deal with stress or troubles that weren't ultimately self-inflicted.

The metro carried me far from the perspectives I usually have, further than any other metro can go, and that's always something to be thankful for.

Previous Tunnel Visions

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Empires We Choose Not to See

I'm going to start with a statement: empires are bad.

This isn't something I would have expected to be controversial five years ago because I would have expected people to know, in the same way that pain hurts and fire burns, that empires are bad. There are plenty of people who are well aware of how bad empires are, of course, but they tend to be the victims of empire. The primary beneficiaries of empire -- for those of you keeping score, that's white people in the Western world -- tend to be ignorantly innocent about it at best, and willing participants at worst. It's true that the last five hundred years is in many respects a history of empires, because when you have these organizations exerting their will across oceans and continents, impoverishing some to enrich others, they're going to leave a mark in the historical record. The modern legacy of empire is like the iridium concentration at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary; a global reminder of devastation and destruction.

But you wouldn't really get that impression from reading science fiction. Space empires have been a fixture of science fiction for practically as long as there has been science fiction, and while they were often meant as enemies -- take the Eddorians in the Lensman series -- science fiction's origins in imperialist states meant that the influence of empire would always be there. The venerable RPG Traveller is anchored around empire, whether it's plucky Terrans fighting against and replacing the aging Vilani Empire or the star-spanning Third Imperium; literary settings like Jerry Pournelle's CoDominium fills the future with a hegemonizing empire that seeks to incorporate all human worlds into its authority, with no exceptions; and the play-by-mail games of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The May/June 1983 issue of The Space Gamer reviews three of them -- Galactic Conflict, Starlord, and Star Venture -- and imperialism is in their bones. Take Starlord, where the players' goal is "to capture the Throne Star and become the Emperor, after which you get to play for free." For everyone else, it cost $2.50 to submit a Starlord turn ($6.11 in 2016 US dollars), which may make Starlord one of the few games where the player had a real monetary incentive for imperialism.

"Yeah," you might say, "but those are just games." I'd argue that games can shape the way we think and view the world just as much as anything else, and that these play-by-mail games were the precursors of modern 4X games, a genre designation which itself seems pretty innocuous until you think about it.

Explore, expand, exploit, exterminate.

The standard playbook of the Earth-based empire, and there it is, copy and pasted into interstellar space, giving you opportunity after opportunity to commit atrocities in the name of winning the game. Practically encouraging you to do it, at times -- take, for example, the Stellar Converter in Master of Orion II. By the time you've researched this late-game weapon, you don't need it, but it lets you follow the example of the one science fiction empire everyone knows: it lets you destroy planets. Using it rewarded you with this video and nothing else. No political slaps on the wrist, no anger from the galactic community, just a fresh asteroid belt. I can't count the number of times I did it, because it was easy and quick and I didn't need that planet anyway. But that's the thing about empire: it compromises you. It whispers in your ears. Like Brian Aldiss said in his introduction to the 1973 Galactic Empires anthology, "morality is all very well, but give me luxury every time."

Which brings me to Stellaris. Stellaris is the most recent of the 4X games, released by Paradox Entertainment just last year, and may well be the most dense and complex computerized 4X game. As a game it has a lot going for it, but like everything, it has its own unspoken political assumptions. One of those is empire. Not in that the game allows you to build an aggressive, galaxy-spanning empire should you so choose -- but in that it uses "empire" as the default. No matter whether you're fanatic egalitarians running a space United Nations, materialist xenophiles advocating for the light of Science, or a pacifist spiritualist nation seeking to commune with the secrets of the mental realm, the game refers to you as an empire just as it does the xenophobic authoritarians who dream of galactic conquest. It's baked into the tutorial tips and even into the news updates that appear in Steam before you boot up the game itself.

Funny, I'd have thought an empire was scary enough on its own.

The concept of empire is further rooted in the way the game works, too. The best government building you can build, which you can have only one of, is called the Empire Capital-Complex. There's an Imperial form of government authority, but in structure -- life terms and hereditary rulership -- it's just a monarchy. Just because a state is democratic doesn't mean it can't also be imperial, but the way they're set up as orthogonal here echoes an idea that's been made to percolate in the Western consciousness for a long time now. Hell, even if you're a fanatically xenophilic democracy that has embraced interstellar immigration for decades, the game still requires you to research a specific technology to get leaders who aren't of your founding species.

It's not so much that this is outright nostalgia for empire, I think, so much as it is divorced from the actual nature of empire. Unlike hyperdrives and psionic realms, empires are real things, and yet Stellaris treats it as if it's as neutral as using "lift" instead of "elevator." But there's a lot of hidden nostalgia here, the sort that Aldiss meant when he wrote about luxury. Up until recently, the general public tended to remember empires more easily because empires were the ones who wrote the histories. When they did, they remembered the accoutrements, the displays of wealth and power, and didn't stop to think about where that wealth came from and what that power was used for. (For those of you keeping score at home, the wealth was plundered from other people using that power.)

What gets me about Stellaris is that to me, there's a fairly evident disconnect between what was put there consciously and what slipped through unconsciously. One event, for example, has your scout ship discover a planet in the grip of an ice age but with industrial ruins, with the event text commenting on how nobody could understand how a species could be so foolish as to alter their own environment to uninhabitability. Another is how the humans are presented: the default United Nations of Earth, the "hero" humans, begin with a Black woman as leader, and the default Human species portrait is of a woman when in every other game I can think of, it's been a man.

Fun fact: originally Humans had "Quick Learners" as a trait. They were only switched in a later patch to being Wasteful.

But you have to look beyond that to get to the unconscious choices, like the use of "empire" as something that's value-neutral. Take the in-game blockers; these are meant as stumbling blocks to your developmental aspirations, where mountain ranges, dense jungles, toxic kelp, or noxious swamps need to be cleared away with advanced technology for you to make use of the resources on the tile they occupy. You're trained for this by the inclusion of unique blockers on your homeworld. There are two kinds. One is industrial ruins, left over from "a past age of progress." This is the other one.

Yeah, nothing political in that choice of description, am I right?

You have to look at stuff like this to get a sense of the unconscious choices. You have to look at how Martin "Wiz" Anward, one of the people who built Stellaris, apparently saw nothing wrong with wearing a red "MAKE SPACE GREAT AGAIN" hat during the pre-release streams in early 2016, when the Orange One had already told us everything we needed to know about him. You have to look at the things that are, as far as the person who created them are concerned, are so obvious that they don't need any special attention drawn to them.

You have to look at the people who believe, uncritically, that empire is a good thing.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Star Trek: The Orville Quest

This past Sunday night I hunkered down and watched the premiere of The Orville, Seth MacFarlane's new sci-fi series, because I hate myself and believe I deserve to suffer. None of the trailers or previews led me to expect greatness, and it certainly wasn't great. I tweeted many of my impressions at the time, and if you're really interested you can do an archive dive, but I feel my first impression is the most critical - it's aggressively mediocre. Still, it's been nibbling at the corners of my brain since I turned off the TV, and it's at least worth talking about.

The Orville is a unique show in that it is so transparently a Star Trek parody/homage/ripoff. This isn't unique across media, with 1999's Galaxy Quest being the first thing that came to mind when I heard of it, but it's different here. First, Galaxy Quest was a one-off; this is a series, though at least it being live-action means it can't stretch across decades the way Family Guy has. Second, Galaxy Quest knew what it was doing. The Orville doesn't. The fundamental problem with the series is that it's too Galaxy Quest to be Star Trek and too Star Trek to be Galaxy Quest. Galaxy Quest is that it gleefully deconstructed trope after Trek trope, from the captain's penchant for losing his shirt to casual interstellar exploration to things that only exist to put the heroes in danger.

The Orville, on the other hand, is one of the purest examples of the second artist effect I've yet encountered. If you haven't run up against it before, it's a phenomenon described by Charles Stross: the first artist goes outside, beholds the landscape, and paints it, but the second artist goes to the gallery, beholds the first artist's painting, and paints that. It's the artistic equivalent of clone degeneration, and The Orville is shot through with it. Why does the Orville have a navigator and a helmsman? Because the Enterprise did. Why is the Orville's bridge at the top of its primary hull with a big honking skylight in the roof? Because that's how the Enterprise was. Why does half of the bridge crew go down on away missions? Because that's how things were done on the Enterprise.

The Orville isn't a parody of Star Trek, even though it has so many opportunities to be. The episode's climax has the Orville under attack from a totally-not-Klingon ship, and the daredevil helmsman flies the ship on a death-defying series of attack runs that look like the video half of a motion simulator ride, weaving around the enemy ship, blasting all the way. It's a lot like a scene that was the climax of a Deep Space Nine episode, where the Defiant makes a death-defying series of attack runs, weaving around the enemy ship, blasting all the way. It was ridiculous then, it's ridiculous now, and yet both series play it completely straight. But even DS9 knew enough to keep that bit down to twenty-five seconds. In The Orville, it went on for so long I'm surprised Seth MacFarlane didn't cut away to five minutes of Conway Twitty.

The Orville isn't a homage to Star Trek, either; from the look and feel of the sets to  the fades-to-black before commercial breaks to the same streaming-stars effect in quantum drive, it hews far too close to its source material to be called that. It doesn't poke at the structure it's built around the way Galaxy Quest did, and it wastes its advantage of being made in the future.

The future is of particular importance here. One thing I've seen again and again, both in official commentaries and in some reactions to it, was on the need for optimistic science fiction in this hellscape of a decade. But The Orville doesn't feel like the future because it isn't; it's the future of the 1960s. Sure, the chassis may be smooth and modern-looking, but under the hood there is absolutely nothing that 1967 would be surprised by. Hell, considering how much of the first episode consisted of Captain Ed Mercer, Seth MacFarlane's character, complaining about his ex-wife and his divorce to anyone who would listen, it sometimes feel like it is more honest to 1967 than to 2017.

For all its attempts at being not your father's Star Trek, with a navigator who cares a lot about being able to drink pop on the bridge and a helmsman who casually throws the word "bitch" around, the fact is that this is your father's Star Trek with its hat turned backward, earnestly willing to rap with you all in a most tubular manner. This attitude was made clear in the premiere's first scene, a place-setting shot of New York City in 2417. It's the standard sci-fi city, with monuments like the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge contrasted with supertall skyscrapers, flying cars, and so on.

What weren't there were the seawalls. You see, for the past while, my usual encounters with future New York have been through The Expanse, which is everything The Orville isn't. In that series, Manhattan is surrounded by seawalls the size of small apartment buildings. It's a stark image, but given what we know, it's a reasonable extrapolation of what New York might look like in 2350. The Expanse looks ahead with eyes open and unblinking and sees some pretty ugly stuff. The Orville covers its eyes, plugs its ears, and builds its optimistic future with fifty-year-old blueprints.

The thing about The Orville is that there are so many ways MacFarlane could have done it without being what it is. Something that took inspiration from, say, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor would play to his strengths, but The Orville is far too wedded to being Star Trek without being Star Trek that it couldn't go too far without falling apart. It's like the holodeck: one shows up in the episode, and it requires no explanation where Star Trek: The Next Generation took five minutes explaining it, because MacFarlane can rely on audience knowledge. It's also like the holodeck in that beyond the door, the photons and force fields that give illusions substance dissolve into nothing.

In the end, that's all The Orville is, really - thoron fields and duranium shadows.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Tailings of the Golden Age: The Goddess of World 21

"The Goddess of World 21," by Henry Slesar
Appeared in Fantastic Science Fiction, March 1957

She was a beauty, all right, by anybody's standards. They stood gaping at her, awed by both the superb contours of her body and by her incredible size. The sun etched her figure sharply against the morning sky. She was something unreal, something out of an alien dream, yet something as real and desirable as a man could know...

"She's coming for us!" It was a shriek from the first engineer.

Nothing like this actually happens in the story.

If there's one overriding statement underlying the vast majority of 1950s cultural artifacts, it's this: "uphold the status quo." Understandable, really. In 1956, the largest and most devastating conflict in history was only twelve years past and the Cold War was already warm to the touch. Throughout the West, marginalized people were fighting for basic rights. It's no surprise that 1950s cultural products aimed at the comfortable white majority, like Leave It to Beaver, depicted uncomplicated, anodyne worlds only faintly related to the one outside the target audience's window. In the 1950s world of cultural repression, political repression, and sexual repression, the unstated drive to maintain the status quo left its stamp everywhere, including the pages of science fiction magazines.

Fantastic was one of the more successful of the post-war magazines, running from 1952 to 1980, and had a reasonable circulation for its day -- more than 30,000 in 1962 and 1963, which beats out Analog's 2016 numbers. It also ran covers like this, in case there was any doubt as to its target audience. From 1958 it would be edited by Cele Goldsmith, one of the first woman sf magazine editors, but in 1957 it was run by men and it shows, especially in stories like this one.

One thing I've noticed in doing these reviews is the way short science fiction tends to predict concepts that show up shortly thereafter in far more visible ways. Take Tom Ligon's "Funnel Hawk," which is pretty much Twister with a high-performance airplane except made six years before Twister, or Robert Silverberg's 1995 story "Hot Times in Magma City," which did "a volcano erupts in Los Angeles" much, much better than Volcano would two years later. The 1950s was receptive to stories about huge things. With the theme established by the giant ants in 1954's Them!, giant women appeared in 1958's Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and 1959's The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock. With the March 1957 Fantastic showing a copyright date of 1956, "The Goddess of World 21" was well ahead of the huge-human curve -- even more so by not including nuclear mutation. That's right: compared to its contemporaries, this story is actually sophisticated!

Just think about that for a second.

So, the story. As it's a 1950s story written by a man, it shouldn't be particularly surprising that the protagonist of "The Goddess of World 21" is a man himself -- Stu Champion, syndicated feature columnist for the Universal Press Syndicate, resident of a retrofuture where photon-drive starships share space with typewriters, and where the interstellar media is dominated by newspapers. After writing a column about the spacer myth of Gulliver, a planet "eight times the size of Jupiter" and populated by giants, he meets a "space bum" who claims to have crashed on an uncharted world, only for a "sky-high dame" to literally bend his rocket back into shape. Intrigued, Stu's investigation takes him first to Damon Scully's Space Circus, where the sleazy Scully tries to hire him to find Gulliver so he can turn it into a circus exhibition, and then to Dr. Alvin Domino, pioneer of a revolutionary cellular regeneration technology.

I feel it's worth pointing out here that across this thirty-eight page novella, there are precisely two women with names, and one of them is Stu's secretary Claire, who exists mainly to be called "sweetie." I was honestly surprised the author even bothered to give her a name at all.

It turns out that the space bum's helpful giantess is actually Victoria Bray, the first human subject of the regeneration technique. At first it worked great, regrowing three fingers and a thumb lost in an accident, but then she started growing taller and taller, with no end in sight. To prevent "bad publicity" for the regeneration technology -- seriously, that's the argument, that and how "the Earth could only reject a creature such as Victoria had become" -- Domino loads the now 85-foot-tall Victoria onto an interstellar transport and dumps her off on World 21, an isolated planet where "she lives in dreadful loneliness... a forgotten martyr to science."

In what may be the most science-fictional aspect of this story, Stu -- who, remember, is a syndicated newspaper columnist -- hires a starship on the company tab to take him to World 21, where he meets Victoria herself. Her now-immense stature scares off the starship crew, but Stu chooses to stay. Their blossoming friendship is interrupted by the return of the starship and the discovery that Scully's Space Circus plans to make Victoria the centrepiece of its latest exhibition.

Where do I begin unpacking this story?

The first step is the obvious one -- its rampant sexism! Sure, there only being two female characters in a story focused around a woman is pretty bad, but it gets worse, and it's not just the garden-variety stuff that was more common than air in the 1950s. Take this line, for example: "Stu located him behind a beautiful receptionist, a beautiful secretary, and finally, a beautiful mahogany desk." They're certainly meant to be women, considering the "unexamined 1950s social assumptions IN SPACE," and not only do they represent fully half of the women in the story,  they are treated with less attention and respect than a desk. Compared to that, Victoria constantly being called a "girl" is water off a duck's back. As far as the magazine's cover copy goes, it's hard for someone to be "Hated By Women--Preyed On By Men" when there are no women of agency present.

This includes Victoria, too. For all that the story is centred on her, she doesn't do anything in it. If she had become, say, a telepathic statue instead of a giantess, the narrative would not need to change at all until the very end, and even then that's only because of the people around her. Throughout the story Victoria is acted on by others, and the only times any characters are ever reacting to her they are just reacting to her existence. When, at the climax, the protagonist Stu becomes a giant himself to defend Victoria against Scully's predatory space circus, she is firmly sidelined by the narrative and reduced to the distressed damsel archetype that filled '50s B-movies. I'm reminded in particular of the 1957 film Beginning of the End, which started out focusing on a woman photojournalist only for her to be shoved aside as soon as the top-billed man entered the narrative. 

The narrative is never kind to Victoria at all, especially considering how often she's referred to as "a creature" or "a freak," and you can practically see it build immense justifications for its twisted viewpoints as you watch. For example, when Dr. Domino marooned her on an uncharted world, he built her a small but reasonably comfortable house, a greenhouse, and a power plant. Stu's reaction to this, when Victoria gives him a tour, is that he "found his admiration for Dr. Domino increasing with every step." Admiration, for a man who exiled a woman because her presence would be inconvenient! It's like men who think they deserve a round of applause for meeting basic standards of human decency.

So much of the story is built around the concept of Victoria's desirability, too, if only because the narrative is so closely tied to its protagonist -- and even that is something that makes it stand out from its contemporaries. In Arthur C. Clarke's 1958 story "Cosmic Casanova," an astronaut is repulsed to discover that the woman he's been long-distance romancing is actually a giantess, and in "At Last My Eyes Have Opened" from Charlton Comics' Out of This World #8 in 1958, a man stayed in stasis for a 300-year eugenics experiment to improve upon his girlfriend, only to find... hell, I'll just show you, it's public domain.

The lesson here, presumably, is that men cannot be attracted to people who make them feel small. Baarrff. Also, you have to love how much deadline was obviously involved in naming a valley populated by tall people "Tall Valley."

There's more to it than this surface stuff, though, and I didn't realize it until after my second read-through. Strip the story down to its basics, remove the jerks and bastards and the "suicidal despair" that Victoria experienced, quite understandably, after having been abandoned to die alone -- an interesting thing emerges.

In the context of the story, Victoria is quite literally a self-sufficient woman. All of her material needs are met, she has books and music to exercise her mind, and she learned how to mix local clays to make paint and produces wonderful landscapes. She is a woman that does not need a man, and as soon as I made that connection, everything about this story made sense. My impression of 1950s culture is that it ranked "independent women" as only slightly less threatening than the atom bomb. That's why the story is about taking away her self-sufficiency and her independence. It's why it's about taking a woman who lived in primeval freedom and giving her two choices that both result in her subordination to a man.

"The Goddess of World 21" is, at its core, about the demolition of an independent woman. This is only reinforced by the climax, when a standoff between Stu and Damon Scully, who despite being a circus owner managed to obtain atomic artillery, is interrupted by a deus ex machina in the form of two giant alien astronauts appearing from "mythical" Gulliver. They're both male, of course. Their world is described as a peaceful utopia, sure, but look between the lines and you'll find a reassurance to the readers that it doesn't matter how big or powerful a woman appears to be; sooner or later some man will come around to put her in her place.

Would I recommend you read it now? Hell no; there's plenty of good work being done today that isn't focused on upholding the kyriarchy. If you feel you simply must, though, it's available as a double-novel with The Last Days of Thronas on Amazon.

Previous Tailings
#5 - "The Trouble With Telstar" (June 1963)
#4 - "Industrial Revolution" (September 1963)
#3 - "Next Door, Next World" (April 1961)
#2 - "In the Imagicon" (February 1966)
#1 - "Blitz Against Japan" (September 1942)