January 24, 2024

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 meme sixty years ago when Captain Kirk was outwitting IBM System/360 lookalikes on a regular basis. 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 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.

Speaking of organic mainframes, Star Wars fell back on the Evil Emperor trope, a linchpin apparently holding the whole universe together by his lonesome. How is never explained, but all the good guys have to do is knock out this one bad guy and peace and prosperity is restored to the galaxy.

Well, after they deal with the truly killer mainframe that is the Death Star. The whole Star Wars franchise ended up being about destroying Death Stars, each one a more ludicrous violation of the laws of physics than the last. Again, what long term problems this solves is never made clear.

Does the mail start arriving on time now? Does the tax code suddenly become more comprehensible? And what happens to the unemployment rate when all those Death Star jobs get instantaneously terminated? Imagine the size of the catering contract for just one of those behemoths.

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? Or attacking any inhabited planet? (Besides giving the director an excuse to restage the Battle of Britain or the Invasion of Normandy.)

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

There are lots of big asteroids out there.

Another reason is, they want our water. But there is plenty water elsewhere, that is 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 and 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, SCAP was already regretting Article 9 in the 1947 Japanese Constitution (forbidding war) and was revving up Japanese industry to support the Korean War, which was just what the economy needed.

In The Phantom Menace, Lucas tosses the politics of trade into the picture, but without explaining what is being traded, why, or how. The result is a blur of handwaving when it comes to the story because there are no underlying rational reasons for anything that happens.

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, stuff as trivial (to our modern eyes) as tea. But like spice in Dune, there were underlying economic causes behind the conflicts. 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.

Both Germany and Japan were doing rather well at expanding their territories (employing their own "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 the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century, the shock to the system, the unequal treaties, the escalating civil strife, finally resolved by a quickly-concluded 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.

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

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
12/15/2014 8:09 PM   
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!
# posted by Anonymous Dan
12/16/2014 6:24 AM   
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.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
12/16/2014 7:01 AM   
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!
# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
12/19/2014 8:49 AM   
I had more comments and decided to write a post instead!