from the hungarian

“The onset of catastrophe is not signaled by the sense of everything falling through the dark and ending in accidental death: everything, including a catastrophe, has a moment-by-moment structure, a structure that is beyond measurement or comprehension, that is maddeningly complex or must be conceived in quite another manner, one in which the degree of complexity can be articulated only in terms of images that seem impossible to conjure since time has slowed down to the point that the world has become indifferent to circumstances”

For me there is always the curl of a lip, the half-smile, the very well-documented reaction of nervous laughter (though you would think it was unheard of, the way people react), out of the desperate, instinctual hope that if you laugh at, if you belittle the thing, its power over you will lessen. And it strikes me as absurd sometimes that we as adults watching our homes burn, our cities disappear beneath waves, our driveways darken with the shadow of the police car, can still find ourselves caught in that moment spinning out the same jittery logic we used as gradeschoolers, picking our way down a bus full of jeering peers with that fixed rictus of feigned camaraderie on our faces, haha I get it, it’s funny, yeah. I get it. And we never do.

tap, tap, swoop, remember

The most stupendous thing about music games, for my regard of which I will never apologize (not, I suppose, that I do a lot of apologizing on here anyway), is their ability to not just curate your past into a nostalgia-strewn resurrection-fest, but to make, through associations, familiar melody construction, and work undertaken (see: gaming hours spent) pursuing the shape of their songs whether previously known or not, to make you feel as though they were known to you, part of you, threaded into your past as surely as into your present. The mantle of known-ness they wrap around you has to be one of the few times where familiarity, the repetition of what is old news, doesn’t chafe your heart or leaden your step: it’s not the humdrum workday, the same-old turns up the same-old roads, but the euphoric realization, whether through tapping a stylus or slamming a button or, sure, twisting your body at just the right time in front of the Kinect, of success. I know this song, those high scores say. In whatever way this game seeks to determine that, I know it.

Even if it was years and years ago that you last heard it, and ages before that since you first heard it. Even if you never played the game, or heard the radio pop song, that it’s attached to.

The first music game I played (not counting Julliard Music Adventure) was Elite Beat Agents. And no, this surprises no one, but I knew next to none of the songs. I was the eldest child and my parents’ tastes in music skipped the decade into which I was born–so I never partook in any of the 80s megahits, and spent many an awkward evening as a teenager and college student bobbing my head along to songs everyone but me clearly knew by heart (an affliction never really quite remedied until several years’ worth of gay nightclub attendance, after which time my repertoire of Madonna, Cher and David Bowie had grown considerably). And, sure, all those songs were (do you think they could have afforded otherwise?) covers. But now, flipping through the radio or waiting in line in a supermarket, one of the originals will come on and I know it. I don’t just know where the music is going, I know how it gets there–through motions repeated over endless attempts to perfect the song score, I’d damn well better know. So these melodies from a decade I was born into but knew nothing of were now a seared into my brain through striven-for repetition, as known to me as to those who listened to them while driving too fast in their parents’ volvos in acid-washed jeans and trendy mullets.

Flash forward then to the release of Theathrythm: Curtain Call two weeks ago.

There are 221 songs on that game. I do not know them all. Never having owned a console prior to the PS1, I couldn’t. To the occasional distaste of my peers, my favorite Final Fantasy game was and remains FFX, probably because it was my first (though, if you really want to go off on a tangent some day, there are some fascinating parallels between its love story and that of the Outlander series…but I digress).  I had played, then, maybe eight of the 25 games whose songs appear in that game, and though I reached the arbitrary 25K “finished” point two days after release, that was done largely by repeating songs I knew from the few games I had played, over and over. I kept unlocking new songs for different games but had little interest in them; all my focus was on the games I had played.

Then I unlocked the FMV scene-backed song for FFX-2, a game I had scorned loudly upon its release, and persisted in playing with many a derisive snort largely because the pre-YouTube internet promised that if you completed the the game 100%, you would be granted a cutscene that “fixed” the tear-streaked ending of FFX. I never managed that 100% ending (though my sister did), but I tried, because FFX features my het OTP as its primary focus. All the corniness and camp I detested so staunchly as a teenager I can laugh at a little more now, but still: I didn’t expect to care so terribly much when one of the songs from that came cropping up in Theathrythm–especially a song with lyrics, which tends to cause my interest to plummet precipitously.

But. The FMV they play in the background as you try to complete the song? It has that long-ago promised cutscene in it.

And suddenly it was the most important thing in the world for me to complete it. With a perfect score, on ultimate difficulty. Because every time you tried, you got to see the assuaging of all the misery you’d felt at the end of FFX, sniveling alone in your living room and terrified that someone would come in and see you there. I’d seen the cutscene in the years since, of course–again, we live in the age of YouTube–but still, the chance to fix it, to make things right, was tantalizing. [I also, full disclosure, am a lot more receptive to the big misunderstanding at the center of FFX-2 now, as someone who has actually had relationships, than I was as a stern and (mostly) heart-hardened teenager, so the plot details 3/4 of the FMV brings back to life aren’t nearly as laughable as they were to me at 16.] “Down, left, tap tap SWOOP and–dammit!” became a common refrain in the wee hours of the morning before I had to head to work. I had never earned the cutscene the way you’re supposed to, but I’d be damned if I’d let Yuna’s let’s-not-start-a-war-oh-and-by-the-way-my-heart-is-broken powerpop ballad get completed on anything less than a triple-S score.

I was so concerned with that song, then, jumping back to FFX songs when I needed a break, that I didn’t really pursue the rest of the game. I unlocked song after song, even some more FMVs, but I paid them little heed. It wasn’t until this morning that, whilst attempting to tweak my party’s abilities, I hit a wrong button and randomized my song selection and ended up at “Theme of Love” from FFIV.

Which I knew. To my shock.

Lured by the snippet they play as you consider playing the song or not, I went in and tried it on ultimate cold, and, sure as Suteki da Ne, I knew where the music was going. And I know that’s a stupid way to phrase it but I have no musical training, and even having sat in on a class where to my delight I learned about things like the pentatonic scale, and its mathematical explanation for why we desire certain notes to be the next one, and others not–even after that, the best way for me to explain the wonder of recognizing a song I didn’t remember I knew is knowing where it is going. I am so slow to listen to new music because that recognition, that ability to settle into the known notes and feel each of them to their depth without having to work to appreciate what new things they might do–that is why I listen. So to dip and twirl at the right parts, to pause and to hold in time with a song forgotten–lent to me, burned for me (through likely illegal means like Kazaa), by someone I’d long since spurned and never seen since–was fantastic. Fantastical. Buoyed by this find, I hit the randomize button again, intentionally this time, after finishing the song, and ended up with this.

And it was magical:

The reason music games are powerful is the reason games themselves are powerful. It isn’t that the story is only yours, or that only you can complete it, or that it’s somehow not some mass-marketed, heavily-produced string of code wending its way through innumerable expensive pieces of equipment on its path to your fingerpads and eyeballs and, eventually, your cerebral cortex. It’s that, through whatever tricks of technology, even something so simple as asking you to move a plastic stick in time to a beat, they are able to make you believe that actions you take have value. In completing a melody…in reuniting lost loves…in reliving a past you’d forgotten you had. And that will never, ever get old.

space and why it’s not for me

It was recently suggested to me that the reason I prefer fantasy worlds in stories and games–i.e., I am way more about the fantasy part of “science fiction and fantasy” than the science fiction part–might be because I prefer a whitewashed environment where the (incorrect) assumption that there simply weren’t any people of color on the playing field alleviates any feelings of white guilt, or the need to acknowledge and deal with racial strife.

That criticism has to be valid in a lot of cases, and I’m sure many people may use fantasy–not all fantasy, since of course it’s not all whitewashed, but surely the vast majority of it–now, and have used it in the past, to escape, for example, news of Ferguson, of trans women of color being slaughtered, of the world not caring a great deal if large swathes of brown people die of a horrendous disease in Africa. It may be that somewhere in the makeup of everyone who reads, writes, produces or engages with fantastical fiction or games is a kernel of desire for escapism. I don’t presume to be able to measure that accurately, but it’s a fair bet.

This, though–the ability to ignore these particular injustices in the world I live in, in favor of a world I don’t, and which makes itself willfully blind to such injustices–isn’t why I find trouble investing in space. In space as a setting, as a goal, as a future. It’s not human-vs-human injustice that makes it dark and empty.

That’s just how it is.

And this, maybe, is part of the trouble NASA has with people of my generation–post space-age people, who take all of the multitudinous technologies the space race gave us for granted, who grew up having to memorize names and acts related to space, and not fantasizing (see what I did there?) about space.

Because space is fucking dark.

For us to go there–for us to need to go there–some pretty bad shit has to have gone down on this planet. Worse, yes, than we’ve yet seen. And that does not feel good. Knowing that you should probably as a species have an escape route from yourselves does not feel good. And I realize that this may again be an issue of privilege–if I had, with my family, had to flee the land of my birth due to persecution, maybe I’d view the eventual necessity of flight with the cynicism of familiarity. Maybe I’d expect no better of us. Or at least, maybe I wouldn’t be surprised, or seek to pretend it might get better.

I am home, sick. I watched that Interstellar trailer. There were some blurred moments, and I thought briefly of my mother’s claim that she never cried at movies until she had children, and how I never cried at movies until a plane flew into my father’s former workplace. I am fine, in this trailer, until again, we see the dad try to say goodbye to his daughter, to “fix this before I go.” And then, of course, the poem.

At work I recently had to look up a bunch of biographical info on Dylan Thomas. It seemed odd that it was required–surely the authorities would have already pinned down all they needed to on so famous a figure?–but I did it, and in so doing discovered what probably most people already knew: that he was difficult, troubled, and frustrating to work with. This might have been mentioned briefly when we “did” this poem in high school, but probably not in great detail thanks to our system’s overprotective regard for how much of reality students are allowed to see. Or read about. It probably came up in relation to the forked lighting verse:

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Fear of having written nothing, done nothing, of consequence. That sort of thing. And I thought, lying ill on my couch, that that would have to be where I’d be to submit myself to space. Everyone I love dead–maybe even some of them having gone in a way I could find a way to blame myself for. (I thought of Gravity.) That great, black emptiness–it may take the greatest minds we can produce to fathom and traverse and even manipulate it, but it has to be a very bleak soul willing to surrender itself up to that. You go out there under the grand banners of advancing knowledge, saving mankind, exploring unknown territories…but you are physically alone in a way most people on this planet only feel under, I gather, the onslaught of severe depression. There is no pharmaceutical cocktail to combat the desolation of space. The inhumanity of it. You are not supposed to be there, there is no one to know if you go gentle into that good night or not.

The dark heart at the center of next to every space story is that we fucked up. We fucked up big time. So badly that we had to leave. Whether we forged a spacey UN spanning galaxies, or a totalitarian regime lasting thousands of generations thanks to genetic engineering applied to our leaders, or entered into a good-vs-evil struggle against ravenous creatures with many legs–all of that is epilogue to the fact of mankind’s total fucking failure vis-à-vis Earth. And that is goddamned depressing.

Because I like Earth.

And if the only excuse we have by which to claim that we didn’t fail is that we didn’t go extinct–that we found our way off this rock and onto others–well, that’s a pretty measly excuse. And it’s not success. Maybe it is in an evolutionary sense, but not a metaphysical one. If we’re too awful for this planet, it is difficult to condone our migration onto others. Or even into the in-between spaces between planets. Earth is like a learner’s permit. Can you handle this planet? No? Then you don’t get others, sorry. No license to wreak havoc on the universe.

But since the very reason for trying to get that license–the only reason that carries any cultural weight, in this age where we have such a lukewarm regard for the travails of NASA and its foreign counterparts–is that we utterly destroy(ed) our learner’s permit planet, the whole ethos of space and space travel and space fiction is tainted by the spectacular fuck-ups of mankind. Any love or struggle or triumph that follows that cannot undo it. For me to invest in characters flailing along through space requires me to think “oh, well, Earth is a twisted warped rock of molten goo now, oops, but forget that, back to the love triangle between these space aristocrats…” Which does not sit well with me.

I’m aware that you could cry hypocrite, since what are we doing in fantasy other than ignoring the mess we’re presently making of the world? Were I to say in my defense something about being able to see better into ourselves, via tweaked backward-looking windows, and thus to gain a greater chance of doing better today, you might retort that the same thing is possible in science fiction. People still being people and all that. Moreover, you might claim that by positing stories in alternative pasts, or worlds at whatever pre-enlightenment-age level where the characters are typically not working to prevent things like the great global imbalance in power, resources, and technological facility, is no more heinous than telling stories about fictional future people who carry on with their lives as though their species didn’t completely wreck the planet they were born onto. It’s the same damn thing, you’ll say.

To which I can only respond that space is fucking dark. So, surely, are the hearts of men. But those, at least, I can fathom. Space I can’t. At least down here we have the chance to choose how we go into that good night. In space, it’s always night, even when you’re alive, and if there’s anything good about it–any miracles out there exploding amongst the stars–they will probably kill you. And only a handful of co-pilots will even be there to say goodbye.

you’ve got to be kidding

Remember the theme that was essential not only in deciding me upon a second (and then I suppose a third) degree but also in launching me on a 3,000-mile journey to live for two years somewhere I’d never even been, shaping the discourse of the vast majority of my scholarship and tinting my reading of every book since, oh, sixteen?


You can’t escape themes, it seems.