Ender’s Game is about a videogame. Or maybe it isn’t. Or maybe it is, but not in the way you think. There’s a strange little subplot in Orson Scott Card’s space-fi masterpiece, about playing a game called The Giant’s Drink. The gameplay is sub-Pong: a Giant offers you two glasses filled with liquid. If you drink the wrong one, you’ll die; if you drink the right one, you get to go to Fairyland. Like the Kobayashi Maru, it’s a lose-lose: it’s a game of complete chance, and nobody in Battle School ever chooses the right one. There is no right one. There is no Fairyland.
So our boy Ender (that’s a nickname, by the way, the best nickname for Andrew nobody ever uses) changes the rules of the game. He doesn’t choose a glass; he knocks both glasses down, surprise-attacks the Giant, and burrows into his gigantic eyeball until he hits his gigantic brain. (This scene was particularly disturbing to me, since I’d been imagining that the Giant looked just like Disney’s Willie the Giant.)Technically, the game should end there, but this is a sci-fi future, and even though the game developers never coded anything past the player’s defeat, the computer automatically creates a new area. (There’s a semi-theoretical real-life term for this: procedural generation.) Ender climbs up and discovers Fairyland. A bat flies down to him, curious. “Nobody ever comes here,” says the Bat.
Ender keeps returning to the game, discovering more strange places in Fairy Land, and the surreality of the experience – of playing a game that’s already over, and discovering that the game was just the tip of the iceberg – is so smart, and so strange, and so ahead of its time. (Occasionally, Ender checks back on the Giant, whose corpse is slowly devoured by rats and maggots: “It was a desiccated mummy, hollowed-out, teeth in a rigid grin, eyes empty, fingers curled.” And now you never have to wonder what happens to the Last Boss after you turn off the game and return to the bland actuality of the real world.)
I bring up The Giant’s Drink because the most eye-popping subplot of last night’s Caprica seemed to directly recall Ender’s scary, exciting violation and the confusion that followed it. What do you do when the rules of the game change, or when you’re forced to consider that the game board you thought you knew is just one flat dimension in a multi-plane trans-geometric holo-world?
“It’s almost like figuring out the object of the game is the object of the game,” explained Tamara’s helpful new friend and co-conspirator. I didn’t catch his name, but this is noir and he’s a born sap, so let’s call him Elisha. They were walking through a digital recreation of Caprica City that looked black and white with just a splash of color. Just like Sin City, except not terrible.
New Cap City is Caprica City’s retro-future dream of itself. Since Caprica City, in the “real world,” is already a retro-future dream of modern-day America, the result plays like the best PS3 game Humphrey Bogart never got to play. At one point, Tamara and her friend had to hide on their fire escape when a passing zeppelin airship let out a squad of fighter planes. Just like Sky Captain, except not mediocre.
When you die in New Cap City, you never come back. So it’s a good idea, when you play, to bring Tamara Adams with you. She’s a walking cheat code, and she stole the show last night. Viewers, what did you think of Tamara? I had absolutely no conception that we would ever see her again after the pilot episode, but I found myself enraptured by her journey through New Cap City. Sure, the actual plot was straightforward – Elisha and Tamara con Chiron, break the bank, get ripped off by a crime gang, shoot them all to hell – but the deeper implications for the series are astonishing.
Besides the fact that New Cap City is a brainteaser all by itself – what is the point of the game? – the mere fact that Tamara is set adrift in that dirty digital town strikes me as an eerie plot twist. Just as her father and brother are trying to honor (and forget) her, to send her off to a Tauronese stretch of the Grey Havens where all is peaceful forever, her soul is descending into the anti-existence of V-World, a place where the secret codes to bank vaults are encoded on manhole covers.
Part of me almost feels like keeping Tamara around is the writers’ way of riffing on concepts already explored in the Zobot’s story line – but while Avatar-Zoe is off discovering reality, Tamara is down below (or above) in virtual reality. You could argue that her reinvention as a gun-blazing mega-femme was too quick. I’d say you’re wrong for three reasons:
1) The girl had been shot four times in just a few hours, each time experiencing the true bullet pain without the escape of blood-loss unconsciousness. That experience would turn a Care Bear into a Rambo.
2) There is something addictive to the violence of V-World, no matter what Daniel Graystone says on the talk show. Shooting someone or being shot, and feeling no pain or moral wince, will turn anyone into an FPS thrillkiller. I can remember feeling bored at points of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and just running over digi-people to get the cops to chase me. I don’t think this turned me into an actual sociopath, but I bet the denizens of Vice City would disagree with me, if their creator gave them voices.
3) Tamara Adams is a Tauron, and there is fire in her veins, whether her heart is pumping or not.
There were other great moments last night. Did anyone catch the visual allusion to RoboCop in Daniel’s meeting with the Board of Directors? (I find myself liking Daniel’s section of Caprica more than Joseph’s, but only because I get the sense that the writers have a much better sense of the economics of Graystone Industries than they do the cultural norms of the immigrant Tauronese.) I loved the clear references to mp3 and torrent technology in Daniel’s speech: “We’re losing our money to the hatch sites… the next generation will expect it all to be free.” He’s a bit like Steve Jobs – surely, you can imagine the Apple tycoon starting off a speech by loudly proclaiming, “Holobands are over!”
And yet, with that real-world topicality there was that delicate shading of pop sci-fi philosophy. Did your stomach twist a little bit when Daniel got to the part in his speech about how the Cylon would be “a tireless worker, who won’t have rights”? A species of indentured servants? This can’t end well.
Other reasons why last night’s Caprica was good:
The way that Joe and Sam kept trading spots on the moral high ground: Sam comes into Joe’s home all high and mighty, taking the son to school and telling the brother to wake the frak up; but then Sam walks into Joe’s smoky back room to find little Willie skipping school.
The Michael Mann-worthy shot of Daniel, alone in his board room, looking out on the city he could conquer or destroy.
Zoe’s proud smile as her father unknowingly commented her prowess. I’m somewhat at a loss for explaining exactly what the Zobot is doing right now, except to note that the treatment of her character in the show – how different people see her in very different ways, how she might be an angel or a devil or nothing much at all – bears a striking resemblance to the titular character in John From Cincinnati. Everyone hates that show, so I’m not going to say anything, except this: everyone, you’re wrong.
Vesta’s gangsters talk like Twitter-era teenagers and dress like a New Wave rock band. I would love Caprica if it were nothing but a weekly mash-up of as many different cultural aesthetics as possible.
One quibble: I’m a little bit tired of all the Tauron stuff. Are you? Maybe I’m just excited to see the writers let Joseph Adama off the depression leash, already. Caprica is already revealing itself as a big robust ensemble show, but to me, it still feels like Joseph Adama is meant to be a key pillar in the show’s foundation. So I guess, in that sense, I agree with Sam. Wake up, brother!
Did you like “There is Another Sky,” viewers? If you were on the Board of Directors, would you have voted in favor of Daniel? Did you like the monochrome harsh lighting of New Cap City, or would you prefer Tamara take up residence in a game rated E for Everyone? Did you squeal with delight or recoil in fear when Willie threw a gigantic rock at that mouthy Caprican kid’s fat head? And am I the only one who though the big twist was that Elisha would be crippled in the real world? Why was Chiron named after the mythical Greek centaur? And who else wants the spinning Russian Roulette plate for Christmas?