Author of the After Terra series, avid blogger, novelist and musician.
I am an explorer of science fiction, philosophy, culture, movies, video games, music, really almost anything that strikes my fancy and presents a new and interesting way of looking at the world and the human condition.
One could pick away at that title and argue, “well Jes, nothing on Terra is infinite.” That is true. However we humans, even those of us who don’t necessarily believe in a literal afterlife, seem to operate on a notion that things will generally last at least as long as we individuals do, if not longer. This goes for possessions in our homes and extends outward, all the way to the largest and most abstract of concepts, such as civilization itself. Or, to put it another way, most folk tend to operate with a general ignorance as to the true fleeting fragility of all things. Human civilization, in its current divided and overtaxed state, is one planetwide disaster away from collapse at most any given time. Even the mighty Sol has a limit and is one day destined to die. So, as many theists tend to posit, if you don’t believe in an afterlife and/or an eternal soul, what reason would any atheist have to assign value to anything in life? To be fair, I’ve come across some atheists who do posit that everything is meaningless, though more often than not, the atheists and agnostic folk I know have simply chosen to find meaning in life on their own merits, without the filter of a god or religion or some divine purpose.
We humans are scared of dying, it’s hardwired into our genes and is part of the survival instinct. It drives almost everything we do. So it’s understandable to a point that as we evolved and our brains could take on more abstract thinking, we started looking for ways to hope that something, anything of us could live on after death. This, I firmly believe, is the genesis of most, if not all, of the belief systems behind the religions we know today. Primitive humanity was desperately trying to explain its own existence, and even more desperately manufactured a hope that we would never fully ever have to know death, the ultimate oblivion.
Why do I refer to this as The Teddy Bear Dilemma? Because this is what I think about when I look at one. Not every time, and not the whole time, mind you, as I would rather appreciate the cuteness versus endlessly (ha) despairing. I think about how, at some point in the future, that teddy bear will be no more, and perhaps there will come a time when the last teddy bear has passed out of existence. There might be a future out there where kids don’t get to know what plushies are. Is that a future I want? No. I merely acknowledge it as a possibility, and it reminds me to have more gratitude for what I have. I don’t intend to have kids, and though ideally my collection of things that I enjoy in my home and what I accomplish in life will be memorialized and appreciated by someone in the next generation, I have no way to guarantee that. But just because there might be an expiration date on my life and what I enjoy, doesn’t make it less meaningful. Louder for those in the back: just because my life and my possessions and what I enjoy will end, doesn’t make them any less meaningful.
Of course there are many things about this universe and its operations we don’t yet understand and may never. There may truly be gods out there, or at least beings that are godly in comparison to us. The universe as we know it could be a compressed packet of data floating on a black star’s event horizon. Perhaps this really is only one dimension out of many and we are unaware of other versions of us living out in a potentially endless array of parallel realities. Who’s to say for sure, given that we haven’t even gained a full understanding of our own planet yet, much less the Solar System.
Why do I call this a dilemma, then, since I seem to be at peace with the aforementioned ideas? Well, there seems to me to be an obligation of sorts to keep the metaphorical teddy bear around for as long as possible. Call it an extension of genetic selection, or survival of the fittest. We want the best of us to be passed on, we should want the next generation to have a better go of things, to avoid the struggles and pitfalls we survived but shouldn’t have had to if only we as a species were better to each other and our world. The dilemma, the difficulty, then, is to not succumb to the sadness and despair at the inevitable loss of the teddy bear, but to ensure that what it represents and offers endures, for as long as it is possible for us humans to make it so. Who knows, perhaps the effort itself is what will in some way echo across time, space, dimensions, or whatever else is out there. I don’t have literal faith in such a thing, but as Spock was once credited to have said by Admiral Kirk, “…there are always possibilities.”
As I recently moved and am, shall we say, on a tightrope budget, I am unable to have home internet as of this writing. Thus unfortunately I am unable to be scanned in to update my progress on Xbox Live, and this makes any Xbox of mine newer than the 360 almost useless. However, this prompted me to pursue a series of goals that coalesced into one: completing as many of my 360 games as possible, freeing up a nice stack of titles to sell (since some of these games I only see myself enjoying one run through, due to limited replay value); celebrating Halloween and the general creepy season of early Autumn properly for a change; and challenging myself to be creatively active with my gaming updates, in lieu of having any kind of automatic tracker.
That was a highly elaborate way of saying that I am going to be actively blogging again. Sometimes the motivation to write or to do any given creative project can come from unexpected sources. If not having a particular utility at home gets me back on the regular writing stick, hey, I’ll go with it! Thus begins the Great Gaming Pumpkin, and we shall see how many of these Xbox 360 horror or Halloween-themed games I can add to my completion log.
The first noteworthy update in this challenge is my progress toward one hundred percent completion in Dead Space, a fantastic and brilliant science fiction horror game published, by all companies, Electronic Arts, back in 2008. (I’ll be doing a full review of it soon!)Yesterday I finished enough of my new game plus run in Dead Space to earn the Maxed Out achievement, which was a relief as it was the last thing I needed to get out of the way before going on my Impossible difficulty run.
Where horror begins.
Forgive my more guerilla-style photography here, as I had to take a picture of my television in lieu of being able to use a proper screen capture.
As of this morning I made it to mission four on Impossible. I was a little nervous going into this run, for one thing because Dead Space is a legitimately spooky game, even on successive playthroughs. I still feel unnerved after each necromorph encounter. I’m also going for the One Gun achievement at the same time (this means completing the entire game using only the default weapon, the plasma cutter), which has not been as unfair as I expected, indeed, I like how it pushes more of the survival horror aspect into the gameplay, forcing you to make more strategic use of the store. It also makes every missed shot that much more painful, knowing that if you burn through your plasma reserve there is no other weapon to switch to! I had one particularly tense moment where I was down to a single shot in reserve, after narrowly surviving a tentacle encounter. Yes, that is what she said, because I said it, but it was still a vivid experience.
Overall this has not been too bad (I say that now but will probably curse that statement when I get to the bosses), not nearly as painful as my highest difficulty runs on games I finished earlier this year like, say, Stranglehold. I also regret not having invested in the Dead Space franchise sooner; I tried it back in 2008, liked it, but was so ensconced with Halo 3, Mass Effect, and Gears of War that it ended up on my perpetual backburner. Better late than never though, and what a great game to be playing and finishing in October.
More updates on my adventures and more to come soon!
I have written about achievements before, specifically in regard to the Xbox achievement system and how that impacted gaming culture. In summary, after Microsoft introduced the concept as a universal part of their platform beginning with the Xbox 360 launch, most of the industry latched onto the concept and came up with their own equivalents. I don’t think Nintendo has ever quite embraced it fully from my current understanding, but certainly Steam and Sony’s PlayStation platform took the idea and ran with it.
From the time I started playing Xbox 360 games in 2006, I became enamored with the idea of the achievement system. Now, accomplishing milestones in games was something attached to your profile, like your own personal digital trophy room. Other players could see that I completed Gears of War on Insane or that I indeed saved all of the sensor relays in a particularly daunting mission in Star Trek: Legacy. It quickly became a point of pride, as well as adding incentive to try games on harder difficulties and perhaps sample different modes or playstyles that otherwise I might not have considered. That was the ideal goal of the system, I believe, and I recall reading some press from Microsoft or perhaps a developer at the time that reinforced this perspective. There were problems to be sure, and there were a number of games, especially the early sports titles on 360, that were easy to cheese out of their maximum (at the time) value of one thousand gamerscore. Gamers with high scores tended to be respected by default, unless it turned out that their gamercard was padded with silly, easy completions. Still, cheesy or not, a legitimate itch was being scratched, and Microsoft had tapped into a new kind of metagame, or games within a larger game, if you prefer.
Fast forward to 2022. Two console generations later, and achievements are here to stay. I definitely appreciate that the gamercard I created back in 2006 has endured until now, albeit with a name change or two on the way. I like that what I accomplished on the digital frontier over a decade ago is still on display for others, and hasn’t been completely lost to time like many of the feats I accomplished in the 1990s. In the last few years especially, I’ve gone through phases of increased isolation. Obviously in 2020 most of us had such a thing forced on us, but occasionally it is something I’ve done voluntarily, as an introverted need to recuperate and recharge from dealing with the insane world of commercial, extraverted overload that is modern America. Like a good book, an immersive song, or a compelling movie, video games are an art form, a form of storytelling, and a powerful source of escapism. Of course, as is the case with anything in life, too much of something is never for your best interest.
Even without taking into account how the Xbox achievement system has gone a bit off the rails—the rules limiting how much gamerscore a title can be worth are gone, indie shovelware games that used to be worth 0 or at most 200 gamerscore now can get you 1000 or more with no effort, and emphasis has shifted away from rewarding skill and thoroughness to instead becoming a testament to how much money and time you can dedicate to the platform—there is an inherent danger in becoming wrapped up in the metagame. Especially if you’re a stats nerd, it can be easy to be enraptured by numbers of completions, how many tough and rare achievements you can attain, your completion percentage, and even avoiding games altogether that have unobtainable or glitched achievements, even if that game might be quite good regardless. It might be akin to, let’s say in sportsball, you becoming so obsessed with the minutiae of stats and trying to min/max everything like a Dungeons & Dragons munchkin, that you lose sight of why you enjoy the game itself in the first place, or its purpose in your life and our culture. Imagine achieving the ostensibly highest honors in American sportsball, say, winning the Stupor Bowl, I mean, er, Super Bowl, and being honored as league MVP that year, yet being unable to enjoy the accomplishment because the metagame tells you that you already need to prepare for next season and that what you already did will never be good enough.
Now, I’m not going to say that we should ever completely rest on any given laurels. As flawed and limited creatures, we should generally always be trying to improve ourselves and our world, and having dreams and big goals is laudable. It’s how we can flip things from impossible to possible. However we are easily distracted from the journey by becoming fixated on the destination. At least in America, I think this is an extension of heavy judeo-christian influence on Western life, the obsession with the reward of an afterlife that blinds us to the immediate world. It’s not merely religious either, I believe it’s also a capitalist influence, a fixation on a nebulous marker of “success,” that everything hinges upon becoming rich, famous, popular, or somehow noteworthy enough to mention in a history book. We forget how important the journey is, especially when you stop and realize that there never really is a destination at all. Perhaps you can argue that death is a destination, however no one can agree on whether death is final and there is yet to be any tangible proof of anything that may lay beyond it, so that is all conjecture. Regardless, do we ever really reach a true destination? If you get rich, then what? You still have a life to live after that. Say you get famous at age thirty. Well, your life is likely not even half lived by then.
What does that digression have to do with silly Xbox achievements? Simple, really. In my latest big push to complete a bunch of games, some of which I plan to sell because I only see myself completing them once, I had to stop and realize that I’d lost sight of what I really enjoy about gaming. The obsession, indeed, even the potentially addictive allure of buffing my stats blinded me from realizing that it is not possible to achieve the arbitrary and literally impossible goal of one hundred percent completion and best possible ratio of rare to common achievements. I could start a new profile and purposely try to keep things as clean and statistically perfect as possible, but I know I’d feel sick from that and be cheapening my own experience. What would that actually accomplish and for whom? I’d be competing against people far deeper into addiction, who have plenty of cash and time to burn and will buy their ways to the tops of any leaderboards I could aspire to. So no, I forced myself to take a step back and appreciate my journey more than some arbitrary destination. My completion percentage may only be hovering near seventy-two percent as of this writing, but I look back on my list of games with fond memories, and appreciate that at least in some small way, the times I shared with friends and the things I discovered about myself through the stories and characters I experienced in these games, is reflected on my gamercard. I wouldn’t trade that for a “perfect” gamercard. There may sadly come a day where that digital time capsule is no longer there to see, but I will appreciate it while it exists and be grateful it has endured as long as it has.
I have friends, two good ones in particular, who I met through achievement hunting, which is definitely something I feel worth adding to the pro column. Even though we all live geographically distant from one another, there is definitely a certain camaraderie that has developed between us all, especially as we reminisce about our gaming journeys over a nice Halo 3 match or while going for some obscure accolade in a largely dead and forgotten 360 game. There is, turns out, sometimes as much satisfaction in helping someone else achieve their own personal goal as it is to hit your own, and if that isn’t a nice lesson to take and apply to “real” life, I don’t know what is.
This article’s title is a bit flippant, I think, in that it is a gross simplification of life’s current state. However, I felt that I needed to say such a thing because, well, unintentionally, I realized I had strung together a consecutive run of posts that made my life and condition out to be depressing, somewhat nihilistic, and bleak. True, there have been days where I have felt dismal, and there was a spot where I hit as far down to rock bottom as ever with regard to morale. Yet, the truth is that on any given day in between the posts I’ve made this year (which I admit have been too few), life has been at least okay. That’s really the prevailing theme, things have been rather mediocre, with enormous amounts of room to improve yet with a staggering depth to which they have not fallen. It’s hard to feel thankful when stuck somewhere in the shallow pool of “average,” “okay,” or “mediocre,” but to paraphrase Jayne Cobb, it’s not nothing, and that’s something.
I have also been more critical than praising in the few media reviews I’ve done, I realize, as well as anything that counts as social commentary. It’s not with the intention of being a negative bitch, as when I criticize it’s with the intention of protecting something from moving to a dangerous extreme (as with my writings pertaining to the LGBT community), or to challenge a particular piece of art or culture to do better (as in the case of Star Trek as helmed by CBS failing to meet the quality standards of what came before it). However, as with what I mentioned in the first paragraph, I noticed that my trend in commentary has leaned negative (or at least favored the harsher side of constructive criticism). Such things are necessary and have their place but I don’t want that to be the prevailing theme here.
That brings me to what After Terra itself is even about, which is first and foremost my love of science fiction. I wanted to distill everything I loved and thought was critically effective about works such as Star Trek, Firefly, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, Cowboy Bebop, and Mass Effect, alongside a certain in-universe awareness about the curious human relationship with storytelling. As well, in the original edition of Year 200, it was intended to be an almost silly at times love letter to all things science fiction, while introducing a cast of characters that was largely immature, that was forced to confront something far more refined and aged than they could even comprehend. Among other things, I failed to properly sell that notion, which is one of the many things I set about correcting in the novel’s Illuminated Edition. I wanted to convey an idea along the lines of, “well, okay, what if a ragtag bunch of people who were living in a time capsule of 21st century culture but in space, essentially immature social media Gen Xers in spaceships and stations, were thrown into a space opera adventure?” It’s a way of asking, how would a sampling of the current/up and coming generation handle an epic quest? Do they wilt under the pressure or do they mature and evolve in the face of something far bigger than the lives they thought were important?
That’s a question I find worth asking of myself as my life sits at a weird crossroad.
In the spirit of the aforementioned, I will be going back soon to reviewing more things I love, as well as endeavoring to make my voice more nuanced in how I utilize it.
Greetings internet! I have come back to this little site o’ mine after having thrown all of my writing time and effort into the Illuminated Edition of After Terra: Year 200. Not unlike the refit of the original Enterprise in The Motion Picture, this is an almost totally new novel. The basic plot and the characters are unchanged, as I had no intention of pulling a George Lucas, however this is the absolute definitive edition of my first novel and is up to the quality standard the story always deserved.
I can’t claim to be an expert on Latin, however the title of this post is meant to express, “A Message From Rock Bottom.” I’ll need to elaborate on what I mean by that, before someone decides to jump down my digital throat with how much worse they have it than me. You can stuff that, because, just the same as how there potentially will always be someone better than you at a given thing, there is always the chance that life might be shitting on someone worse than it is for you at that time.
What I mean by rock bottom isn’t necessarily in the material sense, though there are currently some approaching threats to my meager material security. On paper, I’ve been in worse fixes in life. However, speaking of the state of my heart, as in, hope, love, the very notion that life is itself worth living, well, these last few months have been among the most daunting and challenging fragments of time in my existence.
What is the root cause of this hopelessness? Unfortunately it’s not so simple as to have a single point of origin that I can thus throw all of my energy into combatting. It’s a combination of factors: watching the majority of the “free world” become willing to throw away liberty in the blink of an eye in exchange for a false sense of security; seeing so many people I used to call friends, family in all but blood, turn their backs on me over expressing my true self, or me having to see them for what they really are and what they stand for when the chips are down, calling back to the aforementioned overreaction to the unspecified virus of unknown origin; seeing myself, despite having achieved a great liberation with how I get to live in my own body and how I express what is within, still shackled to the same patterns of fear and destruction that have characterized my teenage and adult lives. These, along with some accompanying tertiary factors, contribute to an overwhelming pull towards nihilism and despair. Why should I try to build or achieve anything in a society that is willing to throw away everything that entire generations of humans built at a terrible cost, because they let the media and their “leaders” and “experts” spook them? Why should I try to forge a future and possibly move toward starting a family when our everyday existence is trashing our home planet? Why should I keep trying my hand at love when I constantly fall for those who will never see me the way I see them, or when I consistently brush up with those who only want to use or abuse me? Why, knowing my weaknesses and vulnerabilities, should I keep getting off the ground when I am constantly beat down from doing work I was not meant to do, putting what little energy I do have into the gigantic, number crunching meatgrinder that is big corpo?
Perhaps my leading statement in the previous paragraph was off-base, perhaps there is a single underlying answer to all of those propositions: fear. I have so little patience for the fear I see in others, because it so much a reflection of the fear I hold myself, and because I know how destructively useless, ludicrously toxic, and perniciously defeating fear is. Fear is an animal impulse that has its place. Fear stops us from stepping close to the edge of a cliff, keeps us away from a creature with a venomous bite, curtails us from veering into oncoming traffic. It has utility, but because it is so deeply and firmly hardwired into our survival mechanisms, it unfortunately has been abstracted out into our modern lives. I have spent so much of my life living in constant states of terror, particularly when faced with social situations, anything that involves the risks of being shunned, ostracized, judged, and otherwise deemed unworthy by those whom I so desperately want to associate with. Along with my natural agreeability and submissiveness from my temperament, and my perpetual low energy level (being introverted contributes to this, and constantly being in states of high alert due to fear are mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting), it’s no wonder that I have ended up as easy prey to users and abusers, whether in my love life, in my peer groups, or in the workplace.
Even as recently as a few months ago, I failed to listen to my instincts and allowed myself to be railroaded into a job I did not want, could not perform, and which only contributed to my ill feelings to an exorbitant degree. Thus did the cycle perpetuate itself again, because I was afraid to stand up for myself, and because I have been afraid to say to hell with work I’m “supposed” to do. While I am a defender of liberty and of free enterprise in principle, the reality is that there is nothing to be grateful for when the majority of the rote, socially acceptable, and on paper “meaningful” jobs involve being a digit on some giant corporation’s spreadsheet, doing inane, thankless, soul-crushing menial tasks in fast food, retail, finance, distribution, and production. Our civilizations and our species have expanded too much, too fast, we allowed technology itself to leapfrog our sociological development, we normalized the profiteering of debt and consumer culture, and one consequence is now the job market is saturated by arbitrary, toxic work. Whoever conceptualized and solidified notions such as “the customer is always right” deserve to be lambasted for fostering emotional and mental abuse of whole generations of humans for the sake of profit.
Ah, but I am digressing. What good is all of this writing, this digital posturing? If here I sit at rock bottom, my life devoid of hope and meaning, how am I supposed to find such things again? If I am aware of the ills that plague me, that have been barriers to me doing more with After Terra and all of my other creations, how do I break the cycle? How is one person supposed to buttress herself against her nation, her civilization, the unnecessary chaos, destruction, and suffering inflicted by those “leading” it, how does she find her footing amidst the mechanisms that determine the success or failure of creators?
I don’t have all of the answers, or even many of them, but I have pontificated enough to resolve upon one: I must eliminate fear from my life and encourage others to do the same. I have to look at it empirically: what good has fear done for me? If it is designed to protect from danger, what danger has it truly shielded me from? If I’m afraid of rejection, judgment, shunning, being misunderstood, how has hunkering down inside my home and just getting by on whatever table scrap jobs this world hands out, protected me from those things? They happen anyway, only slower and more insidiously. Which, funny enough, is an interesting parallel to the viral situation of unknown origin, as all of the incredible, far-reaching, and as yet uncalculated damage caused by measures ostensibly meant to protect people from getting sick and/or dying have only spread the same amount of sickness, misery, and death out over a longer period of time, with the bonus round additions of tremendous damages to general mental health and an increasing fracture of an already hotly divided society. Same net result, only the victims and survivors are left exhausted and strung out from the ordeal, less capable of fighting any new threats that can and will emerge with the passage of time.
So, this forces me to put myself in check over my own bullshit. What point is there in being so fucking afraid? Whatever meager and ill-defined protection I might have gleaned from keeping my nose down and staying quiet has given me, what, exactly? It has provided me a life so far filled mostly with regret, the aforementioned perpetual fear, and I am no less brushing up with rejection and judgment, only perhaps not often in as blatant and obvious ways as a successful person might encounter them. It could possibly even be argued that by being so afraid of such things, and allowing that fear to characterize the way I move through the world, it has morphed into a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. For have I not so often observed that those who preach of and supposedly warn against doomsday, tend to act in such ways as to bring about that very doomsday? One of my abusive past partners told me that my very fear of losing her was going to push her away… that might be a cruel thing to say to a romantic partner who is confiding their vulnerabilities, yet there is a certain truth to that which I must begrudgingly admit. She might have turned out to be a cheating bitch who was using me to attempt a baby trap, but even broken clocks can sometimes be right.
I first started composing After Terra in earnest in late 2014. Fear was what had kept me from starting that work sooner, and though I had conquered it to an extent, that fear metamorphosized into one that caused me to prematurely push Year 200 out the door in mid-2016 when it absolutely was not ready. Fear has caused me to start/stop so many dips into the creative pool, whether with writing, music, Youtube productions, really anything that involves risk and me putting my heart and soul, if you will, out there into the world. It is a vulnerable, naked thing to do. The internet and its too-soon introduction to an immature species has given rise to a segment of the populace that thinks it’s okay or even cool to shit all over other people and their work because of anonymity, because these new digital mediums allow people to say shit and behave in ways they never would dare try to someone’s face. Also, frankly, sometimes even what might be intended as constructive criticism can be soul-destroying if presented poorly or if it hits you at the wrong place, wrong time. Sometimes even the fairest rejections can feel like a punch in the gut. There are also crazies and stalkers out there, who because of the internet have more tools at their disposal to harass their targets and endanger their lives and livelihoods. Because of these things, it is even easier to be afraid, because it’s not totally unreasonable or irrational to be wary of and on the defensive about putting oneself out there, exposed to the cruelty of the digital public.
But what choice is there, really? Keep this cycle going and be miserable for the rest of my life, or really, truly take a chance on the life of a creator, deal with the risks, and go for a life that actually has at least some hope, meaning, and purpose? Not unlike Neo’s moment with Morpheus and the pills, there isn’t much of a choice there. As Trinity observed, “you’ve been down that road, Neo. You know exactly where it ends, and I know that’s not where you want to be.”
I’m tired of walking to the end of that rainy, lonely road. Shall we escape it together?
Allow me to rip the bandage off immediately: I recently watched The Matrix: Resurrections and thought it was a dumpster fire of almost the highest proportions. It wasn’t quite the colossal insult to storytelling, theme, and character as The Last Jedi or the majority of Mass Effect 3, but was bad enough to leave me intensely frustrated and even more disillusioned with the state of modern storytelling. I’ll do a more traditional review of the film later, but first I need to put my hand up to stop the socio-political bullets accompanying this movie’s release.
I’ll springboard what I have to say off of one particular article (which is one of many pieces of information available on this topic, both from the Wachowskis themselves as well as varying critics and pundits), erroneously dubbed in pure clickbaitese as “Why ‘The Matrix’ is a trans allegory”. This article alone defeats its own title, as well as the larger point it espouses to support. In example, Emily Vanderwerff states, “…the main sort of thrust of this argument is really the idea that the system that you have built your life upon is a lie and is made up. And obviously, that has larger applications beyond trans identities. I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t.” Well, Emily, NPR, and anyone else willing to make the statement in the article’s title: If a story or a piece of creative work so blatantly and obviously has a larger meaning and is more universally than specifically applicable, you cannot in the same breath state that the same body of work “is explicitly an allegory to this and this alone.”
The aforementioned are confusing allegory with metaphor, and even calling The Matrix a trans metaphor is a stretch. Some aspects of the film can fit that relatively easily, however others do not at all. Allegories are a whole other bag of cats altogether. Allegories are one to one reflections of reality. An excellent example of allegory in science fiction is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which sees the Federation and Klingon Empire directly standing in for the United States and the Soviet Union, as both nations try to broker a new peace whilst the latter finds itself on the verge of collapse. The Praxis explosion stood in for Chernobyl, and Chancellor Gorkon was explicitly there to represent Premier Gorbachev. That is allegory. If you extracted these Cold War elements, the entire film would essentially evaporate. By contrast, any elements of The Matrix that can apply to and resonate with trans folk do so because of its universal appeal, but if you removed specific elements that supposedly make it all about transness (for example the red pill supposedly standing in for the old red estrogen pills) the film and what it represents to so many would still stand. Neo didn’t have gender dysphoria, the antagonists did not display or practice trans bigotry (the term I prefer to use, because transphobia is a buzzword erroneously used in the same context as hate practices such as sexism and racism), and the characters were fighting to find reality, not escape from it.
Emily is also quoted as saying, “…the movie follows characters who break free of the real life via the internet, creating online identities that feel more real than their physical ones.” Oh honey, did, did you even watch the same movie as me?
“The Matrix is a computer generated dreamworld, built to keep us under control.” – Morpheus
Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, all of the unplugged are fighting for the real, to free minds from the authoritarian machines who want to control every possible aspect of human existence. Their equivalent of the Internet is a digital prison, not where they are free to be themselves, but instead are meant to live as the system dictates. “Free your mind” and “taking the red pill” goes so much deeper than transness, feminism, left or right wing politics, or any of the things the Wachowskis are trying to make it about retroactively, or what groups like “the alt-right” or even conservatives in general have supposedly coopted. These ideas touched on something far grander, and that’s a big reason among many why the original film was such a smash success and remains a pop culture fixation. Indeed, I posit that the Wachowskis and those who are their political kin are practicing the very mistake The Matrix Reloaded cautioned us to be wary of, of how easily our beliefs are conscripted into being part of the system of control we claim to oppose.
In Reloaded, we find out that the prophecy of The One, what Morpheus based his entire life and meaning upon, turned out to be yet another layer of machine control over humanity. It was a lie, a fabrication. He and his followers became pliable and controllable rebels by being made to focus their energies entirely on their belief structure, blinding them to the truth and liberation they thought they had found. They lost sight of the true battle for truth and transcendence. In our world, how different is that than being so absorbed in your own political and social ideologies, that you become all the more entrenched in the oppression you claim to oppose? Aside from being wrong in a literary sense, reducing The Matrix to being merely a trans allegory, as is asserted, turns it into just another chess piece in the shitslinging, neverending grudge match between modern conservatives and liberals, particularly in America. Making it about “taking it back” from “the Right” is playing into the very model of control that those with power exert over those without it. Divide and conquer keeps ordinary citizens plugged into their own Matrix, perpetually at each others’ throats, locked in a repeating loop of hate, blame, and resentment, passed on by meme and gene from generation to generation. As long as you keep blaming “the other side” for all of your problems, none of them get solved, just at best shuffled off for our kids to deal with.
To fall back on a cliche, I do need to give the devil his due, of course. As much as I resist bringing it up, much as I only ever want to be regarded as you all see and hear me, not by whatever label might happen to fit me, I am a trans person. I say all that I do in this article with my heart firmly hand in hand with my brain. I do not rebuke such articles as the one by NPR lightly. I understand full well from my own experiences, with my own dysphoria and beyond, what The Matrix can mean to someone who feels trapped and downtrodden by their own existence. However, with gloves off and boss bitch mode engaged, it’s time for me to quote Trinity:
Yes, let me tell you what I believe, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, Emily Vanderwerff, to any and all reading this. I believe The Matrix means as much to me as it does to you. It came along at a tender point in my existence, where I was chafing under the weight of religious oppression but lacked the wisdom and breadth of perspective necessary to enact my own rebellion and unplug. It opened my mind to new possibilities in my own reality, in storytelling, and what was possible to convey with visual art. It opened the door for an interest in anime and exploring more of what Eastern cultures had to offer. Perhaps The Matrix did not do anything that was completely brand new or original, perhaps like the original Star Wars before it, it was a love letter to the things that most inspired and awed its creator(s). Maybe some or even all of what it had to say had already been said by wiser folk, but there comes a point where that doesn’t necessarily matter, because it presented these ideas and imagery in a newly evocative way. It’s extremely easy to watch these movies and come away feeling like you are instantly some sort of armchair philosopher, and it’s fair to say that the Matrix trilogy (in particular the haughtiest moments in Reloaded) is often better at suggesting Big Ideas and asking Big Questions without providing any real answers. But then again, do we really want a movie to be able to answer enormous questions about the nature of existence and what is real? Much as we like the characters and root for the heroes, do we want to be led around by the nose and spoon fed simplified answers to complex problems, the way the Oracle does with Neo? Are we pawns in a game, or do we think for ourselves?
There’s a reason why for the last two decades and more, my online existence has almost always included a variation of Neo. I saw something of myself in Neo, not because he was necessarily dealing with the same struggles as me, struggles in some cases that took many years to even identify, but because he was a hero that embodied the virtues of love, self-sacrifice, humility sprinkled with irreverence and rebellion, and a desire to find truth, no matter how painful or uncomfortable that truth was. Yes, Neo’s caustic retort to Agent Smith calling him “Mr. Anderson” one time too many has some overlap with being deadnamed and the ugly feelings that brings up (though Reloaded showed us a Neo who has matured and grown beyond feeling his identity threatened by being called his dead name). Yes, there absolutely is some resonance with the idea of having to live a manufactured identity while knowing that it has nothing to do with your true self. But this applies to so much more than transness, and to say that this is all it was meant to represent feels like a slap in the face to those who have similar torments because of their sexual orientation, their religion, their ethnicity, or any other reason that would cause a conflict of identity. Instead of allowing the messages of the The Matrix to remain open and empowering to virtually all people from all walks of life, which, by the way, I thought was what progressive liberals were all about, being reductive and narrowing its purpose feels cheapening and like a childish attempt to take a toy away from a kid you would rather not touch it. Taking something inclusive and trying to make it exclusive is the opposite of progress.
I get it. I’m protective of my creations too, and if I saw someone trying to interpret After Terra as something it blatantly is not, or attempting to use it for a destructive purpose, I’d be pissed too, and I’d fight back. I can even to an extent understand how a creator could get funneled down a path where they would rather say fuck it and burn their creation to the ground, sabotaging it rather than letting someone or something else continue to control and guide it. But, as much as I endeavor to leave as little about my stories open to interpretation as possible (with some exceptions; also I do this because I have a clear goal and know what I want the reader to come away with), I understand that once it leaves my hands and enters yours, there is a degree of control I lose. I do the best I can to paint the same image in your mind as mine with my words, but inevitably there is something different you will get from the experience of reading my work. If I’m lucky, extremely fortunate, the experiences and messages I convey with my work will have a universal appeal, able to resonate with folk of all backgrounds and experiences. Achieving something as profound and beautiful as that is not something I take lightly, and I think you sabotage and retroactively attempt to change it at great peril.
Also, I do not say all of this without some sympathy for the Wachowskis. If their repressed, closeted identities were something they secretly wanted to express through The Matrix, I feel for them. Feeling censored and held back by culture or the corporate moviemaking world is the big suck. Problem is, at the end of the day, they did not create a trans allegory. even if secretly that’s what they wanted. Intentions do not get to retroactively change the reality of what has been created. However, I argue that they still accomplished something wonderful and in a roundabout way, succeeded in their goal, as even though anything blatantly to do with transgenderism is not explicitly present in the film, what we were offered was still able to appeal to folks like me as well as a huge swath of the human population, if not potentially all of it. The Matrix is about humanity as a whole, quite frankly more important than any single group identity. Its themes, questions, ponderings, and explorations are about all of us, not merely some of us.
Although The Matrix has many elements that trans folk can resonate with, it is not a trans allegory. It is much more than that, and I do not hold to reducing a profound work of art into a piece of political ammunition that only furthers the machine of hate, instead of rising above it.
I suppose the title I chose for this article may sound excluding, as I would hope you still find value in what I’m what about to say even if this is the first of my writing you’ve ever encountered. But speaking truthfully, this is something I most want to say to those of you who have stuck by me over the years, as things have changed (myself especially), as my goals for what I want to accomplish with this website have shifted, as I try to adapt to circumstances that largely are beyond my control.
What you now see as afterterra.com started as my personal blog, named initially not for my books, but after a music project that I had been periodically revisiting and adding to from 2006 to 2014. For a time it has also been named after one of my old Xbox Live gamertags. The common theme was that, up until I began the After Terra series proper, I never used the name given to me at birth in association with my website. Even when my series was underway, I only used part of what is on my birth certificate; that too chafed me and I was all too glad to dispose of it once I was brave enough to do so. Point of bringing all that up being, at various points this site has been rebranded and relaunched, if you will, and at more than one instance in my history of blogging, I’ve made promises or commitments that I ultimately failed to meet in most cases.
Does this matter? Am I spitting into the digital winds, as it were? When I ask myself such questions, it comes back to two things: it matters to me, and for anyone, even if it turned out to be just one loyal reader, listening to what I have to say, I feel that I owe them something… making some grandiose promise like I have in the past seems disingenuous, but I’m also not going to apologize for having a life and for taking care of some seriously important damage control. So what I have to say here is in the spirit of an apology, because I am grateful for the readers I do have and I am humbled that anyone wants to check out what I have when there are millions, billions even, other potential options for entertainment and exploration of the human condition. It’s in the spirit of a promise, because I do intend to get back into a healthy writing habit of putting words to the page every day, to being as or close to as productive as I was when I wrote a full half of After Terra: Lunacy in one month.
Somewhere between an apology and a promise, here I am, and here I am to stay. The website isn’t going anywhere, and I still want it to be a codex hub for the universe, much like the one accessible to players in the Mass Effect games. My plans for the future of my work needed adjustment based on the drastic changes in my life, but now I know the way this must go in the future. The start of the new year may be an arbitrary benchmark, but it so happens that we are almost in the year 2022 C.E., and with that comes the anticipation that After Terra and all of my other creative universes will finally find their footing, as their creator finds her true voice at last.
This is a long overdue fit of much-needed catharsis.
I don’t remember exactly at what age that Christmas lost its “magic” and no longer excited me. It was sometime in my late teens, when I was privately rebelling against my monotheistic upbringing, as well as when I entered the workforce and began the journey of realizing what horrible cogs we are in an unnatural, corporatized machine we inherited from the last few preceding generations. I genuinely believe that at least some of the uppity, persnickety, churlish snobs who exist in the world would act more humbly if they had ever worked food service and retail like myself and so many other working class sods. Being on the receiving end of the public’s bullshit, I would hope, would make one less eager and willing to be the one in turn pushing your bullshit on some other worker unlucky enough to be serving you.
I realize that the preceding paragraph, if taken on its own without further context, might sound like a sound byte rebuttal against capitalism and some sort of veiled support of a Marxist idea. Allow me to be perfectly clear: I don’t support most, if any of Marx’s ideas and indeed think he was a resentful, vengeful idiot, or at least managed to portray himself as such through his work. Also to the reverse, I don’t think capitalism is the best possible economic solution to solving humanity’s deep problems of inequality and injustice, however it’s the best we’ve managed to implement so far, and I think on a small scale and at the individual level it works well enough that to attempt replacing it invites great peril.
No, this is about the excesses of corporatism and consumer culture. I think individual and small-scale free enterprise and entrepreneurship is great. What isn’t great is when the opportunities for those ventures to succeed or even exist are squelched by giant corporations who are eager to assume as much wealth and power as possible, and by the bloated, bureaucratically choked governments which enable them. The past nearly two years dealing with the unspecified virus of unknown origin has made it clearer than crystal that those who have power and wealth will take any and every opportunity to seize more of it, and they will not let it go willingly. If there was any genuine altruism powering big corpo and big government, we would be seeing a different picture at present. Instead we see corporate giants working in collusion with their bought and paid for government cronies, to be allowed to operate above the restrictions which everyone else is expected to obey without question. Because how dare any situation, crisis, or demand impede on the profits of giants like McDonald’s or Amazon. How dare we actually put “we’re in this together” into practice and say that we are facing problems more important than the profit margins of big business during the holiday season?
Collectively speaking, we’ve learned nothing. Buy, buy, buy, consume product, give in to the pressure to buy gifts and have parties and fancy dinners, even if you can’t afford it. Especially if you can’t afford it, because even debt is a commodity now, parceled and sold to folks desperately living beyond their means just to feel valued, loved, and as worthwhile members of their communities.
Worse yet, this rampant consumerism and the continued protection of big corpo by their government stooges is horrible for the environment. Interesting to me is seeing so many, leftists in particular, who are in favor of stringent lockdowns and think the government has unlimited money with which to bail people out of financial destitution indefinitely, yet they also claim to care about the planet and climate change. The very government(s) those types worship and depend on like Big Brother are responsible for empowering and protecting some of the biggest polluters around: giant corporations. Do you even comprehend how much pollution and material waste is produced and left over from providing one of you even a single fast food meal in a drive thru? Do you understand how much animal and material waste is created from having to constantly keep hot food at the ready? Do any of you understand the human cost, the insane, unnatural demands put upon the people behind the scenes, who are the ones making it possible for you to have hot food funneled into your car on a whim, or to get almost anything delivered to your door with next-day shipping? All you do is impulsively hit “buy” on Amazon’s shopping application, without understanding the chain of events you set in motion by doing so. There is a steep human and environmental cost to allowing these giant entities to operate without checks and balances, to pursue greater and further absurd solutions to artificially created consumer demands.
This is Christmas Day in my part of the world, as I write this. I barely survived, if we’re speaking in terms of mental and emotional health. Even when only tertiarily participating in the season (as a Heathen I am endeavoring to make pagan celebrations, without their modern accoutrements, part of my life), I was almost swallowed up in the excesses. There is an enormous amount of pressure and anxiety associated with this time of the year, and of course, in the pursuit of profit, big business only seems to reward procrastination and having consumer demands met at unrealistic speeds, regardless of what that does to the workers making it possible.
What can we do? What can I do? Christmas commercialism is a gigantic beast that no one person can stop or stand up to. Nor would I advocate burning the whole institution to the ground, and thus taking away traditions that provide genuine warmth, family, and merriment to some folks, even if I don’t share them. What I am suggesting is that we fight back with the weapons we working class stiffs do have. We have money, even if not a lot, and we can choose to spend it in support of local businesses and individual artists and craftspersons. We can choose to cook and grow food more for ourselves instead of relying on fast food drive thrus and doordashes. We can stay home and off the shopping apps on Black Friday. We can write to our representatives, our newspapers, and to groups already campaigning for positive change, to make it clear that the people who are supposed to be “our leaders” need to be more interested in protecting the liberties and prosperities of individual citizens more than corporate entities. Even if our reps are sold out to the lobbyists, I believe that with enough noise and enough people voicing their dissatisfaction, change is possible. And more than that…
Take time and be thoughtful enough to understand that there is a person dealing with some shit in order to provide you with any good or service. Be thankful and show some gorram humility to those of us “little people” making everything in our modern world possible.
*Necessary preface: this is a work of fiction. I do not take the word suicide lightly in the context of my, the author’s, life. It’s a metaphorical exploration of my life’s changes.*
I tried, sis. I really did. I was often accused of being dad’s clone, and by what any given and person could see or hear, I couldn’t blame them for thinking that.
I hated you, for a while, a long damn time in fact. I tried to hide you from everyone, I silenced you anytime you crept out, I kept you all for myself, but not even that, turns out. Even I never appreciated you. Without you, I was an empty shell, a piece of armor, all survival, total and corrupt rationalization with no heart and no wisdom to guide it.
I tried, sis. I tried to be a man, but that was never meant to be. Trying to mimic dad wasn’t enough. Imitating actions and methods without understanding their origin, without being able to feel their motivations made me a self-manipulated puppet, and worse, easy prey for the worst kinds of women and pathological ideologies.
You tried, sis. You warned me and I didn’t listen. You cried, and I never attended to your tears. Your heart was broken; it gnawed at me, my ignorance of it, and every relationship and career I tried to forge imploded.
You hated me, for a long time, and I didn’t blame you because I joined you in it. Only now I’m not so sure you did. I hear whispers that I protected you and sheltered you, that without me as a shield you might not be alive at all. Rumors abound that I might have done some good somehow in these years of my chaotic, nihilistic flailing.
You tried, sis. Against all of my torture and torment, you tried to show me the way. You have our mom’s heart, and I’m thankful for that. You showed me empathy and I twisted it into darkness.
It’s time for me to go, my sweet sister. There is only room for one of us here, and there is no fairer deal I can give the world than to trade me for you. It’s time for you to go free, and show the world your light. Don’t cry for me, for you have wept enough. If there is maybe one way I can succeed as a man, it is to sacrifice my today for your tomorrow, a duty so many men face for the future’s sake. That is my first and final gift to you, something so horribly and so painfully overdue…
Falling into forever, he leaves. The letter flutters into her trembling hands, tears smearing his final fingerprints. She vows to honor him.