Cyberpunk Edgerunners

It’s weird for me to watch and review a TV show that’s on now, but it’s on Netflix, so here we are.

I had pretty mixed feelings about the game Cyberpunk 2077; the anime by contrast is pretty good. In fact I feel like this would have been a much better direction for the game itself.

Lucy and David not being hyper-violent, for the moment

I’m not going to be entirely rapturous, but mostly because I’m not 17 anymore. If you are 17 and read my blog for some reason, no disrepect, this series was made for you and you may find it absolutely cool. It’s basically a heavy metal ballad: live fast, aim high, fuck the bastards and die in glory.

If you’ve been living in a cave or something, here’s the basics: the series is 10 episodes of half an hour each, focusing on David Martinez, a smart but poor boy living in Night City in 2076, studying to be a corpo. Ep 1 gives you a heady brew of cyberpunk: it starts with a braindance of a guy going cyberpsycho, killing a bunch of cops; we meet David’s hard-working mother, see David’s morose everyday life; he also knows a ripperdoc for some reason; the rich kids at school are bullying him; then life gets even worse. Everything costs money in Night City and when you have none, no one cares. You may play the game and want to live in Night City. Watching the anime, not so much. Kids, only you can prevent libertarianism.

Things pick up in Ep 2 when he meets Lucy, a girl way cooler than him who is nonetheless wasting time stealing chips from corpos on the el. David has recently acquired his first chrome, which allows him (among other things) to move superhumanly fast; it turns out he also has an unusual ability to integrate cyberware with his wetware (his big floppy meat brain). Lucy introduces him to a rising gang of mercs, who don’t like him much at first.

Now, C77 has a sequence of Movin’ Up with Jackie, where you rise from total noob to minor gangster in a five-minute montage. And that’s pretty much what eps 1 to 6 amount to…. and it just underlines the huge wasted opportunity in C77. The game doesn’t really get going until you’re already well established, with your own apartment. It skips what Edgerunners revels in: how easy is to fall out of the grid in Night City, the hopelessness of having nothing and no prospects, the slow climb up the crime ladder because that’s the only exit; slowly acquiring and getting to know your new crew, a la Saints Row.

In short, I would have watched twice as much David & Lucy on the rise (the interval between Eps 6 and 7, basically), and I would have played the hell out of that as a video game. Instead C77 gives you fucking Keanu.

At the same time, I’ve been watching Cowboy Bebop for the first time– both versions. They’re very similar: cyberpunk dystopia, lots of violence, heists gone bad, a simmering feud with a vicious enemy, a crew of loveable fuckups. More on this later, but a lot of the comparisons go Bebop‘s way. The characters in Bebop are more likeable, the stories and themes show far more range, and there’s a lot more actual sf going on. I understand that Edgerunners is just focused on doing one thing, and it does that pretty well. But Bebop is the more ambitious show, and it did all this 24 years ago.

The one thing Edgerunners has going for it is the animation. It’s not perfect– yeah, Studio Trigger, I can tell when you’re saving money– but it’s better, very stylish, and often innovative. (E.g. David’s superspeed is represented by multiple still images… that can’t be what it would actually look like, but it’s a perfect use of the medium.) So, Studio Trigger, please just re-animate Cowboy Bebop, leaving the soundtrack as is, mmkay?

Both game and anime are all about the ultraviolence. I’m guessing that that’s how the RPG plays too. It still disappoints me a bit because I want the cyber stuff: hacking, detecting, stealth, inscrutable graphics representing the inside of the Net. Otherwise it’s just a gang story where the guns are just, you know, surgically installed in your arm.

Now, while you’re watching, almost everything is cool and exciting– you can just let it all wash over you. But very little of it makes much sense on analysis. The TV Tropes name for this is fridge logic: stuff that you accept until half an hour later when you go to the fridge for snacks. The characters intelligence and skill level varies widely, according to plot needs. Enemy capabilities very even more widely: same. Character chooses to lie or clam up or reveal secrets: same. You can never tell who’s going to have a badass movement and who’s going to fuck up. (Bebop has this problem too.)

Now, some of this is probably intentional: it’s a tragedy, after all: people have to make mistakes and miscommunicate; they’re all damaged people; it’s a biz that encourages a certain reckless bravado. On the other hand, I think it kind of ruins the last two episodes, admittedly a point where they have to cram in a huge amount of plot. Specifically (mouse over to read):

Lucy is cool and calculating except when she needs to get captured. David’s new suit can blast through an entire military battalion, but he’s overcome by one guy in a mecha suit. Rebecca can blow up everything until she can’t. Kiwi does a heel turn, then a reverse heel turn, then gets played as a sucker. Arasaka has spent a fortune on this new cyberskeleton instead of just building more Adam Smashers. There is never a shortage of ammo and implants, but you can easily run out of immunosuppressants.

I’m going to show another scene which is a bit of a spoiler but reveals a lot about the show’s attitudes, positive and negative:

This is David in ep 7, a big gang leader now in several senses, though still pretty morose. Note the nice digs: he’s made it as far as a gangster can go. He’s also augmented himself into a metal monster.

David is obviously a male power fantasy here, to the point of absurdity. And that’s OK, that’s the story they wanted to tell, and it’s told with a certain self-criticism, or typical Slavic pessimism: this is not a path that leads to a long happy life. It’s lampshaded early on: cyberpunk is about how you die.

Lucy is also part of the male fantasy. She is and remains cooler than David– on the whole Edgerunners is pretty good about making its female characters badasses– but she falls for him anyway. Also for some reason female hackers get naked while hacking. And while hanging out at home, apparently. (David does too. Saves on laundry bills, I guess.)

Now, I’m not criticizing Lucy, or the romance– quite the opposite, it’s the one element of sweetness in the story, and a very welcome one. But I do want to ask: why didn’t the writers consider telling Lucy’s story instead? It’s arguably way more interesting. They tell some of it: she started out poor as well, and got trained and nearly killed by Arasaka. Yet she became a very successful hacker, chill and smart and kind and never subject to cyberpsychosis, and she never felt the need for David’s gorilla-grade bulk. It’s the Ginger Rogers thing: she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

If you want to see that idea taken through its paces– try Arcane, the animated show based very loosely on League of Legends. I’m not sure I’ll do a full review, but it also covers a lot of this ground, though with more a steampunk than a cyberpunk vibe. But it makes the smart decision to focus on the female badasses rather than the male wannabes they inexplicably fall in love with.


Ukraine update

Russia’s war on Ukraine is back on the front pages, due to some stunning Ukrainian advances.

I’ve been checking for news about every day, mostly Phillips O’Brien and the Institute for the Study of War, which updates its map daily. These maps from the latter site summarize the overall war:

At left you can see all the territory occupied by Russia in its initial attack. They attacked just about everywhere, which is a poor strategy even with a good army, and it turned out they didn’t have one. They were completely unable to take Kyiv, and finally decided to withdraw from the north (the blue areas) and concentrate on the east and south.

The middle map shows the progress the Russians made in five months. They did move forward, by means of massive artillery bombardments and getting over 50,000 of their own men killed– a brutal style of warfare that worked well, if slowly, against smaller opponents like Chechnya. Note that the Russians took only two new major cities, Severodonetsk and Mariupol (the latter was already surrounded).

For most of August, Ukraine used its newly acquired HIMARS artillery to attack ammo dumps, fuel depots, command centers, and other materiel far behind enemy lines. That is, their aim was to destroy Russian war capabilities rather than take back territory. One result was far less Russian bombing of Ukrainian territory (and troops).

Finally, at the beginning of this month the Ukrainians started a counter-attack. They made it very clear that they were aiming for Kherson, in the south– heavily bombing routes into the region to isolate the Russians and obstruct reinforcements. Then they attacked… in the north, near Kharkiv. The blue on the last map shows the territory gained– apparently at fairly low cost. Today they retook Izyum, in the middle of the blue area– only a few miles from the occupied Luhansk oblast.

How did the Ukrainians do it? This interview with a Ukrainian analyst is quite informative. As he notes, the Russians have a 1300-km front to defend with no more than 250,000 soldiers. Ukraine has up to a million soldiers, though of course only a fraction will be used in such an advance. Apparently this part of the front had only one tier of defense, which made it extremely dangerous when the Ukrainians broke through.

The Russians are far from being defeated– but they are not in good shape. In the next few days or weeks we’ll find out what line they can actually defend. It’s almost certainly not going to be a line Putin likes.

Edit: O’Brien’s pithy remark is on point: “So the overall strategy was brilliant. Make Russia put forces where Ukraine can more easily damage them, while thinning out Russian forces where the Ukrainians wanted to move forward. They played Putin like a violin.”

Also, things are still moving: the ISW’s map now shows all of Kharkiv oblast liberated— the little red areas north and south of Kharkiv in the rightmost map above. In 10 days Ukraine has recaptured more territory than Russia grabbed in all of April to August, and at far less cost to itself.

There’s an old saw that “amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics.” And if you were, say, a conworlder who wants to run a war in your world, this war has been a graduate class in logistics. For instance, the Ukrainian advance first targeted not Izyum but Kupyansk. Why? Because Kupyansk is the major rail junction in the area; without it, Russia could not supply its troops in Izyum. And in the south, the Ukrainians have been systematically destroying the bridges that lead to Kherson, meaning that they’re using one of the oldest strategies in the world: pinning an enemy against an uncrossable river.

Sandman TV

In a departure from my usual unhipness, I’ve been streaming TV shows like a normal human being. I picked up Netflix in order to watch Sandman. It’s only $15 a month!

Quick verdict: it’s great; I’m really hoping now for Season Two. It does justice to the comics. And best of all, my wife likes it, and she is not a big fantasy fan. We just finished the last, bonus episode last night.

To make something like this work, both the casting and the writing have to hit. They scored big with all the ones they really had to: Dream (Tom Sturridge), Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), John Dee (David Thewlis), and the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook). I heard part of the audiobook adaptation and couldn’t buy Dream and Death there, so this is big.

Dream is the most challenging of these: he’s perfectly suited for the comics page, where we only have to see his gothic splendor. But most of the comics images (e.g. those starry non-eyes, or the over-flowing robes) would look campy on-screen. Plus– his whole thing is that he’s uptight and a bit of an asshole. Sturridge is just right for all this (once you get used to his prettiness). I was worried at first that he was under-emoting, but I think he does a lot very subtly.

Gaiman, and the directors, take the point of view that enormously powerful entities (Sandman, Lucifer, Corinthian) can be calm and elaborately polite. The shouting madman as villain is real, but always conceals an underlying fear, a fear that he will not be taken seriously. The truly powerful person can be quiet because they know their orders will be fulfilled. Sturridge is the positive side of this: a guy where you should worry if he furrows his brow. Holbrook is the evil version, underlining his menace with Southern charm.

Death is Gaiman’s most perfect, most iconic character, and Howell-Baptiste nails her. She is warm and caring and yet catpures that older-sister ability to make Dream think.

The set design is good. I like touches like Matthew flying into the ceiling of Dream’s throne room, the painting turning into a 3-D scene; then ending up in Earth’s sky. It’s a nice use of the new medium: comics can show us amazing spaces, but it’s not good at transitions.

The usual trolls have complained about changes in race and sex. As Gaiman has gleefully pointed out, these folks entirely missed the point of the comics, where it was shown many times that the Endless are shown as they appear to the being observing them, be it human, cat, or alien sentient flower. Even Abel and Cain note that they are not actually human. But the comics, progressive for their time, feel a bit dated in their whiteness, and I’m glad they’ve been updated. The only one that I feel doesn’t quite work is Lucifer. Gwendoline Christie gets the surface suavity and politeness, but not the menace. And there’s something oddly stiff about her bearing, as if she’s being held up by her gowns.

I looked at a few reviews and found them quite weird– I suspect the reviewers a) see too much TV, and b) lack an affinity for the material. I haven’t seen much TV in years, and that probably improves the experience for me. The show isn’t lost in a sea of other fantasy/sf adaptations for me; I’m not bored by the tropes or the actors. E.g. one reviewer thought some episodes were “padded”, which is a weird thing to say when they’re rushing through like 15 comics in 10 hours. Another said Kyo Ra wasn’t that great; I disagree, though my wife didn’t.

Some things hit harder in a live-action version. The horrific abuse of Jed, for instance. It’s almost all taken straight from the comics, but it’s a lot more visceral when you see an actual human being as evil as Barnaby.

I’m going to talk about specific scenes and changes now, so I suggest you put this aside if you’re afraid of spoilers.

A lot of reviews seem to think this was a very tight adaptation. Parts of it are (especially the “cereal convention” bits), but there are quite a few little changes. E.g.:

  • The nods to DC heroes are gone.
  • Poor Gregory!
  • Lyta is now just a friend of Rose’s, not a resident of the Dream Dome. She’s also a sweet helper rather than merely depressive.
  • Ethel doesn’t run away with Ruthven Sykes.
  • Matthew appears earlier, and his predecessor Jessamy appears in ep 1; it’s rather a shock that Alex kills her.
  • Alex was relatively trusted in the comics; here he is abused and disdained.
  • The Corinthian’s role is greatly beefed up. He instructs Burgess on how to keep Dream safe, and rescues Jed from his horrible foster parents. He interacts with Rose, giving her more options (why not take over the Dreaming?!).
  • Johanna Constantine gets a whole subplot to show off her powers; and another one to make her relationship to Rachel far more poignant. (Also, wow, she looks better in a trenchcoat than John ever did.)
  • John Dee is quite changed. Rather than simply being a power-mad psychotic, he has a whole theme: an abhorrence of lies, due to the constant lying of his mother. His driver is blessed instead of murdered.
  • Brute and Glob are gone, replaced by Gault, whose motivations are positive rather than negative.
  • Hell is no longer a triumvirate.
  • Death gives more of an explanation of why she is happy to do her job.
  • Both Rose and Hob get to show off some self-defense skills.
  • There is way less female nudity: in the comics, Calliope was kept naked, Rose is half-nude in her final confrontation with Dream, and Despair wears no clothes. Ironically the only nudity is male: Dream in ep 1, and Ken in his dreams.

Almost always these changes are for the better, and feel more in line with Gaiman’s work overall. In the first volume of the comics, he was still feeling out his way, and tried too hard to be gross or shocking. Most of the changes create more continuity (e.g. more use of the Corinthian and Matthew), or strengthen the characters, or humanize the villains, or underline Dream’s need to learn empathy.

The diner episode is more watchable than I feared, probably because it didn’t feel like gratuitous violence… Dee is not just exerting power, but exposing lies… which turns out to be a really bad idea. I couldn’t watch the murder-suicides though. On the other hand the second half of this episode seems rushed: it should should take longer for Dee to believe he’s triumphed and then suddenly realize he hasn’t.

A few things I wasn’t so sure about:

  • Burgess having to learn from the Corinthian who he’d captured. I’m also not so sure about Burgess dying due to violence rather than just bitter old age.
  • Chantal and Zelda seem way too Addams Family. But the original comic kind of misfires here too: the residents of the house are kind of pointlessly weird. (I loved Hal though.)
  • I didn’t like Choronzon’s challenge passing to Lucifer. The whole idea was that this petty demon was predictable; it makes less sense that Lucifer was stumped.
  • I missed Death’s casual remark that she could “patter Romany”. But I’m a language geek.
  • I kind of miss the gate guardians. But they probably had a limited CGI budget.
  • Ep 10 has too many endings. I’d have left out the whole Hell scene.

The bonus episodes are not my favorites, but I expect I’m in the minority here. “Cats” is a neat idea wrapped up in a shallow joke. Well animated though. “Calliope” is very 90s: damsel in distress, with her rapist condemned, but humanized more than his victim. They’ve updated it– Calliope is a tad feister, isn’t blonde, and doesn’t have to be naked. The story is strangely anti-writer; it may be Gaiman’s version of the sad boner professor.

Re-reading my own review of the comics, I note that my major complaint was the art. I think that holds up: a lot of the volumes would have worked much better if an artist like J.H. Williams (Sandman Overture) or John Cassaday (Planetary) had drawn them. Maybe the best thing about the TV series is that it corrects that problem– it’s always gorgeous.