Analyzing Final Fantasy VII: intro

This is the first in a number of posts.

In an August 2021 Washington Post article, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu discussed their work on Fantasian, which was about to receive its final update. Although Fantasian was an online IOS game, the collaboration allowed Sakaguchi and Uematsu to reconnect with their original approach to making RPGs.

Sakaguchi and Uematsu are two of the oldest and most important influences behind the Final Fantasy series. Both were involved in the first three entries on the NES (‘87-‘90) and both were present and active all the way through Final Fantasy X (2001).

Gamers who were hooked in those early years probably noticed a few common elements. No early Final Fantasy story was sequential with any other but there were many recurring story elements. Storytelling shared the foreground with gameplay. Since Final Fantasy was the most visible face of the Japanese RPG in America, many Americans associate Final Fantasy with separate battle and navigation screens. There was something else, though, that’s not so easy to summarize.

When FFIV came out on the SNES, the chibi art style probably excited little comment. It made sense that Square would rely on its last reference point from the NES. FFV still had chibis, but now the chibis had facial expressions and body language. Mega Man and Mario pulled off huge visual rehauls with the jump to 16 bits. Final Fantasy played it safe, with the increased graphical capabilities used to build on what came before. The simple sprites became more doll-like, with facial features reminiscent of anime. IV, V and VI used the 16 bit graphics for enemy sprites and backgrounds during the combat screen, which looked either painted or drawn. All of your player characters were still chibi dolls. These specialized uses of complimenting art styles even lasted until the move to the PlayStation. Between VII and IX, the battle screens were filled with polygons, along with the “overworld” section. The exploration screen now had polygon characters against a more detailed pre-rendered background.

Many of those qualities disappeared after X, when Nobuo Uematsu and Hironobu Sakaguchi began to step back.

From the Washington Post article

In the Washington Post article, Sakaguchi and Uematsu discuss Fantasian as a return to their JRPG roots. This game was developed in 2014 and the contemporary software was once again used to build on their traditional approach to JRPG storytelling.

Hand-made diaramas were photographed for environments containing the doll-like, polygonal characters. When talking about his recent play through of FFVI, he compared the art style of early FF to a puppet show.

Think about the tone of some of those early to mid FFs. Particularly IV and VI. Themes of wartime atrocity, mental illness, suicide and the end of the world stand side by side with moon rabbits looking for their calling and a pun-loving octopus. Whimsy and tragedy co-exist easily in non-literal storytelling. The same flexibility that enables erratic tone shifts also enables some unexpected emotional blindsides. Final Fantasy VI was the first to deviate from the traditional swords-and-sorcery subject matter but Final Fantasy VII brought the puppet show into 3D.

Final Fantasy VIII had a futuristic story with a heavy anime influence. IX played it safe with Jim Hensen/Henry Selick-like fantasy world. X was a meeting between the old and new guard. Final Fantasy VII was a fifty-fifty split between the traditional puppet show aesthetic and the later variations.

The world-building of VII is only slightly more daring than VI. The main variation is in its complexity. VII is also less interested in a traditional fantasy origin story: human society, in VII, is divided on how to interpret history. Which made it feel a little more modern than VI. FFVII had whimsy but nothing on the level of Namingway in IV or Ultros in VI.

The use of the chibi-doll polygons against the more detailed pre-rendered backgrounds brought a level of surrealism. When I first played FFVII on the PC around 2000, there was a glitch in the opening FMV and one of the chibi train attendants was briefly superimposed over the crowded streets of Midgar. As the camera rose over the cityscape, the train attendant who looked like a doll ran offscreen.

The glitch put one of these guys over the birds-eye view Midgar panorama

At first, I thought this was intentional. I had played Super Smash Bros. recently which revolved around a magical glove that brings toy Nintendo characters to life. Toy-based metafiction was precedented in game design, even before Smash. The glitch never repeated, but it did suggest to me that there were actual human characters here represented with symbolic toys. Other things, like the combat system (which is obviously not a literal representation of what is going on) backed this up.

From the Washington Post article

The varying art styles in the FMVs are a major reason why the Washington Post article rang true to me. Fully animated cut scenes have no function other than supporting a narrative. Their purpose is identical to flavor text. In a high-stakes move to a new platform with an unprecedented Western ad campaign, Square was limited only by their imaginations and hardware. The decision they made was to have some cut scenes with chibi dolls and other cut scenes with more realistically-proportioned characters.

I’ve always remembered the scene with Barret comforting Tifa after Cloud falls through the suspended structure over Sector 6. It has an almost Rankin/Bass stop-motion quality. Tifa’s escape from Junon to the Highwind also had chibi dolls.

There were also interesting moments when the dialogue boxes fleshed out details of more intimate moments. Things that couldn’t be depicted with the chibi dolls, like Jessie rubbing the soot off of Cloud’s face or Barret’s whiskers scratching his daughter when he cuddles her. The normalization of these smaller, non-literal emotional beats establishes believability for more serious moments later on, such as the Nibelheim flashback. Even the more comically awkward scenes like Cloud’s cross-dressing infiltration benefited from this.

This also strengthened the immersive quality of the dialogue boxes: it’s easy to hear the character’s voices in your imagination when you’ve already accepted that there are more intimate, human events that exist whether or not you see them. The pathos of the non-literal character interactions also brought dramatic weight to the story’s larger-than-life scale.

Critics of remaking FFVII across multiple games overlook this. The puppet show’s distance from reality opens a wider scope for storytelling. By using graphics to establish symbols rather than direct representations, there is less of a need to let the ordinary unfolding of life and physics bog down the narrative. If Final Fantasy VII was ever going to be remade as a modern video game with realistic or cinematic graphics, it would have to be a very different story…or find another way to convey its scope. To tell a story with a realistic sense of scope, breaking the story into multiple games is the best way to cover every point of faithfulness and give it all room to breathe.

But none of those cinematic, hyper-realistic games will have the same tone. Motion-capture and granular texturing directly effect how the tone informs the scope of the story. Everything would rely on a sense of human physical proportion.

The way in which the puppet show aesthetic exploited the intersection between tone and scale even has a relationship with the literary genre referenced in the name.

I know there are innumerable different opinions on what constitutes any genre. But I believe that fantasy is defined by a relationship with mythology. More than swords and sorcery, more than treasures of the elements and magic swords, more than races of supernatural creatures. The power of fantasy is channeled through mythology.

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lord Dunsany, J.M. Barrie and every other foundational fantasy writer were all aware of this. H.P. Lovecraft was aware of it and tried to incorporate this mythic influence into his own work. Tolkien, Dunsany and Lovecraft were so smitten with the desire to capture the language and tone of ancient texts that they became famous for being dry. In high school, I had a classmate who said that The Fellowship of the Ring was accessible as historical fiction, The Two Towers felt like historical fiction with heavy ancient world atmosphere and The Return of the King was “the Old Testament.”

While Tolkien emulated the tone of ancient poetry and epics, C.S. Lewis coordinated his relationship mythology less directly. He insisted that The Chronicles of Narnia was not a Christian allegory: it was a depiction of a world that ran parallel to his Christian world view. Aslan was not a symbolic representation of Christ; Aslan was literally Christ in the world of Narnia. To use a concept from a separate religious tradition, Aslan could be described as an “emanation” of Christ. Lewis’ Space Trilogy dealt with other worlds that exist before and after their respective Falls from grace in their respective Edens.

Lovecraft wanted to capture a sense of classical authenticity denying us cosmic validation. A voice from the past informing the present that the search for meaning is doomed to fail. While Hans Christian Andersen wrote fairy stories from his imagination, his work reflected the influence of both European folklore and Christianity.

I’ve always suspected that fantasy storytellers are motivated by a personal relationship with mythology. And mythology is our oldest storytelling tradition of dealing with the unknown and what matters most. At the same time, they are not reducible to an allegory or a metaphorical treatise. The first humans to hear the first creation stories did not think that they were listening to imagination or metaphor. Many modern fantasy readers and writers (like myself) don’t think the value of fantasy can be reduced to anything pragmatic. A good artist works with the outside world, so it makes sense to incorporate things like social commentary and matters of personal belief and observation. Those are things that people relate to and they are some of the building blocks of good storytelling. But no single one of those dimensions captures the essential value.

On some level, we still hear literal truth within mythology.

Or, perhaps more accurately, we hear experienced truth, and no experience is reducible to a single specific meaning. Meaning is an effect of experience, not a cause.

Many ancient myths, to modern readers, are simple stories. Things can be deep and powerful while being simple. A good pop-rock musician can make three to four minutes do a lot of work. Simplicity is probably one of the oldest qualitative benchmarks in the history of creativity.

High artistic benchmarks usually have a high failure rate, though. And fantasy is simultaneously one of the most beloved and most derided literary genres. Opinions tend to cluster into child’s play, garbage or the highest of the high.

Final Fantasy itself is a good example of what can go wrong. One of the most common criticisms of the series is that things get complicated. I have nice things to say about the story of XIII, which might put me on thin ice to begin with, but not even I can reconcile the world-building between XIII-2 and Lightening Returns. The story and the cosmology of the first XIII game worked well together. The world-building of the next two games completely ignored each other’s continuity.

World-building minutia can create a sense of authenticity and immersion. But it can just as easily derail the tone of the main story.

FFIV also has cluttered world-building. But it didn’t excite the same exasperation that XIII did among the fan base. The graphical difference between the first SNES Final Fantasy (IV) and the first PS3 Final Fantasy (XIII) necessarily effects the tone. The tonal impact of the graphics is one reason why the science-fiction aesthetic of XIII grated on me the way it did. While scrolling between the stats of your party members, a picture of the relevant character will appear with brief facial movements. The intent was to create the effect of a face seen on a security camera recording immediately before someone “pausing” it. Whenever something happens that resembles magic, there are usually musical cues signaling a tone shift from the futuristic atmosphere. XIII also had a relentlessly serious tone. A dark or dour tone won’t break a story on it’s own but when it’s stacked on top of extremely detailed world-building, the risks add up. In addition to the tone and the world-building, the graphics of the PS3 entangles its sense of physical and emotional scale with human bodies, faces and voices.

It could be argued that a technology-heavy, futuristic setting does not have to draft detailed renders of human characters into a less fluid tone. Wall-E was a computer-animated movie about a sentient AI cleaning robot which kept the tone as whimsical as anything else Pixar did, like Toy Story. Wall-E also waited until the second half of the movie to introduce human characters, though. The robots, with their wildly varying shapes, were allowed to set the tone by being the only characters in the first act.

FFIV may have had a long and complicated story but it also took itself less seriously. Or maybe it’s overall aesthetic made it more approachable.

The game starts with Cecil, a military commander in the fictional nation of Baron, having just raided a village under orders from his king. When he questions the morality of these orders back home, he is punished with a menial delivery task. Upon arrival, the object he was told to carry turns into a magical weapon of mass destruction and levels the surrounding city. Cecil realizes that he has been trapped in a “blood in blood out” arrangement. His opinion no longer matters because he has already shared the guilt of his comrades. In spite of this, the plight of a young girl who was orphaned by his unwitting attack causes him to defect.

He leaves the scene of the carnage with her because he knows his fellow soldiers will likely sweep the area looking for survivors. She fights him and hates him every step of the way. Soldiers of Baron soon try to take both Cecil and the girl, Rydia, into custody, and he fights them off. This is the moment that changes Rydia’s mind about him.

There are a few different ways to take this. Rydia’s mother was not killed in the same wave of destruction that destroyed her home. Rydia belongs to a people called summoners who have symbiotic relationships with magical beings. Before entering the village, Cecil was attacked by a dragon which he succeeded in killing. This dragon was in an entangled symbiosis with Rydia’s mother. Because of Cecil, her mother was dead before he even set foot in her village.

Most people would not easily forgive the person who kills their mother. It also must be said that Cecil did these things unwittingly. He had no way of knowing that the dragon was anything but a dragon or that the package he was delivering would basically explode. On the level of conscious intention, Cecil is innocent, but intentions do not ameliorate trauma. Trauma can also narrow perspective with panic. While fleeing Nazis in WWII, it’s safer to travel with a defecting Nazi than a Nazi true believer. Or maybe the example of his violent insubordination actually convinced Rydia of his commitment to protect her.

Since this is all happening with chibi dolls, it’s easy not to react the same way as you would with a live-action portrayal. The tone doesn’t try to force your empathy. This is not the same as saying it doesn’t matter anyway: there definitely would have been a wrong way to do it. Rydia’s initial hatred and resistance to Cecil makes her eventual acceptance more convincing. More so than it would have been if, for example, she never blamed him for anything. It would have rang equally false if Rydia leapt from her bed and ran to hug Cecil as soon as he fought off the soldiers who were sent to capture them.

The doll-like appearance of the character sprites do not invite visceral empathy or identification. It would have been easy to make it cartoonish. The simple presentation goes over better with more concise dialogue anyway. If your conversations need to be brief, it would be intuitive to lean into melodrama to extract the most value from the shortest amount of space. Instead, after fighting off the soldiers, Cecil tells Rydia that he wouldn’t dare to ask for her forgiveness or affection but he will still do everything he can to protect her. Her reply: “Promise?” This is the first non-combative statement she offers him.

I’m not saying Final Fantasy IV isn’t melodramtic or escapist. A lot of characters appear to die with maximum pathos who turn out to be alive again later. You travel to an underworld filled with dwarves and fairies and even end up on the moon. It’s as escapist as it gets. But FFIV is a better game than it would have been if it leaned into a cartoonish tone to compliment the cartoonish appearance. FFXIII made thorough use of the PS3’s graphics for both spectacle and grittiness. IV balanced it’s appearance with writing, whereas XIII’s writing accommodated the appearance. The result was that XIII appeared more melodramatic to westerners (at least) than the 8-16 bit games.

Balancing cartoonish graphics with text and scenarios that are not cartoonish is a win but it is not the sole strength of the puppet show. There’s something about a lack of physical realism that enables easier mental access to certain things. Anne Rice said that her supernatural novels enabled her to talk more directly about spirituality and philosophy than her realistic ones. The appearance of something like a puppet may be cute, quaint or artsy. They look like simple representations that allow for artistic freedom but not literal truth, so it’s easier for aesthetics to dominate the first impression. If you start with aesthetics, it is a short leap to imagination. With a little bit of emotional realism (rather than visual), non-literal representation can access vast potential.

This is why I find it so easy to be reminded of non-textual allusions throughout the first Final Fantasy VII for the PS1. The game starts in a city called Midgar with two horizontal tiers: the ground and the upper plate. At the beginning, it’s easy to overlook the fact that you are in a mako reactor immediately beneath the upper plate. After y’all blow it up, everyone escapes onto the upper plate and from there they catch a train to their hideout on the ground level.

This is one of only two glimpses of the upper plate in the whole game. And the story basically starts there. The opening cutscene starts with Aerith emerging from an alley in a crowded sidewalk beside an intersection where we briefly run into her after the bombing mission. The opening cutscene makes it visually clear that both Aerith and the route to the train station are on the upper plate but it’s easy to forget; especially since our starting player characters are so ideologically aligned with the people living under the plate.

I remember at least a few fans talking about a scene near the end when the player characters parachute onto Midgar from above as if it were the only time we ever see the upper plate. Apparently, more than one western gamer did not immediately think of the opening scene as taking place on the upper plate. Especially since your main task in the beginning is blowing up a mako reactor, which are tower-like structures between the two plates anyway.

While you’re there in the beginning, though, consider the visual cues. Immediately after your escape, you crawl through a tunnel into an open indoor space with black and white floor tiles and destroyed statues. From there, you emerge into a street beside skyscrapers and strips. It’s still early in the game so it might not be obvious that you would only see things like this on the upper plate. In the pre-rendered backgrounds the shadowplay is directed by fluorescent streetlamps. The general, pervading darkness is suggestive of a night sky. There are giant banners advertising a play called Loveless, a few of the footpaths are cobblestones and the cars look like they came from the forties or fifties. It has a New York-flavored, classic film atmosphere. After this brief passage across the upper plate, the party returns to the slums below by train.

Although the ground-level slums are very different from the upper plate, the disembarking on the train station below still maintains the atmosphere of nighttime urban romance. A young couple happily reunites beside you. You overhear them talking about a separate, abandoned train depot that’s rumored to be haunted. The girl is wearing a leather jacket and punk swag that could have come from the eighties. Cloud arrives at the Seventh Heaven with everyone else and reunites with his childhood friend, Tifa, who apparently got him involved in the bombing to begin with. Cloud and Tifa share an extremely non-literal flashback. We’re in the Sector 7 slums, under a plate, but a brief cut appears to take us near a water tower under a night sky. The adult chibi-dolls are soon replaced by child chibi-dolls. Another cut brings us back to the bar beneath the plate. The player learns, later on, that the flashback depicted something that happened on a separate continent.

During the moment where the setting of the flashback is inhabited by the adult characters, we’re not quite in the memory yet. We’re just seeing adult Cloud and adult Tifa talk about it. Basically, we’re being introduced to a psychological use of environments at the start of the game. Considering the role that belief and delusion play in the rest of the story, this has got to be intentional.

Before this early stage of the game, there are other indications of non-literal storytelling that could be easily overlooked. The game begins with a long credits roll, like a film. The starting screen does not have a logo. The only text are your two options: ‘New Game’ and ‘Continue.’ The only image is Cloud’s buster sword, angled with it’s point downward, surrounded by a spotlight. If you manage to get KO’d, you’ll see a game over screen with a broken strip of film and a film reel canister off to the side. If you see that screen before escaping from the reactor, the old-fashioned cars and cobblestones imply an even more direct classic film aesthetic. The only thing that stops me from making comparisons with noir is that there are too many colors (however subdued).

On this note- when development started on Final Fantasy VII, it was originally planned to take place in twentieth-century New York and would have told the story of a detective. The detective eventually made it into the final game, after many revisions, as the character Vincent Valentine. Square’s New York-based detective concept would later be used for Parasite Eve, which was released very closely to Final Fantasy VII. Parasite Eve was something of a survival-horror game and therefore had a darker tone than Final Fantasy. The police-procedural plot structure and the darker atmosphere landed much closer to noir than FFVII.

Maybe classic film (noir or otherwise) was an early influence in FFVII. Maybe not. I lean toward affirmative. Especially since discovering Vincent, the original detective character, will connect several plot threads. His entrance to the story functions as an arch-clue solving a number of mysteries. To say nothing of the WEAPON monsters later on, which are evocative of the Japanese kaiju movies of the sixties like Godzilla. That last part clinches it for me but I’ll have more to say about that later.

So. The torn film in the game over screen and the buster sword, spotlit as if it was onstage, are tucked into forgettable moments like losing battles and starting the game up. As out-of-the-way as they are, though, they point directly toward a kind of metafiction. When I first played the game on PC, the glitchy train attendant all but convinced me that FFVII was “acted out” with dolls, like Super Smash Bros. There are less direct indications, though, that also point to toy metaphors.

On the train returning everyone to Sector 7, Jesse shows Cloud a digital wire-frame model of Midgar, 1/10,000 scale. Later in the game, we pass by a physical diorama of Midgar in the Shinra Building. There is an odd set of collectible items called 1/35 SOLDIER that look like miniature train-attendant polygons. The Temple Of The Ancients is revealed to be the Black Materia and must be reduced to a size small enough to fit in one’s hand. Cait-Sith repeatedly refers to his body as a toy and that he can shift his consciousness from one toy to another. The instruction booklet for the PS1 FFVII says, in Cait-Sith’s character profile, that he primarily resides inside of the cat and the body the cat rides on is a toy moogle that he “magically brought to life.”

That last one feels directly analogous to Sephiroth’s consciousness shifting between carriers of Jenova’s DNA while his original body is sealed in the center of Gaia. It’s also hard to shake an association with Cait-Sith when Sephiroth, “possessing” one of his clones, refers to the “end of this body’s usefulness.” Then there’s Jenova’s only line of dialogue, telepathically addressed to Cloud, calling him a “puppet.”

One of the strength’s of Sakaguchi’s puppet-inspired design is that it doesn’t immediately draft your visual mind into a literal emotional language. The emotional and psychological dynamics are furnished entirely by dialogue and situations. Depending on preference, this can either completely stop immersion or it could completely immerse you. I found it immersive but then again I’ve never thought it was necessary for video games to emulate film. (Not that it shouldn’t- modern video games can and do succeed at that. I only mean that it is not universally necessary) In a lot of my gaming posts, I’ve talked about how the entire gaming industry jumped on board with voice acting, whether or not it was a good idea for all games. Rather like reading, I’ve always appreciated dialogue-boxes because it puts the voices of the characters directly in your head. For me, the puppet show succeeds in a similar way. Especially in moments like Rydia’s acceptance of Cecil in FFIV, when a few careful writing choices can get you across the distance of abstraction.

From the Washington Post article

I think a lot of the aesthetic references and allusions feel more direct because of the abstraction between the puppet show and the story it tells. It’s a reason why so many thematic bells and whistles in Final Fantasy VII are so close to the surface. It’s why I can’t play through that beginning part without being reminded of old detective movies from the forties and fifties.

BTW- if it seemed like I’m on a noir kick…it’s ’cause I am ^^

One particular trait of noir is relevant here: moral ambiguity.

To simplify the history of film a bit- German expressionism was a close cinematic cousin to noir. Expressionism freely incorporated abstractions on a few different levels- characters that embody and control things like gods and wildly creative painted backgrounds. Expressionist film establishes it’s own internal consistency rather than depending on real-world reference points. If expressionism is set in it’s own psychological world, noir is set in it’s own moral world.

This moral abstraction is most typically established by bleakness. Many detective movies, both then and now, are as gritty as the conventions of the day permit.

Both expressionism and noir depend on an internally-consistent world that attempts to support itself rather than bringing in literal outside reference points. Just like the fantasy genre. Early in A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin made sure to include things like “to the Others with X” and “Others take X”. By replacing ‘Hell’ with ‘Others’, he using the structure of common English euphemisms to establish the internal frame of reference of the novels. It’s also evident in one common criticism of The Matrix trilogy: too much in-world jargon. One review said that the scene where the Oracle says that the Keymaker is with the Merovingian is like hearing someone say “the thing said you need the thing which is held by the thing.”

Building your own internal consistency which is separate from the outside world and relatable only by analogy is hard. And like any other art form, brevity and efficiency often have to co-exist with that. Removing the possibility of direct, external reference makes things really simple and, as in so many things, simple benchmarks are often the highest and most difficult.

While fantasy may share the abstraction of expressionism, Final Fantasy includes a noir-like flourish that raises the stakes. And it’s nothing new. It’s the thing that usually gives you something to pay attention to within stories, without which people will say “nothing happened”: conflict.

More specifically, a conflict of meaning. In the most memorable Final Fantasy stories, some conflict of meaning is explored. In IV, Cecil goes from a loyal soldier to a righteous deserter. In VI, Terra starts as an unwilling pawn and goes through a variety of paradigm shifts, including (but not ending with) abandoning the quest for a simple life of good works. Zidane starts his quest as a self-interested thief and Tidus begins as a hormonal teenager trapped between puberty and emotional abandonment. Neither of them end in those places. In all of those games, the moral stakes at the beginning are revealed to be the surface of deeper machinations.

The conflict is made specifically moral by a mistaken or misguided source of power. It could be a feudal monarchy, a religious movement, a political movement or a corporation. Final Fantasy begins with an underdog in a corrupt world and then moves on to the reality that the “corruption” is bending under. At that moment, the main character usually has to re-evaluate their motivations.

Ambrosia Parsley’s recent material

From the Amb. Parsley Bandcamp

Like a lot of people, I first became aware of Ambrosia Parsley and her band Shivaree from movie soundtracks. Goodnight Moon, from Shivaree’s first album in 1999 (I Oughtta Give You A Shot In The Head For Making Me Live In This Dump– one of my favorite album titles ever) has been on a number of soundtracks over the years. The one I saw first was Kill Bill Vol. 2, but it’s also on Silver Linings Playbook and at least a few other films. Someone I saw Kill Bill Vol. 2 with said it was a cover of a Leonard Cohen song.

It isn’t. Speaking as a writer, though, I would be pretty stoked if someone had mistaken my lyrics for Leonard Cohen. And lyricism is a real strength of Ambrosia Parsley. Her lyrics are both very visual and very conversational. Leonard Cohen has gone there before but it’s never really been his central strength. Cohen’s lyrics were extremely conceptual and economic like Allen Ginsberg. Ambrosia Parsley is closer to Jack Kerouac.

I don’t want to imply that Ambrosia Parsley doesn’t have concept-driven material either, and she definitely knows how to let a small collection of words do the work of many. But her writing for her Shivaree body of work definitely emphasized her ability to be explosive and colorful. There are some really cool surreal touches on the first two Shivaree albums, I Oughtta Give You A Shot In The Head For Making Me Live In This Dump and Rough Dreams. The lyrics to Goodnight Moon are suggestive and abstract and Daring Lousy Guy closely pairs the mental image of a flat-in-front (potentially plastic) Ken doll boyfriend getting spanked without pants on. That combination of mental images snuck up on me- her voice is just so rich and her music hugs the complicated edge of simple, straight-laced songwriting. For an example of her more conceptual lyrics, see her recent singles Atlantis and Let a Wolf.

Maybe that’s why her lyrics run such a wide range. She’s actually quite the disciplined musician. Maybe the effusive lyrics counterbalance the economy of the songwriting. David Bowie and Warren Zevon took advantage of that balance often. This actually makes my heart go out to Ambrosia. She exemplifies an aspiration of mine.

I’m a messy writer. And I love other messy writers. I love that Salman Rushdie included a number of vignettes in The Satanic Verses that fleshed out the world of the story but didn’t explicitly move the plot. I love it when Anne Rice (R.I.P), Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore do the same thing. Ambrosia also appears to be a messy writer but she’s a messy writer who understands simplicity. I’ve always aspired to that.

If you’ve never heard of her, Ambrosia Parsley’s music has always been somewhat close to what people think of with the words ‘singer-songwriter.’ The first two Shivaree albums included elements of country, folk and alternative rock. Daring Lousy Guy (Shot In The Head) and After The Prince And The Show Girl (Rough Dreams) are clearly influenced by R&B. Thundercats, John, 2/14 and Reseda Casino could probably do rotations on modern rock forums. All of those are from Rough Dreams, though, which was never released in America. John, 2/14 had a music video that aired on European MTV though, and the album charted in France. Shivaree recorded a rather beautiful concert that can be found on YouTube under the name ‘Rough Dreams in Paris.’ Ambrosia’s more complicated and experimental work make it fun to imagine her touring with bands like The Bridge City Sinners or Hillbilly Moon Explosion.

Her more recent material, though, errs on the side of simplicity. And maybe my radar isn’t the best, but Ambrosia Parsley’s recent offerings under the name Amb. Parsley kinda…flew under the radar. I only became aware of them when I saw her Instagram story almost a year ago advertising the single Over the Overlook. She has released eight singles in the last few years, and some years before then did a solo album called Weeping Cherry.

Over The Overlook and Heavy Metal Stacy both put Ambrosia’s conversational voice front and center. Heavy Metal Stacy could fit in alongside some of Ambrosia’s more whimsical and energetic songs like Reseda Casino, Someday or Thundercats. Mexican Boyfriend from Shivaree is less energetic and whimsical but it has a retrospective attitude that could work well alongside Heavy Metal Stacy, in a concert or something. Skin & Bone from Weeping Cherry would also work well on that setlist. Another quieter Shivaree song it could compliment well would be Five Minutes. Heavy Metal Stacy relates stories of a bygone best friend. It reminds me of a few of the totally unexpected friendships from my childhood. Growing up in a smaller, rural place, you make your own fun and you get used to a lot. The necessities of isolation cause some very unexpected (and sometimes very powerful) connections to form. This was echoed in the next single, The Kindness of Strangers.

On the other end of the spectrum are songs like Beneath the Bird Feeder and It Won’t Be Me. It Won’t Be Me is synthy, melancholy and remote with vampiric metaphors reminiscent of the costume Ambrosia is wearing on the cover. The song would be at home on the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie alongside scoring by Angelo Badalamenti. Beneath the Bird Feeder is simple and atmospheric with poetic lyrics about bird seed and falling snow.

Maybe this is an accident of my retrospective listening, but Beneath the Bird Feeder makes for a neat segue to Weeping Cherry which starts with the same solitary, mental point of view with the first two songs, Empire and Rubble.

There are some superficial connections between Weeping Cherry and other Amb. Parsley and Shivaree material, but not a lot. Weeping Cherry doesn’t really sound like anything else that she’s ever done. Maybe this is because of the material that she wrote for Shivaree, which was the band she broke through with, but when I think of Parsley’s writing I think of an outward-facing point of view. She’s just so good at using conversational delivery which always feels a little outward-facing, even if it doesn’t have to be. Weeping Cherry feels more personal and somehow transient. Empire has a soft rhythm that’s both anxious and resigned, as if some leave-taking is in process. Rubble follows with a less pressured voice but just as isolated with it’s speculations on the thoughts of a loved one and one’s own immediate fate. My Hindenberg takes a similar perspective to a more accepting and empathic place.

In case I haven’t emphasized this enough: she writes just as well in a solitary voice as she does in a conversational one. Good Shivaree examples of this are New Casablanca, Five Minutes, Mexican Boyfriend, Stealing Home and Arlington Girl.

Speaking of Ambrosia’s more stripped-down moments, with her voice taking the entire foreground, the title track of Weeping Cherry is a good one. She uses the dominance of her voice to focus on multiple characters. It even starts with a loose third-person point of view: “That was no way for a queen to end / what’s under her bed /never used to be a dark thing.” I’d be happy with an opening line like that for a story. More lines I have to mention: “Well, history / unwashed and unsaid / I left my best dress and my shoes on the bed.” That’s from Skin & Bone but it builds expectation in a way that’s similar to Weeping Cherry. Weeping Cherry looks backward at a story, giving the feelings up front but only fleshing it out bit by bit, so the contextualizing emotion goes through a number of changes. Skin & Bone is more rooted in the present but it uses expectation in a similar way.

Among the eight recent singles, Let a Wolf and Atlantis have the most concise and direct language. No Good In The Daytime is a close third and the more personal associations add depth to the philosophical lyrics. Those three songs would go beautifully with the five others on an album.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion first impressions (sorta, also heavy spoilers)

Upon this, my second total play-through since playing the original back in 2020, the WEAPON motifs in Genesis’s design during the final boss fight stood out more. It lends potential relevance to the theory that the summon monsters are a kind of emanation that expresses itself throughout all of the FF worlds.

That’s close to the definition of the word used for summon monsters in FFIX & XIII: eidolons (also my favorite name for them since it’s possibly the most descriptive). In FFX, summon monsters are called aeons, a word with ties to Gnosticism which describes an emanation of a spiritual being in a separate, physical plane. Like an eidolon, an aeon is one thing with multiple representations in different places.

In particular, there were two design choices deriving from a WEAPON and an eidolon: Ultima and Bahamut. The bladed halos positioned above the wings is a reoccurring trait of Bahamut in Final Fantasy. The Flare attacks and beam sword attacks are another similarity…to say nothing of Genesis summoning Bahamut repeatedly through the game.

Still less overwhelming than Golbez in the Dwarven castle in the FFIV remake for the DS

Ultima Weapon, in FFVIII and FFXIV has a mouth (or even a face) on their belly, where their human torso emerges from a quadroped body type, like a centaur. FFVII has a little of both. FFVII’s version of Ultima has a round aperture in their chest where beam attacks come from. Similar to Omega in FFX. In the original FFVII, Sephiroth’s first form in his boss fight (Bizarro Sephiroth) has the centaur “transition mouth” between the torso and the equine trunk. Bizarro Sephiroth’s resemblance to Ultima implies something about Genesis’s own Ultima/Bahamut transformation.

Might be a bit of a reach, but the materia in the hilt of the sword reminds me of Ultima’s beam aperture in the original FFVII. Also note how the lower body merges into the rocks

The definition of eidolon is a separate simultaneous presence of something elsewhere, or something that represents something else. If you keep having bad dreams about something (let’s say dreams that scare you) over and over again, that something meets the definition of a scary eidolon. Or if you want to be pretentious about it, an eidolon of fear, or whatever it’s subjective relevance is for you, separate from the literal truth of the thing itself.

Each Final Fantasy game is set in it’s own world but with repeating patterns in each of them. The eidolon summon monsters are some of the few things that remain mostly constant. Since the semi-Greek Weapon names (Omega, Ultima…) and the monsters with the gemstone names (Sapphire, Ruby, Diamond, Emerald, etc) also re-occur…those also appear to exist in the same category as the summon monster eidolons.

So. Remember how the main change to the plot in FFVIIRemake was introducing divergent timelines influencing each other?

In the Final Fantasy universe, the difference between one world and another may be comparable to the difference to one timeline and another. Fan theories fly thick and heavy over that possibility. Since both FFVIIR and FFXV include diverging timelines, those theories now appear to be on to something.

Especially considering the appearance of the three clone avatars that Genesis summons during the final boss fight:

The correspondence isn’t one-to-one, but I think there is a distinct resemblance between these clone avatars and the three Whispers summoned by the Whisper Harbinger in FFVIIR. A developer interview in FFVIIR’s Ultimania guide briefly touches on the possibility that the three minions of the Whisper Harbinger are Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo from Advent Children. I wrote another big long post about the possible consequences of that (link below).

But even without getting into all of my thoughts on that…the Advent Children connection also complicates the possible reasons behind Genesis’ boss transformation.

Does this seem like a weird thing to hyperfocus on? Sorry, can’t help it. Square’s been saying things to the press about Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion now serving a complimentary function within the developing “remake trilogy.” As a prequel, the original Crisis Core had numerous references to the original FFVII. If Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion now represents the prequel to the first remake game, those original reference points take on new meaning.

Is it bad that I wonder what these plays and musicals are actually like?

When the release of this game was first announced, Square used the words ‘more than just a remaster’ in a few different advertisements. At the same time, there is virtually no change in the overall content. Obviously, there’s the graphical upgrade and the streamlined combat system. The DMW slot-machine display no longer takes up the whole screen and pauses combat but rather is constantly going in a smaller section of your HUD. Personally, this made the role of the DMW less apparent this time around. In the original, the full-screen DMW made it easier to notice when, say, there was a number combination that levels up your materia.

At the same time, the quieter DMW in Reunion could reinforce it’s function by fading closer to the background.

A clever dimension to the DMW is how it deconstructs a lot of typical RPG mechanics. It even clarifies a basic effort-to-reward metric at work in most video games. In RPGs, it’s most recognizable in grinding.

To clarify: grinding is repetitively wandering around trying to accumulate the rewards of combat. In Pokemon, you’re doing it when you’re searching one section of tall grass for a particular Pokemon. In most RPGs, grinding is getting in random battle after random battle to hoard experience points. Usually when you’ve hit a difficult place where you just want to brute force your way through because no strategy seems to be working. The whole principle is based on an effort-to-reward system. If you spend twelve hours grinding, you will necessarily do at least some character-building.

The DMW mechanic streamlines this by making the rewards for combat almost perfectly proportionate to the amount of time you spent fighting. The DMW slot combinations happen at regular intervals and the slot combinations are how you level up or grow your materia. An easy battle ends quickly, which means little to no opportunity for the DMW to level up Zack or his materia. A longer (and presumably harder) battle means more time for the DMW to churn out a reward other than a limit break.

As cool as the upgrades to the combat system and the graphics are, though…everything else is the same. Every story beat is the same. Does that mean there are no story changes?

Arguably. It is definitely true that there are no story threads in Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion that are not present in the PSP original. I am still slow to believe that means there is literally nothing to see.

(Except when Cloud and Sephiroth stab each other in the Nibelheim reactor: at the entrance and exit wounds, there is dark gray vapor, like when Sephiroth skewered Barret in FFVIIR and the Whispers brought him back to life. Obviously we never see a Whisper in this game. Maybe it’s a random detail nobody thought about. But it definitely looks like the dark gray vapor in FFVIIR)

Especially since the first PSP version was released closely to the Advent Children film. Advent Children was released in 2005 and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII originally came out in 2007. After finishing this last play-though, though…I wonder about the connections from back then that I failed to notice because I saw that movie and played that game at very different times.

Big’ol spoilers incoming

I wonder if the helicopter landing outside of Banora happened the same way in both the original and in Reunion. I only played through the PSP version once but I don’t recall any differences from what I just saw in Reunion. I wonder, though. Because what I just saw was kind of shocking.

If there was a difference…the fandom would probably be discussing it right now. If they are, I haven’t noticed yet.

Soo…if the helicopter landing outside of Banora is the same in both versions…then this now ties directly into Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo.

What happens, exactly?

Helicopter lands. Two figures emerge, scoop up Genesis’ unconscious body and leave. One of them says that he will “(b)ecome our brother” and muses about whether or not Genesis will accept this fate willingly.

If that happened in the original…I feel like I would have remembered. But maybe I didn’t. Maybe I ignored it because I chalked it up to a future story wrinkle which might not have manifested. I still haven’t played Dirge of Cerberus, and various online sources agree that this scene relates directly to that game.

Excluding things like an abandoned story line (like the cancelled FFXV DLC) or a connection to a game I haven’t played…it seriously looks like they’re insinuating that Genesis becomes one of the three Advent Children villains. Meaning that Genesis might be Kadaj, Loz or Yazoo. And all that entails. In that event, they probably wiped Genesis’ prior identity and replaced it with one-third of Sephrioth’s mind.

We never see the faces of the two figures from the helicopter. We see that they are wearing SOLDIER uniforms and that they have slightly longer white hair. Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo all have white hair, which I had long assumed was because they were Sephiroth clones summoned for the Reunion at the Northern Crater. Sephiroth killed as many as he could to lend the power of their souls to Jenova’s manifestation. But if he sent out a generalized psychic beacon, summoning every carrier of Jenova cells to the Northern Crater…he would have to make damn sure that he killed them all. Cloud and co. had better hope so, since- if even one was left alive -then that’s a body that Sephiroth or Jenova could transmigrate into. So if Sephiroth “cast a wide net” with his psychic broadcast, there’s always the possibility that one or two cell carriers fell through the cracks.

I always assumed that Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo were one of those unaccounted-for Sephiroth clones. Each one embodies a different quality of Sephiroth and all of them have small, superficial resemblances to him. All three have white hair. At the end of Advent Children, Sephiroth appears to “emerge” from Kadaj the same way that the will of Sephiroth or Jenova could manifest within any cell carrier. Kadaj only transforms into Sephiroth once Yazoo and Loz appear to be killed by the Turks, which even adds a bit of the Reunion metaphysics. When Loz and Yazoo show up again later, they could just as easily be channeling their souls into some other Sephiroth clones that never made it to the Northern Crater.

If there were that many clones, there’s no reason why Yazoo, Loz, Kadaj, Sephiroth and Jenova couldn’t just keep popping up like a whack-a-mole game.

That I took such a scenario for granted leads to one reason why I avoided the original Crisis Core for so long. If each culture of Jenova cells binds to a specific carrier who received them while they were in the womb (like Genesis, Angeal or Sephiroth) then…the plot fort the original FFVII would depend on every Angeal clone and every Genesis clone being dead. Other wise, the psychic dominance over the cell carriers wouldn’t be limited to just Jenova and Sephiroth.

Perhaps Sephiroth’s soul could be uniquely empowered since his original body is held by Jenova within the Northern Crater, which is exposed to a Lifestream vein that runs to the center of the planet. Basically, Jenova and Sephiroth are empowered by being immersed in the transmigration nexus for all souls on that planet. That could explain why that pair is so exceptionally represented. For that reason, the clone problem is not world-breaking. But it is still a loose thread.

To return to the relevance of the helicopter scene to the “remake” continuity, though: If Genesis was somehow “absorbed” into the body of a Sephiroth clone, later to become one of the three Advent Children villains…how does that impact the timeline dynamics?

If we trust the Ultimania text, then one of the three Whispers summoned by the Harbinger, Rubrum, represents Kadaj. If, hypothetically, Genesis was later “turned into” Kadaj, that means that the Rubrum Whisper also represents Genesis. It would mean that Genesis is present in the timeline manipulation at work in Final Fantasy VII Remake.

Maybe I’m only freaking out over the helicopter scene because I forgot about it and was blindsided. Maybe it’s only a tie-in with Dirge of Cerberus and nothing more. Only included in Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion because it was in the original and the devs wanted to be faithful. As I type this, I realize this is almost certainly true.

But this new version is, somehow, supposed to a prequel to Final Fantasy VII Remake. The big deviation in FFVIIR are the Whispers pushing over from the timeline next door. The invasion from the neighboring timeline doesn’t rise to the foreground until the very end, with the Whisper Harbinger, the three lesser Whispers (Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo) and Sephiroth.

If Kadaj, Loz and Yazoo were embodied in the three Whisper minions, then little details that resemble that moment in Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion become more interesting. Like the clone avatars that Genesis uses during the final boss fight and their resemblance to the Whisper minions. A small, visual reference to the FFVIIR Whispers becomes harder to miss in conjunction with the helicopter scene.

I’m not saying that this is what it means, but to me it looked like the Genesis clones in the boss fight were a visual reference to the fate of the three clone brothers (Yazoo, Loz, Kadaj) immediately before the clone brothers come together by transforming Genesis. It has an ending-to-beginning symmetry to it.

If Genesis goes on to become a clone brother, then that means that Genesis was always present in Advent Children, was involved in the FFVIIR final boss fight and might even be in Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, the next game in the remake continuity. This would be a hell of a way to create a unique prequel-to-main-story relationship with the remake continuity.

Then again, the story of Crisis Core is fundamentally intertwined with the story of the original FFVII anyway. They don’t have to add extra lore to the PS5 edition for that. It’s possible that Square is saying that Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion takes place in the remake continuity just to drum up hype for Final Fantasy VII Rebirth.

But if Reunion has a specific relationship with the remake games…then it makes sense to re-evaluate the references to FFVII in light of the new continuity. Like how Sephiroth’s function in the original FFVII plot was reflected in both Angeal and Genesis.

All three of them were infused with Jenova cells in the womb. This began with placing them in the body of a woman named Gillian. Angeal receives his dose from Gillian’s body after she was impregnated with him. Separately, Professor Gast took a DNA sample from Gillian and surgically mapped it onto Genesis while he was a fetus. Angeal can use his Jenova cells as a two-way conduit. He can send and receive both information and genetic traits.

Angeal carriers include different species of animals along with different humans. Lazard and Hollander are latter-day Angeal carriers. Before Angeal attacks, he summons several monsters with his cells to combine into. This resembles the Jenova Reunion from the original FFVII without death being necessary to distribute lifeforce between the collective (even if being physically absorbed is as good as death). Genesis can send and not receive.

Sephiroth, who was gestating in his mother’s womb already when she was infused with Jenova cells, can do neither. But Sephiroth’s cells can heal the eventual degradation in both Angeal and Genesis carriers.

After the Nibelheim event, Hojo circumvented Sephiroth’s mind-cell limitation by surgically adding them to both Zack and Cloud. Sephiroth himself is missing, so Zack and Cloud become targeted by the Genesis clones since their bodies are housing the only cultures of Jenova cells in accessible, living bodies. After the fight with Genesis at the end of the game, Zack, Lazard and Cloud all eat Banoran apples together. Ones that look like the apple that Genesis is always carrying around and gesturing with like frigging Hamlet with Yorik’s skull.

I mean I know the reference is probably meant to be Biblical but he’s just so hammy with it

The apples have other meanings in the lore. Genesis’ family used to farm them. But the cell decay of Lazard and the mako poisoning in Cloud seem to get better after they all eat the apples. We also know that Genesis carriers can send but can’t receive and Sephiroth carriers can heal but can’t telepathically interact outside of their bodies at all.

Angeal carriers, meanwhile, can send and receive. Lazard is present with the cells of Angeal. Presumably, he has a two-way conduit with all other Angeal carriers. If the apples carried by Genesis are basically a cell culture prepared for consumption, which would open a presumably one-way conduit with Genesis…the apples shared by the three could enable the two-way exchange to happen with Genesis carriers. All three eat them, including one with the two-way conduit. This unlocks the two-way conduit between Zack, Cloud and Lazard.

Cloud and Zack, meanwhile, are Sephiroth carriers. Meaning they can heal, and they have just received the two-way conduit from Lazard through the apples. So the healing trait circulates between the three of them. This would also explain how Sephiroth carriers can both send and receive in the original FFVII. In the original FFVII, carriers of Sephiroth’s cell culture can even telepathically induce hallucinations in each other’s minds.

Can you believe, just a few paragrpahs ago…I said that I avoided the original Crisis Core because I was afraid it would needlessly complicate the plot of the overall story? Obviously I had no clue what the future held X_X

I know it’s a lot of circular-sounding jargin. But I wouldn’t have cared enough to pay attention if I wasn’t actually hooked by it.

Also, if the cell-exchange between the Genesis, Angeal and Sephiroth carriers enabled the totally uninhibited psychic and biological colony organism that exists in FFVII…that would be kind of cool. Maybe that explanation was intended in the original Crisis Core. But if we’re getting some completely insane curve-ball with Genesis being the former identity of one of the clone brothers…then the subplot about the Sephiroth, Genesis and Angeal cell carriers united through the cell doses in the apples becomes much more important.

(I also don’t see how we wouldn’t end up exploring the potential link between Cloud’s memory issues and the suppression of Genesis’ identity to make him a Sephiroth carrier. If Cloud’s mental problems enabled Jenova to subvert his sense of self then it makes sense to wonder if something similar happened with the destruction and recreation of Genesis’ personality)

In the original FFVII, the Weapons (Diamond, Ultima, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire) are guardian totems that the planet summons when threatened. If the vitality of a planet in this cosmology is manifested in the Lifestream, then that means the life of a planet comes from its transmigration nexus. If the planet has a will, it’s an emergent will from every soul on its way to its next life.

When characters like Aerith use phrases like “the cries of the planet” or the “the voice of the planet”, they are talking about a kind of collective subconscious shared by all sentient life on a given planet.

This would make the Weapons magically incarnate archetypes. Another word for an archetype is an eidolon.

Sometimes, when Jenova cell carriers are forced to change shape by Sephiroth or Jenova or whatever dominant personality, they might express traits of eidolons. Mythic beings that exist in a collective subconscious. This pattern had already been established in the original FFVII, what with Bizarro Sephiroth’s Ultima-ish shape with two faces (the upper, dominant head representing Jenova and the face closer to the four-legged body representing Sephiroth).

The Ultima association in particular seems meaningful since Cloud’s best weapon in the original game is made from part of Ultima’s dead body. There was a guide published back in the nineties that riffed on that: “Cloud’s ultimate weapon, the Ultima Weapon, is obtained after defeating the Ultima Weapon.”

As goofy as the naming scheme is, even that is echoed in Crisis Core, with the Buster sword playing a role in the arcs of Angeal, Zack and Cloud.

I was wondering what this one would look like on a modern console
Also: all the locations we’ll probably get to see again in Final Fantasy VII Rebirth!

My post on the FFVIIR lore theory:

My first ever Crisis Core play-through:

Just finished Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for the first time (spoilers as usual)

Peers to Celebrants

Obviously, conspiracy theories have been pushed in recent years to irresponsible and deadly extremes.

But I can’t help but wonder if some of the pushback comes from the way equivocation has been used in power. Particularly in recent years.

I was legally able to vote for the first time in 2008. For my generation, ending the Middle Eastern wars and the national security state were essential priorities. Obama ran on a promise to close Guantanamo Bay and I believed him. Others did to. We also believed him when he said he’d make Roe v Wade the law of the land.

Then he started hemming and hawing with “maybe we shouldn’t leave the Middle East until we set up a Western-style democracy.” And then he sicc’d the Feds on Snowden, Assange and Manning when they blew the whistle on American air strikes targeting civilians and emergency first responders in Iraq. Eight years later, Trump is elected and Guantanamo Bay is still open.

Trump won populist sympathy with claims of bringing jobs back to America and courted the religious right with a promise to overturn Roe v Wade. He did neither of those things. What he did do was host Saudi nobility at his DC hotel chain where they dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jared Kushner received two billion dollars from the Saudi crown prince for a documentary that was never made. When an American journalist was murdered by the Saudi court, he ignored it. While outsourcing even more American labor needs overseas.

Most Americans fell for one of those celebrity politicians or the other. And those who voted for either Trump or Obama were not rewarded for their trust. Both Obama and Trump stopped short of their campaign promises while claiming that their hearts were always (and remain) in the right place.

Saying one thing and doing another is hypocrisy. Saying one thing, doing another and claiming that you were serving the same ends in both instances is equivocation. Many younger people came of age under Obama or Trump. Even before then, American voters were long familiar with their values being dangled just out of reach.

If “woke” activists appear to fly off the handle over mere words and ideological nit-picks, I think it is easy to see why. It follows that a history of equivocation would engender a suspicion of vague, interpretive language. For a people who are tired of the abuse of language and good will, conspiracy theories are a ripe target. Any body of ideas in which appearance is taken for confirmation will not be treated charitably. Especially when one side of the political spectrum is more willing to weaponize conspiracy theories.

On the subjects of broken faith, double standards and recent politics, there is something else we must necessarily mention.

In 2018, on Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast, he interviewed a guest with a compelling theory on the origins of the MeToo movement and the 2016 election.

For the sake of clarification: I’m aware that #MeToo was started by Tarana Burke as a means for victims of sexual violence to legitimize their overlooked experiences. Burke has also said that outing individual predators is a quick fix compared to the work of systematic reform. Burke writes that healing the wounded must matter more than punishing the guilty.

With that out of the way, back to the Waking Up episode: Harris’a guest theorized that the election of Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault innumerable times, was a galvanizing event. Weinstein and R.Kelly were exposed, but how much could that actually mean if someone like Donald Trump could become President?

A common rebuttal at that time was that lasting change is incremental and must take time. For recent generations of American voters, who grew up hearing “incrementalism is the only way”, this smacks of equivocation. While dissidents are being told that change must be incremental, the powerful and the privileged are free from self-restraint.

The dynamic reminds me of the ancient Peerages of France and Britain. A Peer (like nobility in general) received fortune-sized salaries. For occupying their office. For simply being a Peer of the nobility. Peers were protected from certain laws. Victor Hugo had an affair with a married woman who was convicted and imprisoned for adultery. Hugo was a Peer, and therefore could not be charged. The attention paid to the marginalization of women in his work suggests that the incident stayed with him. To say nothing of his novel l’homme qui rit, which villainized the Peerage.

These legal and social protections were afforded, presumably, for the same reason as their salaries: simply existing as Peers.

Similar privileges were common among ancient nobility in general. But the Peerage represented a particular relationship with feudal power. A Peer was a social equal of the monarchy. It was a relative distinction.

The modern day concept of a ‘celebrity’ is also a relative distinction. A Peer was a peer of a royal family and a celebrity “celebrates” something. To celebrate is to bestow legitimacy with your witness. An officiant for a ceremony is a kind of celebrant. The term has made a comeback in modern paganism for clergy who perform marriages, cleansings and other rituals. Andy Warhol’s concept of the superstar was a personality who simply embodies something. The films Warhol made with his own cohort of self-proclaimed superstars consisted of the actors doing ordinary, day-to-day activities. The project was inspired by Warhol’s obsession with the early years of Hollywood where the face of an actor, alone, was an almost archetypical embodiment. Marilyn Monroe simply existed as feminine beauty and John Wayne simply existed as rugged masculinity.

This method of embodiment is where I see the connection between the ancient European Peerages and the modern celebrity. John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, as celebrities, are celebrants of aesthetic ideals. A less specific function is apparent in modern pop culture, though: the famous are seen by others. They are celebrated by others, whose witness gives them power, while at the same time they represent the power of being seen. Modern celebrities are celebrants of visibility. The only trait required for visibility is to be visible. Beyond this, that which is visible need only exist.

Like the European Peerage, a modern celebrity’s existence is treated with reverence. If an outsider demanding change has to carry the burden of high-minded stoicism and restraint while the powerful can get away with anything, they will feel like they are being told to stay out of the way. This can explain why privilege has drawn so much anger in recent years. Just lately, this double standard is even harder to miss with the followers of Donald Trump making accusations of government overreach with their criminal investigations. Immediately after the 2020 election, Andrew Yang was asked in an interview whether or not Trump should face criminal prosecution for insurrection, assassination of Soleimani, emoluments or anything else. Yang said that to do so would be to join the ranks of third world dictatorships where heads roll between administrations. After the illegal, offensive wars of George Junior and Obama’s double taps and whistle-blower prosecutions, giving Trump a pass would send a clear message that an ex-President is free from prosecution simply for being an ex-President.

A gap between the restraint of outsiders and the freedom of insiders invites suspicion of vague language. When the vagueness is weaponized through conspiracy theories, it becomes even more suspect. Ironically, it becomes harder to think of that gap as anything but conspiratorial.

Summer of 2022 and “team sports” politics

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe Vs. Wade and Biden made his recent effort at student loan forgiveness, a few right wing arguments have caught my attention.

If you’re wondering, I’m pro-choice and I think student loan forgiveness is the right thing to do. I’m a leftist but I think that the proliferation of political echo chambers is one of the major forces of destruction at work in America and in the world. I think that all of us- my political fellow travelers included -need to be more comfortable with conversation, confrontation and the exchange of ideas. It requires relentless honesty but it also requires compassion and intellectual curiosity.

I wear my positions on my sleeve but I want to emphasize that I do not think those who disagree are necessarily bad people. But I do think that, in the wake of what has recently happened with Roe v. Wade and Biden’s proposed debt relief, some bad ideas have been aired.

One of my common touchstones among the political talking heads of YouTube is Rising which featured an opinion piece(“radar”) by Briahna Joy Gray. She made a comparison which, in my assessment, is fair: the SCOTUS ruling on abortion resembles a Christian equivalent of Sharia law. The overwhelming volume of pro-life activists who loudly express Christian religious motivations make a comparison tempting, at least.

Robby Soave, Briahna’s frequent co-host on Rising, had notes afterward: Briahna used the phrasing “Catholic Sharia law.” Soave claimed that pro-life legislation is not, by definition, inseparable from Catholicism. Assuming he wasn’t making a denominational distinction about Catholicism, he likely also takes issue with the more general comparison. Fundamentally: that the pro-life position is not endemically religious and that this SCOTUS ruling should not be seen as an incursion of the church into the state.

In the interest of covering our bases, let’s own that there is at least one non-religious movement whose cause is represented in the overturning of Roe v. Wade. A number of social media profiles posted statements that the SCOTUS decision can only effect those who have made mistakes. In the words of one detractor, this argument can be characterized as “sluts need consequences.”

What’s interesting is that I can recall adult men having similar conversations around me when I was a child. When there was news coverage of a potential vaccine against HPV, someone said “everyone should have VD once in their lives.”

If I had to speculate why this person thought that, I suspect they may have meant that getting a sexually transmitted infection is a learning experience and a rite of passage. That’s the best I can do with that. The same people might think abortion should be outlawed for the same reason. My opinion is that arguing the social benefit of unplanned pregnancies and STIs is like arguing for the social benefit of rape or poverty. It smacks of social Darwinism or accelerationism. Social Darwinism and accelerationism are often used as rhetorical proxies by fascists. Many people connect those dots. If someone openly claims “sluts need consequences”, their only ideological home would be something like inceldom.

I think there are more Evangelical Christians in the American conservative mainstream then there are social Darwinists and incels. The people who are super stoked about the overturning of Roe v. Wade are mostly Christian. Robbie Soave’s point, that the pro-life movement is not necessarily Christian, just doesn’t map onto reality. But I’ve also encountered that point outside of YouTube.

The other way this is argued is that Evangelical Christianity is an outward symptom of deeper sociological influences like patriarchy. This introduces the problem of the accuser believing that they know the hearts of their opponents better than they themselves do. In theory, this is gas-lighting. In practice, accusing Evangelical Christians of existing only to empower men over women just confuses Evangelicals- while making them look cool to incels.

This also leads to the belief in one group being intellectually or morally inferior to the other. This is ordinary chauvinism and it closes the avenues of connection that allow democracy to work. Ideas cannot prove themselves in civil discourse if they’re excluded or not taken seriously. To say nothing of how those on the receiving end of chauvinism are aggravated and possibly radicalized by their dismissal.

The search for pro-life ideologues outside of American Christianity stops at incels and social Darwinists, both of which are statistical minorities. The only other way to take religion out of the equation is to reject what the Christian majority says about itself.

So is the notion of a non-religious pro-life position a complete fraud? A number of people seem to believe that one exists, even though it contradicts the driving force of the pro-life movement itself. If the stated points of an argument are not true, it makes sense to wonder about other factors.

I think a belief lies behind it; a belief that manifested itself again when Biden stated his intention to forgive up to 10,000$ of student debt. Tucker Carlson epitomized it with a rant headed with the line “this move will not help ordinary Americans.” Do I even need to spell out how asinine those words are?

More importantly though: the best conservative arguments against student loan debt forgiveness are based on the profit motive for colleges. Massive sums spent on gyms and stuff to attract students from wealthy families. A fundamental consequence of modern tuition prices is that college freshmen must, necessarily, resign themselves to anywhere between six-thousand dollars and ten-thousand dollars of debt, up front. I suspect I’m being conservative in my assessment of the “price of admission” but last I heard that was a predictable baseline. If there is any way they can make you pay more, they will find it.

If the problem with an institution (like higher education) is that it is too privatized and too driven by profit…then it needs more outside intervention, not less. Perhaps reverence for capitalism heads off that line of reasoning. Inaction is not supportable. Loan forgiveness, on its own, frees the innocent while paying no attention to the guilty. To do right by the innocent while stopping the guilty would include the admission that American universities are dangerously unregulated. But if you can’t get to that last stage, you’re stuck moralizing about how bailing out student debt subsidizes the lenders.

The pro-life movement in America is a religious one and Biden’s student loan relief effort was a minimal reaction to a problem requiring a bigger solution. And I do not think the political right wing would necessarily suffer by conceding these things. It would forfeit some traditional conservative rallying cries but the gains would be considerable.

On August 20th, YouGov released some interesting data on shifting political attitudes. Those who have changed their positions on political issues were polled. The data was collected from Aurgust 3rd to the 5th. Out of the respondents who shifted their stance on abortion, a 50% movement toward pro-choice away from pro-life was recorded. A 68% conservative-to-liberal swing was found on gay marriage and a 38% shift to the left happened with climate change.

For context, the rightward movements on those respective issues were 34%, 13% and 31%. I’ll also add that these percentages only represented the people who responded, not America as a whole. Even with that caveat, though, these numbers strike me as significant. It has been a politically rocky summer and- evidently -the people who changed their minds favored the left. 50% of those who reported changing their minds have become closer to pro-choice than pro-life. By at least one metric, overturning Roe v. Wade has created more liberals than conservatives.

The gay marriage figure strikes me as significant because of the recent spurning of the Log Cabin Republicans. For those who don’t know: the Log Cabin Republicans are a Texas-based LGBT-inclusive Republican group. At the Texas Republican Convention this summer, they were denied the space to have a booth for the second time in a row. Numerous blogs and news outlets covered this, and dropping their anti-LGBT platforms has been discussed in confidence among members of the RNC. Obviously, it has not happened, but there are clearly some who sympathize as insiders (like the Log Cabin Republicans) who want them to. Even Caitlin Jenner has said that including the queer community would change the Republican party less than the changes she would make to the Democratic party.

If the pro-life position is necessarily religious and therefore, as a political aim, theocratic…then imagine the opportunity the RNC has, right now. They have a vocal (if small) LGBT following waiting in the wings. Imagine if the RNC said that it was time to get real about abortion bans: it is Christian theocracy, full stop. Not only does it allow the church to overreach the state- it allows the church to go straight to the physical body of the individual. The absence of this criticism within conservative thought has always baffled me. Anywhere that welcomes libertarians should have at least a few people insisting that the individual’s right to self-determination is sacrosanct. Yet this affiliation between libertarians and Republicans is the only reason I can think of as to why feminism seems so deeply alienated from libertarianism.

The values that once made me a libertarian eventually made me a feminist. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more voices saying that both feminists and libertarians share an investment in protecting the individual from tyranny. There have got to be at least some “big L” Libertarians who are female, queer, feminist or all of the above who are tired of the DNC being the only game in town.

If the RNC had some kind of “crush theocracy wherever we find it” movement, the influx of support would be considerable. Combined with some “we learned our lesson” messaging, the Republican party could reinvent and reinvigorate itself. A bold and energetic new direction with enthusiastic supporters would also enable them take their power back from Trump’s influence. Speaking of YouGov, a more recent poll they took suggested that the majority of Americans think Trump should face criminal prosecution.

Right now, Trump’s best hope is that the “it’s all political persecution” line lands with his base and the public. The polling data indicates that it hasn’t landed with the public. If that’s true, then the RNC could gain much by simply saying it out loud: the investigation is just and we want to nominate someone else. It would go well for them if they did it in conjunction with an influx of new blood.

None of this is likely to happen, though. And I’m interested in why.

I’m convinced that the only thing stopping mainstream American conservatives from flipping on abortion and loan forgiveness is partisanship. Recently, it’s been referred to as “team sports” mentality. According to APNews, the Michigan elections board vetoed a direct ballot initiative effort that gathered its required number of signatures. The initiative was an effort to safeguard the reproductive protections afforded by Roe v. Wade. That’s when “team sports” becomes more than just an ugly oversight. If the Republican party can’t change for the good of ordinary people or even their own political advantage, hopefully the duty of the elected to the electors can still be counted on. Just more reliably than in Michigan.

The album as an art form: ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’ & Warren Zevon

I was in the house when the house burned down

I met the man with the thorny crown

I helped him carry his cross through town

I was in the house when the house burned down

-Warren Zevon

The Christian references sound natural for a reason. It’s a strummy, acoustic folk song and when Warren sang those particular lyrics he affected a whoop-like blue-grass vocalization.

American folk music evolved alongside American gospel music. It’s the reason why we expect to hear Christianity more often in country and in the roots of R&B.

I was raised with an ethnic spirituality in a heavily Christian environment. This tradition came down through my mother’s side of the family. My father was raised with a soft Methodist emphasis but has been an agnostic for as long as he’s been making his own decisions.

My parents got divorced just before my eleventh birthday. My mom was approaching her late thirties and my dad was almost forty. He was open about how much the inevitability of death weighed on his thoughts.

This was an intense time for my dad and I but also a precious time. He began working at the printing press at the local newspaper, sorting papers and delivering them at night in his van. Consequently, he slept during the day more often and was forced to economize his energy. Between errands in town, he would often take naps in his van. He kept it well-stocked with junk food.

The van was also where I heard most of his music. Which brings us back to Warren Zevon. Dad had just discovered Life’ll Kill Ya, which was probably Zevon’s most recent album at the time.

My parents had shared custody so I spent time with both of them. Once, when a psychiatrist asked the right question in the right way, I became unusually open. I spoke plainly about gender dysphoria and constant sleep deprivation. Including the more gruesome intrusive thoughts.

Doctor told mom and mom told dad. I had already been aware of how news like this impacted them both and I had developed a sense of responsibility about it. Broaching these topics with them never helped.

Those events happened about a year after dad discovered Life’ll Kill Ya but both dysphoria and insomnia hallucinations were present well before that year. Death was on my dad’s mind for one reason and it was on my mind for another, but it was in both of our thoughts.

And it was in Warren’s thoughts because of cancer.

Warren Zevon being Warren Zevon, he could not separate spirituality from its relevance to death. For a million good reasons, of course- both spirituality and death are encounters with the unknown. Ditto for Christianity.

When I first heard I Was In The House When The House Burned Down, I wondered if my dad was reconnecting with Methodism. If he had been, it would not necessarily have driven any sort of wedge between us. I had Christian peers who were nasty little proselytizers but my dad was a very different person than them. And then I heard the rest of the album.

My dad and I both agree that the last three albums of Zevon’s career are extremely different from the rest of his discography. Warren Zevon was always a talented writer and lyricist but, in the final three albums, lyrics and ideas seized the foreground. Since Life’ll Kill Ya was my introduction to Warren Zevon, his earlier work felt different. Whimsical, witty and interesting, but different. I liked his simple and earnest approach to storytelling, exemplified in songs like Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, a ballad about a Danish mercenary who met his end in Africa. I was also captivated by Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels by then, so I couldn’t resist a romantic story about a phantom gunslinger named Roland. I was also taken by songs like Carmelita and The French Inhaler, which were emotional portraits conveyed with simple, poetic narratives.

This poetic storytelling is present in his last three albums, just situated in more of a conceptual framework. I was watching the Orville episode called Gently Falling Rain last night with my wife and afterward, while she was busy, I listened to Genius from Warren Zevon’s My Ride’s Here.

The episode had three main characters: a human diplomat, an alien demagogue and their half-breed child. Both the diplomat and the demagogue are exceptional, powerful people in their own right. The exceptional qualities that can amass power can also make one isolated. Power itself can be seen as a kind of isolation. In Stephen King’s final Dark Tower novel, the character Ted Brautigan says that gifted people usually feel like fifth wheels.

My dad told me, shortly after the divorce happened, that dying alone was one of his deepest fears. Judging from the albums Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here, Warren was also haunted by the prospect of loneliness before unknown. In the song Genius, the explicit narrative is a love triangle with comparisons made to historical figures. On a less explicit level, the song describes how unique people can hurt each other in ways that others cannot. It insinuates that the experience of profound isolation can teach dreadful lessons of self-preservation that can prepare you to deceive and abandon the ones you love.

On My Ride’s Here, Genius follows another track called Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song), which follows You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared. Hit Somebody! is also about the pain of alienation. Our main character, Buddy, is a Canadian farm boy who “grew up big” and “grew up tough” but was let down by his coordination:

He saw himself scoring for the Wings or Canucks

But he wasn’t that good with a puck

Buddy’s real talent was beating people up

His heart wasn’t in it but the crowd ate it up

Through pee-wee’s, juniors and midgets and mites

He must have racked up more than six-hundred fights

A scout from the flames came down from Saskatoon

Said “We’ve always got room for a goon

Son, we’ve always got room for a goon”

Buddy loved the game and wanted to score goals like any other player. But his only value to the team was his ability to protect the fast players and beat the crap out of the good players on the other team. To a lot of people, this sounds like a quirky, off-beat story. It is quirky and offbeat, in a way. The quirkiness is accentuated by David Letterman yelling “hit somebody!” during the chorus. My dad ordered the CD single before My Ride’s Here was released. I remember the single disc had For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer after the Hockey Song.

On the album, though, the song is sandwiched between You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared and Genius. Someone like Buddy cannot escape his rural self-awareness. He is valued for something other than the game itself, which can make you feel out of your depth. Anything about you that sets you apart can make you self-conscious if your value in a group is incidental to the group itself. The quirky appearance is then equated with alienation. The chorus says as much: “(b)rains over brawn, that might work for you / but what’s a Canadian farm boy to do”. Buddy is constantly reminded of his difference from the rest of the team and he can only score his goal by exposing himself to a goon on the other team.

This narrative is also present on Life’ll Kill Ya. The third song is Porcelain Monkey, one of Warren’s iconic lyrical sketches of Elvis, opposite Jesus Mentioned. Both of those songs look back on Elvis from a time after his death. Jesus Mentioned is reverent and the earnestness is depicted by the path of reverence taking one beyond the ugliness of death and addiction. In contrast, Porcelain Monkey is like a bitter, spiteful look backward. A journey that starts as “an accident waiting to happen” and ends in a lonely death with a figurine used to smuggle drugs.

If one looks for songs that depict an obvious narrative on Life’ll Kill Ya, you might be tempted to stop at two songs: Porcelain Monkey and Ourselves to Know. Songs that rely strongly on idiomatic constructions tend to be more conversational than narrative, like the title track or For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer. Life’ll Kill Ya has some fun gray areas, though.

Novel uses of idioms and commonly understood metaphors engage a prior frame of reference. They rely on a base of knowledge that the listener might show up with on their own. They begin in a way that’s engaged with others. Songs like Hostage-O, My Shit’s Fucked Up and Don’t Let Us Get Sick derive strength from the opposite end of the spectrum, of something spoken in solitude.

I remember I was fifteen by the time I started to appreciate Ourselves to Know and it was because I was ripping my dad’s CD on a disc-writing machine my mom installed in her stereo. I had to start and stop each song. It required a little more attention than recording a blank tape. Since I pretty much had to listen to the whole album in order to make the copy, I had to make sure to stop the disc-writer at the same time the song ended. This was easier if I just hung out next to the stereo and listened to each song closely. When I got to Ourselves to Know, the second to last song, it became one of my favorite lyrics. It still is.

Among my favorites on the Life’ll Kill Ya song cycle, Ourselves to Know shares the title of favorite with Don’t Let Us Get Sick. Jill Sobule would perform that song often when she toured with Warren and he would cover her song I Kissed a Girl, lending his own quirkiness to a male gender-flip of a song about romance between females. After Warren’s death, she offered her cover to the tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich and it’s probably my favorite from that collection. On a mix CD I made as a teenager, I put Jill Sobule’s cover of Don’t Let Us Get Sick after You Got Lucky by Tom Petty and before Exploration B / Haunted, by Poe.

That energy-exchange reminds me of a mix CD I made after finishing the Dark Tower series. After Warren’s song Genius, I placed a live version of Wash My Hands by Meredith Brooks. Before the end of Roland’s pilgrimage, he loses three companions who all gave him a second chance but were simply not meant to follow him to the end. In the past, he made grievous sacrifices for his grail…and he learns that to seek his grail is to acknowledge that it is meant for him alone. To love others is to know that their own paths are as binding as his own.

When I was planning the mix CD, Ourselves to Know felt like the perfect transition to the end, but it’s just so tranquil and reflective. What that story transition felt like, as I read it, was reflective but not tranquil. Musically, Genius to Wash My Hands was a better match. Meredith’s screaming, war-like chorus could have come from Roland himself.

I have vague memories of reading a biography of Warren Zevon that quoted a reaction that Jackson Browne had to Life’ll Kill Ya. He said that it began with the Crucifixion and ends with the Crusades. If Ourselves to Know is the Crusades, I Was In The House When The House Burned Down must be the Crucifixion. Sure enough, it mentions “the man with the thorny crown” and his cross. “I had to stay in the underground” has a number of probable non-religious interpretations, but thanks to Ourselves to Know and Jackson Browne I’m tempted to make a connection to both early and medieval Christianity. Early Christianity because of the persecuted Christians hiding in Mediterranean catacombs, medieval Christianity because of Les Innocents cemetery in Paris. Disputes between Parisian nobility and the Christian Church often centered on how to manage the overflowing volume of corpses in Paris throughout the Middle Ages. Andreas Vesalius made significant anatomical studies on the bodies crowded within Les Innocents. The grisly historical art in the album booklet make similar associations.

Ourselves to Know details the reflections of someone at the end of a “long hard road”. A journey may start with the most sublime visions but never cease to be true to yourself and those you encounter along the way. If nothing else, you will certainly know yourself better.

Intro post

Secret Journey To Planet Serpo (book review)

If this were a novel, the subject matter under discussion would be the legacy of World War II. This discussion happens through post-war truth claims.

The narrative begins with ETs living beneath a Tibetan mountain range (The Green Men) making psychic contact with Japanese nationalists.

These Japanese telepaths are the Green Dragon group within the Black Dragon secret society, founded by Ryohei Uchida. Karl Haushofer earns the confidence of the Black Dragons and is allowed to share their privileged access to ET knowledge with Germany. This knowledge allows the Nazis to make contact with ETs based in a cave network on Earth called Patala. These ETs consist of a race of reptilians and the “grays” of modern UFOlogy lore. These ETs (mutual collaborators with the Green Men) supply the Nazis with advanced scientific knowledge. They also swell the numbers of the German infantry with clones.

The Nazis, having been given schematics for flying discs and ET weaponry, begin prototyping. They manage to involve experimental aircrafts in a limited number of dog fights but fail to bring the full force of this new technology to bear in time to prevent their defeat. They do, however, succeed in building an underground laboratory in Antarctica where the research and development of ET technology continues after WWII.

Len Kasten writes that the absence of ET tech during the majority of the war allowed organic human dynamics play out. In his assessment, the Axis method of autocratic control of numbers and firepower was outstripped by the innovation enabled by the diversity and free-thinking of the Allies.

The Allies become aware of the Nazi installation in Antarctica. Britain and America now realize that the Nazis could re-emerge with WMDs that make the nuke look like child’s play. So America jumps at the chance to get their own inside connection with ETs. As far as they know, it may be their only way to fight back in the event of a Nazi resurgence. This is the attitude of the American military and intelligence community when the 1940’s UFO crashes happen.

Before Roswell in 1947, a UFO with a crew of three crashed, leaving two dead and one injured. The survivor is cared for and housed at an isolated, commandeered facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The survivor is designated, by his captors, as EBE1 (EBE being an abbreviation for extraterrestrial biological entity). This surviving crew member comes from the Zeta-Reticuli binary star system and is, in all likelihood, the kind of ET that people mean when they use the word “Zeta-Reticuli” as a race name (elsewhere abbreviated to “Zeta”). Betty and Barney Hill described these same beings, to name one example. Len Kasten writes that the military adopted the generalized phrase “Eben / Ebens” which is used throughout the book. Illustrations and implications suggest that Ebens are separate from the grays and reptilians mentioned earlier.

Communication with EBE1 is a long and experimental process, but eventually he explains how to send messages to his home world with the technology aboard his crashed vessel. With an eye toward leveling the playing field with the Axis bolt hole in Antarctica, the CIA uses EBE1 to negotiate a diplomatic relationship. This leads to an exchange program in which twelve American military representatives are sent to the ET’s home world, Serpo, in the Zeta Reticuli star system. One of them dies en route.

An Eben/Zeta representative is sent to Earth to assist the American military with reverse-engineering their technology. On Serpo, the American soldiers conduct the first off-planet cultural exchange in known history. They attempt to teach the Ebens the science of Earth with limited success. The civilization they encounter is one under the control of their military, which itself is governed by a secretive, elite group of Ebens. This elite limits all technology exclusively to a distinct group of scientific, medical and military professionals.

These elites and technocrats possess scientific knowledge far superior to that of Earth. Therefore only the laity of Serpo are interested in the science lessons of the Americans and most of them are confused by human concepts. Only a single student, from a remote cultural group to the north, manages to understand and appreciate these lessons.

The confusion of the average Eben civilian leads to a few speculations by the Americans: the Ebens in general are technologically superior to humans. Yet most of them either do not understand rudimentary science or are even interested in it. This discrepancy is an early hint of the rigid control of knowledge and culture maintained by the Eben elites.

The Ebens appear to be so extroverted and hardworking that they barely have room for personal pursuits of any kind. This extends to religion (of which there is only one) and career paths (which are assigned by the powers that be). The lone, earnest student is the closest thing the American team encounters to a free-thinker.

Eventually, the Americans ask the Ebens for the body of their crew mate that died on the way to Serpo. They are told that it is gone. After an intense confrontation, the Eben host and an Eben scientist do their best to show the Americans the remains that are left.

The two Ebens lead the American visitors to a genetic laboratory. In one section, there are preserved bodies of beings that the Ebens designate as “animals”- meaning they are alive but lack sentience or a soul. Ebens designate life forms that do possess a soul or sentience as “beings”, and they are experimented on in another section of the laboratory. The only remains of the deceased human have been used to create a cloned Eben-like being, which at the time exists in a somnolent, gestational state.

In the same area, the team is shown another genetic experiment, which is humanoid in appearance with a canine head. In other parts of the book, it is made clear that the four other races that the American secret service had interacted with were all created by the Ebens (not including the grays or reptilians). At other times, it is said that the Ebens “civilized” them. The historical military enemies of the Ebens are also classified as “animals”, without souls or sentience.

In a traditional novel, this would be a significant thematic beat.

Like humans, the Ebens also experienced a Great War that cast a long shadow over their history. This Great War could have created a bottle-neck of survival by conformity that lasted through the generations. Perhaps this has to do with the vast influence of the Eben military. Maybe their military enemies truly are not sentient. Maybe these opponents are self-replicating AI that isn’t sophisticated enough for sentience. With their mastery over genetic engineering, maybe the Ebens artificially resurrected societies that were wiped out.

Or maybe the Ebens are susceptible to all of the same evils that humanity is. Maybe the police state they live under has no better justification than a human police state. Like us, they do not believe that their enemies or chattel have “souls” because it makes them easier to kill and exploit. One of the four other races known to the American secret services, Archquloids, are described as “primitive” and “a form of slave.” Since the Archquloids are one of the races either “created” or “civilized” by the Ebens, those remarks take on a darker tone.

If this book was a novel, the motivations of America would be called into question. America sought a cultural and scientific exchange with ETs to level the playing field with the Nazis in Antarctica. Yet this first exchange with the Ebens (in addition to the actions of the reptilians and grays) raises the possibility that fascism is a universal status quo.

For the sake of clarity: I do not think that Len Kasten is a Nazi sympathizer or a crypto-fascist. His bias runs in the opposite direction. Early in the book, he compares the American exchange team to Christopher Columbus in terms of bravery and exploration. If one were disposed to interpret this comparison charitably, we could dismiss it as hyperbole. Yet the comparison leaves out other historical realities, like Spanish trade routes.

This meditation on democracy versus fascism has interesting corollaries elsewhere in UFOlogy. Barney Hill used words like “red-headed Irishman” and “German Nazi” to describe the aliens he saw. At the time I heard about this, I assumed Barney Hill had not been literal. When asked about the meaning of “red-headed Irishman” he said that most Irish people he meets do not like black people (Barney was black and this was the early sixties in America). However, when he met a “nice Irishman”, Barney said he would think to himself “I will be nice.”

This at least sounds like Barney Hill was talking about how the beings made him feel rather than what they actually were.

Another corollary is an urban legend about President Eisenhower. It is alleged that he met with a group of individuals who urged him to dismantle the United States nuclear arsenal. In some versions, this was an altruistic attempt by planetary outsiders to council us against ruining our planet with nuclear weapons.

In other retellings, one of these human-like aliens bore an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler and referred to himself, simply, as a “man from nowhere.” In these versions, the strangers were hoping to subvert American military might by pressuring Eisenhower to dismantle America’s nukes.

This dialectic is even echoed in the Native American attitudes toward ancient alien theory. In the last few years ancient alien theory has been criticized, by South American political outlets, as racist. This is because advanced engineering in the ancient world is often interpreted as evidence of non-human involvement, which unfortunately dovetails with the colonial presumption of indigenous racial inferiority.

Just as many Native voices espouse the opposite, though. In the theological treatise God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, Vine Deloria Jr. insinuates that Abrahamic religion shares none of the hallmarks of animistic shamanism that were nearly universal before the rise of monotheism. Deloria opines that this could be evidence that monotheism is the legacy of non-human manipulation in the ancient history of humanity.

Other Native American voices, like Robert Morning Sky and the nu metal band Corporate Avenger, have treated the possibility of ancient aliens in America as a distinction rather than a weakness.

In Germany, the Nazi interest in the paranormal has made discussion of UFOs taboo by association.

The temptation to characterize aliens as supreme oppressors or supreme liberators reveals more about ourselves than anything else. The first impulse suggests a fear of cosmic indifference; that if the world is bigger than Earth then who knows what waits in the cosmic wilderness. The work of H.P. Lovecraft channeled this fear. The other impulse runs in the opposite direction; that all human ignorance will disappear under the guidance of benevolent non-human teachers.

The role of religious inheritance is also difficult to overlook. Monotheism has engendered a nearly global attachment to an androcentric worldview. If the monotheistic god is seen as a divine parent to humanity, the loss of the divine parent can be terrifying. Just like the oppressor/liberator dynamic, conjecture about alien life can assuage this fear just as easily as it can confirm it. Whatever else may be true about about ancient alien theory, it also accommodates the hope that scientific progress could bring back and redignify the ancient cosmologies it once refuted.

Before ending this entry I feel like I should clarify a few things. Like many abduction testimonials, the Betty and Barney Hill story relies on recovered memories. Considering the medical consensus that trauma suppression just doesn’t work like that, the Hill story has a credibility problem.

Deloria’s conclusion was reached using the ancient alien theories of Immanuel Velikovsky as a jumping off point. After subsequent criticism, Deloria explained why he applied ancient alien theory to the origins of monotheism. He had intended it as a satirical reflection of how non-Native academics are often trusted more on Native American history than indigenous people themselves.

I do not think you would be able to ascertain this from the tone of that portion of God Is Red. Deloria openly pokes fun a number of times in that book, but the chapter containing his speculations on ancient aliens is played very straight. And there is no subtext or perspective that would lead you to think that the even tone itself might be satirical. If it was meant as satire, I would not have known if I hadn’t learned about his later explanation.

At least in my reading of God Is Red, I don’t see any necessary conflict with anything else in that book (and I want to emphasize it is a very good book for its analysis of the religious climate of America). I do not think he would have compromised anything if he had claimed the title of an ancient alien theorist.

If there was no conceptual reason for him to distance himself from those words, there could have been another. Maybe he understood that the label of a believer in the existence of aliens is a hard one to break. Maybe he thought it would be used to undermine his reputation as a serious scholar. In any event, he did not seem particularly invested in ancient alien theory.

I have skirted a substantive analysis of the facts because my focus here was the psychological mechanism of belief. World War II casts a shadow over the narrative of Len Kasten. Whether this is a fabrication or something Kasten actually has knowledge of, many dynamics portrayed in Secret Journey To Planet Serpo can be traced to World War II. No matter how one reads this book, I think it’s reasonable to wonder about its discussions of fascism and liberty.

But I do not necessarily think the assenting opinions I gave as examples are credible ones. I chose them simply because of how they channeled what I think are interesting, repeating psychological themes.

Dead God by Skold- review

Well well well. Tim Skold ‘liked’ my insta post when I got his Dead God album in the mail. There’s no way I’m not gonna review it then ^^

(I intended to do this a long time ago when it actually happened but I had a few more entries that I thought I could finish first)

This EP is a very pleasant blindside. Since this was recorded between the 2002 reformation of KMFDM and a separate project MDFMK and widely circulated during the Grotesk Burlesk tour in ’03, I had no idea what to expect.

Most of my memories of KMFDM are from their mid-nineties material which (in my opinion) was heavy, rhythmic and relentless. As relentless and driving as a lot of club-oriented music from Northern Europe in the mid 90’s, like Lords of Acid. Tim Skold’s collaboration with Marilyn Manson on The Golden Age of Grotesque was rhythmic and heavy but a little less married to the common hallmarks of industrial metal with some clear classic rock influence.

The title track has a swing-like rhythm and syncopation which reminded me of Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggedy-Zag. The percussion slaps on every song but the title track is a decent showcase of what’s on offer. In general, though, Dead God is distinct from both KMFDM and Skold’s work with Marilyn Manson. Musically, the whole thing is very tightly written and very glam rock. This adds a little context to the genre-savviness he brought to both The Golden Age of Grotesque and Eat Me, Drink Me. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear Tim Skold singing.

My favorite song on this is If, but the title track and Don’t Pray For Me get stuck in my head a lot. If this material was released as an album in 2002-03, I suspect one of those last two would be obvious choices for singles. My favorites from the second side of the record are Believe, I Hate and Don’t Ask Me, all of which sound like they would be amazing live.

The apparent discipline is even more impressive considering that Dead God was written, recorded and produced only by Skold.

Bloodborne PSX (light spoilers)

Bloodborne on the PS1 feels uncannily natural.

In particular, I was constantly reminded of the first two Tomb Raiders and the first Silent Hill. The use of shadows is reminiscent of how the fog in the first Silent Hill disguised the procedural rendering while building atmosphere.

A neat bridge between those early PlayStation franchises and the original PS4 Bloodborne was created with the design of indoor spaces…of which there are a lot.

If you have heard of Bloodborne PSX then you probably know that the biggest location that carries over from the original is Central Yharnam. Lilith Walther thoughtfully managed to spin a complete game in this specific location, though.

Just like last time, your player character is investigating Paleblood and is pointed, by Gilbert, in the direction of the Cathedral Ward.

The lore-fiend in me has long wondered if Gilbert was meant to be a canonical “mainline story” character, unlike some of the others that you could go the whole game without running into. I don’t think any other hint about reaching the Cathedral Ward through the sewers is offered.

Considering how I triggered the ending I got, I strongly suspect Lilith Walther has wondered that to.

Also like the base game, you will probably hear about the Great Bridge and think that it sounds more efficient than a giant wade through sewers. (I think he also mentioned aqueduct in the PS4 game? Or maybe he just said aqueduct and the fans all decided to call it a sewer?)

This, of course, does not work out and we gotta pursue Gilbert’s lead anyway. Which puts us directly in the path of a few of the new locations, both indoors and underground.

Within the first few minutes of gameplay, we find that Bloodborne PSX does not have the same continuous map as the original. Which is to be expected: this is a PS1 demake of a PS4 game. Many of those limitations are incorporated into the new design, though. The loading screens between different locations allow the different segments of the map to be more self-contained. Consequently, all of Central Yharnam is turned into an interconnected, “cumulative” dungeon, like the town of Silent Hill.

So far, I have found two buildings with unexpected depths and an awesome expansion to the aqueduct/sewer area. One reason why these discoveries are so satisfying is because- in the original -there are a ton of locked doors that are never meant to be opened. It’s also an intuitive direction for the design to go if you are effectively “trapped” in Central Yharnam. Another reason is that there are indoor areas that bear a superficial resemblance to other indoor areas in the base game, like the Upper Cathedral Ward and the Cainhurst library. To say nothing of the more creative things those spaces are used for.

Is it just me, or is this vaguely reminiscent of Mergo’s Loft? Doesn’t Mergo’s Loft also have dog-headed carrion crows, like this place does?

In Bloodborne PSX, the scrawled note about Paleblood is found in Iosefka’s clinic. Where an infiltrator of the Choir ends up in the base game after killing Iosefka. Lilith Walther used a few indoor areas to explore this influence of both the Choir and the School of Mensis.

This part made me hesitate. I expected it to end here but wanted to be proven wrong. Yarntown ended around this point. Even if it is just a slightly bigger and different PS1 rendering of Central Yharnam, it’s a beautiful lil thing. Well worth playing and vaguely reminiscent of the video game demo compilations some magazines used to carry.

If you’re leveled into the thirties…then Father Gascoigne can be beat. So long as you’re bold and quick enough to pull off some viscerals, which feel a lil different in Bloodborne PSX but still work like they do in the base game. The main difference here is that a beast will not necessarily pause after getting riposte’d (along with a big floating ‘L1’ signaling that a visceral attack is possible). Or you could just grind like a nut and brute-force your way.

If this turned out to be the end, it would be a perfectly admissible mini-game. After Yarntown, though, it would feel wanting.

A new time of the night sets in once we hit the same dead end we all remember from the Great Bridge. Just like in the base game, it is not clear how much actual time passes or what has happened in the interim. This looks like the beginning of a second half. Maybe I wasn’t even that far.

Other than getting darker, some previously opened pathways are no longer accessible. And we get our first glimpse of an old friend from the base game.

Who you will probably encounter in the sewers, since the bridge to the Tomb of Odeon is blocked. And while I’ve been putting most of my blood echoes into Skill and Endurance…I’ve also been making an effort to build up Arcane since nabbing the tonitrus off of the mad Hunter in the library. I think Arcane weapons like the tonitrus and A Call Beyond are pretty effective against Winter Lanterns? I also know that Frenzy hits harder as Arcane increases sooo crafting a magic user turns you into a glass cannon in some ways.

I have only played through Bloodborne PSX once- so there is probably a lot I still haven’t seen -but so far I have not encountered more than one Winter Lantern in one place. And maybe I just haven’t put enough echoes into Arcane but the tonitrus seems less useful against them here than in the original. My other weapons were hardly any better.

They weren’t that common in the base game either- only in the Nightmare and the Fishing Hamlet

The scarcity of the Winter Lanterns and their toughness make them feel like Walter Sullivan in Silent Hill 4 or Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2. Meaning: run your ass off and don’t look back. Maybe it is possible to kill them, but I haven’t figured out how yet. A crazy powerful monster showing up after you find out that both entrances to the Cathedral Ward (The Great Bridge and the Tomb of Odeon) are blocked is just perfect.

I like this because of how it builds on the resemblance between the Winter Lanterns and the doll/Maria. The doll is a very unique character with few corollaries. There is a lifeless physical version of the doll in the Abandoned Hunter’s Workshop in the base game. The revelation of the doll’s human identity as Lady Maria is then played for maximum dramatic tension in the Old Hunter’s DLC. These three different characterizations underline the importance and uniqueness of Maria.

The Winter Lanterns, meanwhile, are all dressed like the doll under their tentacles. If Maria/the doll is unique, then making the monster that wears the doll clothing unique feels natural.

Come to think of it…creating a direct link between the key to the leveling mechanic and an unkillable monster that hunts you feels pretty spot-on for a horror action RPG. (That link also exists in the original, even if it’s less direct than the PSX Winter Lanterns)

I’m uncertain how much more of the game I should discuss after this point. I finished my first play-through on accident in a location that I also found on accident. Something about this makes me suspect that there is more than one way to “finish” game. This demake recreates the vibe of the original so perfectly that multiple endings seem possible. Maybe they’re not. Maybe you know differently. But the subtle implication of new story threads from Lilith Walther make me hesitant to “spoil” anything.

Fun with glitches

Download here from Lilith Walther’s

Ukraine & corollaries

I wonder if these people would still be salivating at the thought of war if they were the ones to be deployed

Tell your friends and family that you love them. Take nothing for granted. Love unreservedly and live life uncompromisingly. Chase your passions and your dreams.

While the climate change clock ticks, Vladimir Putin has decided to take military action according to a historical, ethnic grievance. In his estimation, Ukraine is ethnically Russian and therefore Russia is entitled to seize the country. For this reason, he has targeted nuclear power plants and insinuated the possible use of nuclear weapons.

Because of a sense of ethnic possession, a whirlpool of death has quickened and may attract the currents of other ventings of insanity.

Obviously there are other factors, but in my opinion those other factors are of questionable value. Before now, the overtures the west has made toward Ukraine regarding possible inclusion of NATO was obviously a contributing factor. And I am aware that, if the west had not pursued this, than the current invasion may not have happened.

In fact, the Ukrainian President has recently stated that he agrees not to bring his country into any such group.

As of 3/17/22, the Russian advances on Kiev have tentatively halted. Yet this hasn’t stopped pontificating, warhawk voyeurs from badgering White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about adding our fighting forces to the mix- as if global, nuclear annihilation was not possible.

Yet this perspective itself is not without it’s substance: they are asking whether the fear of a nuclear strike should allow the conflict play out as it will which evidently includes bombing nuclear power plants.

What appalls me about the recent White House press briefings, though, is the consensus among pampered, American stenographers that nuclear holocaust should be treated as a non-issue. As though the human cost was admissible.

While this happens, Saudi Arabia availed themselves to the lack of coverage of other things, having executed 81 individuals en masse on March 12- a record of recent history.

In the event of global escalation, it is difficult to overlook Iran’s remarks from January about the murder of General Soleimani. They have vowed revenge if they cannot prosecute Donald Trump. America has never turned over an ex-President for something like that and Russia has carried out joint military operations with Iran in the last few years. Do the math.

Israel has behaved similarly, with new Knesset legislation that strips citizenship from Palestinian spouses of Israelis. If that’s not the act of a apartheid ethnostate, I don’t know what is.

Be good to each other and take nothing for granted. That is all.