No Man’s Sky vs. Our Sky

It’s clear to me that No Man’s Sky blurs the line of what it means to be fiction and reality. We most commonly conceive of our reality as having no definite or certain beginning. We have theories supported with science, but we really can’t say these theories are absolute truths in the philosophical sense. No Man’s Sky, on the other hand, is entirely based on algorithms that can be adjusted and manipulated on behalf of the game designers. The beginning of this virtual universe is right in front of us, and it’s slightly terrifying.

A friend and I were discussing the game when he asked, “It’s insane, where do we draw the line between making a game and building a real universe?” My response was purely pragmatic. “Matter.” In my opinion the physical world will always represent true existence because it is made of matter. Meanwhile the virtual world is all lights and colors and shapes without any real substance.

However, the game does force us to adjust or at least consider the possibility of competing conceptions of a universe. One way the game challenges the status quo is the interconnectivity of it all. In the real world we have something called the butterfly effect where one action results in a web of interactions. Most games have some variation of direct relationships that the player and developer can anticipate fairly easy. No Man’s Sky is different, for example, “changes to the handling of a ship can affect the way insects fly.” The algorithms intersect in ways that manifest something very close to reality. The game universe may be fiction but it still functions like a universe and has just as much wonder as a universe. It will be interesting to see how this interconnectivity plays out once the game is released. Perhaps the creatures get smarter, or more hostile, or some algorithm produced species dominates all others.

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Natural Car

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These images are of a car I recently saw on 34th Street in Georgetown. This car is so old, it appears as though it has become part of the environment. It doesn’t look like it has been driven in a long time, and yet I have seen it parked in various spots in the area. I’m struck by the insurance stickers of AAA on the back, as it seems odd for a car that welcomes the environmental impacts would have protection against it as well. Literally this car is turning into bark, worn by the weather over the years, and the branch on top of the car looks like it could have sprouted from the car.

Reading Percy Shelley’s “On Life,” I’m struck by the boundaries of relationships between “things.” Shelley writes, “The relations of things remain unchanged by whatever system. By the word things is to be understood any object of thought, that is, any thought upon which any other thought is employed, with an apprehension of distinction. The relations of these remain unchanged”(636). This car is a thing which most think of as ‘manmade’ and ‘unnatural,’ but this car pushes those boundaries. This car seems to reject distinctions between man and nature, and blur those realms in an interesting way. Has this car become “natural”? Regardless, “The relations of these remain unchanged,” as man will continue to drive his car on roads that have paved over what had once naturally grown there, but man will always be driving within the environment.

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No Man’s Sky and the Jungle Book

After reading up on  “No Man’s Sky” I could not help but make connections as I sat in the movie theater watching the newest CGI version of the classic, “The Jungle Book.” First and foremost, the 2016 version of the Jungle Book is the perfect example of the interconnections between humanity and nature. Moreover, like No Man’s Sky, the Jungle Book uses technology to produce and project unbelievably realistic animals and nature settings. On top of all of this CGI is the main character, Mogley, a real life human interacting in this completely wild setting produced through technology. The combination of reality and CGI is done in a way where it is almost impossible to tell the difference. Watching the movie, I truly believed the once cartoon animated boy belonged in that jungle. A lot of the scenes brought together direct contact between the real life mogley and the CGI natural environment, as well as the many animals.  Furthermore, if you read the original story, or saw the cartoon movie as a kid, you know that fire, or the red flower, is biggest concern of the story, even more so than the villain. The animals tell the boy throughout his upbringing to stay away from the red flower and the understanding is that once a “man-cub” achieves the power of the “red flower” he will become a man and all the dangers that come from man will come with him. In realities created by humans the most dangerous aspects are the ones created by humans.  The intermixing of worlds is projected through this media as a fantasy by humans. There is something interesting about the technological virtual reality of nature interconnected with real people in a created place.

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The Poetry of No Man’s Sky

The concept behind the video game No Man’s Sky is reflective of many of the principles outlined in Shelley’s piece A Defense of Poetry. In No Man’s Sky, players engage with a self-generating cosmos ultimately governed by a single, random “numerical seed”: the phone number of one of the programmers. A series of algorithms generate new seeds through mathematical mutations, which determine the characteristics of the game. Ironically, this configuration synthesizes the debate concerning the nature of the universe, uniting the dichotomy of determinism versus randomness. A programmer comments that his immersion in designing the game has transformed his view of nature: “”When I go out in nature, I don’t even see terrain anymore… All I see are mathematical functions and graphs.”

In A Defense of Poetry, Shelley distinguishes the two classes of mental actions: Reason and Imagination. Shelley’s definition of reason – “mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another” – recalls the self-generating quality of the cosmos features in No Man’s Sky. The relations are drawn among the seeds, which can serve to represent thoughts. Alternatively, the notion of imagination – “mind, acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light” – reflects the role of the designers in providing the foundational polychromatic graphic imagery for these equations. For example, in the article “World Without End,” the writer’s foray into a virtual cave reveals an interior rendered in scintillating blues, greens, purples, and browns.

Shelley posits that poets enact both Reason and Imagination – a dualism that parallels determinism and randomness, respectively. Poets establish poetic structure, setting up the framework for linguistic and conceptual relations, and color and fill this structure with imagery, figurative language, etc, which are arguably random despite their calculation, representing the (cosmic) chaos of creativity. Shelley declares a poem “the very image of life expressed in its internal truth. Altogether, this perspective compels me to regard No Man’s Land as a kind of poetic conception and its programmers as poets, whose virtual rendering of a vast, self-determining galaxy aligns with its indomitable infiniteness and embodies the interplay of Reason and Imagination, of determinism and randomness.

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“Mont Blanc” and Greater Powers

In the footnotes of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” the editors explain the “awful doubt, or faith so mild” (77) as a “scepticism about the existence of a benevolent creative deity, or trust in the existence of a ‘Power’ that differs from the Christian God by being indifferent to human existence” (p722). The mention of indifference reminded me of Hardy’s “Hap,” where the speaker prays for a vengeful god and purpose instead of “Crass Casualty” and chance. A similar indifference to the human condition also appears in “Mont Blanc,” when the destructive rivers flood down the mountain and “the race / Of man flies far in dread” (118). The destruction is not just limited to man; the dwellings of “insects, beasts, and birds” are also subject to the ruinous flood (115).

Power in “Mont Blanc” is located in nature, but it’s a strange kind of power. Mont Blanc sits “still, snowy, and serene – / Its subject mountains their unearthly forms / Pile around it” (61-3). Given its possible destructiveness, it seems odd to describe nature’s power as tranquil or “serene”. The association between power and tranquility continues with the speaker’s declaration that “Mont Blanc yet gleams on high … The still and solemn power of many sights” (127-8). In contrast to the mountain’s stillness, humans and all living things “move and breathe with toil and sound” while “Power dwells apart in its tranquility” (94-6). Humans are separated from this power by sound, or perhaps by the “mysterious tongue” that the wilderness uses to teach a “faith so mild”.

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Shelley and Murray, Poetry and Nature

Throughout his poetry, Shelley focuses on the human mind and imagination in its relationship to the universe. He often invokes metaphors from nature to help explain his relationship to the outside world. Shelley believes that nature’s sublimity has a creative influence over him, but he also believes that his imagination has influence over nature. Our experience of the natural world is a collaborative experience between the perceiver and the perceived.

In the poem, “Mont Blanc” the mountain and its ravine resemble the power of Shelley’s own imagination. Looking at the landscape, the sublime takes place outside the speaker, but also within the speaker: “My own, my human mind…/Holding an unremitting interchange/ With the clear universe of things around.” Additionally, by calling the ravine a “dizzy ravine!” Shelley directly projects his own feelings and current situation onto the environment. The mind works on the environment and the environment works on the mind­.

Because of this “interchange,” Shelley emphasizes poetry’s important role. He argues that only a privileged few (poets) can see nature as it really is and are able to express both its benevolence and its malevolence through poetry. His main ideas regarding these themes are outlined in his essay, “A Defence of Poetry.” He states, “poetry awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.”

Shelley’s stance on poetry makes me think of Sean Murray and his video game, “No Man’s Sky.” In Murray’s childhood, “Space was presented as a romantic frontier, sublime in its vastness… simultaneously awesome and diminutive.” Nature’s sublime influence on Murray is translated into No Man’s Sky. Murray takes what inspired him about space and produces his own creation­, or “poetry” if that’s what you want to call it. He creates an unbelievably realistic depiction of the universe, while simultaneously instating his own personal touches, working around computer programming’s limitations and sometimes sacrificing realism for aesthetics.

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Shelley’s Anxieties of the Ephemerality of Existing in a Closed System

Shelly’s anxiety about the ephemerality of life compared to the seemingly “everlasting universe” shines through in the selected poems we read this week. In “Mont Blanc” in particular, the speaker wrestles with whether or not anything exists for humans beyond the temporal earthly realm. He notes that “Some say that gleams a remoter world,” but the speaker does not seem entirely convinced. The speaker then looks up at a mighty and imposing mountain and animates it by recognizing that it too teems with all kinds of life and movement—much like the mind of a human being. However, the speaker then has a realization that the snows that descend are the reason for the life and the flowing water. There is nothing outside the system that is moving this mountain to life. Much like No Man’s Sky, it seems as if the generation of the ecology of Mont Blanc is merely the consequence of a mechanistic algorithm within a closed system. The speaker’s conclusion moved me to question whether anything eternal could be born out of such a rational and mechanistic world. “Ozymandias” seems to support the idea that no matter how eternal we perceive human existence to be, it pales in comparison to “the lone and level sands [that] stretch far away” and will continue years after humans are gone.

Shelley argues that poetry is a means of obtaining the immorality that so far seems unachievable. In “A Defense of Poetry” he claims, “Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the word,” and “poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity of man.” However, I am struggling to see how a manmade art like poetry is any different from the ruined statue of Ozymandias. Doesn’t poetry still only exist contingent on there being humans around to read it? Perhaps in a world where there is always humanity, poetry allows both the author and the particular beauties he was examining to persist, but in a future where there is no human audience wont this too be swept up by the winds of time? The dust of Shelley’s skylark only remains immortal as long as there are memories to remember it.

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Abandon the Disciplines!

One of the biggest takeaways of Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Collapse of Western Civilization deal with the often overlooked complexities of our world. In both works the complexity leads to disaster.

One of my favorite lines from Beasts of the Southern Wild was: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together. If one piece busts, even a small piece, the entire universe will get busted.” A house of cards may be the most appropriate metaphor for this quotation.  From the outside the house of cards may appear to be a single object, but in reality the house is made up of many parts that are interconnected and rely upon one another. If one card is pulled the entire house collapses because each card is supporting all the cards above it, and in some cases around it.This truth is realized on a much grander scale in the film, as the audience is reminded by the voice of a child that failure in one area inevitably spreads to others.

In The Collapse of Western Civilization, author Naomi Oreskes, retrospectively approaches the lack of respect society has for the interconnected complexity of life. She points to the “epistemic structure of Western science” where information gathered “intellectually and institutionally around ‘disciplines’ in which specialists developed a high level of expertise in a small area of inquiry.” Her claim is that this narrow approach is partially responsible for not realizing the complete threat of climate change. A scientist well versed in gaseous clouds, for example, could only make projections about clouds while chemists would only work on chemical reactions. Little did either know that the two were closely related and affected one another. Of course the complexity extends well beyond these two disciplines.

Ultimately both works illustrate a necessity to abandon our reductionist world view in favor of something more comprehensive. In my experience, a multi-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary approach to learning is where the world is headed. I hope that it won’t be too late by the time we can get there.

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The “Captain Hindsight” Effect

“The Collapse of Western Civilization” is an inherently retrospective book: it is focalized by a historian looking back on the wanton climate abuse of the twenty-first century and trying to figure out why we ignored the signs.

I can get behind that. It’s a clever device with much potential for crafting a commentary. A historian, as a (supposedly) nonpartisan agent of knowledge, is the ideal narrator for a tale as inconsistent as our own: who else could more clinically dissect the trajectory of our path to disaster?

Our narrator, however, does not remain partisan. In fact, he editorializes frequently:

“In hindsight, the self-justificatory aspects of the U.S. position are obvious, but they were not apparent to many at the time,” (5).

“Had other nations followed China’s lead, the history recounted here might have been very different,” (6).

“One might have thought that governments would have stepped in to prevent this ominous development—which could only exacerbate climate change—but governments proved complicit,” (22).

These statements are subjective. The presumption is that the benefit of hindsight allows for a sort of moral authority, but this is a fallacy; it is for this reason that courts of law do not assess police shootings “with the benefit of retrospect,” but rather from the perspective of a police officer placed under stressful conditions.

I find the anachronistic artifice in this book to be strikingly similar to that I observed in “Into Eternity” — namely, it produces an impression of haughtiness that distances the reader, who is inevitably a citizen of the very society the book condemns, as not seeing the “obvious.” The difference, of course, is that this is a work of fiction, posing a challenge to my own view: is it fair to read this while actively acknowledging that it is not a product of centuries from now? It seems clear what sentiment the authors are espousing — but can we jump to that conclusion, since this is not a documentary, but fiction masquerading as scholarship?

 

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Originality of Hopkins’ Style

After reading the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, I personally found his style confusing but inherently original. For one, Hopkins clearly is very religious, and in terms of ecology, he adamantly puts God at the helm. Notably the very first line of The Wreck of the Deutschland, “THOU mastering me/ God! giver of breath and bread;/ World’s strand, sway of the sea;” indicates the level of power Hopkins believes God holds. As the poem continues, so does the intensity, and more so, Hopkins’ unique repetitive style. “Before me, the hurtle of hell/ Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?” Further followed by, “To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower/ from the grace to the grace.” This style continues throughout the poem but in various ways. As I was reading I couldn’t help but notice the repetition, whether it was repeated words or emotions I found it intensifying the story. “Hope  had grown grey hairs,/ Hope had mourning on,/ Trenched with tears, carved with cares,/ Hope was twelve hours gone;” I am not sure the exact reasoning behind the style but it definitely stood out. Probably most notably in the ending of The Leaden Echo, “So be beginning,/be beginning to despair./ O there’s none; no no no there’s none;/ Be beginning to despair, to despair,/Despair, despair, despair, despair.” The title itself suggests an “echo-like” style, as well as its counterpart and the following poem, The Golden Echo. 

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