What Difference an M Makes

One of my pleasures is reading. It is also one of my guilty pleasures as I tend to read books of a speculative nature. My thoughts have always dwelled near the question why would I want to read about the world I live in? Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the escape? Yes, I’m an escapist, and that has included worlds of alternative reality, fantastic worlds, futuristic worlds, and even alternatively represented worlds such as animation. With that (probably unsurprising) admission out of the way I can get to a topic that has bothered me for quite a while, which has also had a new development (new if only in the case that I recently noticed it).

Authors, genres, sorting and status.

An author I’m rather fond of is Iain Banks. he writes fiction. Most of it could be in this world although some of it is a bit iffy, or at least somewhat psychotic. Okay, that describes most fiction as how “real” is the illuminati in comparison to Area 51 and extra terrestrials? I first read Banks’ Dead Air, which I borrowed from a friend in 2004. I loved it, but I couldn’t remember who had written it after I gave it back and didn’t read anything else of his for half a decade. When I finally did figure out who that Scottish writer my Scottish friend loaned me was I was confronted with two things. The first was Iain Banks. I proceeded to read The Steep Approach to Garbadale, The Business, and Whit. The second thing I found was Iain M Banks, the author of the Culture series of science fiction and various one offs. Those of you who might have bothered to guess will probably realize that Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks are the same person.

Average logic seems to hold that people cannot write for multiple genres at once. Or that audiences don’t shop for multiple genres.

But maybe logic should think of all the pseudonyms out there. And then maybe question the purpose of those alternate pen names: Banks wrote 3 books as Banks then got his publishers to publish a sci-fi book. it came out under M. Banks so as not to confuse audiences (or so holds the WIkipedia entry). Maybe it’s for the readers. It’s definitely not because Banks cannot write for both genres as he does well and has done will for over two decades and twenty books.

So why is it that the United States publisher (Orbit) has chosen to publish Banks’ latest novel, Transitions, by Iain M. Banks? It was published in the United Kingdom as a book by Iain Banks and the two book covers are visible, unproblematically, on Banks’ website showing the different covers and different names.

Banks has no problem with his name separation (and integration). So why do I care? What is it that I see as troubling and annoying about both the separation and integration of a science fiction identity and a fiction identity? Mainly status.
Salman Rushdie is a good, similar example. Rushdie’s works are fantastic. They question reality. But they’re “Fiction.” Even one of his earliest works, Grimus, a very “science fiction and fantasy” novel if ever there were one, is happily labeled “Fiction” and sorted alongside Rushdie’s other, “serious” books. While it is labeled “Fantasy novel/Science Fiction” on Wikipedia the Amazon entry (as well as most other booksellers) has ignored this and simply lists it as “Literature & Fiction.”

In bookstores’ entry systems especially of 20 years ago, when both the M and Rushdie’s singular straying happened, Fiction was the high genre and anything more “generic,” anything that needed a modifier, be it fantasy, science fiction, thriller, romance, was the low move toward rubbish, or at least special audiences (where special has all of its connotations, good and bad).

Rushdie rode his barely (and yet very) “Fiction” style out to be one of the most influential writers of the late 20th century. This has many parts to do with his status as a post colonial, and yet British, subject as well as the politico-religious issues surrounding Satanic Verses. However, as his work was “serious” it brought in the very not serious early novel. This preserved the singular location of an author within a store, and essentially, the analogue archive.

In contrast, Neal Stephenson, a second prime example, whose early work was in fiction (The Big-U, Zodiac and a few disavowed co-written works) before he smashed onto the scene with Snow Crash and Diamond Age, two cyberpunk highlights. Stephenson is located in the science fiction section. Again, this is in contrast to his incredibly popular (alternative) historical fiction Cryptonomicon and Baroque Cycle. Because his original hits were in science fiction he has remained in that area. This has not prevented him from garnering support and sales, but it has prevented him from winning awards other than those in science fiction, which his popular historical fiction novels do not fit. It has placed him, marked him, classified him, as a science fiction author.

The placement within the archive, one’s labeling/identificying denotes the status of the author. Rushdie is respected as he is in Fiction. Stephenson is less respected as he is in Science-Fiction. Banks avoided this very possibility with the little M., which separated identities, forced his presence into both places of the archive (and store). With the doubled name Banks broke the status game.

But that is exactly where I see the problem now. My guess is that within the United States, where sci-fi is low, but popular, M. Banks and the Culture novels sell better. This might be switched in teh UK where Banks is known as a Scottish author and gets additional sales because of that and the brogue of his Fiction novels.

The collapse of Banks to M. Banks within the US does a few things. It attempts to ride M. Banks’ greater popularity so as to increase the Fiction sales. This is fine as far as anything Capitalistic goes. However, it also will problematize the location, and therefore status of Banks in the Ficiton section. As M. Banks his previous Fiction books stand to be reissued as M. Banks and relocated to the sci-fi section. In some ways this makes no sense, in others it’s good business, but I see it simply as the denigration and codification of generic borders.

Game Preservation and Remakes

There was a panel at DiGRA’09 about game preservation that asked questions about how to preserve games, what to preserve, what was being done, etc. One thing that struck me then and now is how the trope of preservation is truly opposed in some ways to the logics of the remake that I wrote of previously.

Preservation is to keep an old thing in a usable state: to freeze it. On the surface, this is similar to what the remake does: it takes something and preserves (a part of) it for usage. Of course, the key difference is that whereas preservation thinks to hardware, greater experience (as well as the futility of this due to data decay), remakes take one single element as something worthwhile: they story and general play or rule set as it might be called.

Game preservation efforts and remakes preserve different things. So what about the demake? Well, it seems to preserve the other elements. While a remake preserves story/play, a demake preserves graphics/sound/hardware. Finally, the preservation efforts try to preserve both sides.

Now where does this then place preservation, or I’ll say it simply: museum historicism, on the one hand and logics of repetition on the other? Are they anathematic or related?

Playing In/With the Archive

Archives are everywhere. This much is obvious. Essays and books with archive somewhere in the theme or title have increased in the past few decades and recently I have seen a slew of ‘archive’ related conference CPFs.

Of interest to me is the archive’s intersection with gaming, history and memory. There are three points of intersection that I see: acknowledgment and creation of archives, manipulation of archives and playing in archives. These three forms of archival play correspond to three types of games and gaming. One, massive ROMization (MAME, SNES9X, et cetera) and recent (official) migration of old games to WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade and Play Station Network. Two, sequels and remakes of older games and the creation of a particular genealogy of titles. Three, demakes and unofficial titles that problematize the greater archive.

The first is simply the building of an archive of obsolete platforms and games. Whereas it used to be possible to pull out one’s old NES and blow into the cartridge more people are finding that the technology simply doesn’t work anymore. This goes doubly for games that were/are hard to find. As the technology has become increasingly unavailable it has become obvious to more and more people that an archive/library is necessary for games. However, because the platforms themselves become similarly unavailable it has also been necessary to create a means of playing the games.

Since the late 1990s there have been semi-legal efforts to play ROMs on personal computers. The game’s cartridge information is ripped to a computer and emulators are programmed to play the games. While emulators are made for some of the most advanced systems such emulation has generally been problematic (buggy, slow, unable to play many games), the emulation of older systems like arcades, Atari, NES, SNES, SEGA et cetera have been highly successful. While this method has resulted in a massive archiving of games (even if the platforms and materiality of play have disappeared – television, cartridge, console, controller), one thing that is undeniable is that this ROMization is less than fully legal and companies are losing what they see as a profit.

The second generation of the archive has recently been implemented with the big three game companies (Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft) creating respective means to play previous generational games. Nintendo releases WiiWare versions of previous games such as Megaman that one can play on the Nintendo Wii. Sony releases past games such as Spyro the Dragon through the Playstation Network (it should also be noted that the Playstation, as a DVD/CD console is able to play older generational games (the PS3 can play PS2 and PS1 games; the PS2 can play PS1 games). Finally, Xbox Live Arcade, which has more broadly made available Sega and other games. While all three of these forms have been more legal than the ROM movement in that they prevent ‘piracy’ they are far from successful in the simple archiving project. They pick and choose (and buy the rights for) what they archive on the three libraries.

However, both of these projects are at base simply the creation of an archive for preservation and further use of games. Here I refer to the building and playing of the archive.

The second way in which the archive and gaming interact is something that has been going on since Tennis for Two, but has begun to take a slightly more aggressive turn. While gaming has always been a form of remediation, and sequels have been around (at least) since PacMan turned into Ms. PacMan, there have more recently been remakes cropping up that are slightly different. Previously I discussed the interaction with a form of restorative nostalgia with the remake. The remake, as restorative, acts to whitewash the past and justify a particular reading of history: it is a form of playing with the archive. This is not new or unusual: all history is manipulative and restorative. However, initial implementation that occurs simultaneously with the rise of the second generation of company archiving is interesting. It makes one think of just what is happening when FPS and 3rd person action games are being remade: what happens to the archive when its contents are embellished and highlighted?

Third is the demake and what I want to call playing in the archive. It is also a type of playing in the past. Demakes work with reflective nostalgia and focus on the patina of the old. With games this is crucially ideas like retro graphics seen with the initial MAME movement, but it is also the attempts to translate/adapt modern games to older platforms. That most of these demakes can only be played by emulation is slightly problematic, but one might also point out the longer history of cartridge manipulation (Cory Arcangel’s Mario Clouds) and its progress into the present with efforts being made to put demakes onto cartridges (D+Pad Hero). Here people are deliberately moving into the archive, taking present things and forcing them into the older sections of the archive. Unhappy with the look and smell of a new book it’s given a fake patina and odorized in order pass and pleasure like an old book.

So, these three types of gamic archiving are taking place. We know that the archive is a deliberate (if uncontrollable) cementation of knowledge and indication of a certain mode of knowledge production. So, the question is really what sort of knowledge production is happening with these three types of gaming archives? What is the difference between the first and second generations of archiving? What sort of knowledge is opened up and closed by remaking and demaking?

memory, archive and sources

Bowker claims that the act of remembering gives no guarantee that the thing will ever be remembered. While this is true, he ignores the bit that A was remembered and not B, meaning that while A might possibly be remembered, B will not. With a limited archive (and we are not omnipotent by any means – regardless of a database’s ability to store, we do not know how to record/archive anywhere near all) there is necessarily limited data to remember.

And this brings me to a comment that a doctoral candidate at the NYU media ecology program said about McLuhan Noam Chomsky in regard to quoting. Roughly, “we quote those people/books/lines that we have (easy) access to.” She quotes from the Chomsky book that she has on her shelf and she has it on her shelf as it is the canonical volume. Similarly, I quote Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice instead of The Logic of Practice because it is on my shelf. We retrieve from the archive only that which was stored; we retrieve from the archive that which was stored in a more accessible manner.

Two and a half years ago a professor told me that communication was about the storage and retreival of information. Technically, I wasn’t in a Communication program at the time (it was Media Ecology/Media, Culture and Communication) and so didn’t think much of the comment. In truth, I didn’t understand the depth and importance of the comment. Communication, in a lot of ways, is about information that has been stored in some way and is/must be retreived in some way. The details are where the study begins. Hence, communication necessitates an archive: library, bookshelf, memory, history et cetera.

This is of course where we return to the concepts of storage (remembering) and retreival (re-membering). We focus so much on the storage capacity and the speed at which we retreive information, but we don’t seem to focus on exactly what is put down into storage. We know we don’t get everything, but we don’t ever really deal with this. Why? Why is there so little work done on the act of remembering especially when it is turned out into the realm of collective memory and history. Is it to naturalize the details remembered? Is it to hide the production? Or any of the other plethora of answers that are possible.