Month: March 2019

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Nathan Damigo moves through rioting crowds like a soldier, and for good reason. Before he founded white nationalist group Identity Evropa, before serving four years in prison for robbing a cab driver at gunpoint, he did two tours in Iraq as a Marine. But when a conservative free speech rally in Berkeley last weekend devolved into an all-out brawl between far-right groups and far-left ones, Damigo got to play war games again.

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I was there covering the demonstration, which early on spilled out of a park and onto the streets of downtown Berkeley. Somehow, I ended up next to Damigo as the riot raged, running under the thudding whump-whump of police helicopters, flinching at every pop of an M-80 or crash of a glass bottle. Damigo moved through the sidelines comforting wounded troops. Most had the bright-red faces and streaming eyes that point to a run-in with pepper spray, though some had been tased, and others bloodied from fistfights. He paused at a group pouring Pepto-Bismol over the face of a pepper-sprayed comrade and immediately took the posture of an officer. "You go take it easy," he said, clapping the sputtering man on the shoulder. "We've got people back there who will take care of you."

At no point was I thinking that this man would become a dank meme.

Yet, minutes before assuming the role of lieutenant, Damigo had punched an antifascist protestor named Louise Rosealma. (Antifascists, or antifa, are an anarchist group that believes in stopping far-right extremism at any cost, including violence and doxxing.) Within hours, video of the altercation would sweep across social media, and extreme-right corners of the internet would hail Damigo as a folk hero. It was just the most recent example of a drastic shift. As political discourse in the US has become more polarized and contentious, so too has its symbology. Pepe the Frog and Expendables posters have given way to images of actual violence that political extremists spread and celebrate—4chan, trading on a popular videogame meme, refers to Damigo as "The Falcon Punch at Berkeley." Much of it resembles military propaganda. The meme warriors, it seems, have become a militia.

Memes have always been fodder for in-group jokes, but the inside joke tended to draw on internet creations: Keyboard Cat; Socially Awkward Penguin; image macros of Fry from Futurama. But over the last few years, sharing a meme has become as much about defining your in-group as it is about amusing it. "Even the 'Bidenbro' memes where people imagine a connection of love and respect between Biden and Obama often direct very pointed barbs at Trump," says Michele Knobel, who teaches courses on new media at Montclair State University. And with the rise of the so-called "alt-right" and white supremacist groups, Knobel says, what defines that group becomes less about LOL: "Far-right memes are no longer about humor or cultural critique, but a celebration of out-and-out violence."

To be fair, both poles of the political continuum are guilty of this. When a black bloc participant sucker-punched white nationalist Richard Spencer on camera, the clip became a meme in short order—overlaid with musical punchlines like Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" and Wu-Tang Clan's "Bring da Ruckus." But while the internet's reaction to the punch spawned a deluge of "Is It OK to Punch a Nazi?" think pieces, it also highlights a fundamental difference between the way the far-right and far-left turn violence into memes. Antifa memes tend toward honoring the punch rather than the puncher. Some of that, of course, is because black bloc tactics prize anonymity, but the focal point is the act of resistance, rather than the agent of it.

Meanwhile, on the far-right side, emergent memes have instead enshrined the movement's folk heroes. Before Damigo, there was "Based Stick Man," aka "The Alt-Knight," aka Bay Area commercial diver Kyle Chapman, who rose to far-right internet acclaim after beating up antifascist protestors at the last Berkeley melee.

If you're new to far-right subreddits, "based" loosely translates to honorable or righteous. (Ironically enough, the term's provenance traces back to Berkeley rapper Lil B, aka "Based God.") And that's certainly how Chapman, feels about himself. "I put a V on the shield because warriors of old always had Vs on their shields," says Chapman, who identifies as "alt-lite," an alt-right offshoot that shies away from overt assertions of white supremacy. "I'm a very good fighter. I've been studying martial arts for two decades. I grew up in a very violent environment. We beat the shit out of each other and that was fun." Yet, Chapman thinks of Based Stickman not as an aggressor, but as a defender of patriotism and free speech. "The actions that led to my celebrity were all defensive actions," he says. "Antifa are a domestic terrorist organization. We're going to continue exercising our First Amendment rights and match their level of force."

That sentiment underscores the other major shift in the far-right's visual language. "When used by far right "patriot" groups, these memes act a lot like military propaganda," says Adam Klein, who teaches courses on propaganda and online extremism at Pace University. These memes flatten American politics to a good-versus-evil binary; their subjects are the righteous and honorable. Think Uncle Sam with an undercut or a gas mask.

To Chapman, this militarism is no surprise. "Conservative men hit the gym harder," he says. "They tend to be ex-military or ex-law enforcement. At Berkeley last weekend we had the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters there." Both of those groups, which boast many current and ex-law enforcement, perceive the government as threats to American freedom. It's easy to see why memes like Based Stickman and the Damigo Falcon Punch take root: both depict acts that are heroic in the eye of the beholder. And for Chapman, that heroism eclipses even Damigo's white supremacist ties. "I honestly just don't care," he says. "If people want to share that meme, maybe these women on the side of antifa will think twice about coming out to assault people."

Early far-right memes like Pepe the Frog harnessed the energy of 4chan, where sowing discord was the name of the game. This new wave of memes functions more like a call to action—and arms. "Identity Evropa's plan has been to rally support on college campuses," says Phyllis Gerstenfeld, who teaches courses on online hate crimes and criminology at Cal State Stanislaus, where Damigo is a student. "You can't really plan a meme like this one. But I do think they may take advantage of it as a recruitment strategy." To Gerstenfeld, this is just the contemporary version of neo-Nazis' strategy in the '80s, when they would pick fights on talk shows.

While their newfound notoriety may have made them heroes on Far-Right Twitter, though, Chapman's and Damigo's celebrity doesn't necessarily extend to real life. Based Stickman has been arrested multiple times, and a concerted effort exists to get Damigo expelled from CSU Stanislaus, where he's been known to put up white supremacist fliers. But given the evolution of the far-right meme machine, such difficulties may not matter. "This has a normalizing effect," says Tim Highfield, a digital media researcher at the Queensland University of Technology, about the new trend. "It transforms these actions into a media object, and cartoonifies it." The problem isn't that these memes are out there, in other words—it's that the internet is getting used to them.

Open your laptop and fire up some Robyn—Girls is over. After six seasons, America’s most-complained-about show has finally said good-bye, and now is the time for reflection.

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Since 2012, Lena Dunham’s HBO series about four twentysomething friends in New York has been, despite never getting huge ratings, a hotly debated show, whether by fans who fight over its merits at parties, or by people who fight over Dunham on the internet. Girls rankled as many as it pleased, but it always stayed true to itself. That kind of perseverance in the face of comments sections and Twitter screeds deserves some kind of eulogy, so WIRED’s own Brooklyn pals—Charley Locke, Brian Raftery, and Angela Watercutter—sat down to discuss the show's legacy.

Angela Watercutter: I always liked Girls, but for a long time it was just that show I watched on Sundays until Game of Thrones came back. I thought it spoke very well to a certain ennui that hits hard in your 20s—you know, the kind where you know the word ennui but don't understand that you have no reason to feel listless—and could magically combine biting and heartwarming, but it was never my obsession show. Yet as this final season progressed, I realized that it meant more than I’d realized. The women of Girls felt like people I knew, even if they were people who occasionally frustrated me. And I'm now weirdly sad to see them go.

This feeling is, I think, exacerbated by the fact that the last season of Girls has been astounding. Some of the plot points were mildly laughable—I still have no idea what the hell Hannah Horvath (Dunham) is going to be teaching at her new university job—but I thought Allison Williams’ full-throttled commitment to Marnie’s self-absorption really took it to the house this season, and Jemima Kirke (and by extension, the show's writers) gave Jessa a level of depth she never had before. (I would talk about how lovely Elijah/Andrew Rannells has been in Season 6, but if I started I’d never shut up.) But I’m getting ahead of myself. Charley, if memory serves, you started out a fair-weather fan of the show; how were you feeling about it going into last night’s finale?

Charley Locke: I did not like Girls at the beginning. Extraordinarily selfish, anxious, privileged people living out a cringeworthy vision of their 20s? No thanks. But as the characters grew into humanized caricatures, I warmed to it: They're all cripplingly self-absorbed, sure, but in delightfully nuanced ways. (For full disclosure, a couple seasons into Girls, I also entered my twenties, and realized the show was not a grim prophecy.)

Charley Locke

And, of course, Girls has always been so delightfully sharp. It found the funny edges of languid muggy afternoons on the subway before Broad City, and the relatable aspects of wincing self-doubt way before Insecure. And like Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, and Issa Rae did later, Dunham is a master of self-deprecation by means of pop culture reference. Girls nails some precise joys and frustrations of navigating the navel-gazing decade, and it does it all with cutting one-liners.

And the last season has allowed Girls to engage with itself (and its flaws) in a graceful way. Since the beginning, Girls has faced its share of criticism. Some was deserved—the central characters are all white, well-off, and somehow able to pay for spacious New York apartments with sporadic employment—and some wasn’t, as people conflated Dunham and Hannah. The final season deals with some of these criticisms head-on: Through Adam's movie, Hannah sees herself through someone else’s perspective for the first time, and Dunham offers her own Girls thinkpiece on Girls thinkpieces in the excellent standalone episode "American Bitch." And in the last few episodes, I've enjoyed Hannah's self-aware reflections on the Girls era of her life as she prepares to leave it. (I'm thinking particularly of her private nostalgia in the last scene of the penultimate episode, when she smiles inwardly at her friends dancing, a Girls-style emotional release ever since that wonderful Season 1 scene set to Robyn's to "Dancing On My Own.")

How about you, Brian? You're a true Girls fan—did you want the characters to come to some version of self-realization in the last season? Where were you hoping the show would end up?

Brian Raftery: Excuse me for a second—I'm a bit misty-eyed at the mention of the next-to-last episode's dance-off send-off, which I thought perfectly captured what was so special (and sneaky) about Girls: It was ostensibly a show about friendships, but it was actually about *relationships—*the knotty, troubled, long-con pacts we make with the few people we know we want in our lives, but can't always make on a day-to-day (or even year-to-year) basis. And sometimes, relationships simply have to end.

Brian Raftery

I can relate to that idea—not just regarding the up-and-down connections with my own personal life, but in my own occasionally hiccup-hitting relationship with Girls. At some point during the third season, the anti-Dunham online outrage was so rampant and overheated, I actually stopped watching; I wanted to experience the show in a vacuum, without all the overbearing (if sometimes well-deserved!) Monday-morning outrage and tut-tutting over Hannah's latest transgression. Sometimes, when a movie or show gets sucked up in the zeitgusto, I prefer to log off. So I turned away from Girls for more than a year.

When I returned, I realized Girls was not only once again a great show, but, maybe, just maybe my … favorite … show? Or, at the very least, all-time-Top-10 worthy? Not since the end of *Friday Night Lights—*a series that also survived a rocky sophomore season, and that shared *Girls' *belief in bittersweet brutal-truths—have I been so sad about losing a group of characters. Ray! Marnie! ELIJAH! Like the actual New York twentysomethings I hung around with many, many years ago, they were ambitious, naive, and gorgeously sarcastic; I will miss them all.

Yet I won't miss the way Girls—and Dunham—became an easy internet avatar for Whatever You Happen to Hate Today. The show had the misfortune of debuting not only during an era of widespread who-do-these-millennials-think-they-are? confusion, but also at the beginning of the thinkpiece revolution. And while I agree that a lot of the early knocks on the show were justified, at a certain point, *Girls *was seized upon by people using it to justify their complaints about twentysomethings, or New Yorkers, or rich kids. In 2013, you could bet that any article or essay bemoaning the state of young Americans would feature a picture of Dunham as Hannah. Which is, you know, the way of the web. But I do wish *Girls *had been allowed to simply be a TV show, not a constant conversation piece, and I do wonder if all of that noise convinced some people to break up with this deeply observant, very funny show.

AW: It's funny you say that, Brian, because one of my favorite things about the last couple weeks of Girls talk has been people kind of mea culpa-ing (is that a thing?) about making Dunham a millennial straw woman. And even Dunham herself is even speaking about it. She and showrunner Jenni Konner did a great interview with Vulture where they talked about being the subject of so many thinkpieces and how they dealt with that. (Fun fact: They cast Donald Glover before they started getting a lot of criticism for how white the show was.) The best takeaway was that the most interesting thing about Girls is how it'll be perceived in 10 years or 20 years, or, as Konner puts it, "without all the noise around it."

But that noise isn't dying down yet. (We're still here!) So, I gotta ask you guys. What did you think of the penultimate episode? Did you like that there was a finale feel in that episode that allowed the actual finale to be kind of a coda?

CL: I really liked that message in the last two episodes: The relationships that shape you when you’re young don’t have to be relationships you depend on for good. Sex and the City, so often described as a precursor to Girls, framed romance as fleeting, as opposed to lasting female friendship. Girls makes that point, too, in the beautiful diner scene between Hannah and Adam in the third-to-last episode. But Girls also gives a more nuanced version of how friendships can be intense, formative, and temporary in the same way.

I also like imagining what Girls can be when watched after all the noise—I’m curious to see how Girls has changed how we represent, and talk about, friendship and ambition and young New York. Brian, do you think people will watch the show more charitably when watching after all the thinkpieces? And what did you think of the ending?

BR: Oh, I think Girls will age well: The jokes were precise and prolific; the cast members were remarkably at-ease and in-touch with their characters (and their fellow performers); and the show's occasionally stark, occasionally day-dreamy, but usually pretty accurate version of how young people try to make it in New York City will draw in future wannabe-Hannahs and/or Adams for years to come. In 2037 or whenever, people won't watch Girls for its real or perceived socio-cultural politics; they'll watch it because Marnie singing "Stronger," or Ray lecturing everyone on the virtues of McDonald's, or Shoshana accidentally smoking crack are hilarious (and maybe semi-relatable?) reminders of how ridiculous and generally ill-fitting your twenties can be. For those reasons alone, Girls will only grow better with age.

And while I have no idea what those future audience-members will think of the actual series finale, I found it to be quintessentially Girls: Funny, unsentimental, and deeply true. Watching Hannah and Marnie try to keep their friendship alive while also taking care of a newborn was a reminder that, as far as they've come throughout this series, they remain in some ways the same characters we met back in S101. Marnie remains forever Marnie—nonchalantly vaping in the pediatrician's office, singing Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" to no one's pleasure but her own. And Hannah's frustrations with raising a newborn—which culminates with that storm-out-of-the-kitchen conversation with her mom—is a reminder that, no matter what, she will always view her personal problems as singular, I-am-the-first-person-*ever-*to-experience-this affronts. Girls was never going to end with its characters suddenly older and wiser in every way; they're still young, after all. And besides, no one truly ever grows up, as evidenced by the last two seasons' emphasis on the failed marriage of Hannah's parents, both of whom are still figuring out who they want to be.

But the final moments of Girls were a very moving acknowledgement of how you can always move forward in some small way, no matter your hang-ups or meltdowns. The scene on the porch at the end—in which Marnie talks about maybe wanting to be a lawyer, and Loreen (Becky Ann Baker) enviously describes her super-cool, serial-dating friend—indicates that, for the first time in a while, they both have something to aspire to. And when a pants-less Hannah takes the stairs to her bedroom, where she successfully nurses her son, the pre-credits look on her face implies a stillness that's evaded her—and this fiercely contested show—for years.

AW: I've actually been thinking about that final scene a lot. There was something about that moment when Hannah sat down between Marnie and her mom that indicated three distinct levels of growth for women. First was Marnie, the one still very much confused about her place in the world; then Hannah, not too far ahead of Marnie, but successfully raising a child; and finally Loreen, someone who has been married, raised a daughter, and is now feeling perhaps more lost than the women next to her. To me that was a brilliant triptych of womanhood—stages that are often repeated, but never really completed, if that makes sense. Some critics have noted that this season took the easy way out in using Hannah's pregnancy/baby as a way to say "Look, she's grown up now!" That's valid, I guess, but I also think that, in true internet crit fashion, people would've picked apart the ending just the same if Hannah had gotten a book deal or run for mayor. There are a million and one ways to be a woman in America, and America is perpetually ready to take issue with all of them. Girls didn't invent this—it just gave the internet a convenient way to argue about it.

Phone calls are back.

I noticed this a few months ago, when I received five phone calls in the span of a single afternoon from people who said they didn't feel like sending a text. Weirder yet, not one of them was a parent, sibling, or telemarketer—the usual suspects on my recent calls list. They were all friends, some of whom I've never spoken to on the phone.

As a journalist, I regularly make and receive calls, so it didn't annoy me. But it did confuse me. When did people start making social calls again? And since when is anyone tired of texting? Is talking on the phone, after years of deliberate avoidance, suddenly cool?

I'm not the only one who noticed this.

When asked, my buddy Eamon, a 29-year-old video producer, told me he started making more calls a few years ago after moving to New York—a city where most people balance hectic work and social schedules. "Phone calls," he says, "are much more efficient for everyone involved."

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"I've always liked calling people," added my 20-something friend, Rebecca. "But maybe there’s a renewed desire for authentic communication."

This is anecdotal proof at best. But is this really a thing? "If it's a trend, it's one that's based on evidence," says Sherry Turkle, who leads MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle's spent her career studying how young people use technology to communicate, but to be clear, not even she has statistical proof to prove the phone call is back. Do a Google search and you'll find dozens of stories lamenting its death. Look for a report to confirm the uptick in phone calls among the 18 to 34 set and you'll find just the opposite.

Yet in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk In The Digital Age, Turkle argues that teens and young adults are ready to change how they communicate. She spent several years interviewing hundreds of them and discovered they are growing tired of text-based communication. "I found texting fatigue among young people whose parents had been unavailable to them, except on a device," she says. "The hopefulness in Reclaiming Conversation comes from interviewing a generation who took their devices for granted, had seen that too much texting had undermined friendships and family relationships, and were ready to talk and call."

Dead Ringer

Of course, not everyone wants to trade typing for talking. Few things in modern communication, save for read receipts, remain so divisive as the phone call. For some people, receiving a call elicits a particularly Pavlovian response: anxiety. "Generally the ringing of my phone sends me into panic," a 39-year-old friend told me. "No one calls anymore, so when they do it's potentially going to be something heavy."

"If you're calling me someone better be dead,” another friend said on Facebook. Others say they find calls intrusive or emotionally demanding. "It's more of a social contract than a text convo," an acquaintance said. "It takes more emotional preparedness."

In her book, Turkle explains that the appeal of texting is rooted in the idea of control. "If we text rather than talk, we can have each other in amounts we can control," she writes. "And texting and email let us present the self we want to be. We can edit and retouch." But that lack of intimacy may be why young people increasingly place a call. "The pendulum has begun to swing the other way," says Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University. "It's a correction of errors."

Small Talk

Efficiency explains some of the correction. "If you want to say 'running late,' a text is great," Tannen says. "If you're trying to negotiate something, texting suddenly becomes less efficient." But if you dig deeper, you realize this isn't about productivity, but understanding. "I just think there’s too much potential for ambiguity in text," says Zack Schamberg, a 29-year-old habitual FaceTimer. A phone call decreases the odds of something being misinterpreted, he says. A video call reduces them even further.

A study titled The Effects of Text, Audio, Video, and In-Person Communication On Bonding Between Friends backs this up. Three years ago, a team of UCLA psychologists asked college-aged women how various forms of communication impact their feelings of intimacy. To no one's surprise, the students felt most connected when talking with friends in person, followed by video chat, phone calls, and finally text messages.

psychologist Lauren Sherman

"The vast majority of young women we surveyed preferred in-person communication most of the time," says Lauren Sherman, one of the study's authors. "This is different than a phone conversation, but it does suggest that young people are aware that different types of communication serve various purposes."

The UCLA study shows that texting will remain a popular form of communication, but there's a growing desire to place a phone call or start a video chat. Making a phone call might feel subversive to anyone who's never used a landline phone, but as people get more comfortable talking to objects (hello, Alexa), it's easy to see that returning to personal relationships, too.

As an ardent fan of phone calls, I'd like to believe that everyone will start dialing the phone at least occasionally. Tannen isn't sure that will happen. In some ways, communication preferences are like fashion—the more people who get in on the trend, the more normal it seems. But you can't take a one-size-fits-all approach. "It's important to know the habits of who you're communicating with," she says. Shifting from a texting relationship to a calling one may be awkward. Your conversations may be marked by uncomfortable pauses, interruptions, and things you wish you hadn't said. Is it riskier than sending an emoji? Sure. But it's also more intimate. And that makes it worth so much more than a smiley face with heart eyes.

When Star Wars: Battlefront II launches this November, it's going to have steep competition—not from its fellow holiday releases, but its decade-old namesake. The original Star Wars: Battlefront II, which came out in 2005 (and was the sequel to a game that in turn set up a 2015 franchise reboot), was pure fan service, welded to a set of cleverly tuned game systems that borrowed liberally from some of the best multiplayer shooters out there circa 2005. Fans, myself included, hold it up as the Platonic ideal of a multiplayer Star Wars game.

The most exciting thing about the new version of Battlefront II is that it seems to agree.

Revisiting the original *Battlefront II *now, 12 years later, it feels in many ways like just an average multiplayer shooter, copying the mechanics and rhythms of the ultra-popular Battlefield games and pasting them into space. Yet, the game pulled off that command-V with "match destination formatting" enabled—and did so with such love that it managed to transcend its pedestrian shortcomings. Its vision of Star Wars was broad and accessible, yet contained all the hyper-detailed devotion of the nerdiest Wookiepedia reader.

Even better, Battlefront II was the ultimate set of Star Wars action figures: Any fight across the cinematic franchise could be re-enacted, remixed, and reversed. The game's substantive Galactic Conquest mode let you play out the films' major conflicts like a board game, moving fleets around the galaxy and engaging in strategic matches in order to take control of planets and the hyperspace lanes between them. Even the messy sprawl of the saga's Clone Wars became an epic setpiece.

The game also sported a robust, clever singleplayer campaign that followed the 501st Legion—those elite clone soldiers of the Republic who go on to serve as Darth Vader's super-evil special forces division. (At least, that was the story before Disney wiped out the Expanded Universe.) In it, you serve as a veteran clone throughout numerous engagements, your goals slowly becoming more and more sinister as the Republic falls and rises again as the Empire. It's great stuff.

It's also exactly why 2017's Battlefront II has me cautiously thrilled. It implements all of those ideas in one way or another. All the eras of the films are back, the Clone Wars as available for your dust-ups as Hoth or the Death Star, along with new settings based on the post-Return of the Jedi era that began with The Force Awakens. Space combat, a thrilling part of the original that was mostly missing from the 2015 *Battlefront *reboot, is back. The inane upgrade system of the reboot, which focused on "Star Cards," a set of collectibles that we're fairly certain did not feature into the Rebel Alliance's original strategies to take down the Emperor, has also been ditched in favor of what seems like a more natural system of progression.

Most exciting, there's a singleplayer campaign. In the absence of the 501st, we've got Inferno Squadron, a completely canon set of Imperial Special Forces troopers who keep fighting long after the second Death Star falls. Star Wars games have a long legacy of telling interesting stories about the bad guys—you could play a Sith in the *Knights of the Old Republic *roleplaying franchise, and many did—and a modern *Call of Duty-*style campaign is a good fit for the shoot-first-ask-questions-never stylings of the Empire.

When Disney rolled back the history of the expanded Star Wars universe, fans worried that they would fail to take lessons or inspiration from the amazing wealth of stories and experiences built with Lucas's toys in books, comics, and games. 2015's Battlefront felt like a confirmation of that fear; it focused so singularly on the original trilogy that it failed to properly reckon with what would be most engaging, or what fans might want out of a new Battlefront game. It's far too soon to tell if Battlefront II will be any good, but at least it seems like it's finally taking inspiration from the right places. May the Force be with it.

If there’s one truism in comic-book moviemaking, it’s that giant superhero team-ups are almost always sure-fire hits. (And then there's *Fantastic Four; *there are some things reshoots and wigs just can’t cover up.) What’s less true is that superhero team-up sequels will have the same good fortune. All the right ingredients can be there—good cast, same director, bomb-ass CGI—and for whatever reason, the movie just doesn’t ascend as high as its predecessor. Such is the case with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

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Like any good mixtape, James Gunn serves up a steady vibe, and it's a familiar one to fans of 2014's GOTG. Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) still has his cock-of-the-Walkman swagger; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) continues to kick ass and thwart Quill's advances; Drax (Dave Bautista) has perfected being the living embodiment of Big Dumb Fun; and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) managed to maintain a bottomless reserve of dickish rejoinders. The only perceptible difference this time around comes courtesy of Groot—well, Baby Groot, a marble-eyed CGI bundle of emotional manipulation who has been raking in the dawwwws since the first trailer dropped.

But as long as we're talking mixtapes, think back to the first mixtape your crush gave you. You remember the songs, the sequence, even the smell of the air wherever you listened to it. Now, quick: What was on the second mixtape they made you? You remember some of it, but chances are you're having a tougher time remember if the opening track was by Steely Dan or Stevie Nicks. Or, y'know, any non-1978 equivalent. That doesn’t mean Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t fun. If you like superhero flirting, bonding, and not-too-graphic dick jokes, it’s a hoot. There might even be a tearjerker or two. But if you’re hoping for something radically different from the first Guardians, you might be disappointed.

There is, of course, one new prominent member to the Guardians supergroup this time around—and he’s the one that causes all the drama and makes it all worth it. As Ego, Kurt Russell plays the role of Living Planet/Father of Star-Lord perfectly. The first film, you’ll remember, focused a lot on Quill not knowing who his father was and simultaneously finding a new family in his fellow Guardians. Side B is Quill meeting Ego, who claims to be his dad and also, by his mere presence, threatens to break up that family in its infancy. And Russell, being the most Kurt Russell he can be, walks the line between Charmer and Do We Trust Him? with ease. In fact, he brings more multi-dimensionality to Vol. 2 than anyone else (to wit: his analysis of the Looking Glass song “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”).

Also new to the galaxy is Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the leader of a superior(-acting) gold-skinned group known as the Sovereigns, who are out to get the Guardians for stealing some of their highly-valuable batteries. It’s her quest for retribution that ultimately brings back fan-favorite Yondu (Michael Rooker), whom she sends after the Guardians and who loses favor with his fellow Ravagers for seemingly going soft on Star-Lord, and leads to the movie’s final showdown. (Speaking of which, see this movie in 3-D, if you can, it’s really quite beautiful.) Ayesha will, no doubt, also play a role in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, so keep an eye on what she does.

All of this adds up to a movie that is, no doubt, a joy. The humor—even if it, like Drax’s laughter, feels forced—is there. So is the camaraderie, and the stunning visuals, and the super-fun soundtrack. There’s no reason to think that fans of the last Guardians movie, and Marvel movies in general, won’t love it. It just might feel like the second time around the same dancefloor. Towards the end of Vol. 2 someone (we won’t spoil who) gives Star-Lord a “new” music device. The joke is that it’s a Zune. After marveling that it can hold “300 songs?!” he scrolls through the menu and, like he did at the end of the last movie, fires up a track. It’s Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.” Peter Quill—like Marvel, like James Gunn, like this movie itself—knows how to shut up and play the hits.

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

This is Stephen King's best opening line. It's one of the best opening lines in literature. However, it is *not *the opening line in the trailer for *The Dark Tower *that dropped this morning. That trailer instead opens with Idris Elba slinging guns, cuts to a shadowy Matthew McConaughey, then to New York, then back to Idris. This, Constant Viewer, is not the movie version of a Stephen King series—such a thing could open in no other way but with the man in black fleeing across the desert—but a very self-conscious adaptation, and you and I (and other fans) are going to have to learn to live with that. Reluctantly.

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If you have not read the eight-book, 1.3 million-word series that forms the basis for The Dark Tower, then here is a short version of the plot: In an entropic world full of killer lobsters and magic and almost-remembered technology, a gunslinger named Roland Deschain (Elba) is on a difficult journey to a dark tower to save the world. The long version is, well, longer: It involves not only Deschain following a bad guy called The Man in Black (aka The Walkin' Dude, aka Randall Flagg) across the desert, a psychic boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a woman in a wheelchair with dissociative identity disorder named Odetta/Detta who has tactical sex with a demon and uses the sieve of Eratosthenes to find prime numbers, a heroin addict named Eddie who fights a gun battle naked and defeats an insane train named Blaine with dad jokes. There’s also a place in New York called the Dixie Pig where cannibal vampire things eat people, and a place in Mid-World called Calla Bryn Sturgis that’s patrolled by robot wolves. And Oy, a smart, lovable, loyal, toddler-version-of-a-talking-animal who looks like a slinky raccoon and whose eyes are rimmed with gold and if you have read the entire series and your throat doesn’t lump up at the story of Oy, then you might as well just make a reservation at the Dixie Pig and let them eat your heart because you aren't using it anyway.


Basically, we're talking about a lot of nested tales and back-storied characters, and some exuberant world-building that combines Old West and Middle-Ages themes with some Lord of the Rings-ish stuff, and some ley line business and a trip to see the Wizard of Oz. The inspiration for the series is actually Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” which prefigures T.S. Eliot’s "The Wasteland," which is (almost) the title of one of the books, so there’s plenty of literary fan-fiction and high-fiving for the high-minded.

The series also spills into our own personal but fictional world (or some version thereof) then—curiouser and curiouser!—there are also doorways into actual real-world events that happened to the author of the made-up world in question who then inserts himself into the fantasy narrative of the book he is writing, which, by the way, also tendrils out into other worlds HE has built (as he is famous for doing) like The Stand and ‘Salem’s Lot. (I see you there, Pennywise, at moment 1:30 in the trailer.) Which is to say, it’s a complicated series. One without what you’d call a Hollywood ending.

So you can’t really expect the movie adaptation to capture it all. Some wise parts of the internet have made their peace with that—and, maybe to its credit, the movie doesn't try. It seems instead to promise a more Manichean struggle between good and evil, one punctuated with a trip to the Dixie Pig and some humor wrung from Roland's first encounter with our world. (Maybe we might get a little tooter-fish sandwich action going, too?)

Speaking of guns, the bullet juggling in the trailer is fantastic—the mid-air drop-swipe! the belt riffle! The Lifesaver, where you flick them out of your palm with your thumb!—and I'd watch the movie just for lizard-brain-stirring gun lore: “I do not aim with my hand … I aim with my eye. I do not shoot with my hand… I shoot with my mind. I do not kill with my gun … I kill with my heart.” But what the movie does not promise is the band-of-brothers ka-tet that (to me) made the books so interesting. No Eddie Dean. No Detta+Odetta = Susannah. Crucially, no sign of the beloved Oy.

I mean, I get it. Adaptations have to be different than the original material, and that alone doesn’t make them bad. I thought Arrival was more perfect on paper, but the movie was still fun, and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptation was genius. (My family is listening to The Fellowship of the Ring on Audible right now and let me just say that we are closing in on hour 10 and I am getting awful tired of Tom Bombadil.)

When a world is this huge and multi-dimensional, there's no hope of cramming it into a 2-hour movie. But I fear the spirit of the books may be lost. One of my favorite parts of the series is when the ka-tet gets captured by Blaine the bonkers AI-gone-AWOL train, which then forces them into a riddle contest (shades of Gollum and Bilbo in the passageway under the mountain). Roland and Jake know plenty of good riddles, but it's Eddie who defeats Blaine by letting his mind rest and sprawl and free-associate gnostically, linking different parts of his brain together—not looking straight at the problem, not focusing on the direct combat with the loco-motive, but rather going soft and thinking around corners to arrive upon the sorts of jokes that might perplex a computer.

Eddie adapts the Gunslinger's creed to his purposes: "Because I shoot with my mind," he thinks in the book. "My mind. God help me to shoot this overblown calculator with my mind. Help me shoot it from around the corner." I've always loved that scene because it’s a way of thinking that can get you out of a rut—it could get a lot of us out of some of the ruts we’re in, actually, if only people would do it more.

I’m willing to use the books as a reference point to watch the movie, just as King used Childe Roland as a reference point to write his series. I mean, he created a multiverse that suggests worlds upon worlds overlapping, intersecting, kissing up against each other and tearing themselves apart. Why shouldn’t whatever is in the movie be canonical enough to stand up to scrutiny? But the sorts of binary struggles promised in the trailer aren’t really what our particular world needs right now, and they’re not the Kingish themes that stand up well on screen. Some of the most successful adaptations of his books are the movies based on two stories in Different Seasons, the novellas that became Stand By Me and Shawshank. Those books and films are about relationships between people, personal journeys, and thinking yourself around a corner, through the wall, and straight out of prison. Apocalyptic shoot-outs between cowboy knights and creepy monster-things are fun enough to watch, but there are other worlds than these—and we need to find them.

A few years ago, Peter Shapiro needed a not-so-small favor from Robert Plant. Shapiro, 44, has been putting on concerts for more than 20 years—everything from intimate late-night Roots gigs to 2015's Deadhead extravaganza Fare Thee Well—and few situations drive him into a state of room-pacing, hair-futzing excitement like a last-minute booking. So when Shapiro noticed that Plant had an opening in his tour schedule, he wondered: What would it take to get the former Led Zeppelin frontman, who easily fills 3,000-seat theaters, to agree to play a last-minute, late-night show at a bowling alley in Brooklyn?

"B.B. King once told me, 'If you really want something, you bring cash,'" says Shapiro. So he showed up for his meeting with Plant carrying a brown bag stuffed with $50,000 in bills. That was the deposit. Weeks later, Plant took the stage just after midnight at Shapiro’s long-running Brooklyn Bowl venue, where he performed Zeppelin classics like "Black Dog" and "Going to California" for a crowd of about 800.

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"It’s in the spirit of what we do: Fuck, let's put it together," Shapiro says on a late-fall afternoon in his midtown Manhattan office, where he oversees a live-show mini-empire—which includes three Brooklyn Bowl venues, along with the regal Capitol Theatre in nearby Westchester County—as well as his latest venture, an ambitious concert-chronicling website called The room is crowded with reminders of his decades-long music career: A poster commemorating Wetlands Preserve, the famed downtown-New York City venue Shapiro owned in the late '90s and early '00s; a ticket from a screening of the concert film U2 3D, which Shapiro co-produced; a photo of Questlove walking through a plane hangar in Las Vegas, where in 2014 the Roots helped open up a West Coast incarnation of Brooklyn Bowl. There’s also a framed a setlist from the multi-night, multi-city Fare Thee Well shows, which drew hundreds of thousands of Deadheads from around the world.

The space’s most vibrant attraction, though, is Shapiro himself, whose dusty voice, near-collar-length hair, prolific profanity, and sly smile reminds you of a mischievous eighth-grader you might spot smoking behind the gym. Today, Shapiro's dressed in dark jeans and a blue dress shirt, and he never quite stops moving—waving his phone around wildly mid-call, twirling a drumstick, bounding unexpectedly from one corner of the room to the next. "He appears and vanishes—that's kind of his modus operandi," says Blues Traveler’s John Popper, who’s known Shapiro since at least the early ‘90s. "And you don’t know how long he’s been there, or if he’s still around. He's kind of like Batman in that regard."

Popper, like many of Shapiro's friends and observers, compares him to Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter who reshaped the live-music industry in the '60s with San Francisco's zeitgeist-divining Fillmore venues. But whereas Graham was a highly visible pop-culture power-broker—chronicled in the pages of Rolling Stone, sought out by TV producers as a rock-n-roll explainer—Shapiro's career has largely been defined by the fan-immersing, artist-pleasing events and spaces he's overseen since he took over Wetlands in the mid-’90s and turned it into a late-night paradise for jam bands, ska acts, and the backpack-rap cognoscenti. The first Brooklyn Bowl would follow more than a decade later, quickly becoming a location for surprise drop-in gigs by the likes of Guns N' Roses and Kanye West (Bowls in London and Las Vegas were next). And, in 2012, Shapiro revived the Capitol, a long-dormant former rock palace, with a multi-night opening stint from Bob Dylan.

Each space has earned a reputation for well-oiled spontaneity—the kind of anything-can-happen-here ethos that’s made live music a crucial source of cultural momentum (and revenue) in the post-Napster record industry. "Peter doesn't have the word 'no' in his vocabulary," says Questlove, a longtime Brooklyn Bowl performer and friend. "I've given him 11th-hour surprises, like, 'How about a practice Usher show?,' or 'Can we organize a quickie Elvis Costello performance?' Anyone else would have riddled me with bullets for taking such a grand idea and tossing it to him with seconds left to spare. [But] with him it's always, 'Oh man, I can't wait to get to it.' And it's always magic." is Shapiro’s attempt to teleport some of that kinetic live-show power to the web. Launched last year, the site is an ever-growing concert database that includes everything from this month's Chance the Rapper shows to, say, a 1960 Beatles gig in Hamburg, with many gigs documented via user-supplied photos and anecdotes. The goal is to build a single destination for concert lovers, who Shapiro says are often spread far across the web—either lingering on artist-specific sites like Little Monsters or, or sharing everything via a decentralized stream of social media updates. "You go to a concert and post something about it on Facebook, and good luck finding it a year later," he says. "Besides, your whole life is on that site. You may not wanna geek out on being a fucking Slayer-head if you work at Chase bank. People have a separate identity for that."

But the biggest obstacle for Fans is convincing users to pledge allegiance to yet another community-minded music site. So far, Shapiro says, the site's growth has been encouraging; last month's traffic was the site's biggest yet. "We're not saying it's big, but we're seeing growth," he says. "And we're very much using my little world [of businesses] to lead it." The last decade has seen the heralded arrival (and subsequent flame-out) of endeavors like, Twitter Music, and Whatever the Hell Justin Timberlake Is Doing With MySpace. For the last 20 years, Shapiro's been able to cajole artists and audience members to follow him wherever he goes, from basements to bowling alleys; can he get them to stick around with him online, long after the music's stopped?

Bringing the Club Experience to the Web

Shapiro's Manhattan office is just a few blocks away from the site of his first-ever concert: A 1985 Madonna show at Madison Square Garden, which he attended when he was 12 years old, tagging along with his older brother. ("I remember all the moms dressed up in black lace with their daughters," he says. "And I remember a funny smoke in the air a little bit.")

Born and raised in New York City, Shapiro spent his teen years checking out shows and putting together a public-access TV show about sports. Back then, his music tastes tilted more toward the likes of Jane’s Addiction and My Bloody Valentine; his awareness of the jam-band scene didn’t start until a few years later, when he was a sophomore at Northwestern University. “Like any college in America," he says, "there was a culture of people playing hacky sack, throwing a Frisbee, smoking something, and hanging out."

In 1992, he caught his first Grateful Dead and Phish shows within just months of each other; the performances made him a convert to the jam-band scene, and inspired him to spend his summer working on a Dead documentary, And Miles to Go Before I Sleep: On Tour with the Grateful Dead Summer 1993. More film work followed, eventually bringing Shapiro to the attention of Larry Bloch, the founder of Wetlands Preserve, a downtown Manhattan nightclub known for its late hours, dodgy sightlines, and eclectic roster. Groups like Pearl Jam and Oasis played their first New York City gigs at Wetlands, and Dave Matthews was a semi-regular in his pre-breakout days. But by 1996, Bloch wanted someone to take over the club, offering the gig to to the then-23-year-old Shapiro. "Jerry Garcia had died [the year before]," Shapiro says. "Larry told me, 'There are a lot of people in their twenties who are into this music and this culture, and the whole thing's gonna splinter.'"

For the next six years, until the club’s closing in 2001, Shapiro retained Wetlands' casual vibe, while also booking more elaborate live shows, such as a weekly Roots residency from 1997 to 2001. ("Many a legendary night at that venue," Questlove recalls. "A lot of historical performances and confrontations took place—not to mention, key songs also got created.") Shapiro maintained Bloch’s commitment to community, hosting meetings for local non-profits, while also solidifying the the venue's party-friendly atmosphere. "My favorite part of Wetlands was the basement, where the was music piped in, there were pillows everywhere, and you could just hang out and smoke pot," remembers Popper. "That felt like home to me."

After high rents shut down Wetlands in 2001, Shapiro spent the next few years pondering his next move, finally settling upon Brooklyn Bowl, a concert-venue-slash-bowling-alley that opened in Williamsburg in 2009, at the site of an century-old ironworks foundry. Unlike Wetlands, Shapiro's new venue had sightlines that allowed you to actually see the band—not to mention an upscale menu and open lanes. But it shared Wetlands' come-one-come-all ethos, and was soon attracting acts like Adele and Paul Simon, despite holding fewer than 1,000 people. "The back of the security shirts at Brooklyn Bowl say 'Welcome,'" notes Shapiro. "Lots of little shit like that makes a fucking difference. People can feel it." Adds Tom Bailey, a longtime concert-industry veteran who now serves as general manager of the Capitol: "Bill Graham used to famously walk around the venue, taste the hot dogs, and say, 'The mustard’s a little off tonight.' He looked at every single part of the entire experience. And something Shapiro thinks about a lot: 'How’s the vibe? Is something mucking it up?'"

Both Wetlands and Brooklyn Bowl required Shapiro to stay late into the night, overseeing the informal after-parties (and occasional after-after-parties). He can’t always pull those kinds of hours anymore—he has multiple venues to run, and two young kids at home—but Fans is partly an attempt to recapture that don’t-stop-the-show spirit. "You’re turned on when you’re at a concert," he says. "And you’re with people you know. Where do you go afterwards to keep that going?"

Turning Deadheads to Webheads

In some ways, Fans is the sleek continuation of a Deadhead-turned-webhead tradition that goes back to at least 1985, with the arrival of The WELL, a virtual community that soon become a gathering place for Jerry fans. It was followed in the ’90s by tape-trader sites like Live Music Archive—which quickly accumulated concert recordings by the Grateful Dead and other jam-band acts—and other Web 1.0 projects archiving everything from lyrics to set lists to guitar tablature. With the possible exception of scientists and porn enthusiasts, no group helped colonize the early internet as thoroughly, and as eagerly, as the Deadheads and their ilk.

Nowadays, though, pretty much every high-visibility artist is treated to that same level of online hyper-adulation and heightened scrutiny: You can find entire Twitter accounts dedicated to Drake lyrics and Radiohead set lists; Instagram feeds that document classic punk covers; even a YouTube page that archives more than 30 videos related to the Jacksons’ 1984 "Victory" tour. And whereas recording live shows was once considered a legally iffy, socially frowned-upon transgression, major concert moments are now captured via Instagram or YouTube, and sometimes broadcast to the world mid-performance (even the Doobie Brothers, it seems, have softened their once-harsh anti-bootleg stance).

Shapiro hopes Fans will help users collect all of these memory-making bits of ephemera in one place, while also allowing them to document their future concert-going obsessions (he spent years assembling the site’s massive live-show database, which begins with a 1949 Jerry Lee Lewis gig at a car dealership). The idea is to eventually expand it into fields like sports, and—way down the line—possibly even the art scene. Before that can happen, though, Shapiro will likely have to bring in some outside help, and has started talks with possible partners. "Facebook still dominates," he says. "And then you have Pinterest, and Twitter, and Instagram—you have to break through that inertia of people automatically going to those sites. That's the hardest thing. I've realized I'm probably going to need help to bring it to a bigger level."

For now, Shapiro has a lot of patience; it's a requirement for surviving in the concert business, which is subject to all sorts of erratic demands and rhythms, and which still relies on bare-bones promotional hustle (Shapiro says that, even in 2017, the most valuable tool for a concert promoter is a steadily growing email list). And Fans has to compete with several other projects he has in the works, including the forthcoming March for Science, which he's producing in Washington, DC. Still, he waited a few nervous years before Brooklyn Bowl's Las Vegas venue really took off, and knows that launching a successful website isn't too different from launching a hit venue: "First," he says, "people have to come—and have a great time."

* * *

On an early-winter evening, Shapiro is relaxing with a cigarette and a glass of wine in a secluded hideaway within the Capitol Theater—a cozy space filled with comfortable seating, a decently stocked bar, and a monitor that allows him to watch the show in relative peace. He only travels to the theater for big shows, but when he's here, he'll sometimes hang out in this mini-bunker with some friends and maybe even a few performers, which is why he tries to keep its exact location a secret. A giant fish tank fills the room with light; it was installed by a Primus-loving tank-expert who, desperate for a ticket, struck a trade with the theater. "Look at this urchin," Shapiro says, eyeing a particularly bright specimen. "He’s like…turned on. Sick, right?"

Not far from where he sits, about 2,000 Bon Iver fans are gathering on the main floor of the Capitol, which briefly functioned as a rock palace in the '70s before being turned into a rentable event space. For its reopening in 2010, Shapiro and his team pulled out benches, reworked the acoustics, and upgraded the location's decor (including custom-made wallpaper featuring the likenesses of Janis Joplin, David Bowie, and other past performers). As the crowd files in, a giant dome on the roof is bathed in light, shifting colors almost imperceptibly, and the room fills with loud, humming pre-show instrumental music. Even without a single performer on stage, the place looks and sounds fantastic. "The guys who play here fuckin' love it," Shapiro says. "The air is different in a room where you’ve had Pink Floyd, Bowie, the Stones, Janis. And there’s not a lot of those rooms left."

Bon Iver's set begins, accompanied by a carefully synchronized, multi-screen light show. Shapiro spends a few minutes at the bar, a few minutes at his seat, and a lot of time pacing the room—checking the scene in the lobby and in the hallways, making sure everyone's enjoying the show. Ever since the election, Shapiro's been thinking about the role of live music—which, for all its changes over the years, remains a communal experience. "We need this, even if we don't realize it," he says, as the music plays. "It's kind of like the idea behind Fans—there's a room for people who who wanna be in a different space, who wanna escape reality." He turns around from the center of the Capitol floor and eyes the attendees, all of whom are happily bathed in sharp white light. For now, nothing can muck up Peter Shapiro's vibe.

It’s the classic space-flick premise: Life as we know it is threatened by an alien force, and there’s only one unrealistically attractive crew that can save us. This month brings two sequels from masters of the genre: James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. We binged on the directors’ previous sci-fi outings to prepare for the impending boss battles. Consider it a blaster class in filmmaking.

The Alien Thriller Plot Generator

Our hero, a


, and a ragtag group that includes a


discover larger forces are at play after


. But then the alien bad guy(s)


. Ultimately, our hero vanquishes the boss alien by


. Still, our survivor(s) shouldn’t rest easy. After all,



Alien, Ridley Scott (1979)

Slither, James Gunn (2006)

Prometheus, Scott (2012)

Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn (2014)

1Alien: tough-as-nails warrant officer

Slither: small-town school teacher

Prometheus: God-fearing archaeologist

Guardians of the Galaxy: mixtape-loving space adventurer

2Alien: secret

Slither: handsome
police chief

Prometheus: not-secret

Guardians of the Galaxy: psychotic, talking raccoon and
a sentient tree

3Alien: an alien bursts out of a crew member’s chest

Slither: an infected woman explodes, releasing hundreds of
alien slugs

Prometheus: a crew member
is killed trying to pet an alien
snake creature

Guardians of the Galaxy: it’s revealed
their stolen orb houses an all-powerful stone

4Alien: Alien: picks off the remaining crew members one by one

Slither: infect the remaining townspeople
one by one

Prometheus: pick off the remaining crew members one by one

Guardians of the Galaxy: steals the all-powerful stone
and tries to kill them all at once

5Alien: blasting it into deep space

Slither: shooting its propane-filled body

Prometheus: escaping,
letting its alien offspring finish the job (long story)

Guardians of the Galaxy: harnessing the power of the all-powerful stone

6Alien: there are plenty more alien eggs on that exomoon

Slither: in a postcredits sequence, a cat gets infected by alien remains

Prometheus: an alien spawn emerges from the
defeated extra­terrestrial’s body

Guardians of the Galaxy: $773 million in global box office won’t allow it

This article appears in the May issue. Subscribe now.

Truly understanding artificial intelligence is rare. AI doesn't think in concepts and images the way humans do. It has individual goals, like to preserve humankind as technology's caretakers, or to dismantle complex systems. And in the sci-fi thriller Void Star, things are further complicated by the fact that AI's "thoughts" are actually glyphs, or waves of data, that only make sense to people with special cranial implants connected to the net.

The elegant, if cerebral, examination of how both technology and humans process information is just one of many ideas explored in Void Star, out today. That’s no surprise, considering that author Zachary Mason has spent the past two decades working on problems of computational linguistics. In his day job in Silicon Valley, Mason helps machines get smarter—but on the side, he writes speculative fiction about what happens when the machines becomes incomprehensibly smart, imagining the role of AI in a world consumed by climate change and inequality.

Mason has always been fascinated by how the "brains" of computers work. “When I was seven, I remember lying in bed and thinking about how great it would be to teach a computer to talk,” he says. When he attended college at 14 (yes, 14, at Harvey Mudd College), he resolved to answer these questions. After getting a PhD in computer science and artificial intelligence, he tried to figure it out through machine learning. He worked on the recommender system at Amazon, and he now heads up R&D at Intellus Learning, an educational tech company that provides digital learning materials to institutions.

While Mason used his day job to tackle the present problems facing AI, he turned to fiction as a place to imagine its future. (Void Star gets its name from a term in computer language C++: “void*” refers to the unknown.)

The novel follows the stories of three people who have neural implants that allow them to access all their memories permanently: Irina, who translates glyphs for humans; Thales, a Brazilian political scion; and Akemi, an aspiring actress. All are being sought by a mysterious AI, which is in business with a megarich, 150-year-old tech magnate. The plot resists easy summation, filled as it is with memory-ghosts and other heady abstractions, but the novel grapples most urgently with the question of how people—and other AI—can engage with beings who process the world using indecipherable systems.

Fiction acts in some ways as a thought experiment for Mason, allowing him to unspool concerns about AI that he's uniquely qualified to process. He's conceived of a vision of AI that navigates between the poles of our expectations—neither subservient to humans, nor vindictive golem. “Imagine what it’s like to be an AI,” he says. “I wouldn’t expect an AI to work like a human being, to try to accumulate political or economic power.” Instead, the AI in Void Star engage with humanity only as byproducts affected by their actions, while they compute otherworldly questions of symbol manipulation and truth. (When Irina sees inside the mind of one of the most powerful AI, Mason writes, “she sees how subtly the quantum states of atoms can be entangled to wring the most computation out of every microgram of matter, sees how this material interacts with visible light.”)

Mason finds no tension in the fact that he works with AI today and imagines a future governed by them tomorrow. To him, the villains aren’t the AI: They’re the people who misuse AI to perpetuate very human aims. The AI aren’t greedy, or malicious—that would require human sentiment and desire—but the moral calculus of plutocrats can shift when utilizing the inhuman capabilities of AI. Mason didn’t write Void Star to criticize the motivation of the tech elite, but to point out where that motivation might lead. “I didn’t set out to critique Peter Thiel’s vision of a bold new tomorrow,” he says. “I just wanted to engage with what I saw, and with the world that seemed to be implicit in the present.”

Indeed, Mason’s near-future San Francisco (the year is never explicitly mentioned, but it seems to be early in the next century) is all the eerier for how it plays off our present-day preoccupations. Beyond the longevity-obsessed tech billionaire who commissions contractors and evolutionary biologists to design a house that will last him one million years, there are commuters who get dressed in drone cars, and ambitious young employees pretending to be autistic in order to get ahead at tech companies. While the extremely wealthy extend their multi-century lifespans with annual visits to the Mayo Clinic, a street fighter in the favelas learns how to read through a computer game that could be a Google employee's philanthropic side project.

Void Star is, if anything, a cautionary tale of what happens when the tech elite rely on AI to solve the world’s problems and ensure immortality. Couple that with Mason's decision to set his novel amidst a Silicon Valley ethos that feels both relatable and inevitable—and his ability to lyrically depict how AI, a bloodless technology, might conceive thought and language—and what emerges is a novel written with the syntactic precision you might expect from a linguist, a computer scientist, a mathematician. Or a person who is all three.

Samurai Jack, which ran for four seasons in the early 2000s under the tutelage of animator Genndy Tartakovsky, was always dark. After a duel with the demonic entity Aku in the premiere, Jack was sent through a time portal into the future where Aku had taken complete control of the planet, turning Earth into a wasteland just as eccentric and cruel as Aku himself. Then Jack, armed with nothing but his magic sword, had two goals: Fight injustice wherever he could, and get back to the past.

And yet, after four seasons, Jack never made it back—and over time, his heroic journey turned into a tragedy. Would he ever return to the past? Could he ever defeat Aku? Samurai Jack didn't answer those questions. But when this year's revival began airing on Adult Swim in March, it quickly became clear how seriously the fifth (and likely final) season of of the show was going to be about addressing them—and how in doing so it was going to become one of the best revivals on television.

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When viewers encounter the hero of Samurai Jack for the first time in the new reboot, he seems different. He's clad in futuristic armor, shooting guns atop a motorcycle. His sword is missing. He's wearing a mask, and when it's removed his once-youthful face is covered by a beard almost as wild as the new glint in his eyes. He's still a good guy, mind you, and he's still fighting the hordes of Aku. But it's gotten to him. He's on the brink of snapping—or worse. To explore that suffering, and to follow Jack as he struggles to find his way out of it, the new Samurai Jack does something the show has never done before: tell one season-long story.

During its initial run, Samurai Jack was an episodic show about a wandering samurai in a foreign land, blending Kurosawa pastiche with Tartakosvky's endlessly varying interests. Some episodes were moody fantasy, others were outlandish sci-fi. The style and tone could dance between any number of ideas and influences, from introducing Jack to a lifelong friend in the form of a swordsman from future Scotland to a full-episode riff on Frank Miller's 300. By moving away from that structure in favor of one serialized story told over 10 episodes, Samurai Jack is able to achieve something different, reframing itself in a manner that feels perfectly at home in the story-obsessed TV landscape of 2017. Basically, it's Fargo—but for Adult Swim.

The shift to long-form storytelling allows Tartakovsky to go deeper into his favorite influences and ideas, all the while taking a closer look at the psychology of a hero who has with occasional exceptions been a quiet cypher. It lets Jack's creator utilize all his best tricks—strange, angular designs and wildly imaginative fantasyscapes, kinetic and visually lush fight scenes, and a cinematic language characterized by a devotion to Miller's style of dense minimalism and the slow, lingering gazes of 1970s film auteurs. But thanks to the show's new story structure, these moments have newfound emotional resonance. New Samurai Jack is about fighting through moral exhaustion, about the toll time can take on hope and vision. And using all the leeway granted by its late-night timeslot, it can also dive into Jack's despair.

By going to its darkest places, Samurai Jack has managed to find its way back to the hopefulness of its early days. Now, all the pieces are in place for the series to focus singularly on its hero's quest for one last adventure.

Again, Samurai Jack is simple. Jack has two goals and only one real enemy. By zeroing-in on that simplicity and testing it in the crucible of longform storytelling, Tartakovsky and his fellow creators have managed to make excellent television that does justice to its predecessor. As the series wraps up, now is the perfect time to tune in. Samurai Jack has always been excellent, but now, more than ever, it's tempered its hero's quest to get back to the past with a renewed hope for the future.