Our Lightest Years: The Farthest Reaches of SF

1.

There has been a constant need in Science Fiction for the ‘human touch’. One of the constant critiques levied against those who write SF – especially those of the ‘hard’ variety – has been that, most of the time, everything human, like characters and psychology, are put in service to the explication of ideas. Science Fiction writers of the ‘hard SF view’ look to the medium as a kind of game between the intellects. The aim of a hard SF writer is to try and write a fiction that other scientists would be fooled into believing as plausible. Yet, the result of such an ideal of Science Fiction is that the genre becomes a closed circle.

But, over time, many writers are stepping up to the challenge of delivering the human side, even at the cost of a rigor of ideas. Science Fiction seen in this way is viewed as a bridge between the two cultures. These writers act as ‘translators’ of the great but difficult scientific language – and even if the science is translated badly, the very act of spurring on the interest will develop a curiosity that leads to the proper exploration of such worlds. Science Fiction, in this form, acts as the mediator between the society that fears the advance of the New, and the scientists that are irritated at the misrepresentation of their profession.

I view the latter mode of Science Fiction as more potent, because the ideas of Science are in constant movement – and a book that relies merely on these ideas will be dated once the next paradigm comes around. On the other hand, Olaf Stapledon still remains strong because of his cosmic meditations on the largeness of space and the possibilities of lives – to the point where his books are more like poetic analyses of human smallness and human potential rather than a mere explication of ideas – and even if many of his ideas/predictions of history were proven wrong much much later.

I have always been searching for great authors of the latter variety – so it was with great surprise that I managed to find such a person on a small corner of the internet. In a long-forgotten thread on a Visual Novel forum, a user by the alias of ‘BesterBurgerz’ posted, entirely for free, his indie OELVN project entitled Our Lightest Years. He left no introduction or description and gave only a link.

Our Lightest Years is a 30-50 hour long Visual Novel that confesses to no rigorous knowledge of the sciences, but aims to impart that humanity so required of Science Fiction works. Rather, it approaches through abstract philosophical ideas manifested into novel technologies – and explores the impact of such on the world as a whole. Yet, it does this while focuses on a core cast of 5 main characters.

2.

Before going into the story of the Visual Novel, I see a need to dive into the novel technology that BB invented at the crux of his speculation. This technology is called ‘Jaunting’ – a clear reference to Alfred Bester – and it involves jumping around the multiverse. BB presumes a future society where mankind, after reaching a wall with regards to the possibilities of space travel & planetary colonization, manages to find a method to jump into alternate universes (after finding proof for alternate universes in the first place).

BB handwaves it here and uses the technobabble term ‘Quantum-Field Portal’ to describe how this is possible – but he uses a very interesting philosophical premise to describe the overall metaphysician function of the technology. He posits that the technology works because the user enters into a ‘4th dimensional continuum’ and lets his future determine his past. In other words, BB presumes proof for a deterministic universe where everything is fated to occur when viewed from the 4th dimension – and the user who jaunts appears in the alternate universe because it was fated that he would do so. But, from the user’s own perspective – he also willed it to happen within the Quantum-Field Portal. The user’s free will determined fate, or fate determined his will – a strange kind of compatibilism explored in the form of this speculation on technologies.

The development of jaunt technology causes the Age of Exploration. In the early stages of jaunt, users could not control the place that they would land after being transported through the Quantum-Field Portal – but because of that whole ‘fate’ thing, the technology guaranteed that they would find themselves in a place where they could exist as a living entity for at least an hour. This ensured that people would definitely jaunt to a habitable world, but their safety was not guaranteed. The first jaunters had to survive for a week on whatever alternate universe they found – while they activated a group of Von Neumann Machines to build up a return portal back home.

Some time later, the ability to ‘universe-scope’ was developed, as well as jaunting multiple personnel at once – sometimes even vast populations. Universe-scoping was a method of translating the possible endpoints of the jaunt into mathematical data – so that research institutions could figure out how habitable the alternate universe was. Jaunting multiple personnel helped to reduce potential dangers from slow-acting alien viruses found on other planets simply because there was the possibility that a person afflicted with such an illness would be euthanized by his partner, which made the potential existence beyond an hour less than highly definite for those universes.

Due to jaunt, population problems and resource problems were solved – conflicts were diminished – and mankind fell into a new Golden Age. The world was run by a technocratic International Government aiming to maximize on humanity’s potential with jaunt technology. In order to cater to the best of the best explorers and researchers – International MegaAcademies were in put existence to curate top minds under the Human Development Scholarship Programme.  Yet, even with such developments – there was still conflict stemming from a few nationalistic rebel groups and anarchist groups and anti-science groups who felt that the existence of the International Government would threaten their worldview. These problems were also minimized with jaunt – when such groups would have their own ‘exodus’ to other universes to create new civilizations based on how they wanted things to be. Furthermore, jaunting allows the Humankind of Earth to make leaps in spacetime within their own Universe – and allows for a true Space Colonization programme to manifest. Afterwards, Multiverse-Connectivity became possible and the linking up of the separated human colonies through communicative technologies was known as the Unification of Multiversal Mankind.

The strange thing about Our Lightest Years is that all of these technological advances occur after the plot of the story. They are described in Encyclopedic articles that are littered throughout the text in hyperlink. The actual story takes place during the conception of the first International MegaAcademy and follows the first batch of students during the period when jaunting was still highly randomized and dangerous – and when the world was still wary of the technology. During this stage, before the actual full-fledged Golden Age, the International Government was an iron-fisted technocracy that aimed to ‘solve the resource & population problem of humanity without humanity’s help’ – which they eventually did, and afterwards progress for Humanity really kicked off. The first MegaAcademy was, as such, partially a military institution. It taught students how to double as military personnel that could pilot drones to fight battles against any ‘luddites’ that would deter the progress of mankind.

The 5 main characters are MegaAcademy students freshly picked from school – at 16 years old – and the story is ultimately a coming-of-age story that tracks their growth into selfhood through the years they spend together – and their eventual coming apart. They were picked from their home countries by officials who would come down to run Jaunt Compatibility Tests and various other fitness & mental tests to gauge their potential. Their coming-of-age coincides with the coming-of-age of humanity itself, finally being free from the conflict generated between the techno-oppressive International Government and the various extremist Nations that are fighting for their own sovereignty by taking an anti-science stance.

What is amazing about Our Lightest Years is that through this – BB ensures a perfect parallel between the macro-view and micro-view of the work. The coming-of-age of 5 students is linked to the coming-of-age of humanity into its Golden Age after solving resource and population problems – and all this reflects the jaunt technology being characterized as ‘The Future Affecting the Past’. In this way, the symbolism and communicative intensity of the themes over-rides the actual plausibility of the technologies.

3.

As an OELVN developer, BB is strongly influenced by various Anime character archetypes, although he seeks to subvert them and go beyond them. For some reason, he also gives them weird and strange post-nationality names that most people wouldn’t name their children. The cast of characters seems to be taken from various bits and pieces of Muv Luv.

Temper Celsia is the ‘hero’ of the work – scouted from a developed nation. He is the normal, kind & slightly sarcastic ‘Key Protagonist’.

Limitless Corraine is the selfless heroine of the group – scouted from a rich family. Her personality is a take on Meiya from Muv Luv.

Beauvoir Williams is the ‘normal girl’ that’s a bit of a klutz.

Elegance Richards is the beautiful trap.

Agatha Avery is a comic relief ‘scientific genius’ with a quirky sense of humour. She is tangentially a part of the main plotlines and always serves as an ‘observer’ and commentator on the things that happen.

Despite the cast of characters, the Novel is completely linear. There are no choices involved – and there is only a straight path as the seasons pass by and various new experiences are gained. Taking a page from Cross Channel – the personalities of the characters are also used to explore a variety of darker themes.

The first theme is the nature of Heroism. Despite having the exterior appearance of a stoic and relentlessly courageous heroine – Limitless secretly harbours a self-destructive form of heroism much like Emiya Shirou, and is secretly a depressive – due to too much pressure from her family since birth. Throughout the first part of the game, even during slice of school life moments, various dark truths are subtly hinted at.

In order to explore the character of Limitless, BB also manages to find a correlate in Literature & Philosophy – by using Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace as part of her worldview. Much like how Weil took selflessness to the furthest extent and destroyed herself late in life – Limitless idolizes the philosopher and constantly makes esoteric references to quotes from the book.

All this leads up into a scenario where Extremist Rebels try to attack the school and, when failing, capture Limitless as a hostage. In a very Dostoevskian style, as plans to save her are well underway, she spends her time in captivity entering into a dialogue with the leader of the attack on the nature of good & evil. This coincides with Temper finding her journal where she relates the entirety of her life and her internal suffering. The person who appeared, initially, as the main heroine – the counterpart to the main hero – is revealed to be a decoy when she dies after saving the rebel leader by taking a bullet in the counter-attack.

This is the exact point in time when BB reveals his full hand, and the entire story re-orients itself in a different direction. The true ‘hero’ is revealed to be Elegance, and the narration shifts from Temper to his point of view. The story becomes an analysis of Love, Loss, and Sexuality – because BB doesn’t want to just end off Elegance as any old generic trap character – and he takes the Zypressen (ala Sakura no Uta) path to explore homosexuality and the notion of innate gender.

In between Elegance’s narration and his POV, the story also takes the time to encompass Beauvoir’s point of view, and her elevation into a heroine from side-character status, and how she wraps Temper into a dependent WA2-esque love that might be potentially harmful. The death of Limitless – the core component holding the whole group together – leads to its fracture as the characters drift away into their own psychoses.

From here on out, BB uses all of the dramatic tools at his disposal. Screaming and crying scenes. Poetic and romantic moments. Existential/Gender identity-questioning crisis moments. Dark backstories. Reckless relationships. Moral questions about the technocratic oppression of the government – especially when the students have to be involved in their first ‘unmanned conflict’. It helps that BB writes in a minimalist style that aims to condense as much information as possible, and the prose just enters the head naturally – causing a roller coaster ride of an experience.

In between these moments, training for the jaunt becomes a cosmic deus ex machina for characters to glimpse into past and future moments in the 4th dimensional continuum – so that it becomes a reflection on the smallness of their passions. Limitless also appears again in an illusory form when Elegance enters into the field, and she has talks with him about her view of the world and other things.

In a very natural way, things are resolved through time. As time passes, reckless passions and doubting thoughts are culled – and a kind of equilibrium is reached. The characters achieve a relative level of peace with one another – despite being a fragile peace. They come into terms with the necessary conflict between the technocratic powerhouse and the people on the ground, and are left with the mere hope that these schisms will be breached one day.

And it is on this idea of a ‘schism being breached’ that the final part of the story kicks in.

3.

Coinciding with this peaceful equilibrium, humanity makes progress and they manage to develop a prototype portal for universe-scoping and multiple jaunting. Everyone is hyped at the prospect that mass colonization with a high degree of safety might finally be possible. Elegance and Temper are chosen as the test subjects for the prototype.

Of course, something goes wrong, and although the experiment was supposed to be just tests without any actual jaunting, the two are transported into an alternate universe without any means of getting back. The planet that they land on is a natural paradise fully fit for human lifeforms.

This chapter is called ‘Utopia’ – and BB really peaks here with the ultimate combination of prose, theme, and characterization. Elegance feels guilty because he knows that the jaunt is dependent on ‘will/fate’ – and there’s the slight possibility that it was his secret desires for Temper that led to the jaunt occurring. In the meantime, Temper is devastated because he’s cut away from the relationship that he was so dependent on previously – with Beauvoir. At first, they try to see if there’s any way to get back, then they get enraged and fight, then they eventually have to accept the possibility that the rest of their lives will be spent in this alien Eden.

In that lonely paradise, romance becomes the obvious conclusion – and Elegance achieves his paradise where gender is no longer a problem and there is nothing but the merging of two souls. But, this critique of gender is not the only thing that Utopia touches on – because it also serves as a rumination on the passions of humanity in general, and the two discuss what might happen if humanity were to enter into such a paradise. There are biblical allusions, of course, and BB allows his imagination to go wild with varied descriptions of the alien fruits and plants that grows on the planet. Romance, comedy, imagination, memory, philosophy, and sentimentality are weaved together in the perfect chapter that is Utopia.

Then, after about a month in Eden – they find another working portal.

A past civilization has walked the path that humanity is currently walking on. Elegance ruminates on the fact that this might have been their home planet that they left behind in a paradisiacal state – in order to honor their civilization’s coming of age. The peak of emotion is reached as Elegance looks out into the varied flora and sees a mad burst of colours – emotions, and passions – and understands that humanity has been living through their ‘lightest years’ – “throbbing and swirling, like storm clouds without weight”.

In the end, although reluctant, both of them combine their wills and jaunt back to Earth through the portal, surprising an ongoing class. As Elegance collapses from some kind of sense fatigue, he sees Temper rush over to Beauvoir, and he knows that everything will fall apart now. In his dream, he has one final vision of Limitless that he witnessed in the 4th dimensional continuum. They share one last philosophic dialogue on the future and the potential for humanity.

Since Beauvoir has some sense of what happened in Utopia, she refuses to speak with Elegance, and doesn’t allow Temper to speak with him. The circle falls apart and life carries on, as the months pass over in a quick montage and description of events. The story ends on graduation day, with everyone coming together and forgiving one another – and Elegance wonders how far his hands can reach into the future.

4.

After reading Our Lightest Years by BesterBurgerz, I felt awe at his (or her) polished prose and ability to match up all the themes so well. He managed to combine Slice of Life comedy, school comedy, romance, action, drama, sociology, speculative technology, psychological analysis, philosophy, poetry, and just sheer beauty into a single work that, despite its varied tones, still remained focused on this idea of a ‘coming-of-age’ for both its characters, and for greater humanity overall. It’s such a shame that such a writer did not aim to market himself better and was content to release his work into an obscure section of a random Visual Novel forum. I wish I had even 1% of the skill he had in making this story.

What this work by BesterBurgerz proves is that genres cannot limit themselves to certain conventions or goals. Speculative Fiction can only come of age if it relinquishes these barriers and aims at communicating to that bit of humanity inside everyone.

Advertisements