Saturday, January 28, 2023

Phenomenology For Fun And Profit

I have a vague feeling I once posted something about fictional bands here but if I did I never made a tag for it and the search function can't find it either so it's lost now. Whether I've mentioned it before or not, I have a particular interest in things that exist at a fractional remove from reality, somewhere in that liminal space between the extant and the imagined, the subjective and the objective, the internal and the external.

Imaginary friends, guardian angels, spirit animals, your characters in World of Warcraft... all those entities that feel at least as real as that kid who sat two desks behind you in fourth grade... what was his name? If you can't remember that or visualise his face, how is he any more real than that character in that series of novels you went on to name three game characters after? You know more about any of them than you ever knew about that guy, right? 

There are two kinds of fictional bands: ones you can hear and ones you can't. Then it splits again. Among the bands you can actually listen to there used to be two main sorts. There were the ones made up of flesh-and-blood people, who played (or pretended to play) musical instruments while appearing on stage and then there were the ones you only saw on screen, a strand that subdivided yet again into live action or animation. 

Examples of the first type would be Spinal Tap, Bad News or the Blues Brothers. They're all "fictional" in that they're mostly actors playing a part. Other than that, they're just bands, I suppose. They all made albums and toured. 

Does recording and touring make it real, anyway? The Monkees did both and I'd certainly call them a real band. They'd be a special case, though. They started out very fictional but ended up very real. How often has that happened?

These days there are at least two more categories of fictional bands you can listen to and they're so close to the fiction/fact line it's hard to call. Gorillaz are "the world's most successful virtual band" but not the only one, although most of the supposed lists of "virtual" bands are just fictional bands of a different stripe. Genuine virtuality requires more than four actors in costume or a catchy, animated video. It needs magic, too. Technological magic.

Virtual bands are subtly different again from the latest fork on the fictional rock tree - AI performers, writers and artists.

Artificial Intelligence, it's becoming impossible to deny, is going to bring the next, great wave of social, economic and cultural change. It promises - or threatens, depending on your optimism/pessimism duality - to re-write the very definition of humanity itself but even if you don't buy all that singularity malarkey, it's going to put a lot of people to the trouble of finding new ways to keep themselves busy, when the machines intelligences are doing all the jobs people used to do.

It may help creative artists like Nick Cave to feel better, believing AI songwriting "will always be a replication, a kind of burlesque". He may even be right. A more telling question than "could people tell the difference?" might be "would they care?" Do the pop charts from the last half century or so suggest audiences are only happy with songs that are "predicated upon the complex, internal human struggle of creation."? I wouldn't think so.

As time moves forward, as it subjectively if not objectively must, then fictionality becomes ever harder to define. Naevis is booked to appear at this year's SXSW, the music festival for "new, developing, and established... Artists." Nothing remarkable about that. Only Naevis doesn't exist. 

Who - or what - is Naevis, then? That's not so easy to explain, or understand, but it's fun to try.

As far as I can unpick it, Naevis is a fictional AI who "connects" a real band to that band's virtual doppelgangers. If you'd like an extra layer of confusion, the real band in question is a product of the KPop hot-housing system, which presumably makes them at least as real as the Monkees when they began but probably not as real as Westlife, when they did.

The band's name is Aespa, which "combines the English initials of "avatar" and "experience" (Avatar X Experience) with the English word "aspect" ", suggesting an initial intention to push towards something beyond mere physicality. And so it was. Aespa are part of what is apparently a growing trend in KPop (and probably elsewhere) to integrate a number of performers within something calling itself a "Universe". I blame Stan Lee.

In this case, responsibility falls squarely on their management company, SM, whose Culture Universe could, according to the NME, be "K-pop’s most ambitious alternative universe yet". It's certainly bidding fair to be the most self-reflexive. In the lore, data that was collected online in our reality was used to create counterparts of all the band members in a world known as Kwangya. So far, so batshit insane but that's just the set-up.

These other-world counterparts will be playing a virtual reality concert premiering at SXSW. Not the band; their other-world avatars. Naevis, the AI from that reality, who somehow connects the virtual counterparts to the real band-members and who was "previously thought to have sacrificed herself to help aespa, following the events that transpired in the music video and lyrics of ‘Savage’" (Look up - it's the embed you just skipped.) will make her own musical debut at the same time.

This, you can be absolutely certain, is just the beginning. The boundaries between the real and the irreal are already blurring. Soon you won't be able to see them at all.

The same could be said about my plans for this post. At the top, I mentioned two basic categories of fictional bands. I've ended up writing about the ones you can hear; I meant to write about the other kind, the ones you can't. Until, suddenly, you can.

That's going to have to wait for a post of it's own, now. This one's disorientating enough already.


  1. This is mildly off-topic, but given your interest in this kind of meta fiction, it occurs to me mention you may enjoy reading up on a game called Sentinels of the Multiverse (assuming you aren't already familiar with it).

    Sentinels is a co-operative card game (and a few other spin-off games in various mediums and genres) based on the extensive history of the super hero comics published by Sentinels Comics Group. Let's you play as the various heroes of the comics, fight iconic villains, etc..

    Here's the thing: Sentinels Comics Group doesn't exist. Never has. All of the comics this game is based are entirely made-up, but they still have decades of history.

    So there's this weird double layer of lore to the game. There's the in-universe lore -- Legacy's arch-nemesis is the mad scientist Baron Blade and so forth -- but there's also the equally fictional and equally vast lore of the publishing company and its various comics lines.

    Some of the fans get really into the lore -- both sides of it -- and the creators are constantly expanding it on their podcast. You can get some really bizarre conversations when the super fans are talking about Sentinels lore, as they mention things like how X character first appeared in issue #47 of Y comic line, and it's all made-up.

    For example, my favourite character to play from the core set is Unity. She first appeared in an early 2000s Saturday morning cartoon based on Sentinels Comics, as an audience-insert for the young viewers. She was widely unpopular at the time; however, later she appeared in the actual comics, having been soft-rebooted with a different name and various other tweaks, and then she became a fan favourite.

    Again, none of this actually happened.

    IDK if you even like card games, but there's a digital version on Steam that goes on sale often if you ever want to check it out. The digital version is based on the older "enhanced edition," as opposed to the newer and greatly improved "definitive edition," but it's probably still a good time. Gives you a taste of the universe at least. You also might just enjoy reading up on the universe (though frustratingly its Wiki is kind of a mess, especially if you want to read up on the lore) or listening to the podcast.

    (For one last twist of meta-textual bizarreness, Sentinels apparently shares a universe with the Arkham Horror franchise of table-top games, despite Arkham Horror being owned by another company. One of the Sentinels heroes, Faye "Nightmist" Diamond, is canonically the granddaughter of Joe Diamond, a character from Arkham Horror. She was based on a concept by the original creator of Arkham Horror, which I guess is why she isn't a copyright issue.)

    1. Thanks for that detailed overview. Much appreciated. I'm not a great fan of collectable card games but I definitely am of superheroes, comics and metafiction, so this looks a good way up my street. Definitely something I'd want to look into, at least.

      The base game on Steam is very cheap, tempting me to buy it right away, but there's also a demo labeled "Learn To Play" so I've downloaded that first. I'll try it out next week. If I get anywhere, I'm sure a post will appear here in due course.


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