All right, I kid. The better answer is, “When it’s also the crux of a battle between luddites and the rest of us,” which is, naturally, sweepingly broad, but bear with me.
Obviously I’m finally getting around to posting on Rideback. Everyone else did it last week, but I wanted to take a while to wrap my head around it. I still feel like it’s a bit early, but I finally had actual thoughts about the show and thought I’d jump over here and inflict them on you. If you listened to the latest Super Fanicom Voice Module, you’ll already by somewhat familiar with my abortive attempts to grapple the technology of the show into an understandable state. I think I have made some headway in this endeavor.
And here we are, after the jump. I’ll admit to you now that I had a version of this post that Google Chrome ate, so my rage, it is rage-y. I waxed on about technology in our lives and so on — maybe I still will, but it’ll depend on if I have the patience to write it all again.
Anyway. What fascinates me most about Rideback is the way technology is used, both in the plots and the world around them (if you’re worried that I’m a hard sci-fi douche, don’t be — when I say that, I assume the characters, writing, and everything else is good, or else I wouldn’t be watching; it’s just that the most interesting thing for me to write about is the element that makes this show different from another, so there).
I’ll admit now that I view Rideback as a cyberpunk show. It hinges, at its core, on the same things that cyberpunk actually hinges on — technology and our lives. Indeed, most cyberpunk inevitably comes to the conclusion that technology can and does alter our lives in many ways, but we’re still, essentially, the same assholes we were when the bronze spear-point was new (think Snow Crash, Neuromancer, and the good parts of Ghost in the Shell — there are portions where it posits an actually-changed society, which was cool on an idea-level, but missing the point, I feel; I’m still cool with GitS though). Rideback does this too. It’s not just the rideback technology itself, if you look closely. Cell phones are smaller than ever, and most significant of all (for me), the ubiquitousness of digital displays is complete. We still use analog displays in a lot of places, because they’re more reliable. There’s a reason most of the gauges in your car, even if it’s really new, are still analog — because a digital display can fuck up in more ways. Think of the difficulty you might have had when dealing with the video drivers in your computer. Now think of trying to fix the same issue in the dark, at midnight, in a vehicle, with no information about the speed you’re going, how much gas you have, and you’re bumping down a road, probably faster than you think you are. My little example there is extreme, but when you’re building cars and such, you always have to take the extreme into account — so analog displays for us. Rideback is a “world of next week” sci-fi show, in that the technology isn’t really radically “new” as compared to ours, it’s just more advanced versions of what we have now. Hence all the digital displays on the ridebacks — the readouts must be reliable enough to put on a vehicle in the setting, or else they wouldn’t be there.
Rideback, either because of the manga-ka or the anime producers, also strives for verisimilitude in the technology whenever possible. We’re not estranged from the tech — there are no HUDs built into people’s faces, they look stuff up on laptop-looking devices. In episode three we overhear two guys talking about Tamayo’s RB-Z; specifically, they acknowledge it as the best rideback around, citing its Japanese design and foreign manufacture. This kind of conversation happens all the time among car vehicle aficionados of all sorts. Your average Ford or Chevy, quintessentially American cars, were probably no more than assembled in America, with parts machined all over the world based on (probably) Japanese innovations and designs. But this touch doesn’t just make the show more realistic; it also creates a world in which this technology is real. Some tech is just better than others, that’s the deal. We all know Zeiss Ikon makes the best mechanical eyes, and now we know the RB-Z is the best rideback. The very slight difference between a realistic show and a setting with real technology is important. The former simply keeps us from stopping whenever something odd happens; the latter allows a world, including races, military campaigns, and the like to be built upon the technology.
It also creates what I consider a cyberpunk setting, despite what most of us would consider to be the essential tropes being absent. Cyberpunk typically features things like robot arms, the aforementioned Zeiss Ikon eyes, and so on — it reinforces the Gothic-like horror of the cyberpunk in question, a Gothic horror like Frankenstein’s creature experiences when it first sees its face and is repulsed; the face is beautifully-wrought but unnatural and thus hideous. However, this trope of bodily horror isn’t essential for the Gothic, and it is also not essential for cyberpunk. The full integration of technology is all that is required. The implicit reliance on the technology within the world of Ride Back sets it up in this tradition.
In the end that doesn’t matter, though. If you disagree with my use of the term cyberpunk, you should probably still agree that the technology is underlying much of the show, and that’s actually the important bit here. Some shadowy organization, we find in episode three, wants to ban or heavily regulate ridebacks in Japan. The fellow who delivers these vague, Bond-and-Goldfinger-playing-golf threats looks American in the stereotypical Japanese way — that is, he looked like Guile from Street Fighter. Of course, as is surely disappointing to some, he didn’t have a hilarious accent, but still. Whether new technology is good, well, that’s an incredibly relevant question, both to us, right now, and to cyberpunk (I know, I’m still harping on it, sorry about that). The typical answer is that technology is neither good nor bad, simply a tool with which to do something that, apart from the tools used to accomplish it, may be good or bad. This, I feel, helps make sense of the show’s use of the rideback both as the newest machine of war and fun happy race-time.
As an aside, let me put this another way: imagine that hot little iPhone you (hypothetically) have in hand, then transplant it into the hands (or, better still, helmet) of a soldier. Then imagine that it’s not attached to ATT’s network, but a military-supported network that won’t lose reception when in a handful of trees. Now, in this case, would it make sense for the government to ban iPhones from civilian use? That’s what Rideback is positing, or near enough for my purposes here.
The personal theme of Rin on a rideback adds a new, delicious wrinkle: the rideback is not only a tool of war and pleasure racing, it is also a tool of art. Ballet is dancing as art, and transplanting a ballerina directly into the saddle of one of these machines immediately raises the question of whether riding a machine can be a form of art. Putting aside questions of audience (that is, does anyone enjoy watching said riding?), it is clearly fulfilling the same role for Rin, who, as a Romantic expression of the artist, only feels truly “free” when engaging in art. Technology is forever the prey of the artist, who will find whatever is useful in the pursuit of art and bend it to his or her own purposes. I believe it was Billy the Kid who eschewed the term gunfighter and called himself, instead, a “shootist.” He felt he was an artist with a gun. Having seen footage of high-level revolver tournaments, I am inclined to agree. Rin is, perhaps, not a “rider” so much as she is a “ridist.” The world-level implication of this fact is that without the exact technology level in the world at the time of the show’s beginning, Rin would be a frustrated artist, unable to accomplish what she wants through ballet — remember that our resident ballet-fujoshi mentioned that Rin could still be an excellent ballerina, but sausage-hair-girl points out that Rin can no longer do what she meant to do with ballet. I take this to mean, in part, that she could not reach the level of art, like a painter who injures a muscle in his or her hand and can paint well, certainly, but cannot achieve the fine brushstrokes necessary to satisfy themselves.
So the world and story of Rideback posits a world in which technology rescues the possibly-disaffected and allows them to create art once again. This, in turn, places technology into the place of a support for the highest functions of society, where (to be honest), it already is, in the form of written language, which simultaneously accomplishes practical things and beautiful things. Written language is technology, remember. Rideback illustrates the necessity of technology — not to help us function or live, but to help us be beautiful, or as Terry Pratchett put it (when describing myth and fantasy), to be “where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”