Few things age faster than yesterday's tomorrow. As visionary and challenging as Blade Runner was, its futurology stops dead the minute Rick Deckard steps into a pay phone booth. The future seen in the 1991-through-1995 incarnations of Ghost In The Shell — the original manga and Mamoru Oshii's animated adaptation — looked a little bewhiskered by 2017, doubly so in its in its troubled live-action movie incarnation.
The 2003 TV series Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex avoided that trap by finding new ways to think about what life would be like "20 minutes into the future", as Max Headroom put it. The vision remains relevant, even as we end up living all the more, day by day, in a future a lot like that one. What makes Stand Alone Complex special, and still the pinnacle project of the Ghost In The Shell universe, is not that it gets technical details right but that it feels closer to now than I ever imagined it would. What a difference twenty years makes.
The post-(cyber)punk landscape
Stand Alone Complex's view of the "near now" is still in the process of coming true, but enough of it has already come true to hit home. Cybernetization and the interconnectedness of things has become commonplace. Prosthetic bodies and digital brains are as ubiquitous as artificial knees are today, and the network of information that flows around the world has become a birthplace for whole new ways of life. Yet for most people, life remains life. People still drive cars, eat food, save for their retirements, and commit crimes.
To deal with menaces of this new digital age, Japan's government formed the off-the-books Section 9. Cops, mercs, and criminals are re-tooled and re-schooled to deal with the crimes of the future, and to use their old-school brawn and sleuthing skills. Most of the crime they deal with involves the flow of information in some way, whether it’s mere data theft or something like a man downloading his brain into a military-grade cybertank (the plot of the second episode in the series, one of the finest).
Many of my favorite stories are about people who embody the shift between the end of one way of life and the beginning of another (see: Rurouni Kenshin). Section 9’s commander-in-chief, Motoko Kusanagi, is a post-human being for an increasingly post-human age. After a childhood accident forced her to be put into a cybernetic body, she in time became proud to become one of the brave new race, a hybrid of human, machine, and spirit. It's this last — her "Ghost", as she calls it — that she draws on for inspiration as much as she does her wizardly hacking skills and paramilitary combat training. Her new body also gives her an edge in traversing what is normally a male-dominated domain (as in a hilarious scene where she tricks her partner Batou into punching himself in the face).
Kusanagi's teammates all stand at different points along the human-to-posthuman spectrum. Aramaki, the former Army officer and eminence grise charged with leading Section 9, quite proud of the team he’s built, also remains painfully conscious at all times that he may have to sacrifice it for the larger principles it stands for. Batou, the chunky ex-merc with the artificial eyes, reports directly to Kusanagi, but the two clearly consider each other equals, and almost certainly more than just co-workers. Togusa is the only family man of the group, and the least cybernetically enhanced, the one intended for most of the audience to relate to naturally. And then there are the tertiary team-members — Saito, Pazu, Boma — who remind us how motley a crew we do have here, and who hail in part from the underworld that has not only survived but thrived in the post-digital age.
Crimes of the future
Complex splits its time between the "standalone" episodes, one-off mysteries that establish the GITS:SAC universe and its characters, and the "complex" episodes, the larger through-line of plot. Good SF is not about what technology or the scientific worldview does but what it means, and the standalone episodes work like the best SF short stories in that respect. A hijacked cyber-tank goes on a rampage and Section 9 converges to stop it. The son of a diplomat goes on the lam with a hacked android. A reclusive quant is stalked by a cyborg assassin, enacting revenge for his gold-hoarding by killing him with a gun that shoots coins.
Very little of this has dated — not only because of the show's overall prescience, but because of the character-centered approach to each idea. When the Major and Co. head off the tank, it's only by discovering the heartbreaking motive for its rampage. Togusa only makes sense of the diplomat's son's running away when he realizes it's to use the android to re-enact an emotional scenario exclusive to him. And the quant turns out to have been dead for a long time, with his trading algorithms keeping up the charade of his real-life activities, hoarding more wealth for a man who never ends up spending any of it.
Eventually the "complex" episodes come to dominate the series, as they take the notions raised in the "standalone" episodes and synthesize them into a greater commentary on the show's themes. A shadowy figure dubbed "the Laughing Man" once exposed — live on TV, at gunpoint — a scandal involving the suppression of an economical treatment for a disease of the modern era. Then the Laughing Man vanished, but became a cultural meme, his Catcher In The Rye quote-logo tagged like graffiti, his actions echoed by countless anonymous imitators (and this was years before Anonymous appeared, mind you).
Years later, the Laughing Man reappears — or maybe an imitator with the same m.o. — and the underbelly of the internet buzzes with rumor and speculation. When Section 9 investigates, using both high- and low-tech methods, they find the very government that created them would just as soon destroy Section 9 as a way to close out the case. It falls to Motoko & Co. to unmask the real Laughing Man (assuming there is one), defend Section 9 and their own lives, expose the abuses of power at the highest levels of the government, and learn the truth of what happened all those years ago.
An unevenly distributed future
My own take on the "stand alone" vs. the "complex" parts of the show are how the two reflect a fundamental change in the way technology shapes social possibilities. In most of the "stand alone" segments, the things that happen aren't exclusively possible because of the tech of the moment, but are certainly enabled by it and given a form specific to that moment. But the "complex" storyline hints at how some things are only possible in the current moment: the decentralized and anonymized nature of technologized mass social action, or the ways daily life, public spaces, political force, and the texture of human relationships cannot be the same anymore. We have not yet completely accepted as fact the idea that the Laughing Man's one-man rebellion, or his memetic second life, or things like Section 9, are not aberrations or stopgaps against the worst of the future. They're not even the future; they're the substance of things going forward, and we do ourselves no favors hoping they can be wished out of the fabric of our lives.
The first time I saw GITS:SAC I remember feeling a little peeved that the chosen format of the show was a Clancy-esque techno-thriller. I now see this was a wise choice, because it uses an existing and familiar container for material that is not always so. It's not a failure of imagination to say such things will be part of our near future, but a way to take what would be familiar about our near future (the sexy, flashy ops team) and through it examine what would not be familiar. Hence the way the posthuman aspects of the team are only used at first as set dressing, and then much later as actual plot movers — e.g., when we find out Motoko's machine body is replaceable, and how that proves to be a strategic edge against those who have not thought about it.
I have long disputed the idea that the function of SF is to predict what may come. Maybe SF's real job is not factual prediction, but helping us cope emotionally with the future we're being thrown into. GITS:SAC gets a lot of technical details more or less right, but it gets most right the flavor of what to do as a human being in such a future — how to live there as an actual human being with human frailties, and not the ghostless, cybernetic ideal such a future tries to sell on its occupants. I mentioned Togusa, the one member of the team who hews closest to humanity, but the relationship between Batou and Motoko is another great example: they may never come out and say it, but they share a deep bond, one that all the technology that they are only serves to deepen.
"We do not use technology so much as we live technology," Koyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio once said, and GITS:SAC is not only about us living technology, but how technology is living us right back.