Jul 18 2012 4:00pm

The Future is Disturbing and Funny: Ghosts With Shit Jobs

The Future is Disturbing and Funny: A review of independent movie Ghosts With Shit Jobs

The idea of the western world losing it’s economic, military and cultural dominance to the east is hardly a knew one in science fiction — it was a mainstay theme in cyberpunk in the 1980s, and perhaps most memorably explored on the screen in Blade Runner. But Ridley’s Scott’s dizzying glimpse at an Asian dominated 2019 Los Angeles was made thirty years ago, and now it seems to be a subject that SF is shying away from. We might not have flying cars or replicant slaves, and our streets might not be full of Japanese signage and imagery — but there’s little denying that China and India’s economies continue to grow and dominate while North America and Europe’s not only wain, but at times seem as though they are teetering on the edge of a very real collapse.

Perhaps this is why western SF movies right now are so scared of non-western futures — for the last few years Hollywood has mainly given us SF movies where present day America is the victim, bravely and patriotically standing up to an onslaught of foreign — sorry, alien — invaders: Avengers, Battlefield Los Angeles, Battleship, and those terrible Transformers movies all spring to mind. If Hollywood knows how to do one thing well it’s how to tap into the fears of American moviegoers, and apparently now they feel under siege — not just by memories of 9/11, but also by the harsh, tough reality of the shifting balance of the global economy. What Hollywood has never done quite so well — with the odd exception — is to approach these national fears in a way that doesn’t involve big explosions, patriotism and ultimately American victory. No, instead the task of taking a more realistic, if often darkly comedic, look at the west’s economic future has been left to Ghosts with Shit Jobs — an independent  Canadian movie, incredibly made for just $4000.

The brainchild of Canadian novelist and comics writer Jim Munroe, Ghosts with Shit Jobs’s premise and set-up is fairly straightforward; it’s a mockumentary, in this case a fictitious Chinese TV show. The “ghosts” of the title is derived from Mandarin slang for white people, and the show follows a group of them around the slums of 2040 Toronto, as they struggle to cope with the only mundane, badly paid and often very hazardous jobs they can find. 

Take Serina for example, who is introduced to us as a Human Spammer. She makes money by mentioning products, brand names and slogans in everyday conversation — the amount she gets for each “impression” determined by the social standing and demographic of who she’s talking to. As a result she finds herself constantly evaluating everyone she meets and trying to force herself into profitable social situations — as well as trying to block out the disgust she’s on the receiving end of whenever people realise what she’s doing. 

The Future is Disturbing and Funny: A review of independent movie Ghosts With Shit Jobs

Or there’s Gary and Karen — a married couple of struggling robot engineers, who make scarily lifelike robot dolls of babies for export back to China. The movie effectively portrays this as relentless hard work that dominates their life — these robot dolls don’t just look real but cry constantly, and even need changing and feeding. In some of the film’s most subtle, striking and well performed moments it shows them claiming, not wholly convincingly, to have learnt to turn off their emotional responses to a house full of distressed babies — even when dealing with the disposing of defective units. It’s science fiction black comedy at its disturbing best.

Then there’s Anton and Toph — the homeless children of a once great family of circus acrobats, whom scratch together a living foraging for web-silk left behind by genetically modified spiders that escaped from a lab — the spiders are apparently all long dead, but their near-indestructible silk is still used in the construction industry. The brothers put themselves in increasingly dangerous situations to try and find the few remaining deposits, climbing up abandoned buildings and structures, then swapping the silk for nothing more than water. It’s perhaps the least convincing of Ghosts’ plot threads, but becomes more effective when you consider real-world stories of workers and children in developing nations scavenging dangerous waste dumps for rare materials. 

The Future is Disturbing and Funny: A review of independent movie Ghosts With Shit Jobs

And finally there is Oscar, the virtual janitor. Oscar spends most of his working life — in fact, far too much it transpires — “In World,” a virtual reality construct built from decades of surveillance footage and mapping data. Imagine a totally immersive version of Google Street View where you can travel not only geographically but also through time to watch recorded events unfurl again. Oscar’s job is to cover up logos for copyright reasons, “painting” over them so that they become pixelized and blurred out to other users. Oscar is perhaps the most likable character in Ghosts; he often refers to himself as being “slow” but he comes across as both the most grounded and self aware, and while his job doesn’t seem initially as unpleasant as some of the others it turns out it may in fact be the most dangerous, with overuse of the In World interface technology having disastrous long-term health consequences. 

The Future is Disturbing and Funny: A review of independent movie Ghosts With Shit Jobs

One of the things that works best in Ghosts With Shit Jobs is its use of slow reveals, and the drip-feeding of exposition — it doesn’t shy away from treating it’s audience as intelligent viewers, letting you gradually put two and two together rather than just info-dumping on you, resulting in a far more rewarding experience. At times this is a result of finding ways around the incredibly low budget — there are very view special effects and barely any CGI. For example we see most of the main characters interacting with augmented reality style interfaces at some point, but we never see the interfaces themselves — the assumption being that only the user can see them. Instead we watch the actors point and prod at thin air, and it’s to both the directors and actors credit that this never looks goofy — instead it lends a sense of subtle realism to the movie. Similarly, being forced by the budget to only use real world location rather than CGI backdrops gives the movie an immediate, often disquieting familiarity. 

There are parts of Ghosts that don’t work as well, sadly — most notably the ending, which feels almost tacked on. It makes sense to have a catch up on what the characters are doing now — it fits the format of the fictitious TV show we are meant to be watching — but bringing them together for the first time seems slightly artificial, and one sequence involving robot-baby engineer Karen is positively silly. In fact it feels as though the ending is trying to be more upbeat, to offer the audience a glimmer of hope — but it not only fails to convince, it also feels like a bit of a cop-out; this is a dark story with a wicked strand of humour running through it, and is highly effective as such. Attempting a happy ending is redundant.

But don’t let me put that off you seeing Ghosts With Shit Jobs, not for single second. Not only is what has been achieved on this budget truly awe-inspiring, but when Ghosts works it is science fiction at its very best — challenging perceptions not just about technology and the future but also society, politics and human nature. As such it is unmissable.

Ghosts with Shit Jobs is currently touring film festivals, or you can by both physical and download versions direct from the official website

When he’s not writing for, Tim Maughan writes science fiction — his critically acclaimed book Paintwork is out now, and has been picking up support from the likes of Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod. So you should probably go buy it already.

Chuk Goodin
1. Chuk
Cool, I'd heard of the movie but didn't know Jim Munroe was involved. I just re-read Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask a few months ago.
Brandi Perry
2. Aramanthe
This sounds like a breath of fresh air compared to most movies today, I will definitely be checking it out!
Peter Erwin
3. PeterErwin
"... an Asian dominated 2019 Los Angeles..."

Aside from a couple of giant video billboards featuring a traditional Geisha... how was the LA of Blade Runner "Asian dominated", exactly?
Tim Maughan
4. TimMaughan
S.M. Stirling
5. S.M. Stirling
Y'know, one of the interesting things about near-future SF is how little use it generally makes of demographics as a tool for anticipating the future.

This is odd, because (unlike, say, technological futurism) you actually -can- predict the near-to-medium future in demographic terms, barring catastrophe. All the people who are going to be 21 in 2031 have already been born.

So consult the sources (the CIA World Factbook, frex) and take a look at East Asia. What does virtually all of it have in common?

Extremely low Total Fertility Rates; some of the lowest in the world, even lower than Europe's.

Urban Chinese actually have a TFR of around -one-; that is, an average of one child per woman over her lifetime. The whole area is at what demographers call lowest-low levels. It's not a matter of the Chinese one-child policy; places like Taiwan or Singapore are in the same boat. Singapore's TFR is -below- one -- 0.76, a historically unpredecented level.

What happens when rates hit that level is sort of mathematically predictable. Geometric progression works both ways; a population reproducing (or more accurately not reproducing) like that will reduce its numbers nearly 50% per generation.

It will also be very, very old on average. Throw in the extremely unbalanced gender ratios due to prenatal selection, and you just don't have the makings of future economic hegemony. Or any other kind.

What you get is a society burdened with an enormous overhang of old people, and struggling to support them with an economy still (in per-capita terms) much smaller than ours, or Japan's.

Now, -India- is a different story. A mid-21st century in which India is a mighty superpower is quite credible. But East Asia, the China-Korea-Japan-SE Asia area, not so much. They're committing auto-genocide.

So China-rules futures are like the giant interstellar rockets in 50's SF; the result of straight-line extrapolation of the recent past, which is almost always at least misleading and often leads to conclusions which are comically wrong.
Peter Erwin
6. PeterErwin
Yeah... that's not "Asian dominated", that's just multicultural. (Gaff's "cityspeak" is a wonderfully strange mishmash of Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Hungarian, something apparently cooked up by Edward James Olmos himself.) There's probably almost as much German spoken in the movie as there is Japanese.

One could argue that "Blade Runner" came out just before, or just as, the Japanophobia of the 1980s really started to take off, and so it's not really reflective of that particular paranoia. (Many or most of the corporate logos in it are American; the only really powerful man we see is Tyrell, who's not Asian; etc., etc.) "Black Rain" is a much better case for a Ridley Scott movie reflecting 1980s American paranoia about Japan, though it's not SF.
Peter Erwin
7. PeterErwin
So China-rules futures are like the giant interstellar rockets in 50's SF; the result of straight-line extrapolation of the recent past, which is almost always at least misleading and often leads to conclusions which are comically wrong.

Of course, straight-line extrapolations of 2011 fertility rates are also a bit dubious, given how dramatically fertility rates can actually change.
S.M. Stirling
8. S.M. Stirling
7. PeterErwin: of course, straight-line extrapolations of 2011 fertility raters are also a bit dubious, given how dramatically fertility rates can actually change.

-- nope, you're missing the point: I'm talking about the immediate future. As I said, all the people who're going to be young adults in the 2030's have already been born. Or in this case, not born. The absolute number of people turning 18 every year in China started falling some time ago; it's down by more than a third in the last two decades. The huge cohort of people born in the 60's and 70's is now reaching the end of their reproductive spans.

Four grandparents, two children, one grandchild.

Even if Chinese TFR's were to -immediately double-, the number of young people would continue to decline for a long time because of 'demographic intertia'.

This is why populations keep growing for a while after TFR's fall below replacement level -- the number of women born at higher levels of fertility mature and have their (smaller) families.

The same thing works the other way 'round; even if fertility were to increase, the effect would be delayed because the number of women having children now is the result of the fertility rates of a generation or more ago. With China, add in that for 20 years or more now the number of female births relative to male has been artificially depressed, so the situation is worse than the raw numbers would indicate.

Longer-term predictions are a bit more iffy, but they're not just guessing either. Established trends rarely reverse themselves and never quickly.

One thing that's been definitely established is that it's much easier for public policy to push birthrates -down- than -up-.

As usual, SF is behind the curve. The demographic story of the 21st century is almost certainly going to be falling, aging populations -- global Japan.

It's not a pretty picture. If you follow the news out of Japan carefully, you see more and more stories on towns, cities and whole regions which consist almost exclusively of old people, becoming depopulated as they die off or the last are removed because there's nobody to care for them. Then the forest starts to grow over the ruins. It's somewhat disguised in Tokyo and the other major cities because the stock of young people gravitates towards them.

And of course there are the economic consequences; remember how Japan was going to eat our lunches and rule the world? The place is now in the 20th year of a deflationary recession. Demographics isn't the only reason, but it's a big part of it.

China's situation is going to be worse because the transition to a low fertility regime was so rapid, essentially compressing what took 100 years in Japan into about 20. Combined with increasing longevity, that leaves a truly immense bulge of older people moving up the population chart, with very little to replace them.

Usually the graphic depiction of a population is a "pyramid", a broad base of youngsters and each succeeding cohort being smaller.

When you get what has happened in China, the pyramid is inverted.
S.M. Stirling
9. S.M. Stirling
A lot of what happened with China over the past generation has been what demographers call the "sweet spot".

Whe TFR's fall, you get a temporary situation where dependency ratios also fall sharply; there are fewer children, and not yet many old people. The ratio of people in their prime working years increases. If you combine this with sensible policies, it can produce spectacular results.

But if the TFR falls much below 2, this inexorably transitions to what you might call the "sour situation".

Dependency ratios start to rise again, only this time instead of children (the future) you're spending more and more of society's resources supporting the old or very old (the past). The past starts to devour the future.

For example, about half the (rapidly escalating) costs of health care here go on people in the last year of their lives. Most of them are also quite old. Throw in escalating pension costs. This isn't an investment, like supporting and educating children; it's a pure cost.

Remember, once you've eliminated most infant and child mortality from infectious disease, further increases in average lifespan just mean people spend a much larger percentage of their total being -old-. Eliminating infant and child mortality has a "payoff" for society as a whole; you're eliminating the loss of the investment already sunk in those children, which hasn't generated a return yet. There's no payoff for keeping somone who's 80 alive another year with costly 'heroic' interventions.

Until historically quite recently, people used to (on average) die shortly after they got too old to work, fight or breed. This is no longer the case except in the most backward areas.

That exacerbates the problem, since the burden falls on younger working people, making it more difficult for them to start families of their own, which in turn pushes the negative feedback cycle.
Tim Maughan
10. TimMaughan
Excellent and interesting discussion guys, thank you. If I'd add anything though it would be that near-future SF and futurism are not the same thing of course - as tempting as it always is to blend the two. Near future SF shouldn't be in the job of necessarily making accurate predictions - its much more useful, interesting and adept at reflecting the present day's fears, aspirations and issues. And if that makes it look 'dated' at some point then even better -it becomes a unique historical snapshot of the time it was written. As always SF in general should never be afraid of getting the future wrong if it has something interesting to say.
S.M. Stirling
11. Roderick T. Long
"it doesn’t shy away from treating it’s audience as intelligent viewers,
letting you gradually put two and two together rather than just
info-dumping on you"

Right there is one of the biggest differences between (most) written science fiction and (most) movie/tv science fiction.
S.M. Stirling
12. jimmy scratch
you have a typo. it's 'buy' not by

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