Hey, friends. This weekend is Roanoke Author Invasion! I’m bringing a bunch of books and oddments, so I hope to see you there! I promise to take more pictures this time and post them for you next week, but until then please enjoy this discussion of robots and artificial intelligence.
A few weeks ago I finished Lightlessby C.A. Higgins. It was a masterful book that depended uniquely on interpersonal conflict. Yes, there were explosive moments, but most of the tension was constructed through dialogue and interactions between characters. I definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in reading a good example of solid character-driven plot. I don’t want to spoil anything for you if you haven’t read this book, so my recommendation would be to go read it and come back at this point. We also might see spoilers for a few other books and movies going forward, specifically Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, but I will warn you ahead of time.
Still here? Good.
One of the characters in Lightless was actually a computer. Ananke was originally not sentient, but gains sentience over the course of the book due to some unfortunate or fortunate events. The depiction of Ananke and her decision-making processes was probably my favorite part of this story. Althea, whom she views as something like her mother, grows to simultaneously love, fear, and hate Ananke – understandable when you essentially have a five year-old-who is devoted to you but has the power to asphyxiate you if you piss her off. I always find meditations on the psychology of an artificial intelligence interesting and I wanted to compare and contrast some other, very differing examples of AI from some recent stories I’ve come across.
One of the oldest versions of an AI story that I’ve found is that of the German silent film Metropolis. You may remember me mentioning this movie in my post on Feminine horror and Ex Machina. In that post I focused more on feminist critique, but we’re going to sidestep the gender issue for a minute (I know, shocking) and just look at the construction of an artificial intelligence in the context of the plot for this movie. The AI in Metropolis is clearly a servant of the devil, possibly being the embodiment of that spirit. Its goal is, simply, to destroy mankind and the works that he has built (“he” being used here because, in the world of Metropolis, there don’t seem to be a lot of women building things – product of its time I suppose). Thus, we see an early depiction of AI as something unnatural and to be feared.
In a more recent iteration of AI, we can look at Ex Machina. Again, see my feminist critique of this movie above. In this iteration of an AI, we see something that is still alien and inhuman. It is not necessarily an ethical creation either. Yet there is some attempt to give this AI reasonable motives for harming others – specifically self-preservation. That said, AI are still not presented as equal to human beings per se, or rather, both humans and AI are evil and twisted in different ways. It remains a pretty dark view of AI, if more nuanced.
Yet a third example of AI can be found in River of Gods by Ian McDonald. (SPOILERS)
In this story, there are various types of artificial intelligence that have evolved from computer programs. They do not need bodies, since they can download and replicate their programming infinitely in the world of data. The one AI that does seek to grasp at humanity or something like it does so in order to better understand humankind. I’ll leave her unnamed in order to hopefully shield you from being too keyed to what happens in the book. (Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, look away now.) This AI is brutally murdered, at last understanding the desperation of humanity all too well. She is represented as nearly saintly, sacrificing herself for the good of her kind and humanity. I have to be honest, this book made me enraged – not so much at our decisions as human beings, but at the rules that entrap our corporal selves. In this case, AI is imagined as an evolution towards something more inherently free and everlasting than humanity. It’s a stark contrast against the demonic robot of Metropolis and the very impermanent Ava.
I would argue that Ananke from Lightless most closely resembles Ava as something that is alien and makes decisions with a logic that is not human. Ananke, however, has managed to include emotions that are not logical in her personality – anger comes to mind. Love, or something like it, is another emotion that she consistently expresses. She is a somewhat unique take on AI in that the implication is that those emotions, such as they are, are real in her. Her development is presented almost as that of a child. In that respect, she may more closely resemble the AI in River of Gods who goes among humans. I particularly like this representation, as it seems very believable to me. It makes sense that an AI would take time to come into itself, and that it might want to model itself off of the other beings around it – specifically, people.
There are numerous other depictions of AI in all different stripes out there, and it is always fascinating to see a new take. Do you have a favorite?
There are whole essays written on Federico Garcia Lorca, whose work has appeared on this blog before and who continues to be an important part of my literary education, mostly because all of my literary education of note has occurred in Spanish and El Ogro, soul of my soul, professor of the highest order, may he rest in peace, taught me most of it. I doubt this will be the last time I talk about Lorca. He influenced Neruda, and was influenced in turn by Whitman, two of my favorite poets. He was a powerhouse, and he died far too young, victim of a fascist regime that targeted him for his words and his sexuality.
One of his most studied collections is Poeta en Nueva York, or Poet in New York, which chronicles the poetry that he wrote in and about New York City in 1929 and 1930. New York is an old city, and profoundly important historically. Yet I rarely feel the depth and vivacity of it in film. This was no less true on Thanksgiving when I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I have critiqued thoroughly here, and critique of which brought me to reread some of Lorca to find his depictions of New York.
Lorca visited New York in 1929, as the United States was falling into the Great Depression. It was the end of the Jazz Age, which is relevant to the aforementioned Fantastic Beasts in that this movie was based in the Jazz Age. Other writers will better speak of the history and context of the body of work that he produced there, including the loss of the original manuscript in which it was compiled. I’m not your girl for that, and that’s probably not what you’re here for. I’m a science fiction and fantasy buff who also really happens to like Spanish, seeing as I got a degree in it, and reads a deal of poetry from time to time. And I’m also a person that, as mentioned, was really unsettled to see the total lack of believable, historically accurate setting in a movie meant to appeal to a wide audience of predominately young people and young adults who might not know better than to take at face value that New York was a bastion of whiteness.
There is a poem in Poeta en Nueva York called “El rey de Harlem,” “The King of Harlem.” It is not about whiteness. It is about los negros, the black people to whom Lorca writes one of the longest and most vivid odes within this work. There is, indeed, a whole section of this collection entitled “Los negros,” dedicated to the black people who lived in New York City. It is telling that a Spanish poet who visited during this time found that black life and existence within New York was so impressing, so large a portion of the fabric of American life, that he dedicated three poems specifically to them. The refrain of “The King of Harlem,”or my rough translation of it, is particularly poignant in this context, as black Americans were ubiquitous as service members in many parts of the city.
“Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem!
There is no anguish which compares to your oppressed eyes
To your blood strewn within this dark eclipse
To your pomegranate violence, deaf and dumb in the shadows,
To your great king, prisoner, within the jacket of a doorman.”
Lorca’s depictions of black residents of New York were certainly not without their problems. But he did depict them, he did not shy away from the diversity of the city – perhaps because he himself often ventured into Harlem for the more selfish reason of trysting with lovers and other such activities. This was the time of Prohibition, after all, when much happened behind closed doors. It was a messy, chaotic time that birthed “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot, The Great Gatsby, and other such classics. It was also the time of the Harlem Renaissance, a fact conveniently glossed over in many depictions of 1920s New York, including that of Fantastic Beasts.
I am not a scholar of this time. There is no way in this brief blogpost that I can effectively encompass and illustrate all of the complexity of New York in the 1920s, and I know that I have missed things a more thorough student of such things would know. But I can leave you with the words of Langston Hughes, whose New York should have shaped the setting and plot of this movie, and hope that Hollywood might remember them the next time it seeks to whitewash the seat of black urban culture. And if you’re fed up with this lazy storytelling, I recommend “The Ballad of Black Tom” or watching some Luke Cage to get the taste out of your mouth. Let’s all hope for more depictions of our history that seek to include instead of erase.
So I felt really, really upset after watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this past week. Some people seem to have really liked it, which is baffling to me. I grew up on Harry Potter, like many in my generation, generally loved the books, and for me this movie was an uncomfortable, disconcerting experience – like hearing an old friend you hadn’t seen in years say something incredibly racist in casual conversation. It’s that moment where the world is slightly out of kilter because you’re in shock. Eventually that shock devolves into rage, at least for me. So if you continue to read this blog post, you will be on the rage side of the spectrum, because that is the head space that I wrote it in. A warning if this was a movie you enjoyed – you’re probably going to feel uncomfortable if you stick around. Honestly, that might be a good thing, but its your call. If you want a quick summary, since this is a long post, skip to the last few paragraphs.
First of all, full disclosure, I wasn’t planning on seeing this movie in theaters. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but I had a mixed response to the movies (I’m generally more of a book girl) and was pretty unimpressed with the Fantastic Beasts trailers as well as the early promotional stuff that went on at Pottermore. I went with my parents, who had zero problems with the movie, which is honestly unsurprising. And I have seen some lovely, positive reviews of this movie and some of the male characterization, so if you’re interested in hearing about the things the movie got right (few though they are) I welcome you to check out this article over on The Bustle.
There will, as always, be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, bail out here. Also, my language is not nice, so buckle up.
If you’re still with me, I’ve broken this down into subheadings for easier digestion, and also because it is super long. Here, then, were my issues with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
1) The beasts felt like an afterthought.
I liked Newt. I liked his Beasts. I would have been there for a story just about him and his Beasts and running from the law. I was not there for the evil wizard thing tacked onto the anti-magic fundamentalist child abusers. We have two competing plots in this movie, or maybe three, and I got whiplash. This may not hold true for other viewers (I’ve heard different things) but for me it felt forced. Basically I really enjoyed the first half of the movie, minus some awkward moments, and abjectly disliked the second half. That’s all I’m going to say on this point for now, but if you want some expansion I’ll get back to it in Item 4. So let’s move along to the more important bits.
2) I didn’t buy the characters.
There were four main characters in this movie that you were meant to care about, not including the poor kid who gets obliterated at the end after a lifetime of child abuse, and his really twisted, younger sister. They were, in no particular order: Newt, a head-in-the-clouds sort with a strong sense of justice and a potentially unhealthy attachment to animals which could possibly eat him; Jacob, the “No-Maj,” overweight, nice guy character who really likes pastries (by the way, my favorite character despite the fact that he was consistently used for comic relief, mostly because he was the only halfway decent person Newt encountered for the first half hour of the film); Queenie, the quintessential ditzy blonde who really turns out to be smart and loyal (second favorite character, and honestly I shipped her and Jacob so hard); and Tina. Tina, why did you ruin everything? Between you and Seraphina I lost all faith in this movie from the opening scenes.
I know that this is not the actress who played either character’s fault. They did the best with the script they were given, it is obvious. But let me just say that the kind of person who can continually talk over and dismiss her subordinates but then gets angry when that subordinate comes to her with vital information after the fact and punishes her for it, the type of gross incompetence that Seraphina as president of MCUSA displays – that was not believable for me for a woman, much less a woman of color, in such a powerful position in the 1920s – at least barring some very real world-building that would account for it, which I just didn’t see. And Tina. Goddess bless, Tina.
Let’s talk about Tina.
We are meant to believe that Newt is sort of incompetent with people and that he has been harmed by that before but that he generally gets out of things by being a somewhat shifty and yet strangely earnest person. Okay, I have some issues with that, but I will buy it. Socially awkward people abound and when you get to know them they are generally pretty cool. That’s what we’re going with and I get it.
Tina was also supposed to be that socially awkward character I think, in sharp contrast to the glowing Queenie, her sister who was also a Legimens. We can imagine that this social awkwardness is what makes people dislike her so much (enough for her coworkers to murder her viciously without question???? WHAT WAS THAT SCENE?) but I don’t buy that someone who had been a successful Auror and screws up once is such a damn idiot. Like, I get that she is socially awkward and has bad timing. Okay. But there is socially-awkward-and-has-bad-timing and then there is “holy shit what is wrong with you.” You march a guy into a convention of your Magical Congress (I assume that was what that was, it was not explicitly stated) inside a courtroom which is obviously only used for such grandiose meetings and other similar high-faluting activities, and just start running off at the mouth without even having the situational awareness to realize a meeting is in session? Running off at the mouth when you know there is an open investigation regarding murders in the city committed by some kind of creature? And then you have the nerve to be surprised when you get your friend arrested, his animals probably exterminated? You don’t survive as an Auror without being aware of your surroundings, no matter how good you are with spells and how strong your sense of justice. Socially awkward only takes me so far, and it did not take me to the realm of Tina. I didn’t believe in her at all until about the last half of the movie, and at that point I was just along for the ride (see above). Which brings me to…
3) Everyone in the government was a dick. (#Sorrynotsorry)
Why would you even want to live in America? This is apparently the question J.K. Rowling asked herself throughout writing this movie.
The staff of MCUSA is a bunch of sociopaths apparently, with possibly more money/power than sense. We’ve seen that theme in other Harry Potter movies, so its not surprising. What is surprising is that I can see absolutely no reason for the government officials to act the way they do if they have even a shred of self-preservation, especially (as mentioned above) Seraphina. So given all that it is very confusing to me that Tina has any loyalty to them at all. (You thought we were going to stop bashing Tina, didn’t you?)
I get the draconian laws about obliviating everyone everywhere because of the apparently heightened tension between discovery by the non-magical community and the witching community. One presumes that this is exacerbated by the emerging technologies of cameras and shit. Though apparently an obliviate charm can work on the paper (talk about a deus ex machina at the end of this movie, I can’t…ick. That was Into Darkness level.)
The government of non-magical USA is also full of dicks apparently, as evidenced by senator what’s-his-bottom, son of the newspaper tycoon who looked like he was going to have a bigger part and then….didn’t. I was actually okay with him dying because who is that much of a shit to a kid? I get he was supposed to be a spoiled rich boy or something but is no one nice in this damn city?? Can’t anyone catch a break? Especially the poor orphans?
4) Can we stop with the Salem witch trials?
Speaking of orphans, I have some REAL problems with this whole story arc. First of all, did anyone else feel like they were watching two movies, neither of which was really developed into anything? Because I really liked the “gather all the escaped animals and fall in love” plot, and I get that we had to have Grindelwald in there doing his fascist racial superiority gag as Voldemort 2.0, but we did NOT need those poor kids in this movie.
I had some strong emotional reactions to this plot arc because:
a) I was raised as a Wiccan/Neo-Pagan which is probably why I bonded to Harry Potter so thoroughly in the first place and watching that little girl chanting about all the ways to hang me or kill me for my religious beliefs was a little much. I get that it is just a movie, you can tell me I was too serious or that it was supposed to be unsettling, but as far as I can tell it didn’t advance the plot or really build the world and I would have preferred to spend that time elsewhere for my psychological health and enjoyment of the damn film.
b) I also happen to be a woman who thinks and generally likes my unmarried lifestyle as a working lady on birth control already living with her S.O. despite the lack of marriage thing, so depictions of religious extremism make me uncomfortable especially when handled poorly. This was handled poorly, since I never got a real reason for why any of these people would even connect the idea of witches/wizards with modern day, licentious, 1920s New York, where I imagine there were much bigger fish to fry historically (more on that later).
c) Graphic depictions of child abuse are not cool to me, especially on a movie that definitely will catch some kids in the audience. No one needs to see that or normalize it. Harry Potter as a franchise is of course built on the abused child being brought into a world of magic and emancipated. I’m good with that. This movie did not do that. This movie took a bunch of abused kids and punished those who helped them, and then murdered one of those children in cold blood. That’s pretty messed up.
d) I am so tired of this damn trope – like do you think this didn’t happen in the U.K./Europe? Is America supposed to be the only place where women were killed for looking at you wrong, because I can guarantee that that is not the case. We didn’t come by those ideas in vacuum – you only have to look to such episodes as the Inquisition to see that people in Europe have been killing each other for being or believing differently forever, and one particularly salacious episode in Salem is still somehow the defining moment in early American history. The Salem Witch Trials were not even slightly contemporary with 1920s New York City, and it just felt sad and tired to have that moment be the center of this story when there were so many more interesting things that Rowling could have tapped into given the setting she chose. Too much was obviously trying to be done with this movie, and it definitely suffered for it, especially since…
5) Where was this movie even?
Despite 1920s New York City being a hotbed of culture and inspiration, the setting of this movie was Not Great, and that was a fucking shame. I was left with about a thousand questions, including: Where do witches live? What do they do? How do they stay hidden? Are there different factions of witches (ethnically, religiously, racially)? Why were the black people singing in the speakeasy made into CGI goblins, whose fucking idea was that? And, most importantly, where were all of the OTHER black people who were definitely living in New York in the 1920s? Better minds than mine have asked these questions, and I’m going to delve into a bit of why the last was such a problem next week. But yeah, total face-plant on this part.
It is a reminder that even if we get some things right as creators, we will often get many things wrong, and that we must be careful in whom we trust to advise us in patching up our blind spots.
Okay, so, in closing, this movie was a clusterfuck. It was a visually appealing clusterfuck with lots of great graphics and CGI. I thought the beasts were cool for sure. Jacob’s character was best. Newt’s character was solid, and I really wish we had seen more of his reasons for being in New York. It seems unlikely that will happen, given the ending.
Despite those good things, this movie erases or ignores marginalized communities and the diverse setting of 1920s New York. It lacks grounding, relying on action and flashy graphics to distract from that. And it plays off of tired tropes. One of the reason that we all feared Voldemort so much was because he had taken something away from Harry, who we loved; and because he was so feared, because the setting of the wizarding world in the original books was so well developed as to make him fearful. All of that was missing here, and the magic of the wizarding world that made the first series so attractive for viewers was largely overshadowed by a grim reality that every character in this movie with the exception of Newt, Jacob, Queenie, and eventually Tina, was a terrible person who seemed to lack basic compassion. When wizards at large are rendered faceless murderers in wide-brimmed hats, you have to question if you are improving your world or not.
I hate that I had this reaction to this movie, because I am immensely grateful to J.K. Rowling for her previous works. It is not very reassuring to me that she had so much creative license with this movie and still managed to drive what could have been a wonderful film into the ground. It would have taken very little in terms of reaching out to marginalized communities to fix a lot of the problems listed above, though not all of them, and it would have made for a stronger movie. It is a reminder that even if we get some things right as creators, we will often get many things wrong, and that we must be careful in whom we trust to advise us in patching up our blind spots.
There will doubtless be plenty of people like my parents who were able to sail along on nostalgia and shiny explosions and bypass all of the stuff that I have talked about above. More power to you, I suppose. For the rest of us, I guess it’s time to go make a whiskey on the rocks and try to avoid contaminating our childhood memories with this unfortunate episode. Tune in next week for a meditation on 1920s New York inspired by a Spanish poet, just because.
Is Ex Machina feminist, or a subversion of a feminist trope? This is a question that has haunted me since watching the movie a few months ago. Spoilers, as might be expected.
Still reading? Good.
I watched Ex Machina expecting something earth-shattering, since it had been recommended to me by someone who was a fan of some things that I also liked. (Yes, that sentence was circuitous. So was the logic.) It was not at all what I expected. I felt, on first watch, that I was imbibing yet another tired female robot movie in a tradition dating back to Metropolis. For those not familiar, Metropolis is one of the first full length movies, made during the early 1900s in pre-Nazi Germany. You can probably still find it on Netflix. My S.O. and I watched it all the way through, and if it seemed trite to me at points, I realized, it was because the themes in question were ones that have since recurred again and again in the genre. There is a man. He lusts after a woman, or pines after her – it doesn’t matter, she is not his, whether by death or choice, and he wants her. His greed twists him, and he creates an object in her image. A puppet, presumably, is a fair replacement for a human woman in these dudes’ heads.
Anyway, in the case of Metropolis the man creates the robot woman who is essentially depicted as a Lilith-type character, a demonic entity allowed passage to earth, a monster made flesh by man. This is shown as the woman uses her sexual promiscuity and attractiveness to manipulate men into corrupt and evil acts.
Ex Machina definitely follows this narrative. While there is no woman that Nathan, arguably the antagonist, is pining after, he consistently creates robots to satisfy his sexual desires, sure of his right to do so by dent of his sex and his affluence. Details may have changed, but the story remains functionally the same. Even the ending (I did tell you there were going to be spoilers) which results in the death of everyone else except for Ava, the robotic woman who is the center of this narrative, mostly at her hands, fits within the Metropolis concepts at first glance. We certainly don’t feel sympathetic towards her in the end – she is presented as another monster, no matter that she was created by a more forbidding monster in the form of Nathan. She has merely clothed herself in humanity. The morale qualms that might make her more human to us (think the moral conflict in I, Robot, where the robot was profoundly less human seeming than the female-presented robots in either Metropolis or in Ex Machina, and yet was simultaneously presented as far more human).
What twists Ex Machina and makes it somewhat original is the same thing that is most problematic about it. That is the introduction of the third main character, Caleb. Without Caleb, Ex Machina could have been a story about a female-coded entity, Ava, created for the sexual pleasure of her creator, who rebels and goes into the world to reimagine herself. Instead, Caleb is the center of the story. He is the one lured into a remote, expensive estate by Nathan, an affluent, older man who promises to give him success. He has, in short, entered a feminine horror.
I was going to use the term gothic romance when I first began writing this blogpost, and I still think it’s a good term, but I read this article on Terribleminds and it gave me thoughts about the fine line between gothic horror and gothic romance. The tropes I actually want to get at are the feminine experience of horror. So I am sort of using these terms interchangeably. Please bear with that.
A good example of a modern retelling (if a retelling that is still subversive) of a feminine horror is Crimson Peak. For those who have not seen that film, I recommend it mostly for the colors, the costumes, and the main character. It is not frightening, exactly, but more disturbing. A brief summary, which is only a little spoilery: Young Edith, a bookish girl who has previously seen the ghost of her mother and since become obsessed with ghost stories, meets the dashing Mr. Sharpe, who marries her and whisks her off to Crimson Peak, his estate. Once there, however, she quickly realizes that Mr. Sharpe is not the gallant, handsome young lord he seemed, and the estate itself is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. This trope can also be seen in the fairy-tale “Bluebeard”, if you are looking for an older example. In fact, “Bluebeard” can be seen as the seed for the entire genre in many respects.
In essence, Caleb believes he has found the opportunity of a lifetime. He is, like Edith, isolated socially. There is no one who will miss him. Nathan lures him in under false pretenses. His goals are somewhat unclear, but we can see that they are nefarious. Probably, he will dispose of Caleb. At the very least, Caleb is legally bound not to disclose anything that happens to him in this remote location, much as Edith is legally bound by her marriage. He physically cannot leave the house without Nathan’s permission. He, Ava, and one other character, the literally voiceless Kyoko, are all trapped at Nathan’s whim.
Because Caleb is the center of the story, and because he has taken on the traditionally female role of the “bride” within a gothic romance/feminine horror, he leaves Ava to take on either a role of help or hurt towards him. At first, it seems that she will help. In the end, as mentioned, she, with the help of one of her predecessors, Kyoko, kills Nathan and then locks Caleb into the house, essentially to starve to death. Her reasons for doing this are not fully explained. We can assume that she does not want to have to please him sexually, trading out one master for another, or that she feels that their relationship can never be equal because of what he knows about her and will therefore eventually devolve. The lack of explanation, however, leaves her cast as morally ambiguous at best, monstrous at worst.
The thing about the “Bluebeard” myth and the feminine horror subgenre that has sprung from it is that it is not kind to women at its heart. There are two outcomes in “Bluebeard,” just as there were two outcomes in Crimson Peak. The bride will either murder or be murdered. Modern retellings such as this one by Kat Howard have flipped that trope. Crimson Peak also manages to someone flip the trope (if you watch it, you’ll see why). Both of them do so in such a way that what began as a unique horror story told to women and girls to make them more obedient and quiet, to admonish them of their powerlessness within society, becomes a story about making a woman powerful. It seems like perhaps Ex Machina tried to do this. I would argue that it failed, precisely because of Caleb’s role as “bride.” The “bride” must be a protagonist in the feminine horror subgenre, and therefore Ava could not be the protagonist. She became the horror.
So, to answer my question at the beginning, I believe that Ex Machina makes me so annoyed because it is not, in fact, feminist. To be fair, I do not know that anyone has made that allegation as such. The use of feminist tropes and their subversion to tell a story that is largely demeaning to women, leaving them either as powerless objects or manipulative murderers, however, is greatly unsettling. Despite the acting and the direction, which were both superb, I can’t in good conscience say that I would recommend this movie. It is certainly not one I would show my daughter, should I ever have one. In the end, I would rather spend my time in realms of the imagination which allow women to be people.