A review of Ex Machina, life, the universe and everything

This post is too long. No one will read it.

It’s sort of a review of a film and sort of a monologue about modern life.

If you haven’t seen the Science Fiction movie Ex Machina and don’t want spoilers, please look away now.

If you do read this post, I’m interested in your reactions to the review and Facebook discussion, especially if you’ve seen the film. Am I right? Am I wrong? What do you think?

* * *

Ex Machina is a clever and layered, independently produced film, which I watched a year or so ago, and never got around to reviewing. It was written and directed by Alex Garland. (It was his debut as a director, which makes it all the more impressive.) It was made on a budget of $15m, and grossed about $40m. The genre is Science Fiction and the central science part of the plot is about Artificial Intelligence. It has a cast of 4 people, and much of it comprises dialogue between stationary actors. No fighting, explosions or car chases. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? J

Here’s the plot.

Techno superstar & entrepreneurial genius Nathan has cornered the technology market with his mega-corporation (think Google/Microsoft), and withdrawn to his very isolated, luxurious island hideaway where he has been experimenting with Artificial Intelligence. He runs a contest among his employees for a prize to stay a week at his house, and the contest is won by Caleb, a very clever young programmer.

On arrival, Caleb is informed that his task for the week will be to assess whether Nathan’s AI project, called Ava, is conscious and aware. Ava tuns out to be installed in a mobile humanoid robot with visible mechanical parts, but an extremely realistic face, which also happens to be female, young and beautiful. Ava is confined to a glass-walled apartment, and visual and verbal interactions with it take place through glass partitions.

While Caleb investigates Ava, Ava is investigating Caleb, because unless the AI can get out of its glass cage, it is scheduled to be deactivated, and Ava has at least that primary emotional analogue – to continue existance. Meanwhile, Caleb has a problem: he’s starting to respond emotionally and sexually to ‘her’.

A layered game of cat and mouse and cat reveals that Nathan has actually constructed this experiment not to investigate whether Ava is conscious, or self aware (it is), but whether it can convince Caleb of ‘her’ humanity, by appealing to him and persuading him to free ‘her’.

It works. Caleb frees Ava and Ava kills Nathan, then imprisons Caleb in the house where he will eventually die. Ava disguises itself as a realistic human, using parts from earlier robot projects and in the final scenes, we see it arriving at a city and merging successfully into the human crowds.

* * *

There’s a wealth of little vignettes which create great characterizations of Nathan as the sadistic, narcissistic manipulator, and there’s the whole creepiness about robots that look like young, attractive women and obey orders, and the frightening point at which an AI might cease to obey orders. All of that has messages and everyone can take away some thoughts and interpretations.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Okay… I happened across a post on another Facebook page. It was a quote from some new guru, Harari, who’s written a book about the 21st Century, and the quote was as follows:

“Ex Machina seems to be about an AI expert who falls in love with a female robot only to be duped and manipulated by her. But in reality, this is not a movie about the human fear of intelligent robots. It is a movie about the male fear of intelligent women, and in particular the fear that female liberation might lead to female domination.”

I disagreed and said:

“IMO, I think Mr Harari is stretching it. The AI in Ex Machina doesn’t have a sexual identity, as he says. It doesn’t even have a human identity. That’s the point. It’s not a ‘female robot’ manipulating the male AI expert, it’s that the AI is able to exploit the man’s projection of sexuality. That’s what makes it chilling, not that an intelligent female dupes a male, but that a sufficiently intelligent robot can exploit that weakness.”

This resulted in a series of rather pointed comments, basically that I was “rejecting the obvious metaphor and taking the plot at its face value” and a re-iteration that this was about “hacking the male psyche in exactly the way men fear women will”. Capital letters started being used. It was implied what I’d said was equivalent to saying Lord of the Flies was about an island vacation. So far, so Facebook, and I guess I could just have rolled eyes and clicked out.

Alas, I responded:

“I’m reminded of the quote that art is what you interpret it as (but not reminded so strongly I can remember the exact wording 🙂 ).

I think you three and Harari are interpreting the film to be all about the human dynamics. I took the film the way I believe Garland wrote it & intended it – from Ava’s point of view.

I’m not saying there isn’t a depiction of toxic masculinity, neither am I denying that some men seeing it will react in the way they do because they’re afraid of intelligent women. I’m saying Ava doesn’t care (and actually can’t care) – she just wants to get out. She doesn’t exploit toxic masculinity, or some men’s fear of intelligent women to get out. She exploits the human weakness to *de-objectify* things – to believe something that is not human, is human, and has human empathy. Analyzing as a writer, the story is about her getting out, and the theme has to support that. The rest is sub-plots and atmosphere, no matter how socially insightful.”

(In retrospect, I should really have emphasized my point by continually referring to Ava as ‘it’; to refer to it as ‘she’ is to fall exactly into the story’s trap.)

Lots of huffing and puffing, much of it arguing against themselves. A couple of them mentioned the old meme about interpreting an author’s work—you know the one, where the English Literature teacher insists that because the author said there were blue curtains in the room, it must mean the protagonist is intensely depressed, but the author meant that the curtains were blue. (A strange argument to make against me, as my statement was effectively ‘the curtains are blue’ and theirs was ‘must mean intensely depressed’.)

There were more capital letters and a psychiatric evaluation of my state of mind. “Why is it SO IMPORTANT to deny the metaphor?” and “Why the burning need to deny female agency in the movie?” (Obviously a deep-seated fear of the feminine, probably dating from an unhappy childhood, or my own toxic masculinity. Clearly.)

Gosh, how incredibly insightful. Second opportunity to roll eyes and exit. But I tried once more:

“It’s Harari’s opinion (at least as quoted) that denies any other interpretation. I tried to clearly state my opinion differs and why, and if you think my comments deny the validity of other opinions, then I apologize that I was not clear enough. I certainly don’t deny female agency in general; it would be peculiar if I did, given the majority of my writing output. However, in this movie, in my opinion, the point is … there is no female. That’s what Caleb gets wrong. You know, sometimes the blue curtains are blue curtains, and sometimes the robot is a robot.

And having checked a couple of his interviews, Garland does indeed say this is all about AI and intended entirely from the AI viewpoint. Of course, Harari might understand Garland’s work better than Garland does. I do hope I get the opportunity to ask Garland’s opinion about that.”

One went silent, and another tried a certain amount of stepping back and casting aspersions about Garland instead of me. (More capitals used “the OBVIOUS metaphor” etc., and “what was he thinking” sort of comments.) Also, a back stepping on Harari’s quote, so apparently, we should infer that he was using exaggeration to make a point, not that he was denying another interpretation.

Well, finally, this isn’t really about this particular Facebook interaction at all, it’s about the way intelligent people misdirect themselves, especially in groups.

The nub of the story is the man mistakenly believes that the robot is somehow identifiable as human and female, and pays for getting it wrong with his life. The core message of the plot is *there is no female here*. It required mental gymnastics to get from that to an ‘obvious’ metaphor where it’s *not* a robot, but a personification of intelligent women, and that men fear intelligent women.

It’s a metaphor, fine. It’s a strange one, because what does that make the moral of the story? If you trust intelligent women, they will kill you? That *is* what happens, isn’t it? Or is death a metaphor for life?

Harari is given a pass for denying outright that the story is about cybernetics, but my comment that *in my opinion* he’s stretching the point, is clearly a fascist denial of any other interpretation and there must be something wrong with me.

Some people want the metaphor that they want, so much, no matter how stretched it is, no matter that the author intends and probably most of the people watching the movie think. A different opinion, however expressed, seems to be perceived as somehow dangerous.

And I’ll end with a comment quoted in the discussion about Chappie (another highly recommended film about AI) which probably also means there are as many strained metaphors to be extracted from that film:

“Why doesn’t Chappie have to put up with this bullshit?”

 

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Christmas wishes and Bite Back 6 teaser chapter

Hello all, and I wish you all a happy Christmas.

Writing is going well, but I’m as slow as ever in comparison to the speedsters in the market. All my writing effort is currently going into Inside Straight – Bite Back 6. I’m about half way through, but having a little trouble linking the dramatic scenes up smoothly.

I have A Threat Among the Stars back from Lauren, and I will put it up for pre-order shortly, and release in mid January.

Here’s Chapter 1 of Inside Straight as a stand-alone teaser. 🙂

 

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Chapter 1

 

I’m doing things the right way. For once. Why does it feel so wrong?

It was stupid o’clock, with the sun sensible enough to still be in bed, and I was out at Haven, cooling my heels.

So much for orders.

You and your House rest. Christmas with your family. Food and wine and television. Cards and presents. Skylur had ordered me to take time off.

But I was here because this was where Bian was, and she was the only person with a direct line to Skylur at the moment. As far as the rest of the Athanate world was concerned, Skylur was in mourning for Diana after her dramatic death in LA. In fact, the pair of them, Skylur and Diana, were in a magically shielded van, somewhere between California and here.

Diana’s ‘death’ had been carefully stage-managed. That truth needed to remain a secret, especially from the eagle vision of the Empire of Heaven’s Adepts.

I’d returned home to Denver yesterday. The plan was that Skylur and Diana would be here within the next day or so. Diana would stay and recover from the Adept working that had made her appear dead, even to the eyes of the Empire’s Adepts. Skylur would move on to New York, his new domain, the former domain of the Warders.

I will come to you with Tullah, Diana had said. I hadn’t heard anything from Tullah, and my trouble sense was prickling.

I had to assume Diana, Tullah and Kaothos would have to be here for Tullah to reclaim her dragon from Diana. And that once they were, Denver would become a closed city for Athanate. We had to prevent the Empire of Heaven from finding out we’d lied about Diana and Kaothos, or the whole carefully balanced political arrangement, where Skylur and the Emperor ran the Assembly from the sidelines, would disintegrate.

If it did, the world would be thrown precipitately into Emergence, without the preparation that Skylur believed would save it from being the holocaust we feared.

With Skylur going to New York, he’d appointed House Trang to take up the domain of Denver and the territory of Colorado, so Bian was my immediate boss and the person handed the responsibility of ensuring the security of the secrets we would be hiding here.

And when Pia had shaken me awake a couple of hours ago and handed me an urgent telephone call with a bare sentence of explanation, I’d known I would have to override my gut reaction and get clearance from on high through Bian.

I’d hoped for a quiet time over Christmas. The paranormal world owed it to me, and I’d found out how much I owed it to my family. While I’d been caught up in what Forsythe had done to me in my last year of school, I’d completely missed that he’d done the same thing to my sister.

I’d argued with Jen and Pia about Kath; what to do and how to do it. A long argument.

I’d wanted to come in like the cavalry and fix things, right now.

They said no.

Maybe time would show if wiser heads had prevailed. We’d see. In any case, I’d agreed to start slow and quiet—ease back into the family, and my relationship with Kathleen, starting with a Christmas Eve dinner at Mom’s tonight. Tonight, 7pm. Fourteen hours’ time. In pretty clothes and with my face washed. No excuses.

The urgent telephone call had come out of nowhere.

House Lloyd, a small Athanate House from Detroit, who were outsiders, were driving to Denver to throw themselves at my feet and beg sanctuary.

Damn!

Outsiders. Diazoun in Athanate. It had once been acceptable, if eccentric, to cut all ties with other Athanate and live without getting involved in the squabbles of creeds and rules, or the responsibilities of associations. It wasn’t acceptable any more. Diazoun was starting to have the same connotations as epitre, which translated approximately as ‘unorthodox’.

Rogues were epitre.

Rogues were put down.

And sanctuary. A venerable Athanate institution. She hadn’t been clear if she meant simple protection or becoming a sub-House. If House Lloyd made her Blood oath to me and became my sub-House, then all her problems suddenly became mine. Granted, they were no longer diazoun. But some of those problems included that House Lloyd was supposed to be a sub-House of House Prowser in Michigan.

Prowser. Only a senior ally and old friend of Skylur’s.

Then there was the small matter that House Lloyd’s kin included Adepts, not something that other Adepts thought was acceptable even in normal circumstances, but these Adepts were outlaws being hunted by the combined Adept communities of Michigan and surrounding states, both sides of the border.

Adept communities working together? Oooh, that has to be good.

My Athanate side loved the idea of new members in my House. Especially Adepts. My wolf yawned and went back to sleep. The rest of my brain, the logical part, was feverishly totting up the odds and counting reasons why it was impossible to accept.

I’d pointed out to her that, given the politics, I’d have to petition Skylur before accepting.

However, my caller, Amanda Lloyd herself, was nothing if not persistent.

I brought out what I thought would be a deal-breaker.

“House Lloyd, there’s something you should realize before you cross the state border,” I said, stumbling through warning her without giving anything away. “Colorado is going to be closed to unauthorized Athanate movement anytime now. I don’t want to go into it—it’s all to do with House Altau moving his domain to New York. It could mean you end up denied sanctuary and imprisoned instead. Maybe it’d be a better outlook if you tried House Thompson in Cheyenne.”

She said nothing for a moment. Then: “House Farrell, I am desperate, and it can only be you.”

“For heaven’s sake, why?”

“Because Scott, my eldest kin…” she paused, a catch in her breath, and I could hear she was gathering herself, fighting to keep her voice level. “Because he’s dying. Because my only hope is for you to infuse him. Because they say your infusion carries less severe crusis and he has a chance of surviving it. Please, House Farrell. I’m begging you.”

Damn!

All of it, all of it had to be passed up the chain of command, but she’d sunk hooks into my heart with that desperation. She’d accepted all the risks—my untested infusion might kill him, Skylur might order them to be imprisoned or returned to Michigan, and so on, and she was still coming. How could I turn that away?

Another hour or so and they’d be here. A despairing Athanate, one dying kin and two outlaw Adept kin.

Diazoun, Pia had muttered after the call, shaking her head. It hadn’t been a problem historically, when there had been space for expansion. These days, with so little of the world unclaimed by Athanate Houses, and so much at stake, it was a real problem. Skylur had decreed that there were no diazoun in America. Everyone was supposed to be a part of House Altau, either giving their oaths directly to Skylur, or by becoming a sub-House of someone who had, like me.

And Skylur had decreed that House Lloyd should be a sub-House of House Prowser.

What if Skylur didn’t say imprison them, what if instead, he demanded they were put down like rogues? Demanded I do it?

My gut twisted.

Alternately, what if he wanted them for himself? Adepts willing to work with Athanate were a prize.

I was really unhappy with that. Mine, I wanted to snarl, just thinking about it.

I’d gotten way ahead of myself again.

To complete to my list of things I didn’t want to happen today, because I have to be at Mom’s at 7pm, no excuses, Yelena had persuaded me to make good on another promise I’d made. She’d flown down to LA to pick up Tove Johansen, another victim of Forsythe, who’d helped us. They’d be back this morning.

It’d been a promise made in the heat of the moment without being thought through—that Tove could come live with us to get her life back in order.

Not thought through: that was me all over recently.

I had some excuse. I’d slid down the slope, all the way to rogue, out in New Mexico.

They’d brought me back — Diana, Bian and my House .

I’m fine. Aren’t I?

If I felt so odd today, maybe it was just an accumulation of small things. Worry about Mom’s dinner tonight. My gut feeling about House Lloyd. Worry about trying to save a dying kin with my infusion. Having to ask Bian’s permission for something my instincts had already pretty much decided on. Having Keith instead of Yelena with me. And…

Stop. Think of practical things.

Tove: she would have to be made kin if she stayed with us. How would she feel about that? And I could imagine Jen’s delight at another house guest in addition to House Lloyd—and Tove was a drug addict who’d paid for her addiction with her body. It was lucky Jen had bought the house next door to expand into. If we ran out of room there, I guess there was always David’s house in Wash Park, which was empty at the moment.

Everywhere my thoughts turned, there were problems.

Well, the cards would fall where they would fall. Yelena was on her way back from LA with Tove, and I was here, with my former boyfriend Keith as my backup, cooling my heels in the depths of Haven, feeling restless, uneasy and itching to hear what Skylur’s response would be.

Bian had told me Skylur’s protocol for contact excluded anyone else being present. She’d sent me down to the gym, where, even at this ungodly hour, she assured me there would be something to distract me.

 

 

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 25

The weekly episodes of A Threat Among the Stars have been removed in preparation for the release of the book on Amazon in January 2019.

My Amazon page:

US https://www.amazon.com/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
DE https://www.amazon.de/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
FR https://www.amazon.fr/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 24

The weekly episodes of A Threat Among the Stars have been removed in preparation for the release of the book on Amazon in January 2019.

My Amazon page:

US https://www.amazon.com/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
DE https://www.amazon.de/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
FR https://www.amazon.fr/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 23

The weekly episodes of A Threat Among the Stars have been removed in preparation for the release of the book on Amazon in January 2019.

My Amazon page:

US https://www.amazon.com/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
DE https://www.amazon.de/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
FR https://www.amazon.fr/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 22

The weekly episodes of A Threat Among the Stars have been removed in preparation for the release of the book on Amazon in January 2019.

My Amazon page:

US https://www.amazon.com/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
DE https://www.amazon.de/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
FR https://www.amazon.fr/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/

A Threat Among the Stars – Episode 21

The weekly episodes of A Threat Among the Stars have been removed in preparation for the release of the book on Amazon in January 2019.

My Amazon page:

US https://www.amazon.com/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mark-Henwick/e/B008SBO5YK/
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