Science Fiction

Arrival, the Movie

Why “Arrival” is Bad Science Fiction

Based on the novella “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (available in his collection Stories of Your Life and Others) last year’s Arrival is a glossy and nearly-perfect film version of the story.

And therein lies the problem. It’s a near-future look at First Contact, with a linguist hero using her skills to communicate with aliens. The aura of applied science would lead anyone not a linguist or scientist to believe in the story’s central premise: that learning the alien language enables one to see the future. Chiang invokes the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that the language you use determines what you can think. In its weakest form the hypothesis is inarguable (“inability to express a concept easily in a language makes that concept harder to think about”) but in its stronger form is largely discredited. Chiang leaps from “sees many things easily as blue because there is a word for blue” to “can see the future because the language treats all events as happening at once.” This is nonsense supported by fake science, and suggests determinism and lack of free will make all efforts to change the future futile. Just lay back and let disaster strike! There’s really no point in trying to escape your fate. This clanging lie is mixed in with exposition of valid and interesting linguistic ideas, so the story is an object lesson in how even a well-meaning literary figure who researches a field can commit Junk Science in trying to create Art.

Charlie Stross is one of the best science fiction writers still active today (and another post would discuss why so many science fiction writers have taken to fantasy or why young academic scientists no longer write much science fiction.) He wrote a grumpy post (“Why I barely read SF these days”) about what’s wrong with science fiction today which got to the root of the issues:

The implicit construction of an artificial but plausible world is what distinguishes a work of science fiction from any other form of literature. It’s an alternative type of underpinning to actually-existing reality, which is generally more substantial (and less plausible—reality is under no compulsion to make sense). Note the emphasis on implicit, though. Worldbuilding is like underwear: it needs to be there, but it shouldn’t be on display, unless you’re performing burlesque. Worldbuilding is the scaffolding that supports the costume to which our attention is directed. Without worldbuilding, the galactic emperor has no underpants to wear with his new suit, and runs the risk of leaving skidmarks on his story.

Storytelling is about humanity and its endless introspective quest to understand its own existence and meaning. But humans are social animals. We exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we’re going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists’ social context—otherwise, we’re looking at perspective-free cardboard cut-outs. And technology and environment inextricably dictate large parts of that context….

Simply put, plausible world-building in the twenty-first century is incredibly hard work. (One synonym for “plausible” in this sense is “internally consistent”.) A lot of authors seem to have responded to this by jettisoning consistency and abandoning any pretense at plausibility: it’s just too hard, and they want to focus on the characters or the exciting plot elements and get to the explosions without bothering to nerdishly wonder if the explosives are survivable by their protagonists at this particular range. To a generation raised on movie and TV special effects, plausible internal consistency is generally less of a priority than spectacle….

Next time you read a work of SF ask yourself whether the protagonists have a healthy work/life balance. No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future? Why is this side-effect of carbon energy economics clogging up my post-climate-change world? Where does the concept of a paid occupation whereby individuals auction some portion of their lifespan to third parties as labour in return for money come from historically? What is the social structure of a posthuman lifespan? What are the medical and demographic constraints upon what we do at different ages if our average life expectancy is 200? Why is gender? Where is the world of childhood?

Some of these things may feel like constants, but they’re really not. Humans are social organisms, our technologies are part of our cultures, and the way we live is largely determined by this stuff. Alienated labour as we know it today, distinct from identity, didn’t exist in its current form before the industrial revolution. Look back two centuries, to before the germ theory of disease brought vaccination and medical hygiene: about 50% of children died before reaching maturity and up to 10% of pregnancies ended in maternal death—childbearing killed a significant minority of women and consumed huge amounts of labour, just to maintain a stable population, at gigantic and horrible social cost. Energy economics depended on static power sources (windmills and water wheels: sails on boats), or on muscle power. To an English writer of the 18th century, these must have looked like inevitable constraints on the shape of any conceivable future—but they weren’t.

Much science fiction has always been pulpy — adventure stories with science and technology as plot devices and tarted-up futures with rayguns and powered armor but little attempt to describe new societies that would predictably result from such changes. In fact, most SF&F is now retro in that familiar feudal stereotypes of royalty, Chosen Ones, and quasi-military hierarchies are lazy backgrounds for stories that could just as well be told in medieval European or Chinese dynastic backgrounds. But the most challenging science fiction excelled in worldbuilding: in envisioning how societies, governments, and customs would change in response to new science and technology. And it was in making dramatically accessible and entertaining stories out of the effects of new knowledge and new worlds to explore that science fiction raised two generations of creative scientists and engineers that have changed the world for the better, lifting most of humanity out of extreme poverty.

Science is the practice of building a set of models of Nature and testing them continually. Natural laws are always seen as provisional, useful and valid until demonstrated to fail experimental test. The value of science to humanity: prediction via scientific knowledge leading to control via technology to modify Nature to enable human progress.

The value of science fiction: narratives predicting science and technology and effects on future society. Stories enabled by the new, that help readers grasp what is to come and where they might place themselves to affect the outcome of their own stories. These can be more or less inherently entertaining, but the fascination of young people (especially young men) for them is in dreaming of mastery: to understand and control Nature, to vanquish enemies and nurture their families through something other than brute force and violence (though a blend of both is often very popular!)

“Junk science” is those beliefs promoted to persuade or entertain that have either been shown to be false or are simply unsupported by empirical tests. The media world is flooded with it, with sober studies making one small data point on some topic oversimplified and promoted as a breakthrough, to get clicks or publicity for research funding. “Junk science fiction” is therefore a story that borrows the authority of science to make unsupported or frankly false claims as part of a narrative, which nonscientists will accept as plausible or possible. And Arrival is junk science fiction.

In Chiang’s collection, the story “Tower of Babylon” is more of a model of how to tell a literary story that is clearly fantasy but can make the same emotionally-resonant points without teaching the reader falsehoods. It’s set in an alternative universe where the ancient cosmology of a geocentric world surrounded by crystal spheres is true, and the tower builders reach the roof of the sky and punch through. It was his first published story and is very successful; if Arrival had been told as an alternative universe story, it would not have set off alarms.

Science fiction, like all fiction, is lies; junk science fiction is lies that are cloaked in pseudoscience. There is a huge difference between plausible and possible developments in future science like FTL (Faster Than Light) travel or wormhole gateways and “science” that violates laws of causality, which is really magic.

The value of a fictional world — whether fantasy or science fiction — depends on how entertaining and useful it is to the reader. Fantasy builds a world based on magic or clearly supernatural creatures and phenomena, and is not misleading because it’s clearly a fairy tale. Does this fantasy world work, on its own terms?

Is it a valid homomorphism, following rules of logic which allow story lessons from the fantasy world to apply to real life? Does the narrative map to the real world with some utility? Or does it mislead, leaving a pernicious idea with the reader that will cause failure if followed? Does it reinforce the will to live and build a better life for the reader and those around them?


Postscript: This post wasn’t intended to be widely circulated, but it got picked up as an item on File770 and sparked a lot of interesting discussion. As I rule I don’t comment there because of the hostility of some of the frequent commenters, but I did have further thoughts based on the better comments.

First, despite literally hating the anti-human aspect of the plot (“everything is predestined, you can’t save your child or avoid the pain of her death”), I would recommend both story and movie as beautiful and worth the effort. And I agree there was lots of interesting linguistics to be picked up along the way. My definition of “good fiction” is that it is not only entertaining, but enlightening — leaving the reader with greater understanding of the world and how it and societies within it work. Good science fiction imparts some extra scientific or technological knowledge, which if it includes novel science that might plausibly be discovered, at least is coherent with foundational principles and can be assigned some nonzero probability of actually being true. Young people thirsting for knowledge can almost painlessly pick a lot up by reading quality SF, and a child in the formative years who reads a lot of classic SF will gain a good background in the sciences, and more specifically why the sciences are important.

The “speculative” aspects writers introduce to allow, for example, star-spanning civilizations represent goals for science arising from goals for humanity. There is no purely rational basis to prefer a year 2500 where humanity is robustly diversifying to new worlds and spawning ever-more-interesting cultures — and the sentimental desire to restore voyages of exploration to a world where all corners have been explored and there are virtually no undiscovered wonders is a big reason why SF imagines those kinds of futures. The purely rational being, akin to the all-seeing aliens of “Arrival,” sees no reason to prefer that future over one of extinction, or its own death.

We invent plausible FTL, stargates, ansibles, witty AIs, and transhumans because we want them to be real to enable an expanded future and we love stories that let our imagination live there. And young readers who dream of them end up being the people who actually build them — we all have magic supercomputer slates now that connect us to all of the world’s knowledge, one of the many devices routinely seen in SF from decades before they became real. Similarly, we can expect direct neural interfaces not too far down the road, and the nightmare or dream of never being alone is already halfway here. Much of the attraction of SF lies in project planning for the future, to either instantiate or avoid futures brought about by new technology.

The aliens of “Arrival” could, through their language, see the future, so all of their knowledge was available to them early in their history. The complex system that is evolution provides the basic motivation for expansion and new life, and there would have been no reason to build complicated spaceships and visit other planets to impart wisdom other than it had already been written in the history they could see at a glance. Supposing the aliens developed normally until the point their language evolved to enable complete knowledge of the future — they might still retain the emotions and drives provided by evolution, but their actions from then on would be foreknown and inescapable.

I react against this because it is implausible in the extreme. Such a species would not have any motivation to continue, and even in a set deterministic world actions have to follow logically from a previous time. I object to the idea because it is demoralizing and weakens anyone who accepts it. It’s not like stories always have to cheerlead and can never be attractively nihilist, but this borrowing of many accepted elements of linguistics to justify a radically false extension of it, for the sake of an emotional response, can be harmful to people who would know not to take lessons from an openly alternative universe story.

2018 LTUE Report: Provo, Utah

View of Provo from Marriott

View of Provo from Marriott

This is my AAR (After Action report) on LTUE (Life, the Universe, and Everything) in Provo, a weekend starting February 15th, 2018.

LTUE is officially a “symposium,” not a con. The emphasis is on writers and prospective writers discussing all aspects of writing SF&F, so there is little cosplay or general game and comic book fandom material. The location at the Marriott conference center in Provo is a mile from BYU and at the center of the LDS-Mormon intellectual world, such as it is. I knew Provo was majority Mormon, but when I checked I discovered an astounding 88% of the city’s population is LDS-affiliated. But Mormons are disproportionately readers and writers of SF&F, as traditionally they are raised to value education and often encouraged to write journals.

Provo late afternoon

Provo late afternoon

In the photo above taken from our room, you can see the ‘Y’ on the mountainside overlooking BYU’s campus. The ‘Y’ is made of stone and a popular hiking destination.

LTUE conference room map

LTUE conference room map

Panels and presentations were scheduled from 9 AM to 6 PM Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I had registered last year, then applied to be a Guest. When they put me on three panels, I gave my registration to my husband Paul, who has just retired so is able to travel with me more often. Of course Registration had no record of that, but we straightened it out quickly.

LTUE: Registration

LTUE: Registration

LTUE hall

LTUE hall

The LibertyCon contingent was well-represented, with local writers Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen, and Sarah Hoyt in from Colorado. Baen did its roadshow and the infamous Lawdog attended. While I met Larry briefly at LibertyCon two years back, I saw a lot more of him and his charming wife Bridget this time. We had listened to the audiobook of “Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent” (written by Larry, read by Adam Baldwin) on the drive up. As Larry’s media empire has grown and the movie options for some of his worlds are pending, it’s kind of a thrill that he now knows who I am and lets me hug him (his excuse being his arm was injured and couldn’t take too many handshakes.)

"Lawdog" and Larry Correia

“Lawdog” and Larry Correia

It’s also nice to hang out with Dorothy and Peter, though they were under the weather some (in Dorothy’s case, she had a touch of altitude sickness. Provo’s at 4400 feet, and I didn’t sleep well, either.)

Peter and Dorothy Grant

Peter and Dorothy Grant

LTUE: Marriott lobby

LTUE: Marriott lobby

LTUE: Art in the hall

LTUE: Art in the hall

And it was great to touch base with Sarah Hoyt (and Dan, who I’d never met!) Jonathan La Force was as usual a forceful presence on panels and at the BBQ, making much of the great food for the post-LTUE party on Saturday night.

Sarah Hoyt and Jonathan La Force

Sarah Hoyt and Jonathan La Force

There were relatively small vendor and game rooms. One of the few complaints we all had is that some of the conference rooms were way too hot. But on the whole everything went very smoothly and most attendees say they will return.

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Vendor room

LTUE: Vendor room

LTUE: Xchyler book booth

LTUE: Xchyler book booth

Panels were wide-ranging and I didn’t get to go to enough of them. The schedule is here.

The first panel I was on was “Making Money.” We discussed all matters currency, though I never got to mention Charlie Stross’s “slow money.” Fellow panelists were: L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Roger Bourke White, Jr., Bob Defendi, and Alicia McIntire. This was my first encounter with L. E. Modesitt, an extremely impressive person who may actually know more than I do about many things. Roger Bourke White is a fellow MIT grad (a senior when I was a freshman), so we compared notes. We ended up spending more time emphasizing that credible worlds will have a worked-out economic system, whether it is AIs and replicators, conventional price systems and money as we know it now, or barter and ad-hoc tokens — the check was invented in ancient Sumeria as a clay token exchangeable for a certain quantity of grain!

The next day I was on the first LGBTQ panel ever for LTUE, moderated by local fantasy author Michael Jensen. With fellow panelists J. Scott Bronson and Scott R. Parkin, we went over some of the historical broadening of SF&F from cardboard characters whose conventional characteristics were secondary to adventure and technology stories to more cultural and psychological varieties of speculative fiction. Since I have been reading SF&F since the mid-1960s looking for stories about “odd” types, I spent some time reminding the younger people in the audience that since the mid-1950s at least, SF&F was one of the earliest genres to explore stories of unconventional gender roles and sexualities, at first among aliens, then as acceptance grew, among human societies. Today’s emphasis on representation of oppressed groups may be overdoing it a bit, and we discussed the importance of fully-rounded characters — it is no longer especially interesting or ground-breaking to have LGBTQ characters, and all characters need to have their many facets presented for involving storytelling. Many audience members were there to find out how they could write these characters when they had not directly experienced being LGBTQ; the answer (in the current climate of Twitter mobbing) would be “very carefully.” But we all agreed that using empathy and passing your work by a few beta readers more closely involved to check for errors of tone or language would probably work well, especially when the story is not centered on uniquely LGBTQ experiences but includes them as part of more realistic and complex characters.

We went off to lunch at the Indian buffet next door to continue the discussion.

Post-panel lunch

Post-panel lunch

Post-panel lunch

Post-panel lunch

My last panel was “Well-Developed Political Systems: Who Got It Right?” moderated by Gordon Frye and featuring M. A. Nichols, Luke Peterson, and L. E. Modesitt, Jr. I was late because I had misread my schedule since I didn’t have my reading glasses, so first went to the wrong room across the street. Again I was mostly echoing Modesitt. Luke Peterson is extremely knowledgeable and I practically squeed when he recommended Albion’s Seed by David Fischer, one of the great books on US political attitudes and culture — I had just written it into my latest book in a discussion of where Mormons came from (answer: they are a cut-off and isolated branch of New England Puritanism, evolving in a separate cultural bubble after the Exodus from the Midwest around 1847.)

The last day I attended the hot and crowded panel, “Writing Battle Scenes” with Kal Spriggs moderating, with Gordon Frye, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Larry Correia, and Brad R. Torgersen. This was a fun group, with two panelists confessing they don’t really love writing battles but Larry telling us he lives to write them. I’m in the “They’re necessary but I don’t dwell on it” camp myself, and if you don’t love them, you probably won’t do long ones well.

LTUE: Panel on writing battle scenes

LTUE: Panel on writing battle scenes

LTUE: Panel on writing battle scenes

LTUE: Panel on writing battle scenes

LTUE: Cancellations board

LTUE: Cancellations board

The “symposium” wound down Saturday night. We had reservations for the banquet but chose to go to the informal afterparty at the AirBNB next door where many of our friends had stayed. It was a group effort, with attendees pitching in to get the BBQ and supplies brought by Jonathan La Force in and ready. The presence of many children and families, and locals who hadn’t been able to attend LTUE, made it a great party. It must have been very interesting for Paul, who’s heard a lot about my imaginary writer friends and finally met them en masse.

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty cooks

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

2016 Worldcon / MidAmericon II Report
2016 LibertyCon Report

On the way back to Palm Springs, we stopped to see some of the sights featured in my latest book, Nephilim:

First we tried to find the Dream (also known as Relief) Mine, on a mountain overlooking Salem. There were two possible approaches and the one we tried was blocked by a security gate and “no trespassing” sign. Even though we couldn’t get very close to it, it was interesting seeing the countryside I had already written into fiction.

Near Dream / Relief Mine

Near Dream / Relief Mine

Landcape Near Salem, UT

Near Salem, UT

Valley view near Salem

Valley view near Salem

Then we checked into a motel near Zion National Park. The weather forecast was for a storm starting early AM, so instead of the planned trip into the park the next day, we decided to make an afternoon visit so we could leave before the onset of the storm the next day. We only had a few hours in the park, but the afternoon sun and blue skies made for some great views, and it was uncrowded — which was good since the main access road was half torn up with alternating one-way traffic.

Zion NP "Less Than Three Hours" sign

Zion NP

River in Zion NP

River in Zion NP

Mule deer in Zion NP

Mule deer in Zion NP

Zion NP

Zion NP

Zion NP

Zion NP

Cactus in Zion NP

Cactus in Zion NP

Zion, late afternoon

Zion, late afternoon

Zion NP

Zion NP

We left the park near sunset and had dinner at a terrific little Thai restaurant just outside the gate. Our table had a gorgeous view of the cliffs at sunset and a closer view of the road work and workers!

Zion NP: Thai place just outside gate

Zion NP: Thai place just outside gate

The next day we made good time through Las Vegas, where some scenes of Nephilim take place — the spirit driving Sara, Lailah, selects the Luxor as her headquarters, offhandedly noting that it felt good to have a pyramid of her own again.

Las Vegas: Strip from I-15

Las Vegas: Luxor from I-15

Las Vegas: Luxor from I-15

There was an hour-long backup near the California border at Primm, so after suffering through that we noted a similar backup on I-15 before LA and decided to take the back route through the Mohave reserve to Yucca Valley and home since the GPS said it would save over an hour; normally we wouldn’t because of the risk of having no cell service or road assistance in most of the area. But it was lovely and quiet as he storm hit and snow began to fall amongst the cactus and Joshua trees.

Mohave Reserve, Joshua trees

Mohave Reserve, Joshua trees

So the launch of Nephilim at LTUE went fairly well. One scarily intense fundamentalist Mormon man was unhappy, dropping by at the mass signing to tell me the Church does not support the idea of demonic possession. I pity the scared little girl he had in tow… and I understand why LDS authors keep their fantasy and SF safely away from any discussion of church doctrine. There are always holier-than-thou sorts waiting to find fault.

He hadn’t read the book, so he was unaware that it specifically makes that point — the angels Jared encounters (which the reader can choose to believe in or not, since an alternative explanation is also in the text) tell him he is free to choose. It’s Sara who is actually possessed, again by a spirit pretending to be from her Jewish heritage — but which might be something else entirely.

Nephilim

Nephilim

“Nephilim” — Call for Beta Readers

Nephalim cover mockup

Nephalim cover mockup

Call for beta readers for “Nephilim,” a short (72K words), sophisticated-YA (some mild sex, high school setting) Mormon Gothic (culturally appropriates Mormon history, doctrine, and mythology), paranormal (demons and angels) romance and adventure. With a science fictional wrapper.

If you’d like to beta-read the book and can have comments back to me about a week from now, email me at jebkinnison@gmail.com specifying the format you prefer (Word, pdf, ePub, kindle) and I’ll send you the beta.

Blurb:

Mt. Hermon, Utah, is the ideal small town — until forces of darkness from deep beneath the mountain lead its people astray.

Sara is the new kid in town — moved with her divorced mother from a wealthy Long Island town, her Jewish roots are no help when a relentless angel comes calling.

Jared has lived there all his life, and his addiction to online games and porn has his grades tumbling and his Mormon family worried.

Together Jared and Sara fight the battle of their lives against spirits from the Underworld who are trying to return to rule the world.

Star Trek Transporter Coasters

These are cute and not very expensive (Amazon link). I was going to do a video with sparkly special effects and a dissolve showing Romulan Ale being transported in, but who has time for that.

More on pop culture:

“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
Weaponized AI: My Experience in AI
Fear is the Mindkiller
The Justice is Too Damn High! – Gawker, the High Cost of Litigation, and The Weapon Shops of Isher
Kirkus Reviews “Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3”

Blade Runner 2049: Is Bondage Immoral?

Blade Runner 2049 Poster

Blade Runner 2049 Poster

The original 1982 Blade Runner was not a great commercial success in its theatrical release, but had a huge cultural impact over time. Aspects of its vision of 2019 Los Angeles and noir style have appeared in hundreds of other movies. The production of Blade Runner 2049 as a sequel is another symptom of Hollywood’s creative exhaustion and the unwillingness to finance risky productions that don’t have a pre-marketed, built-in audience to guarantee at least some return. The sequel is lavish and lovingly crafted, in many ways more ambitious than the original. But I think it fails to live up to the original, and here’s why…

The original had a very simple story — Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is an updated noir detective, tasked with finding and killing escaped replicants. Like a classic Raymond Chandler gumshoe, he’s single and lives an isolated life estranged from all but his job. The dame in his story is Rachael, the embodiment of feminine beauty and vulnerability, who turns out to be a replicant herself, brought up with false memories of a childhood that never was. She has never experienced real pain, living as the protected “niece” of Eldon Tyrell, the brilliant billionaire head of Tyrell Corporation. Unlike most replicants, she is not doomed to die on her fourth birthday, as was apparently intended to limit the threat that superhuman replicants might rise to overthrow their normal human masters. Replicants have been made illegal on Earth, and are used only in space and the outer colonies. The Earth seems to have been largely depopulated, as most humans with get-up-and-go got up and left for the colonies. It’s noticeable that the humans Deckard encounters on Earth are all eccentric, physically imperfect misfits, while the replicants–and Rachael, and Deckard himself–are good-looking and healthy.

Deckard is ordered to find and eliminate six replicants who have killed humans and landed on Earth. The outlaw replicants are desperate to find a way to live beyond their programmed death dates and intend to force Tyrell to change their genetic programming. The plot revolves around Deckard’s gradual discovery of who Rachael (and by controversial implication, Deckard himself) is as he chases down and kills three replicants.

The story is of gradual discovery and the resonance of the personalities of the three replicants he kills. Because the plot is relatively simple, the art design, atmosphere, and nuance have greater impact.

[CAUTION: SPOILERS IN FOLLOWING]

Why is the sequel less effective? Because it tries to do much more — there’s more plot, violence, and most importantly an evil villain whose motive seems to be megalomania. In the original, flawed humans did their best to survive using replicant labor, and replicants, who have been enslaved and sentenced to death long before their time, are acting to survive as well. The evil involved is not a single man’s greed or megalomania, but slavery itself–which had been justified out of human fear. The sequel’s plot clanks along with a definite villain and his henchwoman as foils, and there’s so much plot that the characters are less compelling.

The sequel is set thirty years later, in 2049. Blade runner ‘K’ (played by Ryan Gosling) seeks out those rare surviving replicants who were built without a set date of death. ‘K’ knows he is a replicant but accepts his orders without question, and he kills an old replicant living alone in a desolate protein farm. When he checks out the area, he discovers a buried box containing the bones of a replicant woman who appears to have given birth via C-section–but it is supposed to be impossible for replicants to have children.

Wallace, the new Tyrell, first saved humanity by discovering how to produce food industrially, then re-introduced replicants after buying the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation and introducing new models who followed orders without the possibility of rebellion. The one thing he cannot create, it seems, is a replicant that can reproduce–and he must have the secret to allow his empire to expand without the limitations of one-at-a-time replicant production, and incidentally make Humanity 1.0 obsolete. There isn’t time for a good explanation of how he came to be so evil, and most of his will is expressed by his replicant assistant Luv, who provides the kickass female fighter every thriller now seems to require. He personally kills several of his creations showily, knifing one woman in the stomach during a demonstration–we are to assume he is a psychopath.

As in the original, the details of technology are left to be imagined since there is no way to address them on film. The sequel also introduces the now-common idea of the AI personality verging on human, in the character Joi. Joi is an off-the-shelf and heavily advertised AI companion who has customized herself to support K. The interactions between them seem like real human affection and support, and Joi demands to be saved to a physical memory and erased from the cloud so she can join him with the real possibility of death. Near the end of the film, K encounters an ad for Joi and realizes much of what he thought was her personality was off-the-shelf mannerisms, notably giving him the name Joe — as a Thai prostitute might.

But this movie is just toying with that issue, more effectively explored in Her and Ex Machina.

Because the plot is overly complicated, there are some significant plot holes. We see two birth records with identical DNA, but one is tagged male and the other female; this is to prime us to believe K is the male son of Rachael and Deckard. Later we discover the child was female and K was given some of her memories, but that means he was programmed after those memories had been created, and so he must have been decanted as a replicant much later. Deckard explains that he helped confuse the database and insert false information, but the contrivance feels forced to mislead the audience.

Another serious flaw: K rescues Deckard from a crashed flyer and tells us Deckard will be assumed dead and so is now safe from Wallace. Then he delivers Deckard to his daughter’s workplace. His daughter is a contractor for Wallace and it seems highly unlikely his visit would not be noted in such a surveillance society. K then apparently dies on the snow-covered steps, but who cleans up his body, and how will this not result in revealing Deckard and his daughter to Wallace and the police?

The movie is excellent and well worth the (rather long) time spent, with art design rivalling and extending the original. The soundtrack is apparently much too loud in some theaters. But like many recent big-budget movies, it tries to out-action and out-evil its source material in a way that actually diminishes its long-term impact (see “Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire for another example.) It seems likely that the characters from the original will be remembered long after the sequel is forgotten.

As a meditation on slavery, the sequel brings up more issues than the original. New-model replicants are supposedly incapable of rebellion, unlike the Nexus-6’s of the original. We see this in both K and Luv, who faithfully carry out the orders of their supervisors–at least until K begins lying, claiming to have found and eliminated the threat posed by the child when he thinks it was him, which verges on disobedience.

We can see slavery as a spectrum from acceptable to horrifying–from plants and invertebrates grown and harvested for food to mammals like cows and sheep who clearly have some sentience, but in those cases who would not have existed without the implied use for human needs. As we grow more sensitive and wealthy, sensitivity to the pain of our mammalian relatives has increased, and we strive to use them as painlessly as possible. Our nearest relatives, primates, are still used for medical research but under relatively humane conditions. Ethical quandaries grow as the intelligence and emotional understanding of animals grows towards human; we now know cetaceans, elephants, and others have societies and communication abilities analogous to primates. Is it moral to create and grow intelligent, feeling life only to use it and destroy it as suits us?

Both movies address this dilemma, which ties into current debates about slavery, autonomy of workers generally, and the immorality of any but voluntary contracts. If I create you and use my resources to support your growth and life, do you owe me work and loyalty? We see this accepted in traditional families, where children are supported, molded, and used to support the enterprises of the family until they reach an age of independence–this family transmission of culture and family production of children to create successor families is the foundation of human existence. Would it be wrong to commission an artificial human and expect some period of labor in return? Probably not–so long as the android is given the choice to leave for an independent life once the contract is up. The evil of Nexus-6 replicants is not so much the period of forced labor as it is the forced end to their lives; we can imagine the less immoral alternative of manumission after four years and settlement on a planet of their own, given humanity’s fear of replacement.

The self-reproducing replicant would, as is suggested by the sequel, make standard humans obsolete. It would be immoral for standard humans to be killed or restricted by the new model’s success, but also immoral for the new models to be prevented from living as they wish. This is a dilemma unlikely to occur in reality, as genetic alteration of humanity will likely be a smooth evolution that only widens the current spectrum of abilities, blending new with old without a split. It seems unlikely there is any way to program genetically modified humans to obey–it’s not that kind of programming. HBO’s Westworld revolves around that issue, with the creator designing its models to achieve human levels of consciousness only by allowing them memory and growing free will.

Extended HD trailer:

More on pop culture:

Valerian: Fun Trumps Flaws
Star Trek Beyond: Teambuilding Exercise
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
Weaponized AI: My Experience in AI
Fear is the Mindkiller
The Justice is Too Damn High! – Gawker, the High Cost of Litigation, and The Weapon Shops of Isher
Kirkus Reviews “Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3”

Cellular Automaton: Life Animation in “Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1”

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1

 

When I was 12 or so, I read about John Horton Conway’s cellular automaton Life in Scientific American. Back then (c. 1970) we had to painfully draw each generation on graph paper. The personal computer revolution made it possible for hobbyists and students to simulate large fields and thousands of generations easily, building self-replicating structures and Turing machines… Life could simulate life.

Later in my career, I wrote artificial life simulations similar to what is portrayed in Red Queen — these are an extension to simulation of creatures in a simulated environment. There is a progression as simulations get better and better — eventually the simulation of life in an environment can become as complex as the real world, which has led to current theories that the universe we live in may itself be some kind of simulation on an underlying substrate.

The video below is an amazing zoom from tiny gliders to glider guns to megastructures… and then to Life itself simulated by Life.


Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1.

Valerian: Fun Trumps Flaws

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets poster

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets poster

Fifth Element is a great pop culture movie, full of clever lines and startling characters. Luc Besson was said to have produced it in an attempt to create the atmosphere of the French comic book series Valérian et Laureline, which he believed could not be produced because of the expensive CGI it would demand. As often happens, those limitations produced a better work of art, with Fifth Element having more fully-developed characters and fewer but spectacular effects that served a more coherent story.

I heartily recommend everyone see Valerian, which is spectacularly entertaining despite its flaws. It certainly achieves the comic-book goals of fast action and imaginative storytelling. But you may need to hurry to see it in its full 3D and widescreen glory since the first days of boxoffice receipts in the US have been thin and so it is likely to be yanked quickly. This makes it another example of why Hollywood is placing almost all its bets on franchises and reboots: in a crowded marketplace, only pre-marketed properties can stand out amid the clutter of new entries. While it’s in a favorite genre of today’s first-run moviegoers, there are many more familiar comic book franchises and in the US only a few have ever heard of this one. With Marvel and DC putting out a movie a month now, there’s a limit to how much comic book material audiences will pay to see.

There are many excellent detailed reviews so I won’t go into depth here.

One missing element is maturity. Valerian and Laureline are 20-something, with Valerian looking especially young, perhaps 20. In selecting a 31-yo actor who looks youthful enough to pass for 20, Besson gave up the masculine authority of Fifth Element’s Bruce Willis, who managed to be strong while sensitive and engagingly goofy. This Valerian by comparison lacks a moral center, and having him engage in teenage-level romantic badinage to woo Laureline just cements his lack of maturity. It is suggested that he and Laureline have been working as a team for some time, and despite their youth they are said to be one of humanity’s best teams — how can it be that any question of romance remains? If you’re over 21 this romance is implausible, yet Besson places it at the center and spends a lot of screen time on it. Later in the resolution of the plot, Valerian intends to deny the wronged alien species their rightful property because Orders, but Laureline intervenes and persuades him to the more obviously moral choice because Love. This is kinda French but thoroughly silly.

The movie is also somewhat immune from PC criticism because of its French origin, so what might otherwise get called out by the usual thought police — the feminine but strong Laureline using her sexuality, the cishet romance, the whiteness of the leads, the shape-shifting entertainer played by Rihanna who stops the action for a show where she transforms into a dozen classic fetish roles, the alien species that are suspiciously like stereotypical African tribesmen from 1940s cinema — have so far escaped much social media and feminist criticism.

The plot revolves around a paradise planet inhabited by near-clones of Avatar’s blue aliens (in tune with nature and completely noble) before their planet is destroyed by the foul white humans and their aggression. At least it does not duplicate the plot of Dances with Wolves, as Avatar did, by having the hero live as one of them before defending them against rapacious humanity.

Despite its cartoonish aspects, Valerian is well worth watching, especially in 3D, so see it before it’s gone. The imagery is gorgeous and needs to be seen in the theater for full impact.

Extended HD trailer:

More on pop culture:

Star Trek Beyond: Teambuilding Exercise
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
Weaponized AI: My Experience in AI
Fear is the Mindkiller
The Justice is Too Damn High! – Gawker, the High Cost of Litigation, and The Weapon Shops of Isher
Kirkus Reviews “Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3”

Sarah Hoyt’s “Darkship Revenge”

Darkship Revenge by Sarah Hoyt - photo Baen Books

Darkship Revenge by Sarah Hoyt – photo Baen Books

I’ve had more time to read fiction since I gave up my subscription to The Economist, which has abandoned its tradition of support for free markets and classical liberalism. I’ll try to review the best of these….

Sarah Hoyt’s latest, Darkship Revenge, is set in the same Darkship setting as her last,
Through Fire. As in that book, a genengineered woman from the secret space colony Eden ends up embroiled in war between the Usaians and Good Men on Earth, but this time the stakes are higher: Athena and her husband Kit are on a run to collect power pods when Kit is kidnapped. Athena and her newborn baby have to make their way alone to Earth to try to find Kit.

It turns out the ship which left Earth carrying many of the genengineered “master race” on a mission of colonization has returned and sent its youngest clones down to Earth supposedly to negotiate peace and a territory for the returning colonists. But all is not as it appears, and soon Athena, Kit, and their baby are fighting for their lives against the forces of both the Good Men and the returned starship. The fate of the world’s human population hangs in the balance!

This story is beautifully told and Hoyt makes time for both a kind of family drama (since the clones feel like younger siblings or children to their older originals) and action-packed fight scenes. Family ties form between strangers who’ve grown up abused and disowned, and the loyalties strengthen as the odds — and the sacrifices — pile up. Luce and Nate from A Few Good Men show up to play secondary roles, but you don’t need to read any of the other Darkship series books to follow the story.

A good read which deepens the understanding of the Darkship setting and demonstrates real wisdom about parenthood and its emotions in the midst of a battle for survival.

Substrate Wars Omnibus: Now on iBooks, iTunes, Kobo, Nook, Scribd, 24Symbols, Page Foundry

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1

Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3

Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3

The Kindle versions of Substrate Wars books are still cheap — $0.99 for Red Queen, $2.99 for Nemo’s World, and $2.99 for the latest, Shrivers.

A new option: the Substrate Wars Omnibus, all three books in a single e-book, now available at many non-Amazon book sellers and subscription services:

Apple iBooks/iTunes, $7.99
Barnes and Noble Nook, $7.95
Kobo Books, $7.95
Page Foundry, $7.95
Scribd, Unlimited subscription reading.
24Symbols: Unlimited subscription reading.
Tolino, apparently using iTunes outside the US.

Netflix-Financed Season of “Black Mirror” – “San Junipero”

Black Mirror - San Junipero. Yorkie and Kelly. Photo: David Dettman-Netflix

Black Mirror – San Junipero. Yorkie and Kelly. Photo: David Dettman-Netflix

Last year I reviewed a few episodes of Black Mirror, the British dark series about grim futures with technology:

I fired up Netflix and watched the supposedly best episode, “The Entire History of You,” about a troubled couple using the technology of life-recording to break up in the ugliest possible way. Now I’ve counselled couples who break into each other’s phones and this was much the same, but more horrific than even that could be.

It was well-written, powerful, and depressing. Let’s focus on awful people and show how technology can enable them to be *even* *more* *awful*! …

There’s no denying these are really great — artful, like the best short stories. But minus any Human Wave sense of struggling to beat back the darkness.

Because being fully human has a *purpose*, if you are well-adjusted. It might be religious, it might be building Teilhard de Chardin’s Noosphere and reaching the Omega Point with as much knowledge as possible, it might be building the best world for your children’s children’s children. But there are positive goals to strive for, not just surviving and contending with other humans for a shrinking share of a shrinking world. Raising children is a risky exercise, and you do it when you have some faith in the future. Malthusian dread and belief in ever-darker futures kills off the will to fight and to win against those who would tear it all down.

Now that I’ve seen all of the episodes of the British seasons and the “White Christmas” special with John Hamm, I still think the overall bleakness is akin to torture porn, with horrible people doing horrible things to each other enabled by advanced technology. But there’s no denying how excellent it is, in both script and execution. It is much like sifting all the episodes of Twilight Zone for the grimmest 10%, then unleashing those as the whole.

I had heard the American third season, funded by Netflix, would be a little sunnier, with “San Junipero” the episode cited as showing this most clearly. And that turned out to be accurate — much more human, much more kind, much more optimistic.

The episode starts with the resonance of the name — “San Junipero” brings up associations with “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” the heightened-real-world simulation game set in California. Video games appear several times in the episode. And then one of the first things we see in a small town’s downtown strip is an ad for Lost Boys, the teen vampire movie set in 1980s Santa Cruz. San Junipero turns out to be a re-creation of a beach party town much like Santa Cruz, though it looks like filming was done further south in the beach towns north of San Diego. The producers licensed some great 80s music as well, so the episode ends with Belinda Carlisle singing “Heaven is Place on Earth.”

We follow a shy, bespectacled young woman, Yorkie, as she enters a disco obviously wary of the social goings-on. She meets the vivacious, attractive Kelly, who’s trying to blow off a guy who’s attached himself to her. Sparks fly.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

The unwary viewer doesn’t get a hint that this isn’t your usual beach town until some dialog suggests that many of the people in the town are dead. It turns out San Junipero is a simulated village full of the sims of people dead or just visiting in old age to get ready for “crossing over” to join the dead in a digital afterlife and to stimulate their brains to ward off dementia. The living are limited to 5 hours a week to prevent side-effects, and their visits end abruptly when the clock strikes midnight. So for the visitors it’s always Saturday night, and the partying is constant, especially at the decadent Quagmire orgy warehouse.

Unlike other episodes of Black Mirror, this one centers around a romantic relationship that doesn’t go horrific or turn into a trap. Both girls / young women are adorable in different ways, with the shy, fawnlike Yorkie attracting the outgoing, fiery Kelly. The lesbian sex is hinted at tastefully, and the dynamics between them believable. When Kelly goes missing, Yorkie goes looking for her in different years, a fun look at period styles and music.

Difficulties arise, of course. It turns out Yorkie is really dying in a hospital after spending nearly all of her life as a bedridden paraplegic — her parents took her coming out at 21 badly, and she drove off and crashed, breaking her neck and severing her spinal cord. So she’s never really had a life, or sex, and her hunger for attachment scares Kelly, who just wants to have fun — or so she says.

Kelly turns out to be nearing the end of her life, too, in a care facility. She has made up her mind to die naturally and not “pass over” to San Junipero because her husband had refused, and even though she doesn’t believe her husband and daughter are really waiting in Heaven for her — they are gone forever — she wants to honor his memory and their 47 years of marriage by going with him.

If you don’t cry at the end you have a heart of stone.

But while some religious conservatives might find the lesbian relationship and simulated afterlife troubling, this is an optimistic view of technology’s effect on humanity compared to the rest of Black Mirror. There are interesting questions about the meaning of life — if you are only simulated, what is it you are living for? Can you have children in San Junipero? I touched on some of these in Shrivers, where intelligences could choose to submerge themselves in a simulated afterlife to become the Revenant, abdicating responsibilities to relive old memories and pleasurable fantasies.

But the idea that dying people could live again to enjoy some of the life they had denied themselves for family and health reasons is pretty damn attractive. Thus the waterworks. I’m tearing up writing this, as my mother slowly declines in a memory care facility and forgets who we are.

[edit: turns out filming locations were near Capetown, South Africa!]