I really need to stop paying attention to The Verge’s book reviews. They loved The Gone World, which struck me as a novel-length SCP written by a fan of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. Gratuitously gruesome, weirdly incompetent (woman) protagonist, plot that doesn’t hold up under inspection at all. So… let’s make it into a movie!
Film critics were not kind when A.I. Artificial Intelligence was released in 2001. A.I. was directed by Steven Spielberg but originated from, and was made with, Stanley Kubrick, up until his death in 1999. A lot of reviewers accordinly blamed Spielberg for pretty much everything they disliked about the film, notably its final 30 minutes which appeared to be overly sentimental.
I enjoyed the movie when it was released. Admittedly, a lot of that was because I’d played the associated ARG, which also provided more context for the final 30 minutes. But it was hard to convince my friends that it was a good movie, especially in the face of critics.
In the past five years, prominent critics have begun reappraising A.I., to its benefit. A better understanding of the ending, and the relationship between Spielberg and Kubrick, sheds much light on the intention and message of the movie. In short, Spielberg didn’t write the ending, Kubrick put the teddy bear in, the aliens are actually machines, and the ending isn’t happy:
Roger Ebert: Great Movie: A.I. Artificial Intelligence Movie Review (published 2011). See his original review for comparison.
Watching the film again, I asked myself why I wrote that the final scenes are “problematical,” go over the top, and raise questions they aren’t prepared to answer. This time they worked for me, and had a greater impact. I began with the assumption that the skeletal silver figures are indeed androids, of a much advanced generation from David’s. They too must be programmed to know, love, and serve Man. Let’s assume such instructions would be embedded in their programming DNA. They now find themselves in a position analogous to David in his search for his Mommy. They are missing an element crucial to their function.
Robbie Collin at The Telegraph: AI revisited: a misunderstood classic (published 2014)
When the epilogue begins, it’s Kingsley’s voice that explains the ice age and the passage of time. Does that mean David’s story – ie AI – is itself a creation myth, told by these futuristic mechas about the making of their kind, as an attempt to understand the elder beings that made them?
“Human beings must be the key to the meaning of existence,” the Kingsley mecha tells David, and the line sounds odd until you realise these creatures hold humans in the same awed regard as humanity holds its gods. Dr Hobby’s son died so that David might live, and these new mecha are descended from David’s line.
In that light, AI’s ending isn’t twee, but wrenchingly sad. The love we’re seeing, between a mecha and a clone, is a simulacrum, as manufactured as a movie. But if it feels like the real thing to us, what does that tell us about the real thing? In that moment, Spielberg shows us real fear and real wonder, knotted together so tightly it becomes impossible to tell the two apart.
Jesse Hassenger at the AV Club: Contrary to popular opinion, Spielberg found the perfect ending for A.I.
Unpredictability, though, is not necessarily what audiences want, which brings us to the focal point of controversy over A.I., and a major reason the movie is more of a cult item than a confirmed modern classic: the film’s ending. Initially, David’s drive leads him to the bottom of the ocean, staring at a statue of the Blue Fairy, convinced that if he waits long enough, she will work her magic. You may have heard, or even subscribed to, the belief that this moment, with David waiting underwater indefinitely, is the “correct” end to the film. But the movie presses on past this neatness, jumping forward thousands of years. The Earth has frozen over, and an advanced race of mecha-beings (not aliens!) uncovers David. Through a process that is, admittedly, a little drawn out with explanations (including, essentially, two different types of narration), the mecha-beings, eager to learn from a robot who knew humans, agree to revive Monica for David. In this form, though, she’s more of a ghost; she can only stay revived for a single day. She and David spend a perfect day together before she drifts off to sleep, accompanied by her mecha son, essentially a dying ember of human life.
It’s understandable, then, that so many backseat directors would dutifully follow that program. This is not, however, Spielberg’s obligation. The film frequently adopts a robot’s point of view, but was not made by one. By sticking with David after thousands of years’ worth of waiting, Spielberg stays true to a robot perspective while also deepening David’s sadly close connection to human experience, a far trickier balancing act than having David dead-end at the bottom of the ocean. The actual and vastly superior ending of A.I. is more than a bleak kiss-off; it imagines humanity’s final moments of existence (if not literally, certainly metaphorically) as a dreamy day of wish fulfillment. David wants to be a “real boy,” and the scenes with the ghostly Monica turn his desperation and sadness from an imitation-human abstraction to a desire with an endpoint, which in this case coincides with, more or less, the end of humanity as we know it. As such, the sequence also turns the comforting idea of dying happily into something pretty fucking sad. Spielberg hasn’t grafted a happy ending onto a dark movie; he’s teased the darkness out of what his main character wants. David’s artificial intelligence has given him the very human ability to obsess, and then to take solace in his own happiness above anything else.
Mark Kermode at the BBC: AI Apology (published 2013)
And finally, Steven Spielberg in conversation with Joe Leydon:
In 2002, Spielberg told film critic Joe Leydon that “People pretend to think they know Stanley Kubrick, and think they know me, when most of them don’t know either of us”. “And what’s really funny about that is, all the parts of A.I. that people assume were Stanley’s were mine. And all the parts of A.I. that people accuse me of sweetening and softening and sentimentalizing were all Stanley’s. The teddy bear was Stanley’s. The whole last 20 minutes of the movie was completely Stanley’s. The whole first 35, 40 minutes of the film – all the stuff in the house – was word for word, from Stanley’s screenplay. This was Stanley’s vision.” “Eighty percent of the critics got it all mixed up. But I could see why. Because, obviously, I’ve done a lot of movies where people have cried and have been sentimental. And I’ve been accused of sentimentalizing hard-core material. But in fact it was Stanley who did the sweetest parts of A.I., not me. I’m the guy who did the dark center of the movie, with the Flesh Fair and everything else. That’s why he wanted me to make the movie in the first place. He said, ‘This is much closer to your sensibilities than my own.'”
Snap Judgment is the novel of podcasts for me – each episode is hard to get into, and each story can be intimidatingly unpredictable, as personal tales inevitably are. But overall, the podcast is surprisingly rewarding and consistent. That’s a real achievement compared to more highly-produced podcasts that are like crystals, almost too perfect and artificial in their construction – as Radiolab and Gimlet Media can be, for example.
So consider this a short note of appreciation for Snap Judgment. It’s not my favorite podcast but it does good.
I’ve been a fan of Philip Reeve after reading his thrilling Mortal Engines quartet. Strictly speaking, Philip Reeve is a young adult SF/fantasy author, but I found this series to be more imaginative and darker than many other ‘adult’ novels. A lot of his other books have been for younger children, but when I heard that he’d written an out-and-out SF novel called Railhead, I had to check it out.
Railhead is an exciting amalgam of two of my favourite SF series: Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (well, the first two books, anyway), and Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. The Hyperion part stems from Railhead’s network of wormholes, connected by – of course – railways; plus the presence of godlike AIs with their own cryptic plans. The Culture part is represented by the slightly-smarter-than-human AI trains, with appropriately Banksian names, plus the well-written action, explosions, drones, and AI avatars. There’s also a dash of Dune and Hunger Games in there, as well.
Perhaps the most Banksian thing – and the most surprising to see in a young adult SF novel – is Railhead’s refreshingly modern treatment of gender norms and sexuality. Some characters are gay, and some characters regularly switch sexes, leading to offhanded passages like this:
She was gendered female, with a long, wise face, a blue dress, silver hair in a neat chignon.
Malik got a promotion. He got himself a husband, a house on Grand Central, a cat.
And, to cut the story short, it fell in love with him. And he fell in love with it. In the years that followed, Anais came to him again and again. Sometimes its interface was female, sometimes male. Sometimes it was neither. Different bodies, different faces, but he always knew it.
An unexpected but pleasant surprise!
Since moving into a new flat two months ago, I resolved to demolish my pile of unread books that had been eyeing me reproachfully for far too long. Counting some extra books I tackled after the pile of doom, I read:
- Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
- The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
- The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
- The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk
- The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser
- Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
- The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
- The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
- The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice, provided for free online by Harvard University and WGBH Boston, are as strong an argument for distance learning as you’ll ever find:
Most of my lecturers are university (Oxford, Cambridge, UCSD) were not particularly good or bad; they were merely average. In fact, I’ve only seen a single person who can rival Michael Sandel for clarity, engagement, and presence in the lecturing stakes – Prof. V. S. Ramachandran. Since Ramachandran, like Sandel, is a Reith lecturer, I can safely say that they are both exceptional.
(It says something about undergraduate education that Sandel’s free lectures online, with the ability to pause and rewind them at will, eclipses much of my ‘world-class’ education – but that’s for another post)
Justice (the accompanying book) is an expanded version of his lectures, covering the same ground with many of the same arguments and examples. While it’s arguable that there’s no point buying the book if the lectures are free, books are surely a superior medium to videos for helping people understand complex ideas and problems – even if videos are easier to watch.
For example, Sandel has a particularly fine explanation of Kant’s moral philosophy and his idea of heteronomy, one whose subtleties might be lost – or at least smoothed over – if done as a video:
People often argue over the role of nature and nurture in shaping behavior. Is the desire for Sprite (or other sugary drinks) inscribed in the genes or induced by advertising? For Kant, this debate is deside the point. Whenever my behavior is biologically determined or socially conditioned, it is not truly free. To act freely, according to Kant, is to act autonomously. And to act autonomously is to act according to a law I give myself – not according to the dictates of nature or social convention.
One way of understanding what Kant means by acting autonomously is to contrast autonomy with its opposite. Kant invents a word to capture this contrast – heteronomy. When I act heteronomously, I act according to determinations given outside of me.
… It is 3:00 a.m., and your college roommate asks you why you are up late pondering moral dilemmas involving runaway trolleys [a subject covered earlied in the book].
“To write a good paper in Ethics 101,” you reply.
“But why write a good paper?” your roommate asks.
“To get a good grade.”
“But why care about grades?”
“To get a job in investment banking.”
“But why get a job in investment banking?”
“To become a hedge fund manager someday.”
“But why be a hedge fund manager?”
“To make a lot of money.”
“But why make a lot of money?”
“To eat lobster often, which I like. I am, after all, a sentient creature. That’s why I’m up late thinking about runaway trolleys!”
This is an example of what Kant would call heteronomous determination – doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, and so on. When we act heteronomously, we act for the sake of ends given outside us. We are instruments, not authors, of the purposes we pursue.
What I enjoyed so much about this example is how it gave a word to a feeling that had been nagging at me for a while, the problem that it is so easy to completely relinquish your actions to external factors instead of internal ones; the use of investment banking and hedge fund management is sadly all too apt for Harvard and Oxbridge students (many of whom I know myself). Continue reading “On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)”
I haven’t talked much about the books I’ve read recently, and having finished a slew of them recently, I thought I’d take a look back at all the books I’ve read this year. On the whole, there aren’t as many as usual; work, magazines and periodicals, and notably Infinite Jest, really took their toll.
The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde. A beautifully-written book about why people make creative works, how they should be compensated (with reference to gift-based economies in the past), and the sources of inspiration. There was a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert doing the rounds a few months ago about nurturing creativity; it’s pretty good, but if you want to know more about the subject, Lewis Hyde’s book is absolutely the place to go. I finished this book in a couple of weeks, I think.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. When I bought this in June 2008, I got a dozen pages in and developed a headache from the second-person narration and shamefully abandoned the book. My second attempt was much more successful and I came to appreciate the literally mysterious structure. I’ll admit that a few of the chapters dragged for me, but the rest of the book more than made up for it.
Many of these books were read on a four day cruise to Cork, Ireland.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Much has been written about Taleb’s assertion that people fool themselves into thinking they can accurately predict and/or quantify the chances of extremely rare events occurring (e.g. stock market crashes). Several people have told me they liked the book but can’t stand it because Taleb is so full of himself; I think this is besides the point. He is full of himself, but that doesn’t stop the book from being interesting and entertaining.
I found it irritating that the Guardian condemned David Cameron for talking to Taleb, because of Taleb’s ‘wacky’ views (which were subsequently clarified by Taleb). I’m no die-hard Taleb fan myself – and I’m not a David Cameron fan either – but I think Taleb has things that politicians would be well-advised to hear, and scare-stories from the Guardian do no-one any good.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Much as I enjoyed Infinite Jest, like many others, I absolutely adore DFW’s essays and articles. His essay on television is incredibly foresighted for something written in 1993, although I would have been interested in his opinion of the HBO-style dramas of recent years; his coverage of the Illinois State Fair is wonderfully funny and characteristically introspective. Probably the best essay, which the book was named after, is about his trip on a cruise ship. I’d already read the essay online, but I was happy to re-read it, and I’m sure that I’ll never see the words ‘lapis lazuli’ in the same way ever again… (it also became obvious, from this book, that Neal Stephenson is a massive fan of DFW).
Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. What are the minds (or ‘mindsets’) that are required to succeed and flourish in the information-rich, hyper-competitive, fast-moving, etc, etc, world of the 21st century? Gardner attempts to explain here. This was an interesting book, but not much stuck with me apart from the later sections on the ‘respectful’ mind.
Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood. If you’ve ever heard me talking about Margaret Atwood, it is normally about one of two subjects. Firstly, the fact that British people think she’s either British or American. Secondly, the fact that she strenously denies that Oryx and Crake (and the new The Year of the Flood) are not science fiction – which they plainly are – while simultaneously decrying science fiction. Having said that, I have actually read and enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and since I have a real interest in economics and history these days, no amount of science-fiction denial was going to get in my way here. Payback was a good look at the history of debt and the way in which it’s been treated and contorted over the centuries, although it ends on a bizarrely hard-line note (which is probably not surprising given the eco-apocalyptic nature of her novels, but there you go). Continue reading “Books of 2009”
I was so impressed with the first two minutes of Mass Effect, the new sci-fi RPG for the Xbox 360, that I had to play through it twice and then show everyone at work. While it’s essentially nothing but an extended cutscene, it’s a beautiful, well-directed, well-paced and astonishingly atmospheric introduction to the game. If you have a friend who owns Mass Effect, make an effort to have them show you it. You get more out of it if you customise your avatar’s appearance, as well.
I finished Mass Effect a couple of hours ago – it took me a little over fifteen hours to complete, playing about an hour per day for two weeks, and while those fifteen hours obviously weren’t as good as the intro, I’m very pleased I bought the game. It’s not without its substantial flaw, but I respect the efforts the designers put into creating a wholly original fictional world, and populating it with interesting characters and technology. Writing a science fiction game is tricky – the players will be very familiar with the genre, so you have to avoid stereotypical SF tropes while also not completely confusing those who aren’t so familiar.
(As an aside, I read somewhere that the space opera brand of science fiction has become very unfashionable, hence the reason why it’s vanished from TV and films. I would disagree – it’s as popular as it ever was, it’s just migrated to videogames, where it rules the roost. Halo and Mass Effect serve to demonstrate its enduring popularity.)
Mass Effect’s gameplay is split up into quests. There’s the main quest, which I spent around half my time on, and unsurprisingly it had the more unique and fun gameplay compared to the dozens of side quests which are more or less independent of the main story. I did around a third of the side quests, maybe more, but I gave up after I realised that I simply wasn’t enjoying them. There was one quest in particular which put me off; it had an exciting backstory, and you had to clear up three bases full of robot soldiers. Sounded lots of fun.
I travelled over to the first base and killed the soldiers. It was fairly diverting, but nothing special. When I entered the second base, I thought, ‘How helpful that everyone’s standing in the same place as before’. In fact, the base was identical to the first one, except there were some more soldiers. I felt a bit disgusted by this, and of course the third base was exactly the same, but with some random barriers thrown in. Instead of making the quest more interesting, however, the barriers just made it more tedious. At this point I gave up on doing side quests because they were clearly designed just to consume time rather than actually be entertaining.
Compared to the rest of the game though, this is a minor complaint that can be easily fixed in the sequel. It’s far outweighed by the marvellous story, dialogue and pacing that make me very glad I bought an Xbox 360.
Michael Chabon’s new novel, Gentlemen of the Road, was originally published as a fifteen-part serial in the New York Times Magazine, echoing the lurid and massively popular penny dreadfuls from the turn of the (twentieth) century. Its working title was originally ‘Jews with Swords’ which evokes all sorts of strange images, while the story itself sees a duo of Jewish ‘gentlemen of the road’ – that is, itinerant rogues – embark on an epic adventure in the Kingdom of Khazaria in the 10th century. They’re conmen, thieves, hard-bitten and cynical – but of course, like all true adventurers, they’ve got hearts of gold and are immensely loyal to each other.
I’m a big fan of Chabon’s – I enjoyed reading Summerland, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and I tend to buy his books as soon as they come out. I was a little disappointed with Gentlemen of the Road though. Partly this was because of its serial format, which doesn’t work well when stitched into a novel, and partly its because the adventure, for all its wit and colour, was not all that exciting. It felt oddly cramped, at odds with Chabon’s love of run-on sentences and numerous asides, which often obscured the action.
The world itself, 10th century Eastern Europe/Middle East, with Jews pressed up against Muslim Caliphates, Christian Franks and vicious white raiders from the north, pressed home the point that things were really quite interesting back then, and there are ways for different religions to get along – to an extent. So if you liked Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, you’ll like Gentlemen of the Road.
I had high expectations of this novel – too high, perhaps – but despite my disappointment I don’t regret buying it. It’s an entertaining read, one that’s best consumed at a measured pace, as opposed to my frantic reading. I picked it up on discount for £5 in a handsome hardback format, but I would suggest reading it online for free instead. You can do this without any guilt whatsoever, because it’s still on the New York Times Magazine website. Enjoy!
- Chapter 1: On Discord Arising From Excessive Love of a Hat
- Chapter 2: On Payment — and Trouble, Its Inevitable Gratuity
- Chapter 3: On the Burdens and Cruelties of the Road
- Chapter 4: On the Substitution of One Angel, and One Cause for Another
- Chapter 5: On the Observance of the Fourth Commandment Among Horse Thieves
- Chapter 6: On Some Peculiarities in the Trading Practices of Northmen
- Chapter 7: On the Seizing of a Low Moment
- Chapter 8: On a Niceness of Moral Discernment Uncommon Among Gentlemen of the Road
- Chapter 9: On anxieties arising from the impermissibility, however unreasonable, of an elephant’s rounding out a prayer quorum.
- Chapter 10: On the Belated Repayment of the Gift of a Pear
- Chapter 11: On the Unforeseen and Annoying Resemblance of a Bek’s Life to an Ill-Played Game of Shatranj
- Chapter 12: On a Consignment of Flesh
- Chapter 13: On Swimming to the Library at the Heart of the World
- Chapter 14: On the Melancholy Duty of Soldiers to Contend With the Messes Left by Kings
- Chapter 15: On Following the Road to One’s Destiny, With the Usual Intrusions of Violence and Grace
A brief roundup of things I have watched, read and played over the Christmas period:
Ratatouille is in contention for my ‘most rewatchable movie’ award. This has previously been the sole province of Master and Commander, another movie that doesn’t adhere to normal traditions of pacing and plotting. I’ve watched Ratatouille about four times now (at the theatre, on the plane, on DVD) and I’m not in any danger of getting tired of it – or its wonderful song, Le Festin.
Mario and Sonic at the Olympics (Wii)
I lent my Wii to a friend using it for a church teen videogames night, and he asked me to recommend a new party game, under the assumption that Wii Sports probably wouldn’t provide the same draw as it did last year. Mario and Sonic at the Olympics was what he ended up getting, and he kindly gave me the game afterwards.
It’s not a bad four player game, I suppose, but I can’t say I enjoy it much. It’s a compilation of sports minigames, of course, which needn’t be a bad thing – I quite liked Wario Ware, for example, and Rayman Raving Rabbids was entertaining as well. The problem with Mario and Sonic is that the minigames are surprisingly difficult to play well. Each minigame has anywhere between four and twelve pages of instructions, at the end of which you’re left scratching your head wondering what buttons you’re supposed to press, and in which order to do them in. And when you finally get around to playing the minigames, you find that they are either trivially easy, or frustratingly obtuse.
Trivially easy: 100m dash, 100m swimming, 110 hurdles, shooting, fencing. These all involve either shaking the controllers very fast, or pointing at things.
Frustratingly obtuse: Javelin, triple-jump, long jump. None of these are supposed to be hard, but despite reading the instructions several times and pressing the buttons at the right times, we just couldn’t figure it out. Four Oxbridge graduates couldn’t work out how to throw the javelin, and it took me literally a dozen tries to realise what I was doing wrong.
Some games are entertaining; archery, trampolining, rowing… that’s about it. And you can unlock some interesting ‘Dream Events’ which are basically Mario or Sonic-related games (i.e. nothing to do with ‘real’ sports). After a couple of hours of play, I’ve managed to unlock one, and I don’t think I have the patience to get the other three. I suspect it will be on eBay before long.
Tomorrow: Puzzle Quest, and an entire new novel by a bestselling author for free – legally!
Unsentimental. That’s what the Mortal Engines Quartet is.
Children’s fiction – in particular, children’s fantasy – is so strong nowadays that it’s hardly necessary to say that a book is adventurous, imaginative or exhilarating. They’re all adventurous, they’re all imaginative, they’re all exhilarating. And they’re all plenty good enough for adults to read as well.
Amid this wealth of excellence, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet stands out for a reason that others may not want to emulate: it’s uniquely unsentimental. His four books, set a world in which mobile cities rumble across the land on, chasing and consuming each other in a cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, are the most willfully unsentimental novels I have ever read. Villains do not get their just desserts; heroes are regularly punished for their virtues; and pretty much everyone is flawed in some nasty way.
Even Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy seems like Disneyland in comparison. This isn’t because the Mortal Engines Quartet is more depressing or more vicious – it isn’t. Instead, whereas Pullman’s novels are dark and serious affair all around, Reeve switches between carefree humour to awful tragedy so fast (and so often) that you just have no time to prepare yourself from general unfairness of the universe.
Enough about the unsentimentality for now – what about the story?
Mortal Engines, the first book in the series, begins with what is widely acknowledged as one of the best first lines in fantasy, ever:
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.
Immediately, you know that this is no normal children’s fantasy, and what comes next is a dazzling explosion of imagination; after the Sixty Minute War devastated most of world, cities began to re-engineer themselves so that they could move across the barren land in order to prey on smaller, ‘static’ settlements. Soon enough, every town, village, suburb and city was on the move, gobbling each other up in a great cycle of ‘Municipal Darwinism’. London is now composed of several tiers, with St. Paul’s Cathedral relocated to the very top, and other streets arranged under it. Continue reading “Municipal Darwinism”