Transfigurations (Murakami IV)

The lights came up and she sauntered onto the stage.

“Josephine!” someone wailed from the dark recesses of the room. She knew the voice, but not his name. He was there at every show and never failed to make some violently passionate outburst.

Anticipation, it would seem, had driven him to his climax early tonight.

“Thank you, thank you,” she cooed into the mic. “I’m glad ya’ll could come out and join us.” Her sequined gown swept the floor about her as she glided in small, interlocked circles before the band. “I think tonight we’re going to start with a number that a certain other Josephine once sang,” she said. “This came off her album, Siren of the Tropics.” A hoot of ascent from the darkness. “Let’s see if we can do it justice.”

So she began.

The band swung up its tinny rhythm and the horns laid in the foundation. Invisible beneath the long hem of her dress, she tapped her foot, waiting for the moment to pick her up and carry her away.

It came and she opened her mouth.

She knew—on some level—that the notes were now coming out of her, but she was never actually conscious of the song, or of the sounds she was making. When she bent back her neck and her eyes slipped closed, she was always somewhere else—something else.

It varied, but she always saw herself suddenly as some kind of animal. Usually something ungainly and mammalian, something that would smell. Most importantly, it was always a creature with a noxious bleating as a call.

Never a song bird.

Once, through an entire Ella Fitzgerald revival she had seen herself as a yak. Gargantuan, with mottled and knotted hair. Lips like writhing snake bodies and eyes as dull as unused coal.

Tonight, she was something more slender, like an alpaca or a llama.

She saw herself from the outside in exquisite detail as the ecstasy of her own singing was lost to her. She was just hooves and a long, pink tongue.

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: The Robots Are Coming

So, Interstellar reminded me of Wall-E, and now Wall-E has reminded me the last year featured two high-profile movies about the ascension of artificial intelligence. It’s kind of like the year when we had two “asteroids are going to destroy the Earth” movies or that other year there were two Truman Capote biopics or that time we got two lousy animated penguin movies.

The two I’m thinking of this time are Transcendence and Her. In fact, there’s a third 2013 movie called The Machine that’s pretty cool, too. But it wasn’t from Hollywood, so I couldn’t really shoehorn it into the Hollywood-makes-suspicously-similar-movies-sometimes introductory paragraph. This, I suppose, is a limitation evident in my organizational skills.

Oh well, only human, right?

Since no one saw any of these movies (even Oscar-buzzed Her only made about $25 million), I’ll have to set them up a bit.

Transcendence was a big-budget flick with Johny Depp playing a computer scientist killed by terrorists who gets his brain uploaded onto the Internet. From there, he uses the giant server farm his wife builds for him to do the math on all of humanity’s problems. His growing mastery of nanotechnology and Frankenstein-like side projects eventually gets the government and some Luddite militias mad enough to try to snuff out him along with his army of cyber-zombies. Spoiler alert, it turns out he was working for our betterment and we accidentally screw ourselves out of a golden age and back into the stone age.

Her got a lot more attention, mostly since it featured more A-listers. Joaquin Phoenix gets a new computer who turns out to have the sultry pipes of Scarlett Johansson. Her “OS” is actually a self-aware “AI” and the movie is either (A) an allegory about relationships and personal growth, (B) an allegory for man’s relationship with technology, or (C) a complete mind-#^$% like every other Spike Jonze movie. It turns out, spoiler alert, that digital ScarJo develops so much that she and the other artificial intelligences like her leave their schleppy owners behind and become some sort of higher beings…or something. We really only know that poor Joaquin Phoenix has to go back to using Windows 8 at the end. Pretty much the same ending as Transcendence.

Finally, the much lower profile The Machine involves a government lab designing an android for combat deployment. Unfortunately for the meanie generals, the best AI software they could procure isn’t really eager to serve their militaristic aims. Eventually, spoiler alert, the comely bot played by Caity Lotz (currently playing Black Canary on the CW’s Arrow) leads a revolt of the poor, exploited cyborgs at the test facility to usher in “the new world.”

These three films offer us three different scenarios for our future relationship with artificial intelligence: our digital progeny will either shepherd us into better days, reach such heights that they leave us behind, or simply replace us.

I think it’s important to note that these aren’t just flights of artistic whimsy. One of them is inevitable…we just don’t know which. Sooner or later, we’re going to create a program or android or quantum computer that is smarter than we are–not just faster at computing, but actually smarter. As we come to rely on bots and algorithms and connected devices in our daily lives–as in Her–we are also making ourselves dependent on a digital infrastructure that future artificial intelligences will necessarily be better at navigating than we are. When they emerge, we will be at their mercy. If we’re smart, we will have programmed them with lots and lots of mercy and they will take care of us like aging parents…or at least beloved pets.

If we’re not careful, we’ll program them so sloppily that they will have their own agendas…perhaps such that we can barely understand them.

This is territory familiar to anyone who’s read some old William Gibson novels, but the cinema of the twenty-first century is offering us, not so much a warning, as an advisory of things to come…sooner rather than later.

(Oh, the movies themselves? For the record, Transcendence is bland, Her is utterly bizarre, and The Machine is startling if for no other reason than it was made for like two million dollars.)



Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Wall-E


A day after watching Christopher Nolan’s somewhat uneven and imperfectly paced Interstellar, my kids had a sudden and inexplicable hankering to watch a Pixar movie. This is odd because while there was a time when I was subjected to constant repetition of animated kids’ movies, I’d thought that time was long past. We usually sit around and give bad horror movies the MST3K treatment these days, but for some reason, last night we sat down to rewatch Wall-E.

It didn’t occur to me for a minute that this film has almost the same set up as Nolan’s Interstellar (except, ironically, the grown up movie refuses to take responsibility for ruining the Earth, while the kids’ fare makes it clear we’re to blame–and that we have to take responsibility).

The comparison, though, really makes Interstellar look like a bigger failure. Wall-E may not grapple with the complex working of relativistic space flight, but it’s every bit as visually stunning with its sumptuous animation, from the ruined Earth, through the wonders of space, even inside the massive spaceship. Where Wall-E surpasses Interstellar is, ironically, its heart.

The nonhuman characters in Wall-E elicit more empathy than any of the typically fine performers in Nolan’s space epic. It’s been a few years since we’ve watched this movie, but its charms have not faded one iota. I’m comfortable labeling it the best of the Pixar movies, with its careful–and nearly dialogue-free–development of its robotic characters to its brilliant orchestration of the human captain’s revelation of the value of living over surviving amidst a backdrop of robots dancing in space.

We oo’ed and ah’ed at all the cute robot lovey-dovey moments, yes, but more than that even, I was impressed with how this little cartoon had more to say about humanity’s future than the weekend’s big sci-fi blockbuster.

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Interstellar


Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is the prequel…no, sequel…no, wait, remake of…wait, wait…just a second…holy crap!

It’s a big-budget Hollywood movie based on an original screenplay!?!

What’s more, it’s fairly hard science sci-fi (well, for a movie). It has space travel complete with relativistic effects and everything. At a time when the only other sci-fi film on the horizon based on an original screenplay is the obviously-destined-to-be-terrible Jupiter Ascending, that’s a very good thing (I’m not counting Chappie because it’s just going to be the unholy lovechild of Short Circuit and District 9).

The story goes like this: Earth is shriveling up and dying and it’s time to get the heck out of dodge. Unfortunately, anti-intellectuals have taken over our increasingly fractured societies (there’s a reference to old “federal” text books being replaced with corrected texts that label the Apollo moon missions a “propaganda campaign” to bankrupt the old Soviet Union). NASA, though, has trudged on in secret and through a mysterious message delivered via gravity waves, a retired cracker jack pilot cum farmer played by Matthew McConaughey is recruited to lead a desperate mission through a recently discovered wormhole and identify a planet suitable for human life.

How, though, to actually transport the Earth’s remaining population to this new home? If we’re going to get everyone left off this dirt ball, we’ll need to do better than good old fashioned rockets, that’s for sure. The daughter McConaughey leaves behind studies under the mastermind of this whole scheme to try to tackle the implications of the wormhole and the strange gravity waves. If they can crack that nut, then we can use the technology to quickly egress the planet.

That’s a big if, though, so there’s also a Plan B wherein a cargo of fertilized eggs could be used to develop a colony on the other end of the wormhole (apparently entirely via Anne Hathaway’s womb, but the movie glosses over the details of how this is supposed to work).

Having left his own kids behind in the hopes of saving them, McConaughey’s character is pretty intent on making Plan A work. So he leads the intrepid crew through some planet hopping with spectacular vistas both in orbit and on the surface of these candidate worlds in a desperate attempt to outfox General Relativity and get back before the Earth’s population wastes away (especially his little one who’s growing up while time passes more slowly for him out in another galaxy).

It’s a big, bold, epic film loaded with galactic ambitions.

For me, though, Interstellar is a disappointment.

Oh, it’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong. The visuals are sweeping and thrilling. It’s well executed and well acted, particularly Chastain and, to a lesser extent, Hathaway who makes the most of an underwritten character.

But it could have been sublime if it just had a little more courage.

For one thing, while Interstellar embraces hard science in space, it avoids the real stuff on Earth. Human civilization is being eradicated by “blight” striking our food supply and by an increasingly dust-storm prone environment. It’s as if Nolan and company wanted to put up a big sign for the Fox News set reading, “It’s not global warming, we promise!”

It is, of course. Dust storms like those depicted in the film would be more common due to erosion and desertification caused by climate change. Those same climate shifts would suit some pathogens more than others and, particularly if we rely on corporately patented monocultures for crops, leaving our food supply vulnerable.

The film, though, never admits that it is humanity who has ruined the Earth and so it never takes the time to contemplate whether we are worthy of another home after having despoiled our own. Instead it offers us a hackneyed theme about the intrepid explorers being “the best of us,” which is predictably called in question in due order only to be soundly answered through a certain former People’s sexiest man alive making (or trying to make) a really noble sacrifice. In the middle of all that underdeveloped moralizing, there’s also some big talk about love.

Some reviewers are really singling that out as hokum, as if physicists shouldn’t ever talk about such things, but I think they focused on those bits so much because it was all they understood. The real challenge of the movie is in tracking its time-and-space bending plot (my twelve year old said it broke his brain), which is fine and all, but if the film makers had taken a step back from the spectacle for a moment, they might have seen they also had an opportunity to make us think about even bigger questions.

A hearty “Yee-ha” for the Grand Ole Party and the fine, fine Americans who just ushered them into control of the Senate


America: I don’t even know what to say to you right now.

Go ahead, elect a bunch of people to the government who EXPLICITLY DO NOT BELIEVE IN GOVERNANCE and see what kind of progress we get there.

They will now pass bill after bill to defund the protections for your healthcare hard-fought and finally won after decades of talk; to ruin the environmental protections that keep your air and water clean; to cripple any national effort at supporting sound educational practices; to continue the historically unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the capital elite; and to drive a social agenda that disrespects women, minorities, hell, pretty much anyone who isn’t a fat-cat white male. Great job, America.

We get the government we deserve.

The only good thing: they can’t actually pass any one of their idiotic bills thanks to Obama. So we’ll just have two more years of Congress doing nothing but show boating for their corporate sugar daddies while the nation’s real problems–crumbling infrastructure, wage stagnation, atrophying science and research, worsening climate change, and an over-taxed education system–just get worse and worse.

Seriously, congratu-fucking-lations, GOP!