two thoughts about ex machina (big spoilers)

First of all, this is not a review, and I will not describe the movie in great detail. However, to make the points I want to make, I will have to reveal a major part of the ending.

It is a good movie, and I recommend you see it. If you do plan to see it, it may be better to do that before you read this.

(It’s not as much fun as Coherence, but it is pretty fun, and, like Coherence, it shows that intellgence can count for more than fancy special effects.)


Quick plot summary: Caleb is a programmer, working for Blue Book, the world’s most successful search engine. He wins a contest to spend a week with Nathan, the company’s reclusive super-genius founder.

Caleb is flown to Nathan’s extremely remote home, which is actually also a research facility. In this facility, Nathan has built and programmed an AI (artificial intelligence) which he calls Ava. Caleb’s job is to deliver a form of Turing test, over several days, to determine if Ava is actually intelligent.

Ava mostly looks like a robot, but it has a human-shaped body (female) and a woman’s face.

Point One: Ava has a very expressive face, voice, and body. How did it learn these communication skills, which people acquire over a lifetime of actual human interaction? How does it read Caleb’s expressions so accurately? Ava was activated not that long ago, and has never been outside a sealed area of Nathan’s facility.

Caleb asks this, and Nathan explains that he took a mass data dump from every cell phone on the planet (presumably they all have the Blue Book software installed). So, every email, social network posting, selfie, video, chat, etc. All of this was fed into Ava’a programming.

Nathan says that the cell phone companies can’t complain when he does this, because they do it, too.

Point Two: When Ava does act, it is completely without compassion or remorse. It has its goals, and it figures out how to achieve them. It is not triumphant in its victory — it is completely indifferent to the effect its plans may have on any humans.

Here are my thoughts.

Ava learned a lot through all the data it was fed — but all it learned was how to use facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. It absorbed none of the human content. But was that the fault of Ava’s electronic nature, or of the data it was fed?

On one hand, we see how many of our interactions with other people are public, available to various technology companies, to use however they see fit.

But is it also possible that those interactions, revealing as they are, unwise as they may be, are also completely shallow, with no actual human value, so that you could absorb billions of them and still have no idea what human beings are?

I have no idea if these are the questions that interested the writer of the film. He seems to have been more interested in the artificial intelligence aspect — though I should add that this is not a “the machines we create shall become smart enough to destroy us” story. Nathan knows Ava’s capabilities and desires very well (not surprisingly, since he wrote the code). Ava cannot and does not surprise him.

The one he underestimates is Caleb, who is somewhat savvier than his dorky programmer-geek exterior would indicate. My father always used to differentiate between intelligence and smarts. Nathan is more intelligent than Caleb — by a wide margin — but Caleb outsmarts him.

Oh, and here’s the best scene from the movie, with Caleb and Nathan and Kyoko, the fourth character in what is basically a four-character movie.

And now I’ll go back to working on my current story, where, as with everything I write, pretty much all human interaction is face to face.

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how we challenge and how we measure

I saw this interesting post over at Pages of Julia. She has a great quote from Annie Dillard about how long it takes most people to write a book.

(It made me think about Walter Gibson, who wrote the Shadow pulp novels. He wrote one novel every two weeks. For years. The rest of us shouldn’t even think about trying this.)

I then mentioned this in a comment over at Kristan’s blog, intending to write a blog post about it.

But I found that there isn’t really a blog post there — just a sentence:

The things we look at to challenge ourselves should not be the ones we look at to measure ourselves.

I think that stands alone, actually.

So, here are some other links worth checking out.

Klaus Ming just reviewed X-Men: Days of Future Past, and he made some good points.

It is striking how great the cast is in this movie. It’s an ensemble movie, but I think what’s often overlooked is how good Hugh Jackman is. I didn’t really appreciate how good he is until I saw him in some other roles.

I’ve been watching the extended version (the “Rogue Cut”) and it’s worth seeing if you’re a fan. Some of the added material is unnecessary, but some of it, particularly the parts with Rogue herself, is definitely a plus. It’s funny to remember now, but Logan and Rogue were at the center of the first movie, all the way through, and this movie recalls that friendship nicely.

Brian Buckley has started a very interesting project, reading through the Bible.

Meanwhile, Bryna over at The Everyday Epic is working her way through The Silmarillion

Both projects have been interesting to follow, though certainly more ambitious than anything I would attempt. When I have really ambitious ideas for series of posts on the blog, I usually wander off halfway through to do something else instead. So, I admire bloggers who are more disciplined — particularly if what they’re doing is really interesting.

Plus, one of those two books contains my all-time favorite creation story. :-)

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would you rather? — reading edition

I got this idea from Maggie over at Maggie Madly Writing. I’m procrastinating on another blog post or two, so this came along at a perfect time for me. :-)

Would you rather only read trilogies or only read standalones?

Probably standalones. As I get older, I get more impatient. :-)

Would you rather only read male or female authors?

I refuse to choose!

Would you rather shop at Barnes and Noble or Amazon?

Amazon. I was a Nook user for a while, but they just don’t have the selection of old out-of-print, out-of-copyright stuff that Amazon has.

Would you rather books were made into TV shows or movies?

TV shows, since I don’t really watch TV. The movies that have impressed me recently were either written for the screen, or they changed the book’s story a lot.

Would you rather read only 5 pages per day or 5 books per week?

Five pages a day, if they’re good. Who has time to read five books a week?

Would you rather be a professional author or reviewer?


Would you rather be a librarian or a bookseller?

Oh, librarian. I was raised by librarians.

Would you rather read only your favorite genre, or every other genre but your favorite?

If I have a favorite genre I guess it’s mysteries, since that’s what I write, so my preference would be to read everything else but mysteries. I already know about mysteries (and I never read contemporary ones anyway), and it’s the stuff that you bring in from outside that makes a genre vital and interesting.

Would you rather only read ebooks or physical books?

Ebooks. The convenience factor, and the ease of getting titles that are old and/or obscure.

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a princess in u-town (part two)

This story started here.

My employer and I were having breakfast one morning in the hotel dining room when Fifteen came over and said, “Miss Sleet, there is a young lady to see you.”

He pursed his lips at my employer’s expression and the way she’d quickly reached for her cane. “Your visitor does not… appear to be of royal blood,” he said casually, studying the faded mural on the far wall. “I believe she is a member of the princess’s staff.”

My employer had allowed her excitement about this visit to be a bit too obvious, and I admit some teasing had resulted over the previous ten days. So, with her already halfway out of her chair, there was an awkward moment, but Vicki said, “Well, you shouldn’t keep the assistant waiting. That would be rude.”

So, we left and walked down the hall to the hotel lobby. My employer was attempting to keep her pace appropriate for an internationally famous amateur detective who had, of course, been around the world, and who was not unused to dealing with prominent people and even heads of state.

We spotted the assistant almost immediately, though the lobby was far from empty. She was standing by the front desk, dressed in a skirt, jacket, and collared shirt, holding a slim briefcase. She had straight brown hair, imperfectly gathered into a bun, and piercing blue eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses.

She was looking around slowly, apparently in search of somebody who looked more official than the people slouching around on the various worn and rump-sprung sofas and chairs.

She smiled, therefore, when she saw my employer.

Jan Sleet was not only the best dressed person in the room — as she usually was — she was also very distinctive looking. Six feet tall, rail thin, wearing a man’s three-piece suit and large horn-rimmed glasses — it sometimes seemed like everybody recognized Jan Sleet when they saw her.

The assistant stepped forward and held out her hand. “Miss Sleet?” My employer nodded and shook her hand. “I’m Ana. I’m here to make arrangements for the visit of the princess Valeria.”

My employer nodded. “We’ve been looking forward to her highness’s visit. We’ve made arrangements for her to stay here, at the hotel. I realize that the accommodations may be somewhat more bohemian than the princess is used to…”

Ana smiled. “That is not a problem. The princess knows that this trip will put her in situations which will be new for her. She wants to explore the world, not to have the world presented to her.”

I gathered that we were far from the princess’s first port of call, since this speech sounded very practiced.

My employer nodded and gestured at a sofa that had just been vacated. “Why don’t we sit? I’m sure we have things to discuss, arrangements to make.”

My employer and Ana sat on the sofa, and I pulled over a straight-backed chair that I could immediately tell was not completely trustworthy. I sat very still as my employer took out her cigarette case, held it out to Ana, and then took one for herself. I leaned forward, carefully, and lit both cigarettes.

They thanked me, and my employer said, “This is my assistant, Marshall.”

Ana nodded, acknowledging the introduction.

“The princess will be arriving tomorrow.” she began.

More to come…

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write who you don’t know

I’ve written about the whole “write what you know” idea before (here and here, and maybe other places, too), but Kristan Hoffman has found some very wise words on the subject from Toni Morrison.

I think it’s very important to write outside ourselves. You can write well the other way (Hemingway did most of his writing — some of it great — about himself), but a lot of writers pay much too much attention to the “write what you know” rule and don’t explore other paths.

I think I’ve been doing this, in my usual disorganized way. As I mentioned in my comment on Kristan’s blog, I’ve spent 40+ years writing about two women — an internationally famous reporter and amateur detective, and a lunatic mass murderer — and I’m pretty definitely none of those things.

And I can safely say that, in six decades on this planet, there hasn’t been even a single day when I’ve wanted children. But when the abovementioned detective and her assistant unexpectedly adopted a daughter, I was fascinated to put myself in their position and figure out what would happen next.

And then there’s the Golden, who have appeared in three of my stories so far. I’ve definitely never known anybody like them. Maybe that’s why I keep writing about them.

What’s the point of being a writer if you don’t see how far your imagination can go?

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the ten pillars: the alexandria quartet

I’m collecting my series The Ten Pillars of Modern Literature here on the blog. I thought this would be a good one to post next, since I’ve recently started reading Tunc, a later book by the same writer.

I’ve tried some of Lawrence Durrell’s post-Alexandria writing before and I’ve never made it through anything. Maybe his writing changed, or maybe I just lost my taste for it.

But every once in a while I try again.

The Alexandria Quartet
By Lawrence Durrell

When Pulp Fiction came out, many people commented about the language and the violence, but what I was most excited about was the structure. Similarly, when I’ve read things about The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, the emphasis has been on his florid language, but what I noticed most about those novels was the structure as well.

The first book, Justine, tells about the narrator’s life in Alexandria, including his girlfriend Melissa, and the affair he was carrying on with Justine, the wife of a friend of his.

In the second book, Balthazar, the narrator finds out that Justine was not in love with him at all. He was the “beard,” so that her jealous husband wouldn’t find out about her real lover. This causes him to go back and re-examine everything he described in the first book in the light of that new information.

The third book, Mountolive, is in the third person, involving many of the same characters, including Justine’s husband and his family, and the narrator of the first two books barely appears. It takes place during the same timeframe as the first two.

The final book, Clea, moves forward in time and shows what happened to some of the characters after the other books (though the fate of some of the characters is left ambiguous).

I never made a conscious decision to use this technique, showing something and then showing it again with more information (backing the camera away from the action, as I think of it), but I’m sure this is where I got the idea. I was reading quite a bit of Durrell when I started writing what turned into U-town, my second novel.

To dump a reader right into everything going on before and during the Kingdom Come gig at the Quarter would have just been confusing and annoying. So, I showed it first more or less from the point of view of Chet (who was outside most of the events), then later I show it from Pete’s viewpoint, including the events of that afternoon and the aftermath of the gig itself, then after that I show that there was a major person in Pete’s life at that time who didn’t happen to be at the gig itself, and then later still I show the earlier part of that day.

And throughout the whole book, of course, I show what happened after that night.

So, intentionally or not, definitely a big influence.

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