It is arguable that we live in a post-colonial age. We no longer see major powers moving into previously independent places and usurping the land and the people and declaring them to now be part of some empire. Not the way we did in the 18th and 19th centuries. (We wink at smaller-scale examples of roughly the same thing, but while Ukraine may be prey to Russia, we don’t see Russia trying to occupy New Zealand.) The scramble for Africa was the last eruption of such hubris. And there are now plenty of studies indicating that it was never a profitable enterprise anyway, that every power that indulged its imperialist urge did so at great expense that was never recouped, not in the long run. At best, such endeavors paid for the re-formation of both the imperial power and its colonies into more modern forms independent of each other. At worst, it was pillage that benefited a few individuals and large companies and resulted in short-term wealth-building and long-term grief for everyone involved.
Yet the impulse drove relocations of population, experiments in applied bureaucratic overreach, and an ongoing debate over the ethics of intrusion. One could argue that the Aztec civilization was a horrible construct with human sacrifice at its aesthetic center and the world is well rid of it. On the other hand, it is equally true that the Spaniards who toppled it had no right to do so and unleashed a different sort of ugliness on the indigenous populations. Every European power that followed them into the so-called New World bears the same weight of shame for the wanton destruction of things they could not understand. If here and there something positive came out of it, that something was by accident and had no real part of the initial decision to Go There.
With what we now know—ethically, scientifically, behaviorally—if given the chance to do it again, would we? And if we decided to go ahead anyway, would we do anything differently or would we still be dominated by a subconscious obsession to exploit for resources to fuel a growing population trapped within an economic system that seems custom made to produce the necessary excuses to do what we want with whatever we find?
We seem forever to be doing things that go sour on us and then having to clean up the mess and apologize and figure out how to prevent a repeat performance. The problem with that is, one situation is not so exactly like another that the lessons do not come with big loopholes and the opportunity for rationalizing our hubristic avarice.
In short, we never learn.
At least, not in aggregate. We understand this as well and so a good part of our political theorizing is geared toward a place wherein the individual moral insight can be effectively balanced against the rock-stupid momentum of the group; and in which the common wisdom of historical experience as exemplified by the group can temper the less enlightened passions of the individual. In other words, to find the point at which we can allow for the individual who is correct to trump the so-called “will of the people” and conversely where that common will can morally check the individual who may only be thinking of him or herself, the group be damned.
Underneath, threaded into, and informing Marguerite Reed’s Philip K. Dick Award nominated novel, Archangel, we find this ongoing debate carried on at several levels.
Ubastis is a world seemingly ideal for large-scale human settlement. Two waves of advance “scouts” grounded to do extensive surveys, impact studies, and established trial settlements. It became clear that this was a vital ecosphere and that, compatibility aside, questions of too much too soon drove the negotiations that prevented a rush to fill it with human excess. Dr. Vashti Loren, widow of the spiritual and moral leader of these two waves, is one of the principle advisors on the ad hoc committee overseeing Ubasti, which exists as a kind of protectorate. The rest of human polity is hungry for it to be opened for a larger human presence, which the people who live there know will mean the ruin of a unique biome. Vashti becomes the focus of all the efforts to forestall such open colonization. As the widow of a slain “hero” she carries great weight.
She is also a problematic figure in this culture. She is a genetically unmodified human in a larger culture where modification has become so widespread that “Natches” are special. That she is a protector of an “unmodified” ecosphere is only the first layer of what becomes a deeply meaningful representation of not only human moral responsibility but also human potential in an alien cosmos.
Reed gives us a civilization where aggression is being gene-modified out of individual humans, even though wars are ostensibly still fought, uprisings happen, and certain strain of bloodlust remains a given in controlled contexts. That Vashti is wholly unmodified adds to the irony that she also hunts native species as part of her job as an exobiologist and as a kind of PR component to assuage outworlders who are curious, acquisitive, and need persuading that Ubastis requires the time to be understood before the exploitation full-scale human settlement will bring. She takes outworld visitors on sdafari to hunt the local big game.
Her deceased husband, Lasse, was murdered by a renegade “soldier”—a Beast, a BioEngineered ASault Tactician, a member of a clone experiment in super soldiers—as a result of trying to prevent poaching. The Interests trying to discard the treaty that keeps Ubastis inviolate have all along been probing at the defenses, trying to engineer excuses for open incursions. Vashti kills the Beast. That action calls into question her sanity, but she effectively defends herself from charges that would see her “re-educated.”
What she did not know was the deeper game her husband was playing to bring about a future independent Ubastis—and that it involved the Beasts, the lot of which have been presumably destroyed as too dangerous. Vashti begins to learn what her husband never told her when she is confronted with a Beast that has been smuggled onto Ubastis by the governor’s wife. She vows to kill it, but that impulse itself gradually morphs into powerfully conflicted responsibilities, the details of which comprise the plot of this densely-detailed and finely-realized novel.
Vashti. The name has history. She was the Queen of a Persian ruler who requested she appear naked before a banquet he was holding in honor of other kings. A “higher politics” was obviously going on and his demand of his wife was obviously part of the impression he was trying to make on his fellow kings. Vashti refused. Harriet Beecher Stowe later declared that Vashti’s refusal was the first blow for women’s rights. She followed her own code. Her husband’s request was deeply inappropriate even in that culture. Vashti stood by her own values.
Make of that what you will. Reed’s Vashti is a woman dedicated to a set of principles which are sorely tested in the course of the novel. Watching her come to terms with political, ecological, and moral realities and steer a course between the shoals of competing colonial, imperial, and personal demands makes for a compelling read. She is a superbly realized, flawed character, and the questions she raises, wrestles with, and reacts to lend themselves to consideration long after the last page.
This is excellent science fiction. It takes the abstract, the conjectural, and the epistemology of human systems and moral dictates and makes them personal, the stakes high, and answers often problematic, leaving us with a great deal to think about.
After eight years, the ABC show Castle has ended. Despite a strong premise and a superb cast and excellent presentation, the show exemplified dramatic entropy of the most annoying kind and after an earlier announcement that one of its two main stars would not be returning for a ninth season, the decision was taken to kill it.
I watched all eight seasons. Initially, I loved it. How could I not? The title character was a writer—true, every wanna-be writer’s wet dream of a writer: successful, rich, sexually active, and cool—who manages to fall into a plum opportunity “riding along” with one of the best detective squads in the NYPD. Richard Castle, because of his social status (privilege) can manipulate his way via the mayor into this spot, despite Detective Kate Beckett’s strong and perfectly reasonable protests.
So far so good. He’s the loose cannon, the out-of-box thinker, she’s by-the-book and wicked smart. They combine into an ideal team.
There was the story arc of Beckett’s mother’s murder that bound multiple seasons together in an ongoing manhunt for the real power behind the murder, which they played out in just the right amount while doing some of the smartest police/detective drama on tv. The first three seasons were gems of the form.
But then the creep set in. For whatever reason, Castle himself started losing some of the savvy that made him special. He seemed often to have forgotten that he once knew these things. The daredevil kid grew more cautious and in some cases lost his nerve.
Worse, he became the most gullible smart person on television. He went from someone very grounded and aware of the world as it is to the ideal X-Files fan, believing in—or hoping to believe in—the dumbest, most debunked, infantile nonsense. As a foil to Beckett’s far more consistent logic and common sense it was amusing. But as it continued it just got tiresome.
And then they fell in love. Very plausibly, I might add, and it gave the show another boost. Why not? It was the sense of impending disaster that kept Beckett from allowing herself to see what was happening between them.
And then there was the mystery of her mother. That turned out to be a surprisingly plausible mcguffin. When they finally found the culprit, it made sense, and then later when Beckett was able to arrest him, it was very satisfying.
But then what? Marriage, more crimes, more of the same. In the logic of tv series, someone says “They need a Nemesis!” So a new one was invented. A power behind the power. Another layer.
Mishandled, though, with none of the deep logic of the original. Just a faceless entity who was doing…what? Aside from somehow being a bad guy, what exactly did this Locksat do that was so harmful to society? To what end other than to bedevil Our Heroes did he exist?
Still, when the writing was on and the crime of the week was good, the show still managed to appeal. And the byplay between Castle and Beckett was enjoyable. But you could see that it didn’t have long to go before it all ran out of steam.
Last night, May the 16, the series finale aired. Apparently there were two episodes filmed, depending upon renewal or cancellation. We got the cancellation episode.
It was dire. Never mind plot holes, the striongs that were being knotted to tie all the loose ends together were visible almost from the beginning. We discover who Locksat is and it’s so out of left field as to have no impact,no satisfying “AH HAH!” moment. The loony assassin is interesting, but he has no backstory to speak of. Beckett and Castle both accept too many things at face value and walk right into—
They were all tired and wanted to be done with it. The series has ended, we know what happens to Our Heroes, and there is finality. If not a decent closure.
Why the decision was taken somewhere around the middle to end of season three to start lobotomizing Richard Castle, I don’t know. It was funny occasionally but it just got painful. Beckett remained consistent, even when she got a little ditzy over Rick (but love will do that, so it wasn’t really implausible). There were a number of strong episodes in every season, even this last one, but overall…
It is not necessary for only one main character to be the smart one to make something like this work. Those first three seasons proved you could have intelligence in both characters. It didn’t even have to be the same kind, which was the point initially. But they had hit upon a formula and it seemed top work. And they rode it to the dismal end.
But it’s over now. Maybe they’ll spin off a show featuring Castle’s daughter, Alexis, and her new best friend as a pair of female P.I.s. That could work. But please, stop thinking that smart doesn’t sell. Stupid is just that and not very good drama.
Kazuo Ishiguro works a consistent theme. Even in his earliest novels, he explores the manner in which people refuse to acknowledge the reality through which they move. Many of his characters display a kind of aphasia, an inability to grasp the issues surrounding them, the motives of people, even those they are close to, or what is unfolding before their eyes. In a way, they are peculiarly narcissistic. I say peculiar because quite often their sense of themselves is the last thing they seem concerned with, even when others are.
At times this has led him to experiment with tactics of evasion that result in novels that resist our attempts to connect, even to access what is going on, but we read them anyway because he cloaks the experiments with plots and devices that hold our interest, but which we suspect are little more than extensions of the evasions at the core of his characters’ lives.
In a few instances, he has his characters actually go out in search of the mystery that seems to enshroud their worlds, though usually they look in the wrong places or simply fail to comprehend what they discover.
Such is the motive behind Axl and Beatrice as they leave their small village in the heart of a post-Arthurian England to find their long-absent and possibly estranged son and perhaps get to the bottom of the cloying fog suffocating memory. Their journey takes them to the source of a strange amnesia in The Buried Giant.
The landscape is mythic. This is a land occupied by Britons and Saxons. It is a land that has only recently been host to the epic struggles of King Arthur, Merlin, his knights, and the aspirations of Camelot. If there is any doubt how real Ishiguro intends us to treat this, he dispels such doubt by having Axl and Beatrice encounter the aging Sir Gawain, one of the few survivors of those days.
There is much of the Quixote in this Gawain, although his skills are impressive. Age alone has blunted his abilities. Ostensibly, he is still on a quest. Not the Grail. No, that is never mentioned. Rather he claims to be on a mission to slay the she-dragon Querig.
Joining them is a young Saxon warrior, Wistan, and a boy he has rescued from a village where because of a wound the boy suffered from ogres the villagers intend to kill him for fear that he will become an ogre. As, indeed, he is destined to—but not in the way superstition would have it.
Wistan for his part is also on a mission. He, too, is on the hunt for Querig. But for him Querig’s demise is but a means to an end, and a terrible end at that. He and Gawain come into conflict over it eventually and thereby we learn both the source of the Mist, which robs people of their memory, and a truth about King Arthur not recorded in the myths.
Through all this, even as it would seem rich material for a dense fantasy about knights and dragons and kings and ogres, Ishiguro’s focus is on Axl and Beatrice and the nature and quality of commitment and forgiveness. For in the mists of poorly-glimpsed memory there are terrible things between them and as they progress on their journey to find their son Axl begins to have second thoughts, not at all sure he wants to remember, afraid that perhaps he had been the cause of great pain and sorrow. Ishiguro is concerned here primarily—and almost exclusively—with the nature of time, memory, and forgiveness and the many ways they are the same essential thing.
In that sense, the controversy he stirred when the novel appeared by claiming that he was not writing a fantasy—that he did not want to be seen as plowing the same fields as George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss—was unfortunate. He spoke truly. This is not a fantasy in the sense of contemporary sword & sorcery or secondary-world fantasies. He is not doing the same thing as Martin, although he may have borrowed a subtheme or two from Tolkein. His disclaimer was taken as a derogation of fantasy, yet one can see from the text that he is fond of those elements of the book taken directly from the long tradition of English fantasy.
If there is a fantasy element here worthy of the name it is in his portrayal of the end of a mythology and the terminus of one world as it transforms into another. The Buried Giant is about remembering as much as it is about things forgotten. The changes soon to be wrought by the conclusion of Wistan’s quest and Gawain’s final stand have to do with how history turns and what is taken after a time of interregnum during which things lost are grasped, reshaped, and put to new uses.
But it is always about what is between people and how we use memory and its infelicities.
As in other Ishiguro novels, there is much that annoys. His characters talk. And talk and talk and talk and often it is about nothing until we realize that it is all tactic. Dissimulation as replacement for substantive communication—until finally the act of avoidance itself becomes the point and the things hidden are revealed by inference. Axl and Beatrice as blind and trying to perceive the elephant they explore with tentative fingers. That it is to a purpose, however, makes it no less frustrating, but it would be a mistake to see this as anything other than absolutely intended.
The point of the quest–for all of them–becomes evident when at last they find Querig and it turns out not to be what they had all expected. And we then see how myth sometimes is more useful than reality.
James Gleick’s biography of physicist Richard Feynman ought to be part of all high school science classes. Not only does he chronicle the life of one of the preeminent scientists of the 20th Century, not only does he portray the chief puzzle of physics in that century clearly, he manages to convey the substance of the work in enviably accessible prose without once “dumbing down” any of it. All this while using remarkably few equations and those usually only in description of what they do, not in the numbers and symbols themselves. One comes away from the book—Genius: The Life And Science of Richard Feynman—feeling that this would not be such a difficult subject, or at least feeling that it would be as much a human endeavor as art or music or engineering or accounting.
Science is encased in an opaque mythography that seems designed to make people feel inferior. In the main, this is a consequence of language. At one time, the language of science was abstruse in the extreme. Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story poking fun at the tortured convolutions of scientific jargon.
I say at one time. An effort has been made in recent decades to make it clearer. It occurred to some that the density and deliberate complexifying of scientific papers itself had done unintended damage to the field by making it inaccessible to the very people it is ultimately intended to benefit. We might not have such frustrating debates going on today in the social and political realms over climate or vaccination had scientists themselves, as part of in-group cultural arcana, kept the lay public at such a distance by making what they do appear simultaneously elitist and impenetrable.
Feynman himself rejected such practices throughout his career. He never assumed people—average people—couldn’t understand. Just say it plain. If you could not explain it clearly, he believed, then you yourself did not understand it. He was constantly railing against “stupid questions.” Questions either too vague, too big, or too beside the point for any kind of reasonable answer.
But he wanted the questions. He wanted to see that spark of interest, and if he saw a glimmering he would try to fan it into flame. His enthusiasm was infectious.
Richard Feynman became one of the most important questioners in 20th Century science. Partly this was due to his idiosyncratic approach to problem-solving. For example, he rarely ever finished reading a paper by someone else. He would read just enough to understand the problem and then work it out for himself. He didn’t want the solutions handed to him, he wanted the challenge and, evidently, deep pleasure of doing it himself. Of course, in that way he also found errors, logical inconsistencies, even fraud on occasion. He was a prodigious calculator, often able to do complex equations in his head. He intimidated and fascinated in equal measure.
What some mistook for slapdash, undisciplined thinking was rather underpinned by a vigorously compulsive commitment to fact and, ultimately, truth. The rigor of his work ultimately proved the equal or superior to many if not most of his contemporaries. He insisted that the universe make sense and, crucially, he was unafraid of admitting he did not know something.
He lost the love of his life while working on the atomic bomb, a perhaps unfortunate pairing of profound experiences which, while he seldom talked about either, perhaps informed his seemingly random path through post WWII physics. He was late in receiving a Nobel Prize, partly by his inability to find the “right problem” to work on.But in the course of his search, the work he did informed and solidified work done by many others.
Feynman may have been a genius. In a scintillating chapter, Gleick examines the subject of genius itself, partly to address the peculiar circumstance that we seem no longer to have any geniuses. This, he suggests, is a byproduct of the fact that we have so many and in a wide range of fields. What we seem to lack is the singular personality to which the label readily appends. We have no public space anymore for an Einstein.
Or a Feynman. But that does not mean we do not have them…or that we do not need them. Now perhaps more than ever.
Gleick has humanized Feynman in this, although in Feynman’s case that may never have been needed. He was known for playing bongos, he was a raconteur, he spoke in a thick New York accent, and he came across often as a kind of rural wit, plainspoken and commonsensical to the core. Yet his major work was in one of the most difficult and demanding aspects of modern science and he was a major presence. Appearances too often supplant substance.
Knowing this, Gleick also humanized the subject Feynman devoted his life to, making the science accessible and, to a surprisingly large extent, comprehensible to the nonspecialist.
In an era in which “hero” is too often applied to the physical—athletes, models, soldiers, actors—and may itself be a term corrupted by overuse and inconsistent application, it might serve us well to draw back and consider how little attention is paid to thinking and the solving of problems. The process alone is contributory and ought not be beholden to budget committees or P&L charts or mere application review. That there are people who spend their time unraveling the mysteries of the universe, not in some mystical sense of gurus on mountaintops but in the sense of an Einstein figuring out why the universe is the way it is, should be a source of inspiration. In the final analysis, it is likely that people like Richard Feynman give us more as a culture and a civilization than all the pseudo-philosophical mouthings of all the gurus that have ever lived. That one can pull a device out of one’s pocket, almost anywhere on the planet, and look up any or all of those gurus is a consequence of people like Feynman figuring out the nature of the real unseen, the quantum level of reality, which, as Feynman would have insisted, is Reality.
Cross-genre experimentation often produces interesting failures, less often brilliant chimeras. The novelty seems to open up possibilities. Steampunk has been one of the most successful in recent years, but it seems to be wearing thin as too much of it tends to be old-fashioned occult or mystery, rather Sherlockian (or more Wilkie Collins) in essence with a thread of SFnal gadget-geekery running throughout. Often it’s just a new suit of clothes disguising an old set of bones.
One of the things that has rarely been successful but is perhaps the oldest of these mix-and-match tropes is the attempt to blend science fiction and fantasy. Try as we might, it usually ends up being demonstrably one or the other merely borrowing the trappings of its often unwilling partner. Roger Zelazny was perhaps the most sucessful at it, but he managed it by bravura sleight-of-hand, or wordcraft, rather than through genuine alchemical mergers. What we generally find are stories that set the fantasy conceits at odds with science, in a kind of battleground plot where one or the other must prove superior or “right” in some epistemological sense. Poul Anderson wrote one called Operation Chaos (and a few sequels) that attempted it by a clever deployment of magical “universes” as essential parallel universes of higher or lower energy states, but in the end it was science fiction in the way it treated the conceits. The thematic utility of fantasy was sublimated to the SFnal conceptualizing.
The problem is that fantasy, dealing as it does with physical propositions of how the universe operates which run counter to our understanding of the same concepts, develops thematic conceits which have very little if anything to do with the concerns found in science fiction. They are, at base, about different things. Attempting to assert tyhat those two worlds (nevfer mind world views) can plausibly coexist and have anything to say together which cannot be said better by one or the other usually ends up as special pleading or simply a fashion statement.
(Example? The big one is Star Wars, despite Lucas’s belated attempt to shoehorn any kind of science fictional justifications into Episodes 1,2, and 3, which is a full court quest fantasy dressed up like science fiction. The machinery, the technology, the science never avails against magic, which is portrayed as both physically superior and in fact the true moral battleground. It’s a fantasy, not a blending of the two.)
All that said, it was only a matter of time before a genuinely successful hybrid would appear. Artists keep working at something long enough, eventually that which one generation says cannot be done, will be done.
Briefly, Laurence and Patricia are outcasts. Their parents, who are shown as almost polar opposites of each other, fail to “get” them, and their attempts to “correct” what they see as bad trends or unhealthy characteristics end badly around. Likewise at school, where they meet and become friends out of desperation (they’ll actually talk to each other), their lives are simply untenable because their peers also do not understand them. It becomes, at one point, life-threatening for them to hang out together.
Added to this is the appearance of a trained assassin from a secret society who has identified them as the nexus of eventual social collapse and global catastrophe. His Order does not permit the killing of minors, though, so he is limited to ruining their lives and attempting to keep them apart.
What is special about them is…
Patricia is an emergent witch. She discovers early on that she can speak to animals, but it may be an hallucination (it’s not). Her older sister, who spies on her, makes matters worse by secretly recording Patricia in some of her more extreme attempts at revisiting her chance discovery of “powers” and releasing it on social media.
Laurence is an emergent technical genius who sets about building a self-aware AI in the closet of his room. His parents, who are in most ways failures, see his obsession with staying indoors, reading obsessively, and attempting to gain admission to a science school as unhealthy and insist on outdoors programs and forced social interaction. They have no clue that everything is against this.
Patricia and Laurence are eventually driven apart and grow up to make lives in their separate spheres, both successfully. They re-encounter each other and fall into an alliance concerned with saving the Earth, which is in the late stages of environmental collapse. Each in their own way must address this problem and here is where it gets interesting.
As if all the rest isn’t already interesting enough. Anders has painted fulsome portraits of the outsiders we all knew (or, in some instances, were) with sympathy and understanding that avoids pity and makes for pleasurable character study. Laurence and Patricia could easily have become archetypes, and certainly in some ways they are, but here they are simply people we may well know, and even wish to know. And the relationship she builds between them is complex and resonant and satisfying in surprising ways. In a novel already repleat with strengths, this is a major achievement.
How she makes the merger of magic and science work is also by way of character. Laurence and Patricia are both in dialogue with the universe. They use different languages, elicit different responses, but in the end it turns out to be the same universe. Anders suggests that we still don’t have a firm grasp of how manifold and multifaceted that universe is, but in the end it is all a conversation. Multilingual, to be sure, and compiled of palimpsests sometimes hard to identify. What is required is an appreciation of the wider concept.
What makes this a successful blending—merging, really—of usually antipathetic concepts is that dialogue and the acknowledgment in the end that both views make for a greater understanding. The solutions—if any are to be found—come from the combined strengths of the divergent views. Laurence and Patricia, depending on each other, coming to know that here there is genuine friendship, love, acceptance, and a willingness to understand the other side, make for better answers than they do apart.
I do not wish to spoil the myriad of dialectical twists and turns salted throughout. Anders has not given us a set solutions, but as series of antiphonal arguments leading to a place where a wider view may be achieved. Throughout she plays with the tropes, the themes, the assumptions, connects them to human concerns, and manages something greater than the sum of its traditionally antagonistic parts.
Okay, this is hard. Very hard.
Keith Emerson is dead. Apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 71.
That in itself is difficult to square with the pictures in my mind of the epic artist of the heyday of one of the greatest musical outfits of the 20th Century.
It’s tempting to get into the justifications for Keith Emerson’s place as a composer and performer, what his music meant for rock, for classical, for a generation of people who found in his work an uncompromising dedication to a particular aesthetic and a level of quality found in few pop acts. Indeed, to even use that term—pop act—seems to diminish the breadth of the ambition he displayed throughout his career.
Post Sgt Pepper’s, rock music—what then without much hesitation or embarrassment was termed pop music, in the sense of it being “populist” as opposed to “elitist” and embodying an idea that popularity and depth were not mutually exclusive—went into a decade-long period of experiment and innovative “reaching” unparalleled since Romantic music shouldered aside Baroque, or when Be-bop and Cool displaced Swing in jazz. The “three-chords-and-bridge” format that had dominated rock’n’roll, built often around fatuously insipid lyric content and attempts to mask the underlying restiveness with whitebread presentations, gave way to genuine musical innovation and serious compositional challenges. Strumming guitars and 4/4 backbeat proved insufficient in this ecology, even while they served as the basis for forays into multiple key changes and experimental time signatures. Blues transmogrified into psychedelia and hard rock and a multiplicity of forms that took on meanings apart from their origins even while labels failed to define what was being attempted.
Keith Emerson began as an aspiring jazz pianist and emerged as every bit the “classicist” composers like Copland, Barber, or Bernstein were. First in The Nice, which began life as a backing band, and then in Emerson, Lake & Palmer he put out music that tore at expectations and demanded an attention to content unusual in the rock idiom. Sitting through any of the first five albums from ELP, you simply did not know where Emerson was taking you, but it was expansive, exciting, challenging, and in many ways other-worldly. For me, this was the soundtrack of the future I wanted to inhabit, the sound that went with the science fiction I was reading.
More, though, it was also a bridge with a past I imagine a great many of his fans did not know, a musical archive encoded in the templates of a new music. There was Bartok, Sibelius, Bach, Copland, Bernstein. There, too, were echoes of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Jellyroll Morton, Dave Brubeck. Emerson took the past, blent it into a melange of sound aimed at the part of the mind that hungered for the future.
The first concert I ever attended was The Nice. 1967. I’d heard those albums, that keyboard sound, and then found out about the show, and the first and only time I ever snuck out of my house I went and saw this guy in leather pants and knee-high boots playing multiple keyboards (no synthesizers at the time) and while I have since forgotten the details the impression was amazing. It sank into my brain and remained, so a few years later, when I finally came upon the wealth that has since been called Progressive Rock it was with instant recognition.
I’ve seen ELP six times.
I could go on about what it is in the music that is so important, but I’ll leave that for other, better equipped commentators. The subsequent backlash against ELP and all of progressive rock that came into vogue with the advent of Punk and then New Wave is only so much mosquito-noise of people with no patience, no sense of history, and who believe the only function of music is biokinetic. ELP is pompous and overblown? Well, so was Beethoven, much of Tchaikovsky, and certainly Mozart was arrogant. Yet the music does not fade, does not desiccate or dissolve with repeated listenings. Rather, if attention is paid, there is always more. Such music is not pompous but expansive and it requires a willingness to leave a certain provincialism behind, something many people are unwilling to do or uncomfortable in experiencing.
Keith Emerson opened the possibilities for taking the idioms of rock music and applying them to greater effect and leaving behind work that could be considered in the same breath as Brahms or Grieg or, certainly the composer who most reminds me of Emerson, Aaron Copland. Emerson was the composer at the center of my life’s musical aesthetic.
He damaged his right hand decades ago. He suffered a degenerative nerve condition as a result. There had been operations, he had worked hard to overcome it, but in recent years videos of his performances showed an increasing difficulty in playing. The last I had seen, he was learning how to conduct since playing was becoming perhaps problematic. Any look at him performing, though, shows us a man in love with the physical act of making music. That he might not be able to do that must have weighed heavily. He was always all about the music. Take that away and you lose what he was.
No one can presume to know what he felt in his last days. But by all means, go back and listen—really listen—to the music he left behind. Genius is too slippery and rarefied a term, but for me it applies. He created a space for amazing sounds and he should be celebrated even as he is mourned.
I’m going to go listen to Tarkus now. That tough armadillo has left us. But the music…the music is forever.
After viewing Ex Machina I sat in a bit of a daze wondering what it was I’d just seen. Stylish, well-acted, the now-expected seamless special effects, and a story with pretensions to significance.
The next day, I spoke to a good friend about it, who has also written about its flaws, and came to the conclusion that the film is not at all what it seems to want to be. In fact, it may be the perfect demonstration of style over substance.
It would be easy to see the film as a misogynistic attempt to intellectualize adolescent cluelessness, and certainly there is that in it, but perhaps that doesn’t go far enough. Misanthropic may be more accurate. It has nothing good to say about anyone or anything. The chopper pilot may be innocent, he’s just doing his job, but once Caleb lands and approaches the isolated superhouse of his employer, Nathan, sympathy for anything human vanishes and we’re treated to a narrow, pseudo-socratic disquisition on how stupid people can be, even with high I.Q.s and a lot of money.
But it is smooth, it is elegantly filmed, and the acting is convincing, and the soul-searching seems genuine, and the robot is so enticing. It feels superior. It says smart things, makes fascinating assertions, but all in the least engaging manner possible. Instead of actually dealing with the presumptive subject—strong A.I.—we are treated to a reboot of Frankenstein as The Dating Game. Bachelor Number One, how do you answer these simple questions from Bachelorette Number nth, and do you get to date her when the show is over?
Nathan is the typically clichéd billionaire genius who, instead of trying to learn how to connect with actual people, builds himself a fortress of solitude and sets about building himself a companion. Of course, since he doesn’t understand people as individuals, he keeps making sexbots that fail to meet his expectations. Partly, he excuses this (to himself) by claiming that he’s only pushing the envelope on A.I. instead of searching for a perfect fuck.
No, he never actually says that, but consider the machines. All women, all one stereotype or another of gorgeous, and he has fitted them out with sensate genitalia. Since until he ropes Caleb into the equation it’s only him interacting with them, why do this if your claim is an interest in their cognitive and self-awareness abilities? And the almost throwaway line where he reveals Ava’s sexual capabilities is about as arrogant and dismissive as can be. He wants to create self-aware machine intelligence than can mimic human but talks about them like a new car model with the latest features.
Okay, so Nathan is an asshole. Dramatically, he’s supposed to be, he’s Victor Frankenstein, whose arrogance foreshadows his doom. In this instance, the one bit of psychological nuance which could have elevated this story above the level of Weird Science (which, in the end, was a more sophisticated film than this one, despite the comedic aspects) his arrogance leads him to assume a specific “type” for women in general and he manages to create one that lives up to his expectations—she stabs him in the back and runs off.
This, in case anyone missed it, is called sexism: the complete failure to understand how one’s expectations shape circumstances to guarantee a thorough and complete misunderstanding of women as people, and then using that to dictate the terms of all interactions with females. (Note, one does not have to be a male in order to do this, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
But what about Caleb? He’s a presumptive innocent. Why is he left to starve to death, locked in the prison Nathan has built below ground?
Perhaps not so “innocent.” He is inserted into the storyline to act, ultimately, as Ava’s rescuer, but he is incapable of rescuing himself from the same set of expectations that Nathan exhibits. He doesn’t want to set her free, which is kind of undefined given the context, but to have her for himself. Nathan allows that her “design” was more or less aimed at him, so he could not help but respond in the most predictable fashion, which makes Caleb at best an adolescent who can’t tell the difference between what is and is not human, even when the difference is revealed to him at the outset. But he’s more than just a toy. He’s a rival. He’s a thief. He’s a liar.
Learning from these two examples, it might not be a surprise that Ava has turned out the way she has.
But “she” would have had to have been programmed to manipulate someone other than Nathan, who, we assume, she cannot manipulate because he knows exactly what she is. Which then suggests that such programming is inevitable in the simulation of Woman. That she can’t help but be this way from the first instance of her base code, which means that Woman is an essential something that emerges regardless of circumstance. But if that’s so, then why is the essential woman inevitably a sexually manipulative sociopath? Because that’s what Ava is. The only possible way she could have become that is by way of her initial programming, which is Nathan’s—the technobabble about using his search engine’s datamining as the source of her programming is facile; he would have to select and edit or she would simply be a collection of data with little or no organizing principle—which then would be what he has predetermined defines Woman.
Ava does not even attempt to help her predecessors.
The single facet of all this that puts the lie to Nathan’s superficial explanation as to why he made Ava female is that he could have made Ava Alvin. Or made Ava ten. Or—and this would have pushed this rat’s maze of a film out of the simplistic—made Ava homosexual or even transgendered. Push Ava out of the sex toy model she was clearly designed to be so that interaction with Nathan would produce the personally unexpected.
Even that would be a bit conservative. There are people who are asexual. Humans do not all fall into binaries. Nathan is being disingenuous. At best, he wanted Caleb to trigger in Ava a desire to choose—between him and Nathan or between either of them and an unknown. Maybe the chopper pilot. Or one of the other sexbots.
Or the gray box Nathan insists would have no reason for interaction. The final cop-out. People interact all the time without knowing each other’s gender. The initial basis of human interaction itself is not sex but Other.
Instead, we are given a treatise on the challenged expectations of a narcissist with the means to externalize his narcissism and what happens when a competitor narcissist enters the bubble to supplant him. Had the film been more honest about this, it might have been worth the time spent watching two adult adolescents compete over the rights to a masturbatory fantasy. Ava could, at a minimum, have schooled them on being adults.
There are moments that stop right at the edge of really interesting, but they are subverted constantly by all the testosterone soaking the scenery.
But it looks so good. It is done in the serious manner we might wish all science fiction were done in, and there is where the final failure is most apparent. Because obviously the makers wanted it to be taken seriously. It’s just that they managed to feed right into the pitfalls of both a Turing test exegesis and the presumed realities of gender relations based on search engine dynamics. They missed the trees for the forest and painted a sexual fantasy that reinforces stereotypes and says almost nothing about intelligence worth discussing—artificial or human.