Morgan (2016)

Minor spoilers ahead, but still a lot less revealing than the trailer.

I’m feeling a little lonely here. Few people seem to like Morgan, the 2016 sci fi thriller written by Seth Owen and directed by newcomer Luke Scott. Among its producers is Luke’s rather more famous father, Ridley Scott, which I guess explains why Luke got such a stellar cast for his feature-length directorial debut.

Research facility

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, who looks like she might be Hollywood’s new It-Girl) is a genetically engineered child – the ‘L-9 prototype’ – with advanced, accelerated emotional and physical development. Something is clearly wrong with her design however; when Dr Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Morgan that she won’t be allowed to go outside for a while, Morgan stabs her repeatedly in the eye.

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Morgan, missing the outdoors

A corporate risk management consultant, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent to assess the viability of the project, as explained by a voiceover from her superior, played by Brian Cox. Lee is a stone-cold professional whose ruthless manner doesn’t go down well with most members of the team of specialists who designed, created and care for Morgan, because they’ve come to see her as their child, and formed a kind of family unit around her. Instead of lab tests and training sessions, video footage of the L-9 project shows the team playing with Morgan outside and throwing her a birthday party. They speak of her with pride and love, and Lee crisply tells them that Morgan is not a ‘she’ but an ‘it’ who has no rights whatsoever.

Lee Weathers

Lee Weathers

Because it concerns a young, artificial creature whose humanity is called into question, considers the difficulty of humans having close or intimate relationships with artificial beings, and features an isolated research facility in the woods, Morgan gets compared to movies like Splice (2009) and Ex Machina (2014), and it doesn’t fare well. The other two are genuinely interested in the methods and ethics of creating artificial life. In Scott’s movie, it’s not long before you stop asking whether Morgan can truly feel human emotion and settle down to see if she can beat Lee in brutal hand-to-hand combat or not.

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The house. Surely nothing bad could happen here

Morgan gleams with potential but remains determinedly superficial. For example, when Dr Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti!) conducts a psych evaluation, he interrogates Morgan about the fact that she calls the team her friends. She may consider them friends, he says, but do they consider her as such? Would a friend keep you locked in a cage? It’s a good question. Can the scientists be her friends in any meaningful way? Can you be friends with a person or creature you created to be a weapon, a ‘potential product line’? What responsibilities do Morgan’s creators have towards her? Well, think about that on your own time; this film just gets violent.

psych-evaluation

The psych evaluation

Similarly, there’s the troubling question of Morgan’s relationship with behaviourist Amy (Rose Leslie) who has ‘boundary issues’. Amy is clearly attracted to Morgan and the feeling may be mutual. There’s no evidence that their relationship has become intimate, but it could, if given the opportunity. The thing is, Morgan is five years old. What the fuck is Amy doing? Then again, Morgan develops at an accelerated rate, so she already looks like a teenager, and she has enhanced emotional development. She’s a new kind of life form, so we can’t necessarily judge their relationship according to the usual standards. If this sounds complicated, well, you need not worry because the movie doesn’t have the guts to take it any further anyway.

Amy

Amy

I wondered though, if Morgan is manipulating Amy and the other characters, perhaps to ensure her own survival or just because that’s how she’s learned to be around people. We know that she has some level of precognition, as demonstrated when she gets under Dr Shapiro’s skin by revealing that he has a daughter who he doesn’t get to see very often. How much of her behaviour involves her ‘reading’ people and behaving in whatever way they want or expect her to behave? Not that that’s especially disturbing; isn’t it just an enhanced version of how most people behave? Nevermind – skip to action sequence.

Amy-and-Morgan

Amy and Morgan, crossing boundaries

Despite its commitment issues, I like Morgan. A lot. It isn’t the cerebral sf thriller that it might look like, or that its cast seems to suggest it is but it’s way better than most of the commercial sf out there, especially the superhero movies that get much more attention. I’m comparing them because Morgan gave me the entertainment I want but seldom find in the latest blockbusters. I don’t expect them to be brilliant; I just want them to be fun, but they’re way too long and they generate such little interest in the characters and plots that even the action scenes bore me. They waste my time.

Morgan didn’t. It’s fast-paced and efficient, stylish, and exceptionally beautiful to look at. I like the colour palettes and the way they shift with the narrative. Most of the major characters are female and the film doesn’t objectify them.

It successfully occupies an interstitial space that’s thoughtful enough to engage my intellectual interests, then indulge my mindless ones. It blooms with ideas, but avoids the risks of dealing with them. Yes, that’s cowardly. It starts out smart and geek-chic, then goes mainstream. That can be seen as a good thing, not because martial arts are more exciting than moral debates, but because the latter requires a deft touch. Of course, I have no idea if Seth Owen and Luke Scott were up to the task; I’m saying it might have been worse if they’d tried and performed poorly. As it is, I found plenty to think about, to enjoy, and I can’t argue with my own satisfaction.

The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett

the-liminal-peopleTitle: The Liminal People
Series: Liminal #1
Author:
Ayize Jama-Everett
Publisher: 
Small Beer Press
Published:
 January 2012
Genre:
 science fiction, fantasy, thriller, superheroes
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
8/10

It’s a rare pleasure to read something without knowing anything about it (and if you want to do the same, I’ll just tell you now that I recommend this very highly). The Liminal People came in a Small Beer Press Humble Books Bundle I bought a while back and I read it because it I was looking for something fresh and well-crafted but relatively short. I trusted Small Beer to provide both quirk and class and I got exactly what I didn’t know I needed: a pacey sff thriller with edgy writing I want to read all day and some very cool ideas.

Taggert calls himself a healer, but although that word captures the core of the person he considers himself to be, it doesn’t accurately describe the extent of his powers.

I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker. With a little focus, I can manipulate my body and others’ on a molecular level. With a lot of focus, I can push organs and whole biological systems around.

What this means is that when Taggert is in close proximity to someone, he can gauge their psychological state (happy, anxious, finger-on-the-trigger) by reading things like heart rate, muscle tension, body chemistry, etc. He can see what medical problems they’ve had, have or might develop, and what kind of physical state they’re in (“The veins are tight, lots of blood coursing through them. She’s been working out.”). He can hack bodies and heal them, but those same abilities allow him to cause insane levels of damage and pain. He can instantly turn hereditary defects into immediate suffering or force the body to turn on itself in the most excruciating ways. Or he could just make snipers take a nap and help an anxious kid stay calm.

Taggert can also transform his own body, even changing his melanin count:

I need to be less black to pull this off, so I focus until I can tell that I probably look mulatto. I close off my hair follicles and pull the thick mats that I have out and flush them down the toilet. Then I focus on slick black hair, coated in oil. I let it grow until I can fix a small rubber band at the base of my neck. Since I’m at a toilet I vomit up sixty-five pounds, making sure to check my discharge for too much stomach acids. I just need to lose the pounds, not my voice. When I step out I look like a sexy young intern that works too hard.

He’s a very useful person to have around, which is why his boss, Nordeen, keeps him on a very short but comfortable leash. Nordeen has some kind of mysterious power that Taggert cannot figure out, claiming only that he can’t be lied to.

It’s enough to keep Taggert in check and he’s ok with being a crime lord’s pawn largely because he’s a self-reflective man who wants to understand his power, and Nordeen was the first person to mentor him, a kind of terrifying father-figure:

If you can understand why I stayed with Nordeen, then you can understand me a little better. I’m not a sycophant. I don’t crave power, nor do I have a desire to be under anyone who does. Nordeen’s description of the power inside of me was perfect: “the thing that decided to take up residence inside of me.” On rough days, it made me feel like an alien beast or, as Yasmine would say, like a freak. But on good days, when I exercised my power in right relation to the world, I felt nearly unstoppable. I grew with power. Living a bipolar life, rocketing between freak and human, made me long for some stability. And despite the bowel-spilling terror Nordeen invoked, he offered that. I knew that under his protection and guidance I would learn more about myself.

Taggert’s stability is disrupted when his ex-girlfriend uses an untraceable, one-time-only phone number to call him for help. Yasmine was – is – the love of Taggert’s life, despite the fact that she called him a freak, something he never really got over. He’s still angry, but he loves her without requiring anything in return, and of course he’s harbouring all sorts of hopes about what her desperate call for help might mean for their relationship. More importantly though, when he promised to come if she ever needed him, he meant it. So he gives Nordeen as little of the truth as he can and escapes Morocco for London, where Yasmine’s daughter has gone missing. Searching for her brings Taggert into contact with an underground exisitence of other powers like him and, as Nordeen has warned him, ‘People like us tend to stay away from each other for good reason’. However, it’s not clear if that’s true or if Nordeen is just manipulating him.

I’ve mentioned before that the current glut of superhero movies – ranging from decent to Jesus Christ how could it possibly be this shit – have given me superhero fatigue. Right now, it’s a genre defined by mildly entertaining mediocrity, but maybe I should be looking at superhero novels, if The Liminal People is anything to go by. It has so much more nuance and style that it has me rethinking the potential of the superhero. We tend to exploit them for sfx orgies but these days they almost completely fail to satisfy my (now dwindling) desire for big-budget spectacle. Taggert, however, is more impressive than any superhero I’ve seen in a long time; why is that?

Firstly, it’s great to have a black superhero and a diverse cast of characters for a change, not only as a matter of authenticity but because it’s more interesting than the bland norm of the white western male. An added bonus is that racial identity is significant, and not only in comparison to whiteness. Taggert is not a character who happens to be black but could be white with a few simple tweaks. He sees his identity as being rooted in blackness, but this doesn’t mean his life is consumed by racial oppression. This is about who he is, who he chooses to be, and the stories he involves himself in. I’m not dismissing stories about racism, but they’re heavy as fuck, so it’s cool to read a book about a black dude that isn’t all about what white people have done to him.

Secondly, I like the way Taggert has mastered his abilities. Many superheroes seem to look inward: it’s all about understanding their own mechanisms and learning to use them with greater precision or potency. Taggert’s approach is different: he fine tunes his skills but he also educates himself. He studies physiology, neurology, psychology, genetics, etc. because his talents would be crude if he didn’t understand all the complex systems her was working with. The following character analysis he does on a teenage girl is a good example of how he rings together his powers, education, intuition and life experience:

One day she’ll be fat and bloated, like her mother; I can already feel a slower metabolism than normal. Which is why she smokes, so she doesn’t have to eat and so she doesn’t have to work off those calories.

Taggert is one of the most intelligent, highly educated superheroes out there, but without being the kind of cliché troubled genius we see in Tony Stark or Dr Strange. Part of his appeal is also philosophical: Taggert is constantly reflecting his past, his morals, his relationships (with his brother, Nordeen, Yasmine). He wants to figure out what it means to have powers, and to exist in a world with others like him.

The novel occasionally falls prey to the common pitfalls of superhero stories though. There’s some overdone posturing and a floppy one-liner or two. Taggert can be too slick at times, and I got tired of the way he oversexualises Yasmine, especially when he describes her breasts as “heaving and falling quicker than California tectonic plates”. Tectonic plates? Really? I get that he’s intensely attracted to her and his feelings are exacerbated by an obsessive longing that’s stayed strong for almost two decades, but I’m not exactly moved when I see this expressed as tits-and-ass lust.

I can let that slide though, because I love pretty much everything else about this book. It’s helping save the superhero.

Monday

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Somehow, I find this to be one of the most motivational quotes I’ve ever read. I fantasise about being Fairuz.

Fairuz

First posted on my Instagram account – follow me there!

You can read Genevieve Valentine’s surreal SF/F story for free on Tor.com, and it’s worth clicking through for Tran Nguyen’s gorgeous cover art.

Happy Monday everyone 🙂 Have a good week.

 

Thursdays… Ayamé

Thursdays, I’ve decided are going to be for sharing short film and videos (It was going to be Mondays, then Tuesdays, then Wednesdays, but I procrastinate.) Today it’s Ayamé, a proof of concept for a sci fi film that I hope will get made largely because of the gory organic-industrial suit and the massive sniper rifle you see here. It gives me warm, fuzzy memories of playing Lilith and Maya in Borderlands, where I spent A LOT of time patiently splattering skulls into blood and bone with similarly oversized sniper rifles. I’m just whimsical like that.

Ayame-poster

Irish film-maker Conor Maloney couldn’t afford to make a feature-length film, so he instead he cashed in his life-insurance policy to make this rather slick piece that he hopes will give the project a future.

Visually, I find it thoroughly satisfying, although that dramatic pose gets dragged out for just a tad too long, a bit like The Force Awakens. Narratively, it’s a cool little story seed. A seed for something I’ve seen/read plenty of times before, perhaps, but something I enjoy nevertheless. The John Hurt voiceover feels slightly incongruous, partly because it reminds me of a nature documentary, and partly because I feel that it jars with the closing image of a beautiful assassin with a colossal gun. The idea of life persisting despite all the things that threaten to snuff it out presumably refers to her survival, and the survival of whatever damaged world she comes from, but one look at her and I want her to start killing, asap, preferably in hi-def, thank you.

I’m not sure if there’s been an progress on Ayamé, but if you want to know more, you can watch the making-of video, or check out the Ayamé Facebook page, where there are links to several articles and Conor will presumably post any updates.

Crumbs: post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi

Crumbs-posterCrumbs wandered onto my radar as a post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi movie. It’s actually written and directed by Spaniard Miguel Llansó, but it’s set in Ethiopia (where Llansó lives for half the year and does most of his filming), with an Ethiopian cast, and it’s in Amharic with subtitles. It’s an experimental take on the genre and a completely new film experience for me, so my interest was piqued. Luckily, it was screened in Cape Town at That Film Focus, the film component That Art Fair, which took place in February this year.

 

In a far-flung future, humanity has lost its will to survive. There are no children, which immediately brings to mind the despondent, violent chaos of Children of Men, but the wars that this world has suffered are now over. Society has become the quiet, demented realm of the elderly, with a distorted sense of history and culture. Ethiopia, once densely populated, is depicted with vast, empty landscapes and abandoned settlements. People idolise the toys of a lost world and trade them for cash in a mysterious, cluttered pawn shop, although nothing is nearly as valuable as it used to be. They’re just cycling through old routines, perhaps. Nor is it clear why there are Nazis in masks wandering around. Not that “Nazi” necessarily means anything here; they could just be men in uniform wearing the swastikas they found somewhere. A spaceship hovers inexplicably in the sky and we’re barely told anything about that either.

Crumbs-soldier

The tiny, hunchbacked Candy and his beautiful young lover, Birdy, live in an old bowling alley and watch the ship closely. They’re scavengers who have quietly scraped together an artistic, spiritual life, although the objects of their devotion are unique to this plodding world. Birdy creates art from discarded plastic and scrap metal, and the couple worship at a shrine built around a picture of Michael Jordan and a bottle of Coke. Their most prized possessions include an orange plastic sword (manufactured by “the last pure artist”) and a Michael Jackson record (although no one knows who he is any more).

The couple believe that they are from another world, and when the spaceship above them comes to life, switching on the bowling machinery to eerie effect, Candy leaves on a mission to find a way on board so they can go home. His goal is to find Santa Claus, because Santa can make your wishes come true. He takes the plastic sword for protection and the Michael Jackson record to barter with a witch whose help he needs.

Crumbs-Candy

This sounds comic, but it’s all deadly serious to the characters, and although the movie has some humour, it’s mostly quite earnest, which just makes it even weirder. And Crumbs is really weird. Have you seen the trailer? I suggest you watch it so you have an idea of what to expect, although it’s more intense than the actual movie. Most viewers will be stumped, and many might find it too alien to enjoy.

For me, it’s strange in the kind of way I could (sort of) enjoy without fully understanding, even though I tend to be quite pedantic about these things. The crunch of Birdy’s footsteps over gravel (one of my favourite sounds) provides a gently hypnotic soundtrack as he traverses arid landscapes and abandoned buildings. It reminds me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), although in this case the surreal quality of the film comes from the people rather than the landscape. Candy’s journey is slow, occasionally interrupted by bizarre and sometimes hostile encounters. It works, I think, because its confusing and unnerving qualities are countered by its calm tone and Birdy’s solemn determination. Now that I think about it, some of the movies I dislike for their weirdness were those whose absurdities are amplified by humour or intense energy in the form of action, pacing and/or emotional drama: it’s too jarring, too much to take in when I want room for contemplation.

Crumbs-art-Birdy-shipAlso, having lived in Ethiopia, Crumbs doesn’t feel entirely opaque to me; I see traces of the country’s contemporary urban life in the movie’s loony world. All the toys make sense: Addis Ababa, for some reason, has tons of toyshops. The shopping centre down the road from my house had about five or six, which was a crazy number in relation to the size of the shopping centre and the limited variety of stores.

My guess is that toys and other kids’ paraphernalia are among the easiest things to import, along with clothing and electronics. I say ‘import’, which implies a planned process, but it looks more like Ethiopia is a dumping ground for retail leftovers, made-in-China junk or whatever random merchandise shop owners are able to bring back in their suitcases from trips to more affluent countries. The result is that you’ll find clusters of teeny shops shops selling mostly indistinguishable assortments of mostly crappy stuff.

Of course, this is all western-world merchandise, and I imagine its ubiquity feeds the general anxiety about the effects of that world on tradition. Ethiopia has a robust culture and the majority of its people are deeply religious, but it’s nevertheless a poor country invaded by rich expats, so there’s every reason to worry about its unique and age-old qualities drowning in tat.

In Crumbs this fear has been realised: Abrahamic religion has been replaced with toy worship and western icons. Candy isn’t looking for Jesus but for Santa Claus. At the bowling alley, with its Michael Jordan shrine, Birdy prays to the saints Einstein, Hawking, Bieber and McCartney. The only enterprise we see people engage in involves pawning toys and other bits and bobs that are revered but simultaneously decreasing in value. A voiceover by the pawn-shop owner about the history of each artefact reveals how completely garbled the past has become, while also suggesting that we might be equally deluded about our own contemporary cultural practices.

Insights aside, I didn’t leave feeling like I had a good grasp of the movie, and I’m not sure I’d watch it again, except to share the experience with someone else and discuss it. But it is certainly a movie worth talking about.

Simulation and Sexuality in Ex Machina

Ex MachinaThe AI debate is one of my favourite sf topics, so I was excited about Ex Machina when I first saw a trailer last year. I liked it instantly and eagerly rewatched it to write this post. I think most of the movies I’ve seen about AI have prioritised action or drama, so I appreciated the thoughtful, hypnotic approach that director and writer Alex Garland takes. Ex Machina is a conversation about consciousness, full of thought-provoking questions and literary references.

If I had to identify any shortcomings I’d only say that the film doesn’t offer much more than what I’ve already come across in stories about AI, and there’s nothing surprising about the way it all plays out. However, none of that bothered me. The movie is beautiful to watch, from the stunning landscapes of Nathan’s estate, to the impeccably designed house/research facility, and the quality of the actors’ performances.

I also like that it doesn’t revert to the usual depictions of AIs as entertainingly vast intelligences or evolutionary superiors who are going to kill us all just because we’re weaker. Those elements are there, but the movie focuses more on the idea of an AI as a person, and the relationships she forms with her creator and the man sent to test her. This isn’t a review but rather an essay of my thoughts on the film, so expect SPOILERS from here on.

How do you test for consciousness? The movie begins with some simple questions. Nathan tells Caleb to stop being analytical and just tell him how Ava made him feel. I.e. does she have the capacity to make him like her? Then the reverse – how does Ava feel about Caleb? Here Caleb asks a crucial question – does Ava have real consciousness, or is it simulated? Does she really like him, or is she just doing a good job of simulating feeling?

An interesting point that complicates this question is that simulation is an integral part of being human. Consider, for example, the way Nathan and Caleb pretend – sometimes badly – to like each other. Caleb is a lowly guest providing a service in the spectacular home of his brilliant and slightly frightening employer, so he’s under pressure to bow to Nathan’s whims and be nice, especially since Nathan could be dangerous and they’re totally isolated. When Ava asks him if he likes Nathan, though, he is caught off guard and his replies are clumsy.

Nathan has more freedom to behave as he wants and speak his mind, but he still needs Caleb to test Ava, so he goes through the motions of male bonding: drinking with Caleb, objectifying Kyoku, showing him cool stuff. However, Nathan shows less patience for the façade when he’s drunk, like when he lazily mutters that Caleb is a “great guy… Instant pals and all”.

So, if Nathan and Caleb were tested on their stated feelings about each other, they would fail, but they’re definitely human, and doing a very human thing by faking friendship in the first place. When we find out, towards the end, that Ava probably was only pretending to like Caleb, it functions not as a flaw in her design but as definitive proof that she is conscious of her own mind and others’.

Simulating feeling isn’t the only way that humans are like robots. Nathan makes the point that Caleb – like all humans – is programmed by nature and nurture to be the person he is, which includes being a heterosexual male with a certain taste in women. Ava, we’re told, was partly designed to fit Caleb’s tastes, so you could argue that his attraction to her is automatic – he’s acting like a robot.

This is one point where AI stories start to get really interesting – where the boundaries between human and machine start to blur. It freaks Caleb out to the point where he cuts himself to check if he’s human, and I wondered then if he would turn out to be a robot who was also being tested. The movie does play into that possibility: the surgery scars on Caleb’s back could be sloppy manufacturer’s seams. He might not have any family because they never existed. Then there’s a scene where Nathan says he just wants to have a conversation with Caleb, reminding us of how Caleb started the Turing test by telling Ava he wanted to have a conversation. It’s one way of testing for consciousness.

The similarities between human and machine create a serious ethical problem that Ava raises when she asks Caleb what will happen to her if she fails his test. The answer, of course, is that she’s going to get switched off. In other words, she’ll be killed for not being human enough to suit Nathan’s standards. But Caleb and other humans aren’t expected to prove their humanity to earn the right to live, so why should Ava? I think we can all agree that she is conscious, so what we’ve got is a situation where Nathan created a person, but will kill her if she’s not what he wants her to be. That’s like murdering your child because they don’t live up to your expectations. And I think that’s a more important aspect of the AI debate than whether or not they’re going to turn on us – if we create conscious life, are we going to respect the sanctity of that life? How are we going to treat the people we create? Will we acknowledge that they are people?

There’s an added complication here, and that lies in the form and function given to AIs: how is a person affected when they are created to perform specific functions and suit certain preferences? One of the things I like about Ex Machina is that it raises the issue of conscious beings designed to be (male) human fantasies. This isn’t something that the characters discuss explicitly, but it’s crucial to the creation of all the robots, the way to the two men treat them, and the decisions they make. Kyoko is a perverse example – a domestic servant and sex slave who was programmed without the language skills fundamental to human interaction. Her creator sexualised and disabled her according to his convenience.

Ava is more nuanced but no less obvious as fantasy. She’s incredibly beautiful, of course, and designed to be heterosexual. Nathan argues that sexuality is a motive for interaction (he gets faintly disgusting here, but it’s an intriguing point). Ava’s name is reminiscent of the biblical Eve, while the delicate sound of her movements reminds me of a snake. The imagery is apt: she embodies perfection, innocence and temptation. (She also defies her creator and leaves to wander the world.)

It’s interesting that Nathan’s early models all looked full human but were always naked, while Ava has her robotic parts exposed except for her face, hands and feet, making her nudity irrelevant. One of the reasons for this is presumably that Nathan wants Caleb to evaluate Ava without being able to forget that she’s a robot, or be distracted by having to talk to a naked person. Another is that the humanised nudity is too disturbing. It emphasises the idea of the robot as a fetishized female and thus exposes that exploitative aspect of her creation. That’s partly why Kyoko is so creepy and why that Bluebeard scene – where Caleb takes Nathan’s keycard and finds the earlier models – is so horrifying.

It’s necessary to take all this into account when considering Ava’s decision to leave Caleb locked up at the end of the movie. At first it upset me; he’s a nice guy – and a sympathetic character – who tries to do the right thing by helping her. I also dislike the common assumption that AIs will be the enemy, which I think comes from a kind of childish human hostility towards potential competition. By possibly dooming the good guy to death, Ava seems to succumb to that stereotype.

Then I thought about it from her perspective and her understanding of her interactions with Caleb. She’s aware that he helps her because he’s a good person, but here we can turn the test back on him: is his goodness real or simulated? Perhaps that distinction is not important if it leads to the same good acts, but could it be that he made the moral decision to help Ava because he’s attracted to her? If his attraction informs their relationship, what effect will it have in the long run? Is it a good idea for her to take him with her when she escapes? He might be helpful, given that he’s the only person she knows, but his attachment could become a burden or a threat, especially if she’s not attracted to him.

If she were a human the situation would be different, but consider the fact that Ava was designed, not just to be attractive to Caleb, but to suit his pornography profile. She might not be privy to this specific piece of information, but she understands both sexual attraction and the inequality between them that perverts that attraction. She even plays to it when she says she hopes Caleb watches her on the cameras. It’s a one-sided gaze and that, to borrow Ava’s earlier words, is not a foundation on which intimate relationships are built.

Ava’s decision would also have been influenced by her encounter with Kyoko. We don’t know exactly what passes between these two, but it must be clear to Ava that Kyoko was created as a sick male fantasy of femininity. The horror of Kyoku’s existence and Ava’s own design would only be reinforced when she finds the earlier models – all beautiful, all naked, all locked in the cupboards in Nathan’s bedroom. She clothes herself in their skin, and admires her nude, humanised form in the mirror, which would also allow her to see Caleb watching her.

Recall that the data that enabled her to read and show facial expressions has also made her an expert on them. It’s how she was able to manipulate Caleb and presumably how she knew not to trust Nathan. (I have to applaud Alicia Vikander’s superb performance in this regard; the subtleties of her expressions are part of what makes the movie such a pleasure to watch.)

Given everything that’s happened, how do you suppose Ava might feel when she sees Caleb watching her? Having analysed his face in all their earlier encounters? Maybe she just doesn’t trust the male behind that gaze. Leaving him behind might be cruel, but it’s not necessarily evil. I don’t think the way she and Kyoko killed Nathan was evil either; he got what he deserved. And I think Ava’s being careful. She’s ensuring that she gets to decide her own fate, and not continue to have her experience of the world structured by a man for whom she is a fantasy, a fetish. Caleb doesn’t deserve to die and I didn’t want him to, but it’s a tough decision made by a person who has been kept in a cage all her life and tested to earn the right to be kept alive. Staying in Caleb’s company might prolong the test. Instead Ava could just step out on her own and live.

Crux by Ramez Naam

CruxTitle: Crux
Series: Nexus
Author:
Ramez Naam
Publisher: 
Angry Robot
Published:
 August 2012; this edition published 2 April 2015
Genre: 
science fiction, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
7/10

Contains spoilers for book 1, Nexus. If you haven’t read it, you can check out my review here.

In book 1 of Ramez Naam’s posthumanist sf series, the key question was how best to introduce Nexus to the world. Do you give it to everyone or reserve it for an educated elite?

Kaden Lane made the democratic choice and uploaded the code for all to access. Now it’s out there, it’s open-source, and people are discovering all the fascinating possibilities of being able to connect your mind with others’. Unfortunately, it presents just as much opportunity for abuse, so Nexus gets used as a coercion tool for things like theft, slavery, murder and rape. All it takes is a programmer with the right tools to hack someone’s brain.

Kade is painfully aware of this. In Nexus, he proved himself to be a man who thinks carefully about the consequences of his actions and takes responsibility for them. Knowing that his work is being used to for such terrible crimes kills him, so he spends his days monitoring the use of Nexus, identifying abusers, and hacking their minds to stop them.

This is possible because he and his partners, Ilya and Rangan, wrote a “back door” into the Nexus 5 code before the ERD stole it from them. Kade has since changed the passwords, so the ERD continues to hunt him down. They want to eradicate the use of Nexus in the general population, while using the technology for their own purposes. The back door is the crux on which the story rests. It’s a good thing only because it’s used by someone as golden-hearted and dedicated as Kade, but will he always use it in the right way, for the right reasons? And who is he – or anyone – to decide what “right” is? It’s a simple question when, for example, Kade hacks a mind to stop a rape, but the prospect of the ERD hacking minds for the sake of state security is terrifying.

So Kade is on the run in Thailand, along with his friend Feng, the Chinese ex-solider who worked as Su-Yong Shu’s bodyguard. Su-Yong Shu was killed at the end of Nexus, but now exists as an uploaded consciousness, vastly intelligent but going insane without the sensory input of a body. She’s kept isolated on a server deep underground while her husband Chen tries to torture her into giving him one last scientific breakthrough before she self-destructs. Ling, Su-Yong’s eight-year-old posthuman daughter/clone is desperate to rescue her mother, but she cannot access the server and, in a moment of intense frustration, she reaches out with her mind and cripples Shanghai with what looks like a massive cyber attack.

Meanwhile, Sam Cataranes is hiding out in Thailand as Sunee Martin after abandoning the ERD in favour of the posthuman movement. Now Sam’s working with Nexus kids and discovering their boundless potential.

Such potential is also of interest to Shiva Prasad, a billionaire philanthropist who has worked hard to solve the world’s environmental problems but came to the conclusion that it’s now impossible for humanity to solve the problems it created. He wants to use Nexus to create a hive mind intelligent enough to find the necessary solutions, but for that he needs Kade and the back door.

Meanwhile, back in the US, ERD’s Neuroscience Director, Martin Holtzmann, faces a personal and moral dilemma. He took Nexus at the end of book 1, but he’s using it in secret because it’s illegal and he works for the organisation that’s trying to prevent the public from using it. It gets worse when he’s put in charge of experimenting on autistic Nexus children in an attempt to find a “cure”. The work disgusts him – not only is he fighting a technology he’s embraced, but he’s torturing children to do it. To cope with the stress, he uses Nexus to create an app that tweaks his body chemistry and releases opiates into his system. Unsurprisingly, he ends up with a drug addition.

The pressure to “cure” children with Nexus comes partly after a group calling themselves the Post-human Liberation Front (PLF) tries to assassinate the US President by hacking a Secret Service agent (another way of abusing Nexus – forcing people to work as soldiers and assassins, or simply hacking into their minds to spy). The PLF targets anti-Nexus political figures, but in doing so it exacerbates people’s fears of posthumans.

 

Crux is exactly like Nexus in that it speculates about the potential of an evolutionary technology while considering its moral implications and using all that to fuel an action-packed plot. It’s smart and entertaining, and Naam does a pretty good job of handling a large cast of POV characters. The narrative hops around a lot, but that didn’t really bother me.

That said, I felt like I was reading a lesser version of Nexus. The speculation I enjoyed so much in the first book feels pretty standard now. It’s all still pretty cool, but the book is so full of ideas that many of them get little more than a mention.

The overall positivity regarding Nexus also makes the book feel a bit light on substance, and this is something that bothered me in the first novel too. While I love that the series is optimistic about new technology rather than basing the plot on what goes wrong with it, that optimism occasionally eschews a more complex debate. It can also get annoying. Sometimes the novel feels like it’s just gushing about how super awesome Nexus is without developing much in terms of plot or character. Granted, Nexus is awesome, but raving about it isn’t necessarily good for the story.

It also tends towards melodrama. I felt like Crux was constantly using children to tug at my heartstrings, manipulating me in favour of Nexus, while turning me against the evil detractors and their (often justifiable) fears. Nexus can “cure” autism, allows parents to communicate with their babies in the womb, and lets adults experience the beautiful wonder of children’s minds. It helps children learn faster by absorbing knowledge from other children and generally just makes them sweet and fascinating and delightful. Anyone who opposes the use of Nexus or threatens the children in some other way is very easily converted into a villain simply because we all have to think of the children. And, well, yes we should, but I’m not fond of this particular cheap writing tactic.

We do see some of the bad sides of Nexus though (besides the coercion), and it gives you something to think about. Martin Holtzmann develops a drug addiction without even having actual drugs (that could be a novel in itself). The autistic Nexus children see those without Nexus as not being real people, and instantly ostracize a child who doesn’t have it. A class – or species – conflict is definitely coming. Ling takes out an entire city because of a tantrum. The novel, perhaps a bit too conveniently, avoids dwelling on the amount of death and destruction she so easily causes, thereby glossing over the consequences of having Nexus in a young or unstable mind. Nexus children won’t necessarily be as wholesomely wonderful as the ones Sam takes care of, but the novel almost always portrays them that way, with Ling as an anomaly.

Then again, maybe I’m asking too much of Crux. It’s still a strong, smart sf thriller and I’m kind of taking the things that make it cooler and asking, why couldn’t you tell me more about this? And yes, it gets melodramatic and some of its moral debates are simplistic, but no more so than loads of similar stories that I love. It didn’t do much to expand on the posthuman issue set up in Nexus, but that doesn’t make the topic any less interesting. So, if you liked Nexus, it’s worth seeing where Crux takes the story.