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.

 

Nexus by Ramez Naam

NexusTitle: Nexus
Series: Nexus
Author:
Ramez Naam
Publisher: 
Angry Robot
Published:
 16 December 2012; my edition published 3 March 2015
Genre: 
science fiction, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

Nexus is a nanotechnology that allows users to link their minds. Kaden Lane and his friends have managed to modify and upgrade it, so that it connects more nodes and allows the brain to run software. Nexus is considered a drug, probably because it’s taken in liquid form and tends to get used for pleasure or abuse in the way drugs typically are, but that isn’t really what it is. It’s a nano-machine that can be permanently integrated after just one dose. And by using it, people can become transhuman or even posthuman.

And that’s where the trouble lies. The American government of 2040 is strictly opposed to posthumans, and deems them non-human and highly dangerous. The Emerging Risks Directorate (ERD) sends agent Samantha Cataranes to infiltrate Kade’s group of scientists and Nexus users, and when they’re caught hosting a Nexus party, almost all of them get arrested. Kade is blackmailed into helping the ERD to save his friends from going to jail. He knows the organisation will steal the Nexus tech for their covert operations, but he feels responsible for the consequences of what he’s created, particularly the fact that his friends’ lives could be ruined because of it. The ERD also convince him that he will be doing the world a favour by spying on Su-Yong Shu, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist who they suspect has been upgraded to posthuman status and is trying to change the world in ways they won’t accept.

Along with Sam, Kade is sent to a conference in Bangkok, Thailand, to meet Su-Yong Shu. Ironically, he needs Nexus and other transhuman tech to enable him to do this – software to numb his emotions and keep him calm and a combat program to help him defend himself with a minimum of training. It’s even more of a moral quandary for Sam: she’s a government agent fighting transhumanism and posthumanism, but to do that she’s had to become a posthuman supersoldier. She’s driven by childhood experiences that have made her hate this sort of tech, but when she uses Nexus she’s immediately seduced by it. After all, its most noble feature is a beautiful one – connecting people, sharing everything, understanding everyone. By using Nexus, she might be able to come to terms with her past.

It’s this feature that motivates Watson Cole to protect Kade and Nexus no matter the cost. Cole, another supersoldier, committed a great deal of violence on behalf of his government. With Nexus, he connected with his and other victims of political violence and realised the horrors of what he’d done. Even though it still gives him nightmares, Nexus ultimately made him a better person, and he believes it will make a better world, if it’s in the hands of people like Kade.

Obviously there are downsides too. Nexus is mind-hacking tech. A similar drug was used for sex slavery. The ERD is worried about armies of brainwashed supersoldiers and tries to convince Kade to help them by showing him evidence of people who have been hacked and used as assassins. It’s uses are revolutionary, evolutionary and terrifying, and the novel is built on the question of whether or not it should be used at all. Nexus is essentially an ethical debate embedded in what happens to be a pretty good thriller.

Sam’s character is more or less at the entry point of the debate: she has to decide if she’s for or against Nexus, for or against transhumanism and posthumanism for the world. Kade is obviously pro-Nexus, so for him it’s a question of how to use it – give it to everyone, or to an elite? What is the best way of fostering all the benefits of Nexus, while curbing its dangers?

It’s a fascinating discussion, although that’s mostly because of all the possibilities it explores, not because there’s a truly difficult ethical tussle. It’s pretty clear where Naam’s allegiance lies, and the story steers us neatly in that direction with the right placement of good/noble characters vs unscrupulous bastards and government drones. We’re way past the point of asking whether humanity should upgrade itself; it’s just a question of how to do that in the most ethical way possible.

And I guess it’s also an easy question because, in my case, Naam is preaching to the converted. I’m more interested in the stories where things like AI, nanotech or cybernetic enhancements challenge our conceptions of personhood, and create dynamic ways of existing. I’m less interested in stories where these technologies turn out to be more danger than they’re worth. I like sci fi that’s positive about the future, not afraid to face its challenges.

Which isn’t to say that Nexus and its physical enhancements are shown to usher in a utopia. Naam has written a rallying cry for posthumanism, but doesn’t avoid showing us how dangerous it can be. Early in the story, Kade and his friends capture Sam after her Nexus training fails to stand up to the upgraded drug and she accidentally reveals her true identity through the mind-link. Rangan, one of the developers, uses Nexus to restrain Sam by hacking her mind. Sam rightly points out that what they’ve got here is a coercion technology; they have the power to read her mind and force her to do whatever they want. They can control her body while she is helpless to resist. Kade makes a feeble attempt at a counterargument, stating that this is just a safety precaution and they plan to put in safeguards to prevent people from using Nexus for mind control. The naïveté of this is glaring – Nexus will almost certainly be used in horrific ways and as noble as Kade may be, he will never be able to prevent it. Quite often he’s forced to face up to the unintended consequences of his creation, and because he’s a good guy he grapples with the ethics of it.

All this is deftly intertwined with some pretty awesome action and high-tech espionage, so there’s plenty of entertainment to accompany all the food for thought. Nexus is the kind of sci fi you should be playing close attention to, not only because it makes for such a good read, but because we will eventually be caught up in these debates for ourselves and our societies.

Giveaway: Gridlinked by Neal Asher

Guys, I need to clear some space on my shelves, so I’ll be giving a few books free to good homes. Can you help me out?

First on the list is Gridlinked by Neal Asher (2001), book one in the Agent Cormac series.

Gridlinked

Blurb on the back:

A technician passing through the runcible of Samarkand at a fraction below light speed causes a fusion explosion that kills thousands and obliterates a terraforming project. Earth Central sends agent Cormac to investigate.

Cormac must find a resolution without the support of the AI grid, for thirty years of being gridlinked have left him devoid of humanity. But he does have the help of Shuriken, a throwing star with a mind of its own, as well as Golem combat androids and the ambivalently motivated ‘dracomen’. And he’ll need all the help he can get as he’s being tracked by a vicious psychopath, backed by augmented mercenaries and a killing machine called Mr Crane…

To enter:
1. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
2. Leave a comment on this post (and leave the name or Twitter handle you used to follow me, if it differs from the one you use here).

Rules:
– I plan to do several of these, so for budget reasons this giveaway is currently limited to South Africa.
– Entries close at midnight on Thursday 4 June.
– The winner will be selected randomly and announced on Friday.

I have to thank the good people at the South African offices of Pan Macmillan for sending me this book years ago, and offer my apologies for not getting around to reading it. Hopefully it’ll go to someone more appreciative 🙂

Gridlinked detail

Book Lounge Launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Last night was the launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes, and I think it’s quite possible that I was there because of this gorgeous cover:

GL Full

I splurged on the first edition because it’s a stunning piece amidst the generic or boring covers that most books get, and because I’ve slowly been building a collection of favourite and beautiful books in hardcover. For me, the cover can be a major selling point, the reason that I’ll spend extra for the best possible edition instead of waiting for it to hit the bargain bins, opting for a cheaper eBook (if there is one) or borrowing it from the library.

Having bought a first edition, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get it signed, so off I went to the Book Lounge, where some dedicated soul had reproduced the cover on the window:

Gl window display

I wasn’t just there to indulge my book fetish of course; I love hearing authors talk about their work, and Rose-Innes had a great discussion with Hedley Twidle, a lecturer in English Language and Literature at UCT.

GL Launch

You can read Twidle’s review of Green Lion over at Books LIVE. I loved the observation he made at the beginning of the conversation: he referred to Ivan Vladislavić’s quote on the cover, which says that the novel is “as full of life as the Ark”, and noted that the ark is, of course, full of the very last of all types of life.

That grim paradox seems perfect for Green Lion. It’s set in a future where many more wild animals and environments have been lost, and Table Mountain has been fenced off as a kind of ark where surviving species are preserved. Rhodes Memorial has become a research institute where attempts are being made to bring animals back from extinction, like the attempt to bring back the quagga. It’s the home of Sekhmet, the last living black-maned lioness, at least until she mauls someone and escapes. Con, a friend of the man who was mauled, travels up the mountain to track her down.

This was the inciting image, says Rose-Innes – a man travelling up a mountain, finding revelation, and coming back down. What she did then was fill in all the human impulses leading up to that. She described the story as wedge-shaped – it begins with all the chaos of human complexity, then narrows to focus on one moment of disaster and transcendence.

IMG_0041

It’s also a novel about Table Mountain and Cape Town, but she sought to subvert the usual images and approach it from a fresh perspective. The wilderness she depicts is hybrid and corrupt, abutted by human construction. Having destroyed so much, people are now fenced off from nature in an attempt to save it. Rose-Innes describes it as the poignant human impulse to stop death, but emphasises that that cause is fraught with contradiction. We seek to preserve animals not for their own sake but because of the emotional and symbolic meaning they hold for us. Animals are fetishized and idealised, symbolising what is beautiful, meaningful and lost, but these ideas are divorced from the reality of the animals themselves. We need to rethink our ideas of pristine nature, which often exists in isolation from nature. I’m guessing then, that this is how a man gets mauled in the beginning of the novel – because his idea of the lion is a fantasy far-removed from the reality of a dangerous carnivore.

IMG_0061

The term “green lion” comes from a similar sort of mysticism. In alchemy, Rose-Innes explained, green lion (possibly sulphuric acid) is a substance used in the creation of the philosopher’s stone – the ultimate goal of alchemy. The reference to this fruitless quest parallels the implausibility of bringing dead things back to life in the novel.

The novel is a bleak vision of loss, says Rose-Innes, and that makes me a little apprehensive about reading it, because environmental destruction and extinction are issues that I find deeply disturbing. At the same time though, I’m fascinated by the portrayal of our relationship with animals. Our use of animals as tourist attractions has always bothered me. I hate zoos. I’ve never been especially interested in game drives. I love animals, so I’m grateful that these things play a role in conservation, but most people aren’t interested in conservation for its own sake; they just want to protect the animals they like. So it’s always the beautiful or majestic endangered animals that are chosen to represent conservation projects, because no one would care about some dull brown bird or ugly frog, regardless of its role in the ecosystem. And what happens if we lose that emotional connection to animals and environments? There’ll be no respect for life to back it up.

So, death and futile conservation. Not a happy subject, but I’m keen to see how the book tackles it. Perhaps the beauty of the book itself can help me handle whatever lies in its pages.

 

GL Umuzi

The Feminine Future edited by Mike Ashley

The Feminine FutureTitle: The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers
Editor: Mike Ashley
Published: 18 March 2015
Publisher: Dover Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, short stories
Rating: 4/10

As editor Mike Ashley notes in his introduction, it’s often assumed that women only recently started writing science fiction, despite the fact that Frankenstein, one of the first works regarded as sf, was written by a woman. The Feminine Future attempts to dispel that misconception with a collection of sf short stories by women, published between 1873 and 1930.

You probably won’t know most of the authors (I’d only heard of Edith Nesbit), but there are some historic names here. Clare Winger Harris was the first woman to contribute to the first sf magazine, Amazing Stories, and several of the other authors here made regular contributions to the early pulp magazines.

Many of these women were among the first to explore new ideas. Edna W. Underwood was inspired by the increased use of anaesthetics when she wrote “The Painter of Dead Women”, where drugs are used to preserve the human body in a comatose state. The light-hearted “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” by Elizabeth W. Bellamy was published at a time when many new inventions were being patented and, like other stories of that period, it takes a humorous approach to “madcap inventions that go awry”. In “The Ray of Displacement”, Harriet Prescott Spofford uses ideas about atomic theory to imagine a device that dissipates matter, allowing an individual to walk through walls. “The Artificial Man by Clare Winger Harris is one of the first stories about an augmented human or cyborg.

Historic details aside though, it’s worth noting that this is not, in fact, a feminist anthology. Only a few of the stories are gender-conscious or have feminist themes. Most of them have male protagonists. Some of them don’t even have female characters. I’m not trying to suggest that female writers have a duty to write feminist fiction – they don’t – but if that’s what you’re looking for, be warned that you’re not going to get it.

The stories that are openly feminist tend to take a simplistic approach to gender. In “A Divided Republic – An Allegory of the Future” by Lilli Devereux, women get so fed up with men that they set up their own society. With no one to either nag them or take care of them, the men go out and get drunk whenever they want, never shave, and live in filth. On the women’s side, there’s no drinking, everything is pretty and well organised, but it’s a tad boring.

“Friend Island” by Francis Stevens also suggests that women are rather delicate in some ways, even when they’re in power. In the world of the story, it’s long been established that women are superior to men. A lowly little man boldly goes to a tea shop where female engineers and pilots like to hang out, and, ignoring the stares, buys an old sailoress a cup of tea and a plate of macaroons in the hope of hearing some of her stories. She tells him about the time she was stranded on a sentient island. She could tell, from the island’s behaviour, that it was a “lady” which is why her volcano erupted when a man came to the island and swore too much. Ladies, apparently, cannot abide swearing. Even when they’re islands. And, again, women just naturally choose tea over alcohol. How cute.

There’s another matriarchal society in “Via the Hewitt Ray” by M.F. Rupert, and I sort of liked this one for being adventurous, but with some serious reservations. A man travels to another dimension and, when he fails to return, his daughter, a pilot, goes to rescue him. She finds herself in a world with three vastly different societies, including a technologically advanced city of women who keep a few docile men around for reproduction and pleasure. One of the men gets sentenced to electroshock therapy and sterilisation for his insubordination, but the heroine saves him by asking if she can take him home for experiments. The women are in conflict with a more highly evolved race, and it’s decided that they’ll use the father’s tech to wipe out this super-intelligent race. The heroine gleefully helps them with this impromptu genocide and goes in, blasting enemies with a ray gun. She doesn’t feel bad because these people are so highly evolved that they’ve got giant heads to contain their giant brains and are therefore quite ugly. Later, she goes home with her sexy man-slave, and when he behaves too timidly, as he’s been taught, she yells at him and tells him to be a man, that men are superior to women (a lie to boost his confidence), and that he needs to bully any woman who disagrees with him. She then claims that she doesn’t mind being considered inferior by the “right man”. Overall, “Via the Hewitt Ray” was one of the most ridiculous stories I’ve ever read, topped only by other stories in this anthology.

And this brings me to the main reason I didn’t like this – it’s pulp fiction. And, as it turns out, I really don’t like pulp fiction. While it was interesting to see some of the early expressions of feminism in sf, no matter how absurd, there was little else about the anthology that interested me. The title suggests that these stories are gender-conscious, but it’s really more like a general collection of early pulp sf by women.

This gives it some distinctive and – depending on your tastes – unpleasant characteristics. For the most part, it’s all just silly. Obviously, it’s also dated. The writing is often stiff and formal (to my ear, at least) with many tedious infodumps, so some stories could be a real chore to read. Kooky science is to be expected, but there’s also a weird lack of rationality to the characters and plots.

It’s no surprise that the stories are conservative too, and I’m not just talking about the assumption that ladies don’t swear or drink. The Christian god is frequently invoked as a certainty, something that I never see go unquestioned in contemporary fiction. The religion remains benign, but some of the other conservative content is pretty offensive, usually because it involves the assumption that some people are naturally inferior to others. Sexism is rampant, even in the more progressive stories. One story is casually ableist: “The Artificial Man” by Clare Winger Harris, about a man whose lost limbs and other body parts are replaced by augments, is based on the premise that the title character is mentally and spiritually corrupted every time he loses part of his original body.

Racism rears its ugly head. Edith Nesbit’s story, “The Third Drug” begins with a man being attacked by “Apaches” – a term for muggers or gangsters, based on European assumptions about Native American Indians. “The Great Beast of Kafue” by Clotilde Graves not only refers to a “black man-ape” but also uses the word “kaffir”, a South African racial slur so offensive that its use is actionable in this country. I really felt that the editor should have written a footnote to accompany these slurs rather than allowing them to pass without remark. Or better yet, pick stories without racial slurs.

Then, as I mentioned there’s the genocide of the ugly smart people in “Via the Hewitt Ray”, which is not even the only thoughtless mass killing in the anthology. In “Creatures of the Light” by Sophie Wenzel Ellis (quite possibly the most absurd story in an anthology of absurd stories), the main character (sort of accidentally) wipes out an entire community, babies and children included, and doesn’t give this a second thought except to keep an eye out for survivors on the way back to the airship that will take him home. This story also includes an attempt at eugenic marriage, which the main character quite happily agrees to when he sees a picture of the beautiful woman who has been promised to him.

Did I like any of these stories? Well the first one, “When Time Turned” by Ethel Watts Mumford is quite touching. It’s about a man who experiences his life twice – once normally, and then in reverse, watching passively as his life rewinds. The idea is similar to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but was written twenty years earlier.

I also liked the end of “The Painter of Dead Women” by Edna W. Underwood, when the protagonist – a stunningly beautiful socialite – effortlessly escapes a serial killer through her athletic skill and endurance. Similarly, “The Ray of Displacement” by Harriet Prescott Spofford ends with a wonderful moral complication that I enjoyed more than the rest of the tale. I experienced most of the other stories in this way – I liked one or two aspects, but not the whole thing.

So yeah, if you already like pulp sf, this would be a good anthology for you, especially if you want to know more about women writers in the genre. But if, like me, you’re more interested in the feminist angle but aren’t a fan of pulp, you might not like it either.

The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow

The Doll CollectionTitle: The Doll Collection
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Published: 10 March 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: short stories, horror
Rating: 8/10

Dolls scare me. I couldn’t say why or what exactly it is about them that scares me, but I often blame the fact that I watched one of the Child’s Play movies when I was too young for all that gore. Another theory is that of the “uncanny valley”, which editor Ellen Datlow explains in her introduction:

The “uncanny valley” refers to a theory developed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970: it posits that objects with features that are human-like, that look and move almost—but not quite—like actual human beings, elicit visceral feelings of revulsion in many people. The “valley” in question refers to the change in our comfort with these objects: our comfort level increases as the objects look more human, until, suddenly, they look simultaneously too human and not quite human enough, and our comfort level drops off sharply, only to rise again on the other side of the valley when something appears and moves exactly like a human being.

 

The problem with dolls, basically, is it that they’re “too human and still not human enough”.

The weird thing is that I actually like doll horror, perhaps because I like the thrill of horror and dolls can get to me without trying too hard or getting too gory. That’s why I jumped at the chance to read and review The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow. I find that short stories tend to deliver the most satisfying form in the genre, and these did not disappoint.

This is partly because Ellen Datlow curated this particular collection. Not only does she have decades of experience and multiple horror anthologies to her name, she’s also an avid doll collector. And she made one key editorial decision for this collection – no evil-doll stories. There are plenty of excellent ones out there already, she says, and the evil doll has become a bit of a cliché.

This immediately piqued my interest. Evil dolls are the most obvious choice, so how else might authors explore the theme?

Well some made use of the unnerving parallel between dolls and dead humans. In the opening story, “Skin and Bone” by Tim Lebbon, a man exploring the South Pole with his best friend finds two disturbingly featureless “bodies” in the snowy wasteland. He’s deeply unnerved by this mystery, but can’t bring himself to tell his friend as their relationship has deteriorated in the pitiliess conditions of the landscape.

In “The Doll Master” by Joyce Carol Oates – one of my favourites – a young boy is so distraught by the death of his little cousin, that he steals her doll. When his authoritarian father takes the doll away, he starts a secret collection of very disturbing “found dolls”.

“Daniel’s Theory About Dolls” by Stephen Graham Jones takes a slightly similar approach. A disturbed young boy identifies a doll with his stillborn sister, who he claims taught him to speak while she was in the womb. Her death has a profoundly grotesque influence on the person he becomes.

In other stories, dolls are used as tools to achieve otherworldly feats. As representatives of human beings, they often present a means of transcending our physical limitations, functioning as extra eyes and ears, or as vessels for our emotions or even our life force.

A particularly good story was “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey, in which two guys break into a home to rob the old man who lives there, only to find that there are strange little dolls watching from the corners and vicious booby-traps all over the house. It’s no surprise that the strange old man is ready and waiting for the thieves, and the story makes for a great piece of quintessentially grim, gory horror.

“In Case of Zebras” by Pat Cadigan was also impressive, but in a completely different way. It’s about a teenager sentenced to community service in a hospital; she handles seeing all the trauma cases pretty well, but one night she’s mesmerised by the incredibly realistic figurine in the hand of a heavily wounded patient, and she keeps trying to find out more about it. For me, the mysterious doll in this story was only a secondary concern; what I really loved was the voice of the fantastic main character.

Gemma Files also plays around with voice in her story, “Gaze”, which is partly composed of an online exchange between an antiques dealer who uses text speak and pop culture references, and a client whose full sentences and proper English stand out in stark comparison. The doesn’t have any dolls per se; rather, it’s about eye minatures ­– small framed portraits of a beloved’s eye, often decorated with pearls and jewels. The dealer is approached with an offer to buy an eye miniature that completes an extremely rare set of a woman with heterochromia (“2 dfrnt colourd eyes, kno th term. saw xmen 1st class 2”, the protagonist tells her client). As she goes through the client’s historical documentation, she finds a story about suspected witchcraft that suggests the eye miniature may be more than just a lover’s token.

In “There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold”, Seanan McGuire explores the idea of a doll as “a vessel for the self”. An expert dollmaker crafts beautiful dolls into which she literally pours all the emotions she can’t contain. This is not because she’s an overly emotional person; she’s one of a long line of people whose purpose it is to absorb the excess emotion released into the world when Pandora opened that box (or something). I found this premise a bit silly, but I did like the idea of literally pouring emotion into dolls. It gives them a very dangerous kind of power that McGuire uses to tell a pretty good story. I also enjoyed the details about the craft of dollmaking.

Some of my favourite stories, though, were the ones where dolls were not merely used as representatives of humans, but were actually invested with a sense of humanity. When dolls become people, some truly horrifying possibiilities open up. Suddenly, dolls can see and hear things that no one else records. But far worse than this is the appalling cruelty we inflict on things assumed to be lifeless.

This is perfectly illustrated in “The Doll Court” by Richard Bowes, in which a man finds himself in the nightmarish situation of having to atone for the crimes he committed against dolls. The judge in the doll court is Debbie the Doll Detective, a character from a series of novels he read as a child, about a doll who solved crimes, often taking advantage of the fact that people assumed she was an inanimate object.

I really liked “Heroes and Villains” by Stephen Gallagher, in which a ventriloquist’s doll tells the sad truth of his owner’s death years before. To me, ventriloquist’s dolls are even more terrifying than other dolls, but Gallagher gives this one a gentler touch, while depicting the art of ventriloquism detailed authenticity.

My absolute favourite story was “The Permanent Collection” by Veronica Schanoes. An old Shirley Temple doll describes how deeply she was loved by the two girls who owned her, and how she remained connected to them even after she’d been packed away in a box for years. Later, she ends up in a private collection at The Doll Hospital, whose owner enjoys mutilating his dolls and can hear their screams of agony. It’s an incredibly sad, touching story. You really get a sense of how much dolls mean to some people, especially to children, which in turn just makes it so much more horrific when those dolls are abused

Another poignant tale can be found in “After and Back Before” by Miranda Siemienowicz, a postapocalyptic story in which two children leave their camp to explore a blighted landscape. There’s a fair amount of barbarity to their postapocalyptic lifestyle, which includes making shrunken-head dolls out of all the babies who die in their community. I struggled to get into this story at first, but at the end it broke my heart.

These last two stories by Schanoes and Siemienowicz and the one by Gallagher illustrate one of the things I love about this collection – they really demonstrates the range of the horror genre. You’ve got gory stories like Richard Kadrey’s and “Doctor Faustus” by Mary Robinette Kowal (in which a demon uses a dead human body like a hand puppet) – the kinds of tales most people probably think about when they think of horror. Then you’ve got the more subtle psychological horror that some fans (myself included) usually prefer to the bloodier stuff. But then you’ve also got stories like the ones by Cadigan and Files, which to me are more about voice and character than straight-up creepiness. There’s also a rather cute (if you can ever apply that word in this genre) story called “Miss Sibyl-Cassandra” by Lucy Sussex, about a doll designed as a fortune-telling party gimmick, wearing a skirt made of slips of paper with fortunes written on them. And then of course there are the beautiful, tragic stories by Schanoes, Siemienowicz, and Gallagher where the horror is bound up in the emotion you feel for the characters.

All in all, I am very pleased with this anthology. The writing is strong throughout, and although I didn’t love every story (well, you never do) none of them left me feeling completely cold (although, admittedly, Genevieve Valentine’s very subtle story “Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” had me rather confused). I also wanted to add that every story comes with a photograph of a doll. Most of them gave me a fright as they flashed onto my Kindle screen when I turned the page after dark. But of course, dolls scare me.