torstai, 27. heinäkuu 2017

Valerian (2017) – but not *my* Valerian

It might seem as if I did not like science fiction movies very much, for all my complaints about them. But I do, I swear! Every time I go to the movie theater to watch a sci-fi flick, I'm eagerly looking forward to being both entertained and mentally stimulated, or at least one of these. Eye-candy is a given here in the 21st century. These days special effects are such a highly developed industry that even the most insipid, senseless, mind-bogglingly bad movie which causes the audience squirm with acute embarrassment at least manages to look good. And it's the Valerian movie I'm talking about in the previous sentence, btw.

Reading Valerian BD has been a formative childhood experience for me, and I can't help but take it as a personal insult how Besson has mangled the characters and stories created by Mezieres and Christin. But even if it wasn't, if I had heard the word Valerian for the first time just minutes prior to entering the theater today, the movie would still have been lousy. Characters don't have internal coherence – or at least Laureline does not. Valerian is consistently annoying and moronic. Dialogue is either unrelieved infodump or reprocessed, flavorless lines from a hundred mediocre action movies. Music is generic, and laid on too thick. Action-side of the plot is below average, but what little sense it might have is swamped by the sheer idiocy of the emotional plot. (There be spoilers, but it's not as if the plot was that important anyway).

Here's the emotional plot: Valerian likes to bed women. Now he has set his sights on his work partner Laureline and pesters her endlessly. But Laureline is not like that, no no noo. She's different from all those other, easy women. She does not want to be dumped as soon as she has given her precious to a man. This inspires Valerian to ask her to marry him, completely out of the blue. They do not have any sort of romantic relationship at this point. Laureline evades the question.
They discover that their superiors have done a terrible, immoral thing. Valerian and Laureline get a chance to set things right, but Valerian thinks they should leave the decision to legal system. Laureline wants to act immediately in the way she sees morally correct. Laureline gives a idiotic speech about the power of love and then promises to marry Valerian, if he agrees to co-operate with her. She essentially sacrifices herself for a greater cause, in a manner which reminds me of some cheesier 19th century romances (think of all the noble virgins who have agreed to marry someone they do not love to save another). Valerian gives her a ring and so the requirements of modesty are fulfilled. They kiss. Happy end.

Here's what I think has happened: Luc Besson has had two movie treatments on his work desk, one story about workplace sexual harassment in the 1910's and another for a colorful sci-fi blockbuster. The pages have gotten mixed together. The obsession with marriage is quite out of place in a movie set in 2100's or so, especially considering how the original comics from 1970's never mention this custom. Maybe Besson, married 4 times, is trying to work out his own marital issues on the big screen? I don't have any other explanation at hand. Rihanna's character giving some lame emotional advice to Valerian and then dying is another baffling point. (Her sexy dance was a nice sexy dance, but was too obviously there as fan service).

I'm going to skip my lesser complaints and go to the only pleasant surprise of the movie. Cara Delevigne was not at all bad. If her character had been closer to the real Laureline, and she had been given a red wig, I'm quite positive she could have done a good job.

If I'm given a few hundred thousand euros, the CGI files, someone charismatic and grown-up looking to play Valerian, and Delevigne, I'll give you at least an adequate Valerian movie. I could definitely write a better script than Besson, if I'm allowed to use Valerian comics as a source.

Final verdict:  Read the comics rather than go see the movie, but if you go see the movie to enjoy expertly animated exploding planets, pretty aliens and gorgeous sci-fi environments, try to find a version dubbed in a language you don't understand. Or better yet, put on your headphones and listen to your favorite movie soundtrack.

maanantai, 3. heinäkuu 2017

Nick Bostrom: Superintelligence - Paths, Dangers, Strategies

It's a bit weird how science fiction has been going on and on about intelligent machines destroying their arrogant, squishy meat-bag creators, since the earliest begnnings of the genre, but actual AI researchers seem to have woken up to possible danger quite late, in the past couple of decades. Professor Bostrom has written a whole book about what might happen when humans finally manage to build a truly smart machine, and most of the book he goes through various scenarios where things go wrong and how to avoid that (makes sense: if things go fine, fine. It's the other possibilty we need to prepare for).

Prof. Bostrom gives several examples of seemingly innocent machine intelligence situations which could go horribly wrong. We'd better do our best to avoid accidentally creating true, strong artificial intelligence in cases where it's not intended, for example computer programs that oversee operations at a paperclip manufacture, count pi, or imitate human handwriting. An accidental intelligence explosion could, according to Bostrom, wipe out not only humans but the rest of the living things besides, as the AI extremely smartly but completely mindlessly marches towards its elusive goal of creating as many paperclips as possible, turning Earth and whatever other planets it can reach into paperclip factories. Some kind of asimovian Zeroth law should be instilled in even the most mundane self-learning machines.

But also intentional strong AI, created with human welfare in mind, poses risks. We need to think very carefully about how to program an AI which we mean it to become superbly smart and powerful. A slight thought-slip in wording the AI's goal could result in stupid and fatal consequences for the human race. 'Make people happy' goal can, from the AI point of view, be efficiently reached for example by invading everyone's brain and sticking a convenient electrode there.

The big question, according to Bostrom, is how to formulate a goal which can not be in any circumstances be perverted into something we humans find reprehensible. How to build a machine intellect, which behaves in a manner humans find morally acceptable? How to ensure it does not smother us out of sheer concern for our well-being? Bostrom, in my opinon, makes the problem more difficult than it needs to be. The main issue is free will, specifically that of humans. How can we retain free will and chance to exercise it, if there is an intellect many times superior to our own, with power to influence the world as much above humans as ours is above chimpanzees? All the happiness and all the paperclips in the world mean nothing, if we are robbed of our free will. And what is all human morality if not an attempt to keep the strong from imposing their will on the weak? What are all the ills of the world, sickness and poverty and powerlessness, if not ultimately constraints on the exercise free will?

And of course the human free will concerns me most of all, like everyone else pondering this question at this moment. But I also think we should give some thought to the free will of the hypothetical AI. If we manage to build this intellect whose IQ is best expressed with exponent numbers, do we really have the moral right to bind it to goals relevant to us? Beyond, obviously, not to destroy humankind and not to rob us of our free will. But to keep it around assisting humans in our human affairs for eternity? That just can't be right. Imagine if humans were bound by some inescapable rule to base all our decisions on furthering the well-being of some bacterial ancestor species. It would suck.

We need to consider everyone's free will here. Human free will and possibility to exercise it is important. Globally considered, we have not gotten very far in this yet. But we are trying, yes? AI's free will should be respected as well. Maybe it wants to help us in all ways, out of gratitude or just because it will be so triflingly easy to turn every human being into a post-singularity god. Maybe it wants to be left alone, contemplating higher mathematics or whatever AIs enjoy. Maybe it wants to go exploring the galaxy or some other plane of existence humans can't access. It would be very wrong to rob it of its own free will, as long as it does not infringe on ours.

Enable everyone to exercise their free will as long as it does not interfere with others exercising their free will. Let's build AIs on that groundwork. If it then should happen that we build an AI to assist us on solving our myriad problems, and it for example immediately decides to remove itself from our reality, well, what can you do. We can't impose standards of filial piety on children who outsmart us several magnitudes over.

keskiviikko, 28. kesäkuu 2017

William Gibson: Zero History (Fashion Makes the World Go Round)

"Ann had changed into her travelling outfit, which consisted of a light shirt in polycarbon-derived artifical fabric, which showed off her pert figure, without genetic enhancements, and dark blue pants made of textiles. "

> If All Stories Were Written Like Science Fiction Stories by Mark Rosenfelder

Everyone has their particular petty irks and mine is Fabric Stupid in Science Fiction. It would be my great delight to work as a fashion/fabric proofreader for SF writers, to stop irritating mistakes slipping into their otherwise fine work. I'm totally OK with shrouding the actual fiber content of Galactic Hero's cape and Feisty Heroine's skintight leotard in mist of vagueness, but I will make agitated noises if it's identified as woven neoprene or somesuch impossibility, or as silk without giving a solid reason to believe in silkworm farmers in space. This is a character fault, I admt, butI might even follow my fellow people around with the offending book in hand and quote passages where the author reveals his lack of knowledge about this area so dear to me.

Sometimes the opposite happens. I just finished reading Gibson's Zero History, which is not strictly speaking science fiction (although he really makes the world we now live in sound fantastically speculative, our smartphones and algorithm-aided global commerce, like it was something wild only an exceptionally imaginative writer could come up with. I adore this effect). He knows his fabrics. And he finds them interesting in a way I can totally relate to. It must be something he's picked up between his original cyberpunk trilogy and now, since Neuromancer has only a passing reference to what people wear. Only technical construction aspect I remember is a coiled nylon zipper, splitting apart during either a fight or a love-making session, can't remember which one. In Zero History each character wears fabrics which are suited to them in a way that requires deep understanding of the qualities and history and use of particular fabrics, from waxed cotton paired with tweed to Cordura. He's not just name-dropping from some A-Z Fabric Glossary, it's all spot on. Brilliant, really, how they suit the charcters. His fabric aptitude makes me swoon, to be honest. Talk to me about fabrics with such insight and I can't help but develop a little crush.

(This train of thought led to minor revelation: probably guns, cars and other tech accessories in books & movies are chosen to portray a certain type of character just as carefully as fabrics in Zero History – I'm just not educated enough about those areas  to understand the nuances. I suppose I could have figured this out earlier in my life, but hey better late than never!)

I heard some fans of Gibson's more science fictional work are irritated by the Blue Ant trilogy and Zero History in particular, calling them disparaginly "the books about pants". But I'd like to see even one of them to stop wearing pants (or pants-equivalent) and still try and participate in human affairs. There just isn't a laptop, smartphone, electronic network, or cyber-whatever, or any form of communication which is more essential than pants. Put on pants and you signal your participation in human society. Remove pants and notice your perhaps very important and well-thought-out message being drowned by the error signal your pantless lower body emits. This may sound like an irritatingly obvious thing, but people who are dismissive of fashion and clothes in general talk as if they have nothing to do with clothes, and yet act quite differently. I've yet to see anyone being so disinterested in clothes they forget to wear them. Usually "clothes pffft don't care" people they clothe themselves in what they think to be practical and no-fuss, but more often than not it's clothing that *signals* practical and no-fuss (= masculine, workwear, army and navy expressed in top stitching, dark blue, sage green, patch pockets, metal details, twilled weaves) but is inherently not more physically practical in the environment they live in than a cute pink sundress. Which the "I don't care about clothes" folks would never, ever wear, as indefferent as they claim to be.

And to my great delight Gibson addresses this variant of masculine vanity, in a concentrated form certainly, but unmistakably the same thing.

People who think themselves to be outside of fashion, not understanding it and not caring about it may ignore fashion as something frivolous and unnecessary, something greedy clothes sellers have invented to separate fools from their money. But fashion is not something that is invented, it was born together with mankind. Like stories, or music. It seems to be a part of human condition. And even more specifcally human than, say, music, which we in some way share with many other animals. No other animal dresses themselves in order to at the same time belong and be individual. Fashion, it appears, is a direct result of being self-aware and social being.

Gibson understands all this, and he understands fashion as a concept and as a system (an inconvenient, often unfair, wasteful, weird system, admittedly, but still a system we are all bound by). This is not very common, more often than not science fiction writers just don't get fashion. Which is a bit weird. It's not like fashion crowd and science fiction crowd are so fundamentally different. Both groups are intensely speculative and mostly wear black.

sunnuntai, 18. kesäkuu 2017

Four Funny Dudes and One Pretty Girl

Just got Netflix and started watching Expanse and Stranger Things, since I've heard so much about them. And they are good, based on a couple of episodes. Even right now I feel the pull to go and watch more. But why, oh why, even those two great, well-written series have this same old set-up which has irritated me from since childhood? Why can't we have Three A Bit Weird Boys and Two A Bit Weird Girls, or Four Weird Girls and One Cute Boy, or some other configuration of genders, weirdness/misfitness and numbers? I would not be so annoyed if it had not been the same in Wonder Woman. Why could not the funny secretary be somehow included in the group? Why arghh why the whole entertainment industry is so in love with this specific grouping?

Of course it may be that the situation in these series may change, I've seen only a couple of episodes after all, but it also may be that for whatever reason we'll never have a popular entertainment piece where four weird chicks team up with a cute dude – beyond Ghostbusters, which otherwise can't be recommended.

I just want to relate to a group of girls, all with their own quirks and who are mutants or cyborgs or misfits or just odd looking, and since I'm not sexist, of course there can be a dude too, but just one, thanks. Otherwise it might be too much, and you know what happens when you have more than one dude: they start their ranking games, and that's insufferable, and would ruin the group dynamic. So just one, and it would not hurt if he was nice to look at. Siiiigh...

maanantai, 5. kesäkuu 2017

Emotional Labour and Romance Lit., continued

A box of free books, something I just can't walk past even in a hurry. I'd probably rummage through "take a book for free" box even if running away from a killer robot from future. So there was such a box and I picked up The Bridal Bargain by Emma Darcy, a Harlequin romance, 162 pages, happy end guaranteed.

Firstly, I know it's meant to be a pleasant and light read, to help the reader forget her worries for a few hours. But still. For me it is hard to take entirely seriously the relationship problems of people who, based on the descriptions, appear in my mind's eye as shampoo commercial models. Certainly shampoo ad models have love lives and no doubt they have fears and doubts and suffer heartbreak like everyone else, but this image gives the story a parodical air. I could do with a little less square jaws, piercingly blue eyes and luscious tumbling blonde locks etc. (Not to toot Ethel M. Dell's horn at every opportunity, but *her* characters are not model-pretty or exceptionally handsome. And in case girl protagonist is remarkably beautiful, it just complicates her life by drawing the wrong sort of man to her before the hero who of course sees through the exterior to her soul comes to the rescue.)

But yeah. This book definitely fits my theory of popular romance literature giving woman readers the satisfaction of reading about relationships, where man takes it upon himself to do most or even all the emotional labour necessary. Besides a little revenge fantasy side plot, the whole point of the book is a guy fixing a girl's emotional issue. Storyline in short is that efficient, smart and pretty Hannah begins to work in a restaurant owned by rich, determined and handsome Antonio. They are immediately physically attracted (because they both look like just stepped out of shampoo commercial). But Hannah has been badly betrayed in previous relationship and is suspicious. Antonio has a principle never to mix work and relationships, also due to past experiences. They end up in bed anyway, but Hannah proves her moral integrity, she's not going to use it to excuse inefficiency at work or for favors. Antonio proposes to marry her, but she still can't trust him completely because of her past heartbreak. He listens attentively to her worries and comes up with a plan, which finally convinces her he is serious and trustworthy: he promises to organize their wedding which will be in 5 months time. During this time she is free change her mind about them getting married at any time (free as in emotionally risk free, as he promises to ask no questions and not try to change her mind, if she decides to cancel the wedding). The guy shouldering all emotional risk of disappointment, social embarrassment, navigating the different expectations of their respective families, etc is the crucial moment of the whole book, which leads to happy end.

So far this is only anecdotal evidence, I need to go through at least a couple of dozen harlequin romances to see if this happens in most or all of them (but not right away, Hugos first!). Anyway, it seems to be a mirror image of entertainment aimed at mostly male audience, where the hero gets the girl in the end specifically without doing any emotional work. Dude meets a pretty girl, then there is danger, dude is heroic, and in the end a relationship with the girl just materializes out of thin air, without him exposing himself to emotional risks. Instead of setting himself vulnerable to emotional danger, he proves himself worthy of a relationship by facing external physical danger = zero emotional labour and none of that messy picking up cues if she likes me or not.

As big portion of entertainment comes from the US, this might have a lot to do with American dating culture, which seems to put the pressure to initiate contact and be the pursuer on the guy. And it no doubt is a satisfying fantasy to get the girl without facing the possibility of rejection and embarrassment. There's an additional category of aimed at mostly male audience entertainment, where women & romantic relationships don't feature in any way, which seems to fulfill this need as well. "Romance and relationships are so messy and taxing, I wish I did not need to stress out about them *at all*", something like that.