Thinking Out Loud About Alex Garland RE: “Ex Machina”

 

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Alex Garland

As a speculative fiction writer, I willfully live in a bubble. I read other sci-fi writers here and there, but other than movies, I avoid anything new or modern. For the past five years I’ve been working, on a sci-fi book. As my publishing debut, I have tried to write from inside this aforementioned bubble. I don’t want the outside coming in, making my work impure and self-conscious.

At an after-hours dinner party in St. Petersburg, Russia (that’s a normal situation to drop in here, right?), I began talking with another musician from London, who was seated next to me, about my book. My elevator pitch was ill-formed and clumsy, but from what I managed, she suggested some similarities to the film Ex Machina. The film was on my must-view list. But unlike many of my peers, I’d rather sleep than stay up all night catching up on the latest TV series. I’m very behind on pop culture. I have two kids and I like sleeping. That’s my excuse.

I’d bumped the film up on my mental list, and left it there. I’d get to it eventually. I had writing to do. Having recently completed a first draft–bringing the story to a point where I can present it to others–I’d have to step out of the bubble and contextualize my work. Let in friends, peers, my first set of readers, then make edits and changes to please a wider audience, and, hopefully, publishers.

This morning I researched a “science hotline” that Hollywood uses to fact check and review fake scientific ideas for feasibility. The Martian was successful partly due to this type of cerebral investment by its creators. Viewers who were actual engineers and biologists could appreciate and engage with the story, because the on-screen concepts were founded in real-life science. My story has science: AI future science. I’d have to call the hotline.

But something caught my eye: “What’s this on the sidebar: Ex Machina. They must have called the hotline!” I clicked. I read. And then, an explosion of synergy. I still had not seen Ex Machina, nor read anything about it beyond a one-line synopsis. While the movie’s science-y stuff and setting described, as in this article, was very different, there was an uncanny and WTF detail I couldn’t deny: the lead character’s names were identical to mine: Nathan and Ava.

Of all the names, of all the millions (billions?) of combinations of two separate names, not to mention the edits and development the Ex Machina script must have gone through…  And in my case, having changed my main character’s names a few times: how did we arrive at the same pair?

In an interview with a screenwriter’s magazine, director and writer Alex Garland mentions the genesis of one of his character’s names from Ex Machina:

“Well when I was first working on this, I called her ‘Eve’. But then I thought that this was too prosaic, because of Adam and Eve and that kind of thing, so by changing it to Ava, it felt like it had some of the qualities of them name ‘Eve’, but it wasn’t as on the nose. And also, ‘Ava’ looks like it’s an acronym–like it stands for ‘Advanced Vehicle Automation’, or something like that. It just felt right.”

More importantly, how am I, somehow, randomly, intuitively, spiritually, synergized to this writer/director, via the ether? Alex Garland: who is this guy? How could I find him, and when I did, what would I say to my new Internet boyfriend? Very quickly I realized the creeping and cyber-stalkery were going nowhere. Turns out famous people are really hard to get a hold of via the Internet. CRUSH: OVER.

Days later I sought out Ex Machina on Netflix and watched it. Conceptually, brilliant. Aesthetically and visually, lovely. Casting, great. But I was left perplexed: why so gendered? Maybe that was the point. At risk of spoiling the film, I was deeply offended by the impractical footwear and outfits available to the women in this film. That said, the compound where the film mostly takes place is, definitely, a fetishized laboratory. If that’s possible. Garland has created a fantasy world where shirtless and sexually frustrated men go to ogle robots whose main programming is set to “Self-Preservation via Cockteasing.”

I wonder if the tagline: “AI JUST GOT A WHOLE LOT SEXIER!” ever came up in any  Ex Machina marketing meetings? I wanted to like this movie. I wanted to feel an even deeper connection with my impossible boyfriend, Mr. Garland. I wanted to be swept away by this film. I wasn’t. I still like and admire Mr. Garland as a writer and director, but now we’re just friends.

ALONE (short story)

I’m pleased to release a new short story for your reading pleasure on these brief Fall afternoons. What is this story, ALONE, all about?

Two marooned astronauts cope with isolation, existentialism and artificial intelligence in this romantic tragedy.

I’ve been writing on ALONE for nearly a year, picking it up and working feverishly on it, then putting it away for weeks at a time. Finally I decided to let it out into the wild. This germ of this story sprouted from wanting to write something that made the reader (you) feel uncomfortable. I test my protagonist with impossible situations, of being alone and confined while travelling through the infinity of space. What does life mean at that point? What would keep someone alive or cause them to give up hope?

This is a sentiment I’ve often felt — though not while travelling through space where a technical malfunction could mean certain death — but on tour. In a tiny bunk on a tour bus, squished up in a van with 6 other people or on an intercontinental flight for hours on end: each day, every day, for months at a time. On the road, my purpose is constantly tested, patience taken to new heights. On a terrestrial tour, if something goes wrong, it is easily remedied. You pull over and the problem easily solved. But what would you do in space, alone, with limited resources and millions of miles from anything resembling home?

I also tip my hat to CBC’s Canada Writes and their “Sci-Fi Twitter Challenge” — though I’m not exactly sure what that means. I guess this is my long-form contribution to the community. There is sadly no podcast at the moment (as my lengthiest finished story, the MP3 file would be too enormous). For eyeballs only. Happy reading.

Why?

This month I started an online course in Artificial Intelligence. I also recently met, quite randomly at a bar, a gentleman much more technically minded than myself, who is also taking the course. He asked me recently:

I’m curious, what’s gotten you interested in following this class? Is it your apparent love of scifi, or something else?


To which I replied:

Hmmm….what’s gotten me interested? You realise my answer to this question is going to become a blog post…

Last night I went to see Daniel Clowes and Seth, two comic book illustrators, speak at their joint book launch. My daughter asked me: “Why are you going?” and I had to actually think for a moment: why, indeed? I had one of Daniel Clowes earlier books, and knew little of Seth, yet I was still making an effort to go to this reading. I’m a casual illustrated book reader, hardly hardcore, and then I realised, simply, that I enjoy immersing myself in things I know nothing about.

The most often asked question to me is: “Who is your favourite band/musician?” or “What are you listening to?” And my answer is invariably: “I don’t listen to music.” I don’t. And I don’t mean to sound presumptuous or pretentious or holier-than-thou, but being immersed in the music industry for the past decade has made me a non-believer in music. Only a tiny margin of music is real anymore, the rest are just feeble attempts at fame, fortune, or worse, relevancy. I rarely listen to new music because all I hear is…dishonesty.

But it *would* be pretentious so live a life without culture, so I’ve turned my focus elsewhere. I’ve started reading books again, and writing fiction. And I enjoy these two tasks immensely. As I write, especially, I learn: my choice to write “genre” fiction is no accident. In speculative and science fictions I see open space, pure freedom, a world without restraint. I fold in to my work things I read about technology, computing, medical advances, space exploration and robotics. I feel that in researching this stuff and reading about it, a new frame of mind is being revealed. A fresh perspective of the world spurts forth, a new community of people working and thinking… not to be “cool” but to be, essentially, creative.

I miss that about music, which is why I’ve taken this step in the opposite direction. It doesn’t mean I’m done with being in a band or making records at all. If anything I will only return with resolve and a fervent dedication that should be feared by the entire hipster set.

So….does this answer the question? Kind of. I’m really digging the way my brain is being pulled by being in the ai-class, forced to think pragmatically and logically. Embracing new terminology and honing mathematical and deductive skills. My past will reveal that I was a big nerd. My dad is an electrical engineer. I was in “Gifted” in grade school. I took Computer Science class in grade 11. I took enriched math and wrote nation-wide math competitions. I was never the “cool” kid, and I never felt threatened by the “in” crowd. I made friends from strangers through BBS‘ and the first computer I bought was the first generation clamshell iBook…dare I say…before it was cool. If I hadn’t decided to move to Montreal at the age of 18, I would have been in “New Media” at Ryerson. A technical school. One of my favourite movies OF ALL TIME is Terminator 2.

I guess with this free, online course from a reputable university came up I just said to myself: “Why not?”

Professional Friends

Now that last post is just annoying me. It was a thought I needed to share, but not one that needs to be at the top forever. Yesterday marked the start of the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class I am taking for free, and online, associated with Stanford University. I’ve been motoring through the videos, enjoying the knowledge. I’ve also been stimulating my brain at the really awesome Khan Academy, where I’ve been learning about various maths (mainly so I don’t feel dumb when learning about AI). Forget Brain Age, this is actual learning without the pressure to achieve any kind of success.

Also: lots of writing. I have two stories on the go right now: one is dark and the other, lighter. I am hoping to share the dark one with you all soon. This morning I devised a suitable ending. Accompanying podcast forthcoming.

I am also psyched, as I launch this psuedo-writing project, that I’ll have a piece of fiction in an upcoming issue of Montreal’s Matrix magazine (details coming). Also check/like my Facebook “Page.” As I tweeted earlier, any attempt to extricate myself from FB’s clutches only drew me in further, resulting in the creation of said Page. Turns out I am pro-friends, as in “professional friends.”