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.

Random Movie Review: Gattaca

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Gattaca is a dividing movie that people either love or have selectively forgotten. Director Andrew Niccol, who, if I may digress, also directed Nick Cage’s best film, Lord of War, paints an incredible portrait with Gattaca‘s stylised near-future First World. Where Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow failed to integrate a post-WWII fashion sense, Gattaca brings it with architecturally stunning shots populated by beautiful people in perfectly tailored, vintage-future clothing.

The main story line is carried by Vincent (Ethan Hawke) who was born as an in-valid, or person of lesser genes. Vincent dreams of flying in space, and so gains access to the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation by pretending to be the genetically perfect, but now paralysed, Jerome (Jude Law). There is much male hair-brushing, nude body-scrubbing and urine-collecting as Jerome and Vincent successfully swap identities by duping Gattaca’s genetic-scanning system.

Perhaps the most overdone moment in this film is a flashback to Vincent’s childhood as he competes against his younger brother in an impossible swimming challenge. Under grey skies, an orchestra of ever-swelling strings accompanies the boys as they struggle against choppy water. The sequence beats us over the head, illustrating the fragility of human life but serves a necessary purpose in revealing the protagonist’s overall dedication and perseverance.

Nothing says 90’s blockbuster like Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke, and, introducing Jude Law. Gattaca was culturally topical, too. The eugenics-obsessed Western World was primed for this film, it being released a year after IRL scientists in Scotland introduced the world to Dolly the Sheep, the first successfully cloned mammal. Trust me, in 1996 that was a really, really big deal.

Gattaca‘s brand of speculative fiction schlock is right up my alley. Overwrought and extreme genetic tinkering, Big Brother scanning our DNA, with a duplicitous murder mystery plotline thrown in for good measure. Science fiction liberates storytelling by providing a brutal mirror to shine against our modern society. For similar reasons, Gattaca was nearly demoted to “Natalia’s Second Favourite Film” by the much grittier Children Of Men. But this was fuelled mostly by my short-termed celebrity crush on Clive Owen.

Gattaca succeeds because it is a well-conceived movie. It is complete, as Art should be, in its casting, costuming and set design. I also commend Gattaca‘s pacing. A continuous underlying tension carries this film, skillfully buried beneath the forced grace and poise the protagonists must maintain to pull off their scheme. Our dark personal secrets make life challenging enough. Imagine also having to obsess over the idea that losing an eyelash might condemn your freedom forever.

Check the super 90’s trailer here:

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.

Better Late Than Never

I promised a new story last week — a deadline I completely failed to meet. I hope you will forgive me.

This story, entitled “After All,” was written with a very moderate audience in mind. I had initially written it for a CBC writing competition, so I challenged myself to write a “tame” story. Here’s the description:

Robots are the main companions for the elderly in this heartwarming portrait of two unlikely friends. 

I promise I won’t wait a year before releasing another story. The next one will be a lot darker and give you something to sink your teeth into. For now, some springtime fluff to help get you through your daily commute, or however you use things like this. Enjoy!

Listen on Bandcamp or Soundcloud. Read the story below, or on Scribd.

FLASH FICTION (1)

As I was writing this piece of fiction, I was in tears. It was meant to me the culmination of a short story, the tender moment that ends it all. But in the meanwhile, that short story (d)evolved into something longer, into a greater beast. The beast has left my big sappy ending floating, like a piece of paragraphical driftwood, among more meaningful ideas. Solid stuff that is lodged firmly in the sand. 

Though I love the interaction in Flash Fiction (1), it has no place in my fiction-science world. I wondered if — stripped of the deeper character portraits and adventures that were originally behind them — this epic send-off could hold its weight?

I propose to you, then, a piece of “flash fiction” or whatever you’d like to call it (Wikipedia also suggests: sudden fiction, microfiction, micro-story, short short, postcard fiction, short short story). I assure you that I adhere to zero rules of writing (except for common grammar, I hope). Word length? Bah! Story arc? Heave ho! 

So without further ado, I present, Flash Fiction (1) by Natalia Yanchak.

Thing to Read: #DeathToWisdom

As printed in issue Matrix #91: Mixtape.

The fall of modern culture: #DeathToWisdom © 2011-2012 all rights reserved

Me Party

I spent the latter half of 2011 with my head out of the music industry cloud. I’ve been luxuriating in a stress-free world of science fiction and artificial intelligence. I’ve been reading and writing more than anything else. But then the year turned to 2012 and I realised I would soon have to remove my head from the clouds and return to planet Earth.

With this came an odd realisation: Should I spend so much time on writing fiction? Or should I try to make music? The logical side led me to a classic dead end: “Well, Natalia, whatever you choose, it will be a terrible way to sustain yourself.” Which I naturally shrugged off. I am in too deep to worry about something as stupid as money. 

Instead my head floated off into another cloud. A creative cloud, wondering how to preserve my dignity but still have fun with it. I’m no songwriter, and therein lies the problem. I have no confidence from being surrounded by actual songwriters. In fact, shoddy songwriting is one of the things that maddens me the most about popular music. And by popular I don’t mean only Pop, rather all the inescapable musicians, the stuff in the “press.” It adds to the argument that there are too many bands, too much mediocre music, everybody wants to be a star but they rarely know why.

A bonafide songwriter knows. They know because they have no other choice. They aren’t rebelling against their parents or doing it because they can (i.e. rich kids). They are doing it because they have to. I know, you guys are reading this saying: “Oh, whatever. As if.” But it’s true. Or at least it used to be true. What is popular these days, what comes up through the ranks, is not based on good songs or incredible inspiration. It is half-assed and financially backed. And all that is fine. It’s cute. I guess it is what people need in an age where great marketing rules the roost.  

But this rant has been ranted before. Which is why I keep my head elsewhere: this is wasted breath. Wasted bandwidth. I’m exhausted by it, by the rules, the gatekeepers. I know. I get it. I’m not getting in.

So then, why not make something frivolous? I ask myself. Why not fall in line and further saturate the music world with more gratuitous art? Should I do something I firmly believe that I have no business doing? I wouldn’t make it for primarily for you, but for me first and you second. Would that offend you or interest you? Would you download it? Would you pay for it? Would you want to hear it? 

And PS: don’t panic. These sentiments have nothing to do with The Dears. The Dears are alive and well. We’re just staked out in a bomb shelter living off of rations and bottled water.

 

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?”

The First Short Story

Last night I published a short story called Final Fridays <– read it by clicking on the link. It's very short, and also there is a podcast of me reading the story that Murray helped me record. It's my first one (both publicly released fiction and podcast) so there are some kinks to work out on the technical/distribution side. Eentually I'd like to have the podcast be a regular thing everyone could get the RSS feed to, or download through iTunes, etc. I suppose for that, it would be more useful to have more than one "episode."

Because I care, I just now decided to email YOU the link to the podcast if you write to me at: natalia.scifi@gmail.com JUST BECAUSE I CARE. I appreciate the fact that you're reading my blog. (Update: I will NOT spam you.)

And if you still are thirsting for MORE, read the interview I did about this writing project. Although, I was slightly misquoted. Indie-rock sci-fi is supposed to be a “Pitchfork-near-future-DYstopia” not “utopia.” That made the joke not-funny. But that’s not what I’m writing about: I roll my eyes a full 360° at the triteness of the idea.

More to come….now the pressure is on to write!