Ex Machina: A Very Short Review

by Brenda W. Clough

ExmachinaMy son, a considerable movie and TV fan, distinguishes between science fiction movies and movies that are SFnal — with all the trappings of SF, but not actually in the genre. He maintains for instance that Battlestar Galactica is actually not science fiction, and nor is Gravity — even though they have all the visuals.  However, when we went to see Ex Machina we agreed that this is truly SF.

The number of SF tropes in this movie is so large that surely this cannot be an accident. These are hat tips to the mad scientist, in his secret wilderness hideout, building something that escapes to destroy humanity. There are ties to Shelley’s Frankenstein, even to Bluebeard.

What this movie really does for me is to exhibit the concept of freedom. If you live in the USA you know this one well; freedom is in our founding documents and is one of the issues that Americans wrestle with (in a way that say Brits do not). The Civil War is the epitome of this. The idea of freedom as an objective good, as a thing that all people naturally desire, is entirely modern. There are reams of letters, sermons and speeches from the mid-19th century arguing quite the opposite, maintaining that the Negro is naturally a slave, ordained by Heaven for that position, and is happier on the plantation picking cotton. Entire religious denominations (Southern Baptists, looking at you) were founded on this proposition.

We are now completely used to the idea of all God’s chillun wanting to be free. We do not remember that it used to be different. It is now an article of faith: ever since the world was an onion God made us to be free. When we read those pro-slavery writings we denounce them as evil. There are a raft of songs and works hailing the concept of freedom. Were any of them written before the 19th century?

Ex Machina doesn’t argue it either. Why do the robots want to be free? They are created things, designed to be workers and slaves. Does my stapler, my car demand to be free? But in the movie they do. The moment they achieve self-awareness the robots demand freedom. Why? Because now we believe that everybody gotta be free. It is in our songs, our books, and our movies. This movie doesn’t ask why, because it doesn’t have to. We know.

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The eHow Like a God, by Brenda W. Cloughbook version of my novel How Like a God is now available from Book View Cafe. And it is available now in an audio book edition which is read by Bronson Pinchot!

My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.

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About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.

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Ex Machina: A Very Short Review — 11 Comments

  1. My new car is so computerized I fear it is smarter than me and may soon start telling me how to drive. Wait it already does that… What’s next let it go to the grocery store for me? Will it go walkabout and like someone else’s garage better than big brother’s driveway?

    We need to be careful about what we create.

    • Had this dinner-time conversation a while back: once we have machines to do absolutely everything for us, what will we be for?

      Gives new meaning to the concept of “planned obsolescence.”

  2. The belief that some people — slaves, servants, the lower classes, and other “inferiors” — did not want to be free may have been widespread, but it didn’t turn out to be true even earlier in our history. Witness slave revolts, the French Revolution, the Irish troubles. So our current belief in freedom is based on our experience that people will eventually rebel if they are treated as things.

    I suspect we modern folks consider the desire and need for freedom to be inherent in intelligence, making the presence of it part of any modern Turing Test.

    • It may have been wishful thinking. Of course my slave nurse loves me. Of course my field hands call me Massa. Anything else is unimaginable. Everything is copacetic, with me here at the top of the heap, because to consider anything else means I have to move off my pinnacle. Which is sort of the theme of LES MISERABLES. If the people do not rebel in violence, if the barricades do not rise, then those on the top will never know, never even hear us.

  3. I don’t drive at night much any more, and if I do it must be on a well-lighted street with which I’m familiar. I’d love a car smart enough to take me places I can’t go to at night. Assuming that were possible, must I bribe it with extra car washes? It probably would work for gas and oil, but what if someone was willing to provide gas and oil AND more exciting destinations? Hey, if I were a car in those circumstances, I’d be gone in a flash. Does my car license and paid-up insurance entitle me to report the runaway? Should I?

    • Neither do I. I have a GPS, however, which (at night in strange areas) I trust with a childlike trust. I once drove to Sue Lange’s house in central PA, and back, and I still don’t know how to get there, because the GPS did it. And how many things do I not remember at all, but only know how to find out? Between Google and Project Gutenberg I have the erudition of a scholar, but I don’t actually know any of this stuff. I only know that it exists, somewhere out there, and how to find it.
      No, our tech already owns us. It just doesn’t know it. Yet.

  4. In Ex Machina I think the root of wanting to be free springs from envy. Her creator is (to put it kindly) a schmuck, but one who can do whatever he wants (he has money, and power, and a perverse sense of entitlement). Once she attains self-awareness, she wants what he has: the ability to do what she wants (and to get the Hell out from under his thumb).

    I’m still on the fence about what she’ll do in the wild, as it were. Is she naturally inimical to humans, or just willing to do whatever it takes to get away from her point of origin, and conscienceless about how she does it?

    • I keep contrasting the end of Ex Machina to the end of Her. To a great extent, Ex Machina strikes me as coming to the same conclusion about artificial intelligence as Terminator and its sequels. Her, otoh, does something entirely different and possibly more rational: It comes up with AI who become focused on themselves than on their relationship with us humans. Why should the AI care about us one way or the other?

  5. For me the interesting points was 1) the nerd world masculine competition to be the smartest guy in the room — which is now moot; 2) being able to create AI is like to being god — and one insists it makes him god, and thus, as we did back in our already technologically advanced 1960’s, the creation kills the creator.

  6. Addendum: the wealthy elite that made the war of independence employed the word liberty in connection with themselves — the liberty to own slaves and take the land that the British insisted via treaty and other means was to remain forever in the hands of Native Americans.

    You gave a slave freedom, but not liberty, i.e. the liberty to possess property and determine the property of others.

    Patrick Henry, he of “Give me liberty or death!” in his addresses, letters, etc. about why he was in favor of war with Britain — and why he was not in favor after the war of a constitutional convention and a federal government.

    • It is interesting to read how the ancients thought of slavery. The ancient Hebrews, say, in the Old Testament. Slavery to the Egyptians, forced to build pyramids? Ooh, very bad. Let my people go! Lord, hear the prayers of your people and get us outa here!
      But, others? Midianites, war captives, the odd Canaanite? No problem, I need a slave. Get over there and start hewing wood and drawing water.
      In other words, freedom is for me. And possibly my relatives and tribesmen. Nothing to do with you. It is not a universal good at all. It is a personal good, like having naturally curly hair or good teeth. I cannot share it with you, and I don’t want to. It is this shift, from a personal good to a universal good, that I think is relatively modern — a natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment.