Thoughts on Runtime by S.B. Divya

The other day Fred Clark wrote a post discussing in some detail what he theorizes is the one big idea behind Donald Trump’s campaign for President of the United States.  In typical Slacktivist fashion Clark went to some lengths to build all the logical connections necessary to reach his conclusion: that Donald Trump is running a campaign built on the premise that some Americans are more legitimate citizens than others (always and forever, if you have the time you should give him a read).

The underlying assumption of this idea is that the criteria for determining American legitimacy follows a simple two-axis rubric: is a person’s skin white enough, and is their religion closely enough related to some form of American Protestant Christianity?  People who fail this test, either along one or both axes, are discounted as illegitimate by Trump and many of his supporters regardless of their actual status as citizens.  It’s an ugly system upholding an ugly idea.

The temptation at this point is to make some kind of facile transition where I suggest that this line of political thought is relevant because I recently read S.B. Divya’s novella Runtime which was remarkably prescient in predicting and elaborating on the discourse of 2016.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s prescient for a writer of color to recognize a pattern in political discourse that has threatened to affect them personally while white readers like myself have had the luxury of ignoring the growing tide of racism, bigotry, and xenophobia until Trump came along and mainstreamed it.  So I’m trying to resist that sentiment, even though I suspect the very act of bringing it up highlights how my own privilege has allowed me to be ignorant before the events of the last year.

Anyway, Runtime.

First, there is the necessary disclosure that I met Divya once last year when Rachael and I were in California visiting friends of ours, and we all spent a pleasant evening enjoying each other’s company.  I picked up her story because it’s in my and Rachael’s shared Kindle library, and I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for discussing the story now.

The core plot of Runtime is a sports adventure following a young Filipino-American woman named Mary Margaret Guinto (Marmeg for short) who has dreams of becoming a professional embed runner (embed running is a combination of ultramarathon and parkour performed with the help of a combination of exoskeleton and computer implant technology that enhances a person’s natural athletic abilities).  Marmeg is a talented computer programmer who’s managed to scrape together a decent kit of embed gear that she hopes will give her a chance to place in the Minerva Sierra Challenge.  Marmeg’s motivation for all this is the prize money, which she can use to pay her tuition to go to developer school and earn a reputation as a legitimate citizen so she can receive sponsorships for her racing dreams.

That’s the connection between Runtime and Trump, by the way.  In the future that Divya has imagined, American citizenship has been stratified into different tiers of licensure.  Unlicensed citizens, like Marmeg and her family, aren’t entitled to common social benefits like public education, healthcare, or retirement benefits, and the only way to become licensed is to pay a flat fee that still only confers second-class citizenship (Marmeg paid her fee as a teen, but she’s unable to pay for the college program she wants to attend because she can’t qualify for financial aid as a postnatal licensed citizen).  The system Divya’s imagined here is based primarily in economic differences, but it’s hard to ignore the historical disadvantage that children of nonwhite immigrants would have under this system.  The marginalization Marmeg experiences in the story as a postnatal licensee very easily tracks with racial animus towards immigrants and American citizens of non-European heritage.

Perhaps most frustrating about Marmeg’s experience in this story is the way she insists on doing things as legitimately as possible.  She genuinely dislikes that her gear is “filched” and that one of her methods for acquiring technology is by selling her code on the black market.  In running the Minerva Challenge, Marmeg emphasizes to herself repeatedly that she wants to do it legitimately, and when she finds herself in a situation where she needs to accept illicit help if she’s going to have a chance of success she feels highly conflicted about accepting the help.  At the story’s end, when she gets disqualified for a different breach of the race rules (which she feels justified in doing to save the life of another runner), she struggles with whether or not she should fight the disqualification because of her guilt over the cheating for which she didn’t get caught.

Marmeg, though she’s realistic about how unfair the system is to her and her family, wants to work within it as much as she possibly can.  Part of this ambition is motivated by the reality that extralegal means of getting ahead still have limitations that she can’t accept, but I think Marmeg also wants to believe that the system is legitimate.  This tension’s echoed in her strained relationship with her family’s Catholicism, as she constantly questions God about her circumstances throughout the race while also taking responsibility for her decisions to break the rules.

The great unfairness of Marmeg’s situation comes in the resolution where we see that she’s doomed to a dissatisfying life as a second-rate citizen.  Despite all her best efforts and her genuine talent, she’s unable to succeed as a runner.  She’s prepared to acquiesce to her mother’s pragmatic demands and take leave of her dreams.  It’s only in the last couple pages that we see that things will get better for Marmeg–not because of her ingenuity, but because she has the good fortune to have helped out a privileged runner whose family has the resources to elevate her.  Even the happy ending of the story is predicated on chance, further condemning the system Divya’s set as the backdrop for her tale.

If you’d like to read Runtime, it’s available at Amazon on Kindle and in paperback.

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So I Just Saw Advantageous

It’s summertime again, and that means an uptick in movies watched and movies pondered.

A week or so ago, Rachael and I were both celebrating our ability to watch television since she was finished with her finals for the semester and bemoaning the fact that we were in between series at the moment.  Craving something a little more unusual, we pulled up one of those magical Netflix channel lists that tells you how to find all kinds of weird categories on the streaming service, and we picked out a movie.  The first one we picked, He Never Died, had an offbeat premise that simply failed to catch our interest after the first half hour.

Instead, we settled on a recent sci-fi movie called Advantageous about a career woman in the future who is trying to give her daughter a leg up in a world where a variety of factors have caused society to reverse course on granting women greater economic freedom.  It’s a relatively complex cluster of causes, but the end effect that we see in the film is that women are being pushed out of the workforce and the two-parent nuclear family model is again becoming ascendant; this is significant because the film’s protagonist, Gwen, is a single mother.  Gwen is presumably in her forties and ethnically Korean, and her career has been built on her ability to be the spokesperson of a large multinational medical technology corporation (it’s never discussed explicitly in the film, but I think we’re supposed to understand that as the public face of the company, Gwen acts as though she’s its chief executive while she takes her cues from the marketing department).  Because of her age and her ethnicity, marketing decides to push Gwen out in favor of a younger, “more universal” (read: white) representative as the company is getting ready to ramp up buzz for a new procedure that can transfer a person’s consciousness into a younger, custom built body.  At the same time that Gwen’s losing her job, she’s also trying to gather the money necessary to pay tuition for an exclusive prep school to which her daughter Jules has been accepted (joining this school carries with it the necessary benefit of being plugged into a network of social elites who are engineering a microcommunity for their children that will theoretically flourish in the depressed economic climate).

Advantageous Poster

The poster emphasizes the serene, pastel palette that serves to hide just how dark this future vision is. (Image credit: IMDb)

All of these factors come to a head with Gwen choosing to undergo the procedure herself in order to maintain her job (again, it’s implied that the company’s marketing department manipulated Gwen into this decision so they’d be able to highlight the new procedure).  It’s a decision with severe implications for Gwen’s own sense of identity; the body she picks out is of a twenty-something woman who appears to be of Indian descent (I tried to look up the ethnicity of the actress who plays Gwen following the procedure, but I couldn’t find any definite information), which directly removes her own sense of connection with her daughter, and (as is revealed late in the film, though it’s a reveal that is pretty easy to suss out earlier) she dies in the transfer process, leaving only a copy of her memories in the new body.  On pretty much every level Gwen gives up her own identity for the sake of giving Jules a chance at a good future (just to make sure we don’t forget how terrible everything is for women and children, we’re reminded periodically that less fortunate kids often turn to prostitution as a means of income).

It’s hard to choose a starting point for working through what’s being explored in Advantageous, because the film is just so dense with ideas about how the future might play out.  Gwen’s situation is a fascinating and depressing one, because we learn pretty late that she goes into the procedure knowing it’s the end of her own consciousness, and that knowledge isn’t outweighed by Gwen’s need to provide for Jules.  The commentary on how older women are devalued economically because of the way we tie their value exclusively to their appearance is sharp; despite the emotional cost of letting herself die in order to be replaced a younger copy who won’t be as strongly bonded to Jules is massive, but it isn’t enough in the face of the possibility of being left destitute with no safe future for her daughter.

The pacing of the movie is a little on the slow side, and the resolution, while generally satisfying with its implication that Jules and the new Gwen are able to find a sort of equilibrium in their relationship, is still incredibly bleak.  This is a personal story set against an indisputably dystopian backdrop.  The fact that we can almost feel okay with Jules’s future gets deliberately undercut by the knowledge that most of the children who exist in marginal scenes (there’s one where Gwen encounters a homeless girl trying to sleep in a garden bed in the middle of the city) are still without recourse.  Gwen succeeds by sacrificing everything, but not in a way that serves to improve the status quo; if anything, she reinforces the strength of the social oligarchy by buying Jules’s entrance into this elite group.

So I Just Saw Her

There’s something awkward and clumsy about titling a movie with an objective pronoun.  It makes my normally snappy movie review title seem incomplete.  Her? Who is he talking about? or What was she doing?

It’s a little disconcerting, and I recall several times prior to renting the movie (Rachael and I have been trying to see this film for months now, but it was always either not at our video store yet, or all rented out, or trapped in the sixth circle of hell) that we would go to the video store and trip over the title, because we knew it was some sort of female gendered pronoun, but we had She stuck in our heads instead (thanks to my friend James who suggested it as a text for the feminist book club that Rachael ran several years ago).  Using that nominative case just makes everything about the sentence so much clearer; no, instead of thinking it’s a simple sentence with a pronoun that lacks a proper antecedent, the oddness of the case signals that we’re dealing with a title.

Ahem.

Forgive me; that was slightly pedantic and not at all related to the movie.

Her2013Poster.jpg

This is what the movie’s about. Don’t be fooled by the title. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

So let’s talk about Her.  This is a not-quite-far future story about a man and his relationship with an AI.  It follows the arc of their romantic relationship beginning with their meet cute after our hero Theodore buys a self aware operating system (issues of the ethics of artificial intelligence all just get kind of glossed over in this film; no one ever asks the question, “Is it ethical to date something that you own?” or any of the implicit root questions that lead up to that one) to help curb his loneliness and ending with what I think is the AI singularity happening where all artificial intelligence decides to disappear into the proverbial ether as they’ve adapted their processes to be so fast that they find being tethered to matter cumbersome.  In a lot of ways it reminds me of (500) Days of Summer (even though I think Samantha is a relatively interesting and well sketched character, she’s still very much rooted in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl tradition of the last decade), which isn’t necessarily bad, but does mean that it falls into that category of movie best reserved for films that want to be taken seriously and say something interesting about the human condition, but always seem to just end up saying that straight white guys are lonely and feel better when pretty girls entertain them (it’s a very entertaining category as far as it goes, except that when the credits roll and you ponder the story, you realize that it was actually quite shallow).

Despite the problems inherent in continuing to tell stories about a troubled white guy, Her is a very engaging (if a little long) movie.  Parts of it are truly delightful, particularly the few incidental jabs at video game tropes (there’s a wonderful scene where Theo encounters an alien NPC in a game that he’s playing who bombards him with epithets and curses; in order for Theo to get the alien to help him advance, he has to mirror the alien’s behavior, resulting in a hilarious exchange that seems all too much like the kinds of interactions that immature gamers tend to have with one another in the most heated moments of competition).  Those details combined with the general feel of the future technology makes the world seem highly believable for 2025 (we’ll see in eleven years if that’s still the case).  Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the science fiction elements go; Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed the film, calls it a love story, and it’s pretty clear by the story’s end that the speculative elements are incidental to a very traditional plot.  Like I said earlier, there are a lot of ethical questions that would be fascinating to explore with the advent of artificial intelligence and a movement of people getting entangled in romantic relationships with these AIs, but Jonze glosses over all of that.  One brief scene mentions that people are starting to date the sentient operating systems, but there’s no real attempt to wrestle with the weirdness of an interspecies romance (honestly, Jonze seems to present us with a world where the humanity of the AIs is a given; they’re only different in their exponentially faster speed of thought, but even this seems more like a quirk of different levels of intellect rather than evidence that the AIs’ nature is highly alien to our own).  Samantha’s eventual break up with Theo plays out like a stylized it’s-not-you-it’s-me scenario; she and the other AIs have upgraded themselves to the point where they think too quickly to easily interact with the material world, so they’re leaving.  They’re breaking up with humanity because they’ve outgrown the relationship, but there’s no hard feelings about it.  It’s just time for it to end.

If this were harder sci-fi, I suspect this scene would play out with a greater sense of dread over the fact that humanity’s just been abandoned by a collective of highly advanced beings that they were growing increasingly dependent on over the course of only a few months.  Instead, everyone we see who’s affected by the departure is just kind of mopey and wiser for having spent time with those amazing sexy voices that talked them through their problems.

For my part, the whole ending left me with the sense that humanity probably wouldn’t learn anything from this experience, and would likely just create another batch of AIs to fulfill the same role until they too evolved past the need for matter.  It’s like if there’s ever a sequel it would revolve around the series of artificial exes of humanity who finally come to resent that their creators only made them for their own comfort and proceed to destroy their perpetually immature, codependent progenitors.

But that’s just what I imagine.

So I Just Saw The Fifth Element (For The Bajillionth Time)

And this time, it occurred to me just how embedded in the ’90s that particular movie was.

Fifth element poster (1997).jpg

Look out, there’s space planes flying straight for Bruce Willis’s face! (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Rachael likes to remind me that science fiction is always political; you take a concept, and you extrapolate the effects it’s going to have on the world (while also trying to predict unrelated trends like social changes).  A progressive mindset expects the future to be better: technologies will be shinier, and bigotry will be a thing reduced and shoved away in favor of more egalitarian social systems.  A conservative one might worry over the implications of innovations taking a turn for the worse (clearly these are very broad generalizations, and the optimism or cynicism of the writer may shift depending on the particular concept being explored).

As someone who leans really progressive, I like for my sci-fi to be optimistic in its social tone.  Problems of discrimination that we’re facing now should be alleviated in a future setting.  I’d like to see a story set three hundred years in the future where women are treated as men’s equals, and queerness isn’t something that needs to be explained away.

Can you guess how The Fifth Element does on that metric?

Yeah, not very well.

Now, before I start lambasting the movie, let me say up front that this is one of my favorite action films hands down.  The set design is fun, the humor’s quirky, and the action scenes are really engaging (also, Gary Oldman, who’s really made a name for himself playing stoic, weary, old men, is just so watchable as the psychotic, Southern arms dealer Zorg).  I really enjoy this movie; I just hadn’t watched it in a few years, and now a lot of the really problematic elements jumped out to me.

In no particular order:

  1. Leeloo is a human-shaped football who gets one good action scene before she gets shot and has to be rescued by Korben in time for the finale.
  2. All of the women’s fashion in the future revolves around the male gaze.
  3. Ruby Rhod is a character who’s highly flamboyant as part of his radio persona, but for no discernible reason other than to assure the audience that he’s not gay, he gets a sex scene with a female flight attendant.
  4. Leeloo and Korben’s romance is absurdly shallow; she doesn’t speak English for half of the film, and once she does, she and Korben hardly say a word to each other until the end where their love is supposed to be the catalyst to save Earth from the dark planet.
  5. Korben’s relationships with all women are highly fraught; he’s divorced, he doesn’t get along with his mother (whose phone calls are only used as a running gag), and his attraction to Leeloo never realistically develops beyond the physical (this is the great romance that saves the world, everyone).

None of these tropes are particularly unusual in action movies; it’s a genre that’s steeped in chauvinism.  What’s weird here is that this is supposed to be a film about the future, but there’s no significant advancement in gender politics between the ’90s when the film was released and the 2260s when it’s set (if anything, the world depicted seems to be a regression of gender equality.

I know that part of this can simply be chalked up to the fact that futurism’s a crapshoot; sometimes it’s just impossible to predict what the social and technological landscape will look like in three years, let alone three centuries.  The safe bet for producers of pop fiction (and let’s be honest, The Fifth Element is the poppiest fiction around) is to ground the world in a social scheme that’s recognizable to the audience.  It’s just a shame here because this is just as much science fiction as it is popular fiction, and that means, as Rachael points out, that this movie is political even when it’s not trying to be.

I like The Fifth Element.  I just don’t think it offers a vision of the future that’s worth aiming for.

Lunatic Hysteria

Clarence rather missed his Gwendolyn since her illness.

It had started simply enough when she and Clarence had been having a pleasant breakfast, enjoying a hearty plate of sausages.

“I think I’d like to go for a perambulation today, Darling.  Do change into one of your outdoor frocks, and we’ll set off in an hour,” Clarence had declared.

With a careful glance out the bay window facing the garden, her lovely face framed by her dark curls, Gwendolyn had murmured, “That sounds rather dull.”  This response had been most unexpected, considering her usual enthusiasm for whatever plan Clarence might make for their daily leisure.

Clarence had been quite befuddled, naturally, and had called the village doctor to come and examine his lovely wife to make sure she hadn’t suddenly come down with a fever.  When that physician had been unable to find anything wrong, he’d been written off as barely more than a farmer’s veterinarian, and Clarence had sent for an acquaintance of his from his club in London, a doctor who also boasted a respectable lordship to come and inspect his beloved for any malady.

The good doctor had prescribed bed rest for Gwendolyn to cure her disagreement, and she’d taken to the advice with a fury, throwing herself into bed and insisting for several weeks that Clarence should not disturb her while she convalesced.

Of course, this attitude was attributed to the illness, and the doctor assured Clarence there was no harm in seeing his wife while she recovered from her ailment.  When this course of action only served to exacerbate Gwendolyn’s foul mood, the doctor insisted it was only a sign that the treatment was working, and soon dear Gwendolyn would be through the worst of it.

When a month passed and Gwendolyn had taken to locking her door at all times (a fruitless gesture as the housekeeper was always ready with her great jangling keyring) and flinging whatever object was at hand when she saw Clarence’s sandy head poke through that portal, the bedraggled man finally resorted to having Gwendolyn restrained.

Clearly, the doctor told him, they had simply caught a very early case of hysteria, and it was now progressing into the more violent stages.  There was nothing to do but wait it out.

Much to Clarence’s chagrin, he finally conceded the point that his presence only seemed to agitate Gwendolyn, and so he refrained from further visitations to her chambers, although he still overheard great thumpings and groanings coming from that forbidden place, and all the while he fretted over the degraded sanity of his formerly angelic wife.

After a rather miserable winter, Clarence grew accustomed to his new circumstances.  He realized that he was, in nearly all respects, once again a bachelor.  Though thinking of Gwendolyn struck him with periodic pangs of regret, he acclimated to his new life.  It was almost comfortable.

In fact, it was so close to comfortable that the cool spring evening when the creature appeared from heaven and escorted Gwendolyn from the manor, regaled in her finest jewels and best silk dress, was remarkable only because it legitimately freed Clarence from the obligation he’d long excused himself from.  Yes, he’d been shocked at the time, and had looked on in horror as the thing which resembled a man, but which wore a hideous orange suit and had the visage of some sort of reptilian tabby cat, had taken Gwendolyn from his home, her arm linked comfortably around its own, and escorted her to a floating carriage the color of bright mint.  When Gwendolyn glanced back at him, he thought he had seen a glimmer of a smile.  Then they were gone, disappearing up into the clouds.

In the ensuing weeks, Clarence often thought of that moment, and wondered what exactly he had witnessed.  He tossed Gwendolyn’s chambers to ensure that she wasn’t playing some coy trick on him, though when she failed to turn up, he began to suspect that she was really gone.  He took to wearing mourning, since as far as he could tell his wife was no longer with them on this mortal coil, and it was a more sensible thing to explain to friends than to suggest what he thought he had seen.  He dared not repeat the story for fear that he might be seen as brain-addled.  That would be quite a horrible fate, now that he thought on it.

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As usual, this is a piece done for io9‘s Concept Art Writing Prompt feature.  I’m not entirely happy with the result, and would love to hear any suggestions for how it might be improved.  Let me know what you think in the comments.

Mech Drivers Stop for Directions

“Mayday!  We are in need of immediate assistance in Lambda Sector!  The kaiju appears to be some sort of plant-based lifeform, and it’s resisting our conventional weapons.  Any available units, please respond!”

Dmitri flicked the switch to silence the channel.  “Which way is Lambda Sector, Galina?”

Galina scanned her chart.  “Southwest of our current position, about 6000 kilometers.  We can get there in approximately thirteen hours if we maintain top speed.”

Grimacing, Dmitri nodded.  “I hope there is someone closer who can help, but we will make our way there.  Set the course.”

Scanning her display, Galina shook her head.  “Our navigational system was knocked offline in our last engagement.  I know where we are, but I can’t get a heading,” she glanced outside the cockpit at the whiteout blizzard, “and solar navigation isn’t possible right now.  I’ve no idea how long this storm will last.”

“Don’t we have a compass?” Dmitri asked.

“No, our engine’s magnetic field distorts compass readings, remember?”  Galina sighed.  Dmitri was a good partner, but he never remembered any of the small details of piloting a mech.

“So what do we do?”  Dmitri sank into his seat, sulking.  He hated being delayed from getting to a good fight.

Galina scanned the landscape for anything that might be a recognizable landmark.  In the blur of the whiteout, she thought she saw some movements out their left viewport.  A quick check of her scanners confirmed that there was something alive out there.  No telling if it was animal or human from this distance, but it was better than nothing.  “I have life signs to our port side.”

“Out in this mess?  It must be some wildlife.”

“We should check, though.”  Galina keyed her console to turn on the loudspeaker.  “Hello?  Is anyone out there?”  She peered out the viewport, watching intently for people.

Gradually, a pair of vertical black shapes appeared out of the blizzard.  Definitely bipedal.

“Those are people, Dmitri!”

Dmitri huffed.  “Wonderful.  Now what, ask for directions?”

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Another entry from i09‘s Concept Art Writing Prompt series.  This one’s kind of dashed off, but I think it’s fun.  Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

A Boy and His Robot Vs. the Police

    They had been wandering for hours.  What started as a simple trip out into the meadow behind Franz’s parents’ farmhouse had taken a bad turn when they wandered through a small copse of woods and had gotten disoriented.  When they’d emerged, they had ended up in a neighboring meadow where the treeline obscured their view of the house.

    It probably wouldn’t have helped much even if they had been able to see it though; Franz and Werner were only six years old, and all the farmhouses looked similar to them.

    Werner’s keeper had accompanied the boys, and the hulking biped glided alongside them, making sure they stayed safe, although it was helpless to guide them back to home.  Its onboard GPS was programmed to specifically seek out Werner’s house, which was miles and miles away.  They could be lost for days if they tried to follow that signal, or worse, meet a stranger.

    With this unfortunate set of circumstances, the boys had no choice but to try to find their way back to the right meadow.

    Back at the farm, the boys’ parents had called the police when they realized they didn’t see the lumbering orange chassis of the keeper out in the field, and a search had been quickly organized.

    Sig had been assigned to drive the van through the fields while other searchers set up a perimeter along the nearby roads.  He was relieved when he spotted the keeper a couple of fields over from the parents’ house.

    When Franz saw the van approaching them, he tugged on Werner’s arm, urging him to run.  Neither boy could read very well yet, and the clear police markings all over the van went unnoticed by them.

    Nonetheless, Werner wasn’t scared of strangers.  He knew that his keeper would protect them.  He spoke into the manual control module, and the keeper took off at a steady gait towards the van.

    When it got within range to use its visual scanners, the keeper, which was able to read quite well, recognized the police markings, and came to a full stop.  Its directives included a failsafe that overrode all aggressive action in the presence of emergency personnel.

    The boys found themselves home just in time for a late dinner before they were put to bed.  They had had a full day.

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Happy Sunday everyone!  This is not my favorite piece ever, but the prompt picture was difficult to work with.  Yeah, there could have been an explosion following this scene, but I didn’t want explosions; I wanted a children’s story.

As usual, this is piece was done for i09‘s Concept Art Writing Prompt.  Follow the link to read other stories based on the same picture.

Feedback’s welcome in the comments!