Tag: science fiction

Some Thoughts on N. K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, Broken Earth #2 (Orbit, 2016)

26228034Let me begin by stating the obvious: N. K. Jemisin is a brilliant fantasy writer. The prequel to The Obelisk Gate, The Fifth Season, has recently been awarded the Hugo Award and it should not surprise you that a novel that by all accounts is an epic fantasy should win a science fiction award, because Jemisin kills it across every genre. The Fifth Season follows Damaya, Syenite, and Essun, three women “orogene,” individuals endowed with magic abilities to control seismic and other geological movements. In spite of having what appears to be very useful—and cool—powers in the context of a world perpetually ravaged by genocidal natural disasters, orogenes are considered subhumans by the non-magical “stills.” Orogenes (also pejoratively called “roggas”) are forcefully removed from their communities—when they are not killed by their parents—and trained at the Fulcrum to become Imperial agents in charge of controlling and protecting people from disasters. For yet unexplained reasons, the Stillness suffers from catastrophic natural disasters eventually unleashing “Fifth Seasons”—decades, sometimes centuries-long post-apocalyptic winters. Living in the Stillness revolves entirely on preparing for Seasons by imposing ruthless laws on the social and economic organization of comms and cities. The novel begins with Essun’s discovery that her husband Jija beat to death their infant son Uche after discovering that he inherited his mother’s (secret) orogeny. Essun goes on a vengeful quest to find Jija and their daughter Nassun, whom he kidnapped. Other chapter PoVs follow the child Damaya, who is taken to the Fulcrum for training, and Syenite, a four-ringed Imperial Orogene who goes on a mission with her ten-ringer mentor Alabaster. By the end of the novel, we discover that all three characters are one and the same person at different point of her life.

Obelisk Gate beings where Fifth Season left us, with Essun in the mysterious, orogene-controlled comm of Castrima, a city within a giant geode. We finally have access to Nassun’s point of view as her father takes her to the mysterious comm of Found Moon, founded by Essun’s Guardian Schaffa. Guardians control orogenes as they have magical abilities to negate their orogeny and to use it against them. As Essun tries to integrate into Castrima and learn everything she can form the dying Alabaster, who charges her with a mission to end all Seasons, Nassun becomes a powerful orogene at Found Moon.

Obelisk Gate refuses to give us easy solutions to the conflicts of Fifth Season. Essun does not find Nassun, and has in fact almost abandoned the idea of ever finding her. Moreover, Nassun does not turn out to be a stereotypical loving daughter; in fact, she has little affection for a mother who brutally trained her to control her orogeny in secret. She resents her for marrying Jija, who clearly was a still who would never overcome his hatred of orogenes, and for failing to give her more information about her own past. Obelisk Gate avoids the pit trap of so many second installments by keeping the story fast-paced and surprising. It further complicates the overarching plot and expands upon the magical creatures briefly outlined in the previous novel, especially the mysterious stone eaters. However, although I loved the second-person narration in Fifth Season, I found it tedious here. I would have preferred a change in narrator, for although the revelation of the narrator’s identity as Hoa at the end of Fifth Season was a nice plot twist, in Obelisk Gate it becomes frustrating because we have yet to discover why Hoa is retelling the entire story to Essun (presumably). A change in narrators would have brought a breath of air into the story.

Overall, Obelisk Gate engrossed me into the brilliantly complex world of the Stillness as much as its prequel, and kept me on my toes for the final installment.

Series I Watch: Residue (2015)

Residue has all the potentials of a great sci-fi/mystery series, although there is much room for improvement. The casting is impeccable with Natalia Tena and Iwan Rheon as the leads who, in spite of their radically opposite roles in Game of Thrones, have great chemistry on the screen.

Tena plays Jennifer, a professional photographer working on a series on people affected by the great December 31st explosion that blew up in the city center. A year later, the whole neighborhood, now abandoned and quarantined for potentials chemical aftereffects, remains as much of a mystery to the inhabitants of the unnamed big city (the series was filmed in Gloucester) as to the viewer: why did it explodes? What is the government really doing behind the heavy military guarding the quarantine zone? Why are buildings still standing, apparently untouched? (but seriously, what kind of explosion was that??). As Jennifer and her boyfriend, Jonas (Rheon)–whom you cannot quite unsee as Ramsay–who works in the Home Office, investigates and discover the dark secrets the government is trying to hide, mysterious black shadows dangerously plague the citizens of the city.

On top of an interesting premise, Residue has truly magnificent, if a little repetitive, aesthetics and shots. The entire series is composed in spectrums of gray, green, and red which make for stunning shots of desolate urbanism and dark Chinatown settings–in fact the series flirts a little too closely with racist representations of “Asian” cultures as seen in Blade Runner–or every other cyberpunk movie, really–that dig the Orientalist look but not quite actual Asian people (spoiler alert: this show is very white). Nevertheless, I really liked the show’s photography, but as a commenter on the Netflix page said, you will probably only like it if you’re, like me, guiltily enjoying hipster Tumblr aesthetic blogs (but jokes aside who DOESN’T like those?).

The problem with Residue is that there isn’t much else besides great actors and super cool aesthetics: the narrative develops extremely slowly and the dialogue is at times difficult to swallow. I have to admit that I didn’t realize this was a three-episode long season intended to be seen as an extended pilot. So I continued watching it thinking the plot would eventually pick up; if I’d known I was watching three hours of “pilot” I would have certainly stopped and rewatched Buffy or something. If the first episode did make me excited because of its originality and intrigue, the next two added nothing to the mystery besides confusion as to the characters’ motives and frank disbelief at certain scenes. By the end of the third episode I didn’t find myself particularly looking forward to see more, although I did love Tena’s character, who seems to take no shit from anyone.

Overall I’m not entirely abandoning this show because I do love the actors/characters and I do believe that the story could go somewhere with a little boost in the writers’ room and a quicker pace BUT if the show does continue–and from the Netflix commenters nothing is more uncertain–it’ll have much to do to convince me that this is not just another residue of a good idea (eh? eh? Anyone?).

Films I watch: Ex Machina (2015)

Dir. Alex Garland.

If you’ve seen the trailer of Ex Machina, you know the plot follows the one white boy genius programmer hired on a secret mission by the one white boy computer genius in a high-tech cabin the woods. Caleb, the programmer, discovers quickly that he is meant to meet and test an AI that looks entirely too human. From this apparently simple and overused storyline you would be entirely justified in rolling your eyes and predicting every twist and turn of the movie.

But if you’ve watched the trailer, you also know that something goes wrong somewhere in that neat little story. Ex Machina does not follow the usual line of questioning on humanity that goes along with movies on cyborgs, AIs, and androids–the best of which are Blade Runner, A.I., I, Robot, etc. Instead, Ex Machina is an intense psychological thriller with the right amount of unexpected twists and even one or two fist-in-the-air moments. Alicia Vikander, who plays the AI named Ava, acts the part superbly and, even though my partner made fun of me for about ten hours for saying this, Soyona Mizuno is excellent as the wordless Kyoko [more on the fucked upness of Orientalism here later]. The soundtrack to the film is perfectly chilling, and the mix of high technology and wilderness (it was filmed in England) makes an ideal setting for such a huis clot.

Now for the spoilers. Cover your eyes! Major spoilers ahead!

Caleb has “sessions” with Ava to test out whether or not she could pass as human, even while knowing she is artificial. Expectedly, he slowly falls in love with her and she seemingly reciprocates his feelings. Meanwhile, he gradually learns to distrust Nathan, the Google-like CEO who hired him, as Ava warns Caleb not to trust him. Caleb discovers that Ava is not the first AI made by Nathan but one of many artificial women he has made. The previous versions, which include an AI in an Asian woman’s body and another version in a Black woman’s body, have all gone insane from being kept locked inside their rooms. In a bone-chilling scene, one entirely destroys  her arms trying to break the the glass walls of her prison. It is also revealed that Kyoko herself, a (sexual) servant who is mute, is an AI (presumably still around because she cannot speak). Decided to save Ava, Caleb devises a plan to recode the security codes of the house while Nathan is drunkenly passed out. Ava escapes her room and convinces Kyoko–until then extremely passive and obedient–to help her kill Nathan. In a glacial scene, Kyoko and Ava stab him and watch him die. Before he does so, Nathan destroys Kyoko and cuts Ava’s arm off. Ava finds Caleb (knocked out by Nathan) and tells him to stay here. Meanwhile she takes off parts of the deactivated AIs she found in Nathan’s bedroom closets for herself—an arm, skin, hair. Caleb watches her through the glass wall, hypnotized by her gradually fleshed–and naked–body. Finally, in the best plot twist of the century, Ava locks Caleb in and leaves him, her prison, and her secret identity as an AI behind. In the last shots we have of him, he helplessly tries to break the glass walls.

Besides the obviously interesting story and gorgeous graphics, what I like the most about this movie was that it successfully subverts every expected twist: the smart nerdy white boy does not get the girl–he is fooled by her, manipulated for the best reasons. The arrogant white male genius who played God and created sexual slaves and play toys is destroyed by his own self-confidence: the sweet, seemingly dumb Kyoko literally stabs him in the back, revenge for her voicelessness and imprisonment. I also loved that the movie really isn’t about what it means to be human but rather, it answers frankly the question: what would happen if we did successfully create creatures so human as to be exactly the same as us? Most likely, they’d try to escape our control and would not hesitate to kill to do so.

Now for the parts that were hugely problematic (hey, I’m an academic!). It’s hard to know where to start. The only characters of color in this movie were almost entirely silent (the one Asian AI has a scene in which she screams one line) and they all die. Kyoko is a literal embodiment of Orientalism, the theory developed by Edward Said, and which centers on how Euro-American narratives create radical otherness via exoticization. So, yeah, whenever you have a silent modern version of a Geisha who cooks sushi for you and that you can use as a sex slave, you’re pretty much fucking exotifying her 100%. Although Kyoko does get her redeeming moment when she stabs Nathan, it’s kind of hard to cheer for it because she stills says absolutely nothing and then immediately dies. And it doesn’t end there. The one Black AI that Nathan makes has no head and is clearly an unsuccessful model, since she is incapable to hold a pen, much less write or draw. It’s hard to do worse in terms of representation, but I’m going to anticipate your potential remark here: Nathan has made his AIs based on porn movies (which he admits at some point) so obviously it can’t be good, and the point of the movie is that of female empowerment, since Ava kills him and leaves the dumb one behind. Yes. But.

A movie can have simultaneously feminist characters and themes AND fucked up representation of race and gender. I’ve already mentioned some of the racial problems of the movie, but it gets worse when Ava actually appropriates body parts from various “dead” AIs, including the Asian AI’s arm and skin. The whole film itself can hardly be called feminist, since it largely fails the Bechdel test and since Ava does not, say, reanimate the AIs or anything but just leaves everything behind (even idiot Caleb, who, even if he had annoying wet dreams about being a knight in shining armor, did not particularly deserve to die horribly).

Overall, I truly enjoyed the movie and I would recommend it: the suspense maintains till the end and the ending is surprising. In spite of its shortcomings in terms of representations of race and gender, Ava is still a badass female protag and we need more characters like her!