Blade Runner 2049

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Blade Runner 2049 may feature the classic’s oppressive dehumanising cityscapes of its predecessor, but like its storied forebear, it is heartbreakingly and effusively human in its emotional and thematic outlook.

A film as self-contained as Blade Runner never seemed to need a sequel to complete it, but BR 2049 achieves that rarest of things – it takes the first film and iterates on it, providing a fresh new experience while drawing on the same primordial themes. 30 years after the  first film, replicants have been re-introduced on Earth; this time, they are made to be pliant and unquestioning in their service to humanity. K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant Blade Runner who dispatches previous iterations of “dangerous” replicants, follows a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to a secret long thought buried and forgotten – the fate of Rick Deckard and Rachel, and the existence of an impossibility – a child born of a replicant.

First off, BR 2049 is a darned good hardboiled detective story. K broods in his tiny apartment, accompanied by his AI companion Joi (played to perfection by Ana de Armas) while his implacable detective instincts lead him inexorably on the chase. The film is long – almost three hours – but it unravels in a stylishly noirish slow burn. Some have called it slow, but personally, I never felt bored at any point – every scene seemed to drip with tension and atmosphere and foreboding. The aesthetics of this film – in the rainy, ocean-buffeted megalithic cityscapes of Los Angeles, to the parched radioactive wastes of Las Vegas – are brilliantly realised, and the thundering, discordant score suffuses each scene with a barely contained power. The film may take its time, but it is filled with viscerality, and every scene is plastered with visual interest.

Where BR 2049 really shines, though, and takes its place as a worthy sequel to the original, is just how emotionally resonant its character relationships are. In particular, K and Joi are a sweetly tragic pairing, two created beings at the bottom of the hierarchy that, despite everything, love each other. While the film is deliberately ambiguous about whether Joi’s affection for K is just a manifestation of her programming, the visceral sincerity of their affection for each other on screen always cuts through that ambiguity and makes their relationship feel authentic. Every scene with the two of them together was a wondrous technical and emotional achievement on Villeneuve’s part.

(NB: although if you take the position that Joi is just a glorified interactive dakimakura, you might be of the opinion that the relationship has chauvinist undertones. But I’m kind of with Daniel Dennett on the notion that there’s  probably no quantum leap between consciousness and not. If it looks, acts feels and thinks like a person, it probably is a complex enough gestalt to be person, notwithstanding that it follows some rules of engagement with respect to behaviour. Humans are no different. Can we truly be said to be free of biological programming, to love, have babies? There is probably no philosophical zombie, no Chinese Room).

And it’s that relationship, coupled with K’s own journey of attempted self-actualisation, that underlies the film’s core theme – that to be human isn’t about what you are made of, but about one’s ability to make human choices. Joi’s selflessness may be due to her programming, but if she, at some level, demonstrates her agency to choose, then she is human. Gosling’s K momentarily believes that he is the Replicant version of the Chosen One – a trueborn of his kind, with a real childhood. But when disabused of this notion and told that he is – after all, just another regular Replicant Joe – he chooses to exercise his human agency to ensure that Deckard gets to see his daughter (and that final scene where he peers through the glass to see her – that cautious but yearning look – is pure catharsis that makes K’s efforts seem even more worth it. Bravo, Harrison.) . It doesn’t matter that he, like Pinocchio, wasn’t made of flesh – his choices made him a real boy.

There is a pleasing symmetry to the first film – where the Roy and his gang fought to give themselves a future (in trying to extend their lifespans), K sought to give himself a past (by trying to find out if he was realborn, and that his implanted memories were not fake). They both failed, but in the process, their actions bequeathed them the humanity that society denied them. And the respective scenes near the end of both movies, where both K and Roy rest their weary heads, are equally emotionally charged. For while our heroes didn’t fulfill their original quests, they have self-actualised in another, very human sense.

This is something the Replicant Resistance doesn’t quite understand. Like Roy and his gang of dancing replicants, they are in a quest to give themselves humanity by fixating on its essential attributes – long life in the first film, childbirth in the second. It may break the world, but the ability to have kids doesn’t make Replicants human – even if they think it is. That is why K defies their order to kill Deckard and instead saves him – because he knows they got it all backwards. I both loved and was emotionally devastated by the film’s quite masterful sleight of hand in making audiences think K was someone special – the revelation that he was not broke me emotionally. But K pulls through his despair and does what he thinks is right, and claims his humanity even as he loses his happy ending.

Many science fiction films have played with this trope – to varying effect, but BR 2049 is one of the most compelling and emotionally resonant renditions of this theme I’ve watched on film. It’s a testament that great film can’t just appeal to the intellect, but to the heartstrings as well.

It’s not a perfect film – I thought Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace was a ham-fisted Ridley Scott-esque play at the megalomaniac corporate villain, and his ambitions to create a race of self-replicating replicants a bit wool-headed given the implications. But most notably, he is just evil for evil’s sake, lacking any human empathy or capacity for understanding that cloning someone doesn’t bring them back. He kills for expository effect, too. Just an all-around narmy clown. His Replicant henchwoman, I thought was well-executed for her role as the baddie, but I thought there was a lot of scope to make her character more complex than just being Wallace’s tool with the occasional pang of sympathy for a fellow Replicant.

But beyond that, BR 2049 does what it sets out to do so well – and with such grace, style, beauty, and economy of storytelling – yes, I think that running time is justified – that it will be taking its place in my personal list of the all-time science fiction greats.

I give this film: 5 out of 5 emanators

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The End of All Things

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What it’s about: The sixth book in the Old Man’s War sequence continues the story of the Colonial Union’s quest to survive amidst various encroachments, primarily that of a clandestine organisation that has a stake in its dissolution.

Notes:

  • Like The Human Division, this book is also comprised of a number of interconnected novellas, but unlike The Human Division, these are much more tightly connected and linked to a central narrative strand that was just only hinted at in the previous book. The Human Division had attributed various mysterious happenings to an unseen agent, but it is only in this book that the big bad is finally revealed in all its dastardliness, and this book is all about confronting that main antagonist. In that sense, The End of All Things is the more focused and narratively cohesive work.
  • This is the book where the political philosophies banded about throughout the series’ length gets put to the fore and discussed. Space, with its vastness and unpredictability, is a perfect canvas for a Hobbesian state of affairs where it’s every civilization for itself. But in this environment, two major polities have emerged – the Colonial Union and the Conclave, and the former is actually the “bad guy” in the Universe – an aggressive and expansionist entity that regards its actions as the only way to ensure survival in a cold and unfeeling universe. The Conclave, on the other hand, is a liberal, heterogeneous polity forged out of grudging consensus, an international order governed by mutually-reinforcing norms, that views the CU as a threat to its fragile state of affairs.
  • The Big Bad, known as Equilibrium, belongs to an order of political thought that views this bipolar world as inherently unstable and dangerous – that at some point, one entity will gain hegemony at the total expense of the other, imposing its fiat on the rest of the polities in known space, while erasing the losing party from existence. In a bid to resolve this state of affairs, they seek to use subterfuge and a whole host of frankly vile tactics to topple both empires and return the galaxy to a purely multipolar state of affairs, which they believe to be the most stable. Of course, they’re also counting on enriching themselves in the process, and the journey back into multipolarity is going to result in genocide.
  • Now, contemporary IR theory is of many minds about the stability of various polar configurations. Classical realism would hold that multipolar worlds offer the greatest stability, others think that it would still result in a large number of petty wars and force individual polities to mind too many different enemies, increasing the chances of overreaction and petty warfare. Either way, war is a constant, but Equilibrium clearly thinks that in a scenario where each state commands weapons capable of destroying vast swathes of an opposing planet, a multipolar world would diffuse aggressiveness and maximise the chances of species continuity (since no one species would be enough of a threat to be a concerted target of genocide from an alliance of other races). Basically, a return to a world where war is fought to maintain the balance of power, rather than to exterminate the enemy in their entirety.
  • IR aside, though, Equilibrium’s methods clearly paint them as an avowed antagonist, and the entire book is about the good guys’ efforts to sic them out and wipe their mercenary asses off known space, which proceeds in satisfying fashion. The first novella, the story of the preternaturally-resourceful Rafe Daquin, who, even as a disembodied brain in a jar, manages to outsmart his Equilibrium captors and reveal their existence to the world, is classic Scalzi – a story of how an underdog uses smarts to win the day against all odds. The second segment discusses the internal politics of the Conclave, and the third and last segments sees them coming to a modus vivendi  with the CU and Earth in a bid to defeat the newly found enemy. The stories are focused, fast-paced and thrillingly smart, interlaced with classic Scalzi humor and satisfying descriptions of subterfuge. Really, no one beats Scalzi at setting up convoluted plots that unroll across the telling of a tale in such a satisfying way.

Verdict: Yet another classic Scalzi doing what he does best, The End of All Things wraps up the latest strand of the intriguing Old Man’s War universe in satisfying and kinetic fashion.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 brain-controlled ships

Cooked (Netflix Documentary)

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What it’s about: The documentary version of Michael Pollan’s book of the same name, which I have reviewed here. The show, like the book, takes a look at the four main ways of preparing food in each of its four episodes: roasting for fire, braising/stewing for water, baking for air, and fermenting for earth.

Notes:

  • Documentary adaptations of non-fiction books are a strange and special kind of adaptation that don’t suffer from the ills of fictive adaptations – the people depicted and written about are real, and there is less value in our mental models and images of them, unlike in a fictive adaptation where we are as active participants in the worldbuilding as the author is, and visual adaptations often take that agency away from us and turn us into consumers of another person’s imagination.
  • The show is very similar in spirit to the book, and I have already extemporized at length about the latter. Suffice to say that in this case, the show really adds a vital visual and aural interest that the book simply cannot provide, though Pollan does extremely well at evoking the passions of cooking and food through his prose. Seeing the people – real people – that I’d hitherto only read about enriches the immediacy and the visceral elements of Pollan’s message, and makes it that much stronger.
  • Pollan’s book still contains the meat and potatoes of his message, and the show is best seen as a complement, rather than a substitute, for reading the book. The show excels in its new material which I recall was less present in the book, in which the foodways of different cultures with respect to the four modes of cooking are explored – Aboriginal fire hunting for roasting, Indian home cooking for braising, Moroccan breadmaking for baking, and cheesemaking in a Connecticut convent for fermenting. The documentary provides insight into how these different processes of food preparation are an inherent part of different foodways and a vital component of what makes us human. Commensurately, Pollan’s personal experience is less emphasized than in the book – in fact, he seems to only serve a function of being a talking head on the show, rather than the person who goes roving around and talking to people. So the show and the book should definitely be considered complements – and there is value in watching the show and reading the book, although you might want to do it a few weeks apart to minimise repetitiveness.

Verdict: This is an impeccably made, viscerally resplendent adaptation of Pollan’s book, and should be watched even if one has read the original for added information and a greater sense and understand of the real people and places that Pollan describes in his book.

I give this show: 4.5 out of 5 cheese wheels

 

Gardens of the Sun

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What it’s about: The follow-up to The Quiet War, this book continues the story of the conflict between Earth and the Outers, as well as that of the lives of the various characters from the first book.

Notes:

  • This was actually a more enjoyable read than The Quiet War. McAuley is better at the big picture, and Gardens of the Sun definitely has a much more expansive scope than the first book. The book adopts a much more “future history” tone, with McAuley describing grandiose social and political movements, migrations, and revolutions from the perspective of his characters, who are both observers and active participants in these events. There isn’t much in the way of tension – a lot of the plot threads have an air of inevitability to them, in the sense that we never feel like the characters are acting in opposition to overwhelming odds against them, and the stage is often set for ensuring the survival of the collective (but not so much for the individual characters, who get killed off like flies). And a lot of the plot is told, rather than shown, in long expository passages. But I don’t actually mind this, because it plays to McAuley’s strengths in world-building.
  • Surprisingly, the characters all get significant and meaningful development in this book, and are as a consequence much more fleshed-out than in the first book. Characters like Cash Baker, Alder, Dave and even Loc Ifrahim are no longer the one-dimensional ciphers in the Quiet War and are deployed in a much more sympathetic and nuanced light. This really made me enjoy the book that much more.
  • For all of McAuley’s strengths in worldbuilding, however, one problem that emerges in this second book is his plot resolutions. He seems to have a clear ending in mind, but has problems resolving things that he’s set up over the course of the book. This leads to certain leaps in plot logic and deus ex machinae that pop up close to the end of the book, and plot elements that one would think deserve a bit more attention are described in the past tense and are taken to have occurred off-screen.

Verdict: While still flawed, Gardens of the Sun is a much more interesting and involved read than its predecessor, and maintains the same grandiosity of worldbuilding as the original.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Ghost Ships

Spring Chicken

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What it’s about: A journalist plumbs science and pseudoscience for the secret to living a longer and healthier life.

Notes:

  • This is a book that, naturally, touches on something of abiding interest to everybody on the planet – how to stay youthful and healthy for as long as possible. It’s not just about keeping death at bay, but to increase your healthspan as long as possible. There’s also a brief meditation on the socio-economic and environmental impact of having a bunch of eternally-living folks around, which is a subject of another book, presumably one about the necessity of space colonisation.
  • Gifford’s wry, layman-peeking-in sort of tone lends an approachable air to the already intriguing subject matter. His attention is prolific, touching on nearly everything being done in the field, from the serious scientists to the celebrity hacks trying out dubious supplements like HGH (which, spoiler, are pretty dangerous and can even increase your chances of cancer or other age-related diseases.)
  • Gifford spends time as a volunteer in the massive Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Ageing, a decades-long study aimed at identifying all the external predictive correlates of senescence. He finds that it has as much to do with behavior as genetics (of course).
  • According to Gifford’s research, an important biomarker of senescence is inflammation, caused by senescent cells whose telomeres have depleted and hence are reaching the end of their replicative lifespan (telomerase activators are implicated in causing cells to go cancerous, so pumping yourself full of telomerase is not a particularly good anti-ageing strategy). Inflammatory compounds like cytokine contribute to all manner of age-related diseases, such as heart failure and dementia. Basically, it’s a catch-22. Left to their own devices, your cells either die (after becoming senescent) or become cancer (and you die in both scenarios). There isn’t any getting out of this bind – at least, not yet, with current technology.
  • There are, of course, certain people who possess certain sets of protective genes that guard against the effects of old age – and these lucky people can live to fantastically old ages even if they pursue all manner of bad habits. It seems that such genes are not selected for because there is no evolutionary pressure to privilege them – after all, such genes, whose effects only become evident in older folks, don’t really affect people’s chances of having babies.
  • Are there miracle medicines or interventions to extend lifespan? Gifford’s answer is, unsurprisingly, a “it’s too early to tell”. There are studies touting the restorative effects of rapamycin and metformin that have some scientific purchase (unlike HGHs peddled by aforementioned celebrity kooks) that may or may not have efficacy beyond the lab environment and/or horrible side effects. There’s also the creepy fact that blood transfusions from young to old mice (i.e. parabiosis) have restorative properties in the latter, due to some as-yet unclear property of young blood. But the biomechanical pathways for these substances are not well-understood as of yet.
  • That said, the good news is that there are plenty of behavioral modifications that most people can adopt to maximise their chances of living long and healthy lives. These include, naturally, losing weight, frequent exercise, and being educated, as well as having a positive outlook on life. One can also try some other, more drastic, lifestyle changes, such as intermittent fasting/caloric restriction and introducing physical stressors to the body from time to time, like taking dips in ice-cold water.
  • And so, whatever it is, after all that talk about scientific measures to reverse ageing, it seems like the age-old adage of “use it or lose it” still wins out in the end. Essentially, you gotta work hard for the life you want. Even if it means earning enough money to pay for frequent blood transfusions from broke Gen-Zers.

Verdict: Engaging, accessible and soberingly wry, Spring Chicken educates and entertains while reminding us that the reins to our own health are entirely in our hands.

I give this book: 4.5/5 danishes

 

The Quiet War

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What it’s about: Earth, newly ascendant from environmental catastrophe, seeks to establish its hegemony over the far-flung colonies of posthuman Outers living in the moons and planetoids of Jupiter and Saturn.

Notes:

  • This is the first of a duology of books that paint an arresting vision of the state of a 23rd century solar system where humankind has mastered genetic and environmental engineering to a degree that they can spin complete habitats on the most arid of rocks and thrive there to a high degree of self sufficiency and comfort.
  • The Quiet War starts out intriguingly enough, introducing the reader to a climate change-ravaged Earth with a vastly reshaped political theatre, dominated in the Americas by the dictatorial and oligopolistic (but also aggressively environmentalist) families of Greater Brazil, and their attendant gene wizards: scientific geniuses whose proprietary mastery of genetic engineering have given them considerable clout and influence.
  • On the far edges of the Solar System, new typologies of living are being explored by the Outers: diamond-tented cities perched on moonlets, undersea bases clinging onto the underside of Europa’s kilometres-thick ice-crust, mysterious gardens of vacuum-adapted organisms in the centres of hollowed-out asteroids. The Outers themselves are on the cusp of a massive flowering, forging their descendants into posthuman clades adapted to the diverse environments of the solar system.
  • McAuley’s training as a botanist and biologist shows, with oddly beautiful passages devoted to the exploration of how future humans might be able to cultivate living biomes from dead rock, and of the rejuvenation efforts being carried out on Earth, where we see an odd juxtaposition of climate consciousness, religious fervor, and dictatorship – a state of affairs that seems more and more likely as our squabbling corporate-dominated institutions move closer and closer to a global warming redline without being able to come to a consensus.
  • McAuley treats both sides with some complexity, at the risk of muddying his message. Greater Brazil is depicted as aggressive, conservative and militaristic, contrasted against the technologically progressive, gene-spliced Outers who operate using a culture of radical consensus and whose currency is a system of favour-based accounting called kudos. Except I’m not quite sure who McAuley is rooting for sometimes (which is not a bad thing, per se, but I think most books should take a stand on this) – because the Outer system of democracy is portrayed as ineffectual and affected, to the point of making them sitting ducks for a military strike.
  • Amidst the stellar worldbuilding, however, is a ponderous narrative populated with undistinguished characters, that, like the spaceships of the era, take forever to get anywhere. And indeed, the titular quiet war between Earth and the Outers is the payoff of the entire book, and the consequence of McAuley’s slow and considered buildup, but it feels almost inevitable – thus, the reader is just left with the task of finding out how exactly it happens.
  • To put it another way, the lives of the small players in this space opera intertwine with the massive historical shifts in power that result in a vastly different Solar System between the start and the end of the book. But the lives of the small, for the most part, pale in interest to those characters closer to the loci of power – gene wizard Sri Hong-Owen may be the most intriguing of these. But the book’s other POV characters – notably Macy Minnot and Cash Baker – are the “human interest” characters that don’t seem quite as interesting in the scheme of things, even as they are expository vehicles for McAuley to further explore the world he has wrought.

Verdict: While the worldbuilding is top-notch, the narrative takes forever to get anywhere, not helped by the inherent dullness of many of the story’s POV characters.

I give this book: 3.5/5 spex

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

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What it’s about: Dan Ariely takes us on a tour of human dishonesty and tells us that humans in general don’t rely on dispassionate cost-benefit analyses (expectation of reward vs penalty of being caught) to guide when they cheat. Instead, cheating is motivated by a number of things, including, most importantly, whether we are able to rationalise the cheating to ourselves such that we can maintain a positive self-image.

The list of such rationalisations might include: whether other people in your social circle or culture are doing it (social and cultural norms), whether someone else can benefit from it (collaborative cheating), whether there are a large number of ways to justify the cheating (creativity), the emotional disposition of the cheating person (willpower depletion), whether the person has done it before (the “what-the-hell” justification) and a few more.

Conversely, cheating can be mitigated using tried-and-tested methods to outsource the “moral compass” or remind people of the rules of the game, including through supervision, pledging or moral suasion.

Notes:

  • This book strikes me as one of those “I could’ve told you that” tomes that provide, at best, simple (lab-environment) experimental backing for well-understood but ill-defined social adages. Humans cheat when they can rationalise it to themselves. That’s essentially what the book says. Hardly earth-shattering to presuppose that we are not all amoral cost-benefit calculators.
  • But even the distinction between rational cost-benefit analyses and rationalisation isn’t quite as stark, because what constitutes utils to you might be different from me. If a person cheats because everyone is cheating, is that necessarily not a cost-benefit analysis borne from the quantification of the “everyone does it” excuse as an input in the cost-benefit calculator?
  • Ariely’s approach to substantiating his claims strikes me as a bit overreaching, because he writes as though his series of experimental protocols demonstrate the conclusive truth of everything. But his experiments are all carefully controlled and offer comparatively little in terms of payoffs and risks, and by and large he relies on a common pool of university students (although he does conduct experiments on other people from time to time). Are his models really extensible to real-world cheating, Bernie Madoff style? I’m not so sure yet . That said, his conclusions are quite parsimonious in that they are not extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, and I don’t disbelieve in anything he claims through what I understand from my Jungian received folk-wisdom corpus of moral sensibilities.

Verdict: While written in an engaging and accessible style, this book doesn’t quite manage to conclusively prove its truisms beyond the four walls of the psychology lab. But it does provide a useful conceptual framework to crystallise the folk wisdom on how cheating comes about into something more academically rigorous.

I give this: 4 out of 5 worksheets full of matrices