Classic Roger Series #2: Plant

Plant was Originally Published on kuro5hin.org Sat Jan 19, 2002 at 05:38:10 AM EST


Dry limestone crunches beneath my feet, and the hot Louisiana sun beats down past huge racks, each an impenetrable maze of plumbing, wiring, and catwalks. The very ground vibrates with a low mechanical hum, the echo of countless motors and pumps. In all the landscape there is no sign of life; not a blade of grass, no birds, not even insects. I might be on Mars for the sterility of it all, except that I can look down one road — only one! — and far away, past a chain-link fence and state highway, spy the verdant canopy of a lowland swamp.

There are several hundred places like this in Louisiana alone, where humans have ripped Nature from her mooring in order to plant a testament to practicality and pure engineering. Like demons, they all have different personalities yet are instantly recognizable as members of a single, unique class. Nothing else built by humans is quite like a chemical plant.


All chemical plants are built on a similar model. The “racks” are like reverse play-houses built for the Jolly Green Giant, with steel-mesh floors separated by 20 or 30 feet, sometimes rising 10 or more levels high. The lower levels are accessed by steel-mesh stairs, the higher ones by more stairs or heavy open-cage elevators that are human-rated but really designed for moving equipment. The racks are arranged in blocks like city apartments, separated by streets that usually are named. The racks support holding tanks and reactors which are interconnected by a bewildering maze of plumbing and wired with thousands of sensors and controls. Control rooms may be blockhouses at a distance on the ground or tin shacks high up in the racks, near to the processes they attend.

Welcome to our facility. Drop your pants and bend over.

Before you can see the racks and the plumbing, you have to get in. Southern hospitality notwithstanding, the Plant’s first acknowledgement of your merely human existence will be The Sign. It comes in variations but the tone never changes:

By entering this facility you agree that you and your vehicle may be searched at any time. The following safety equipment is REQUIRED for entry into this facility:

  • Hard Hat (approved type)
  • Safety glasses with side shields
  • Chemical goggles
  • Respirator (approved type)
  • Valid safety pass

The following items are not permitted within the facility under any circumstances:

  • Illegal drugs or alcohol
  • Firearms
  • Cigarette lighters
  • Cameras (unless accompanied by pass)

The guard will put his hand on a Bible and swear before all nine billion names of God that the camera ban is to prevent industrial espionage, but few of these places really have any secrets worth stealing. I’ve always believed the real problem is that they don’t want June and Ward finding out what is going on only a few miles from the school, playground, and new subdivision.

Now listen while we tell you how safe you’re going to be while you’re here.

Before you can get that safety pass, you usually have to take some “training.” This will be a little slideshow or video which reveals useful information about how to stay alive and out of the way while you’re foraging in the bowels of the Plant.

At Big Chemical Company, Inc., your safety is a top priority. In order to ensure your safety, we need for you to follow a few rules.

  • {usual safety equipment blurb}
  • This map shows the emergency assembly areas at BCC. You should maintain an awareness of the nearest assembly areas.
  • In case of emergency, park your vehicle by the side of the road and leave the keys in the ignition.
  • BCC is equipped with numerous windsocks. In case of emergency note the wind direction and proceed on foot to the nearest assembly area which you can reach by going crosswind from your location.
  • BCC uses [particularly noxious chemical] in its processes. If you smell [perfectly ordinary smell] immediately put on your respirator and proceed crosswind to the nearest assembly area.
  • The BCC siren announces all emergencies. Always be aware of the emergency code for your area! For example, here is the sound of an alarm for the [noxious chemical] unloading area:

WHONK WHONK WHONK
WHONK WHONK WHONK WHONK WHONK
WHONK

That’s code 3-5-1. You will be issued a card which lists the other [four dozen] such codes in use at BCC. When the emergency has cleared, one long blast will signal that it is safe to return to work:

WWWWWHHHHHHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNKKKKKKK

  • BCC maintains a strict lockout/tagout policy. Never remove a lock or tag from a control yourself. It is your responsibility to remove your own lock or tag from a control when your work is complete. Failure to observe lockout/tagout rules can result in uncontrolled energy releases and/or injury [ed: things going boom and people getting killed]

Pay no attention to the guy behind the curtain, or his wallet.

So you don your hard hat and get your safety card and pull your vehicle through the gate and past the truck scale, following the map of the Plant to the intersection of J street and 3rd Avenue. It’s now, if you have made a habit of flipping through the Grainger catalog, that you will start adding up how much it cost to build the place. And you’ll quickly run out of digits in your mental calculator as you do so.

Industrial equipment is fabulously expensive compared to consumer goods, and here you have an entire city of fabulously expensive industrial crap. The budget for valves alone will be millions of dollars. Add in a few tanks (each of which cost more than a typical residential house) and the sensors and wiring stainless-steel piping and energy utilization and it’s very easy to reach the US$100,000,000 mark and start getting dizzy. It’s not unusual for a Plant to cost more than $1 billion, and if you have the misfortune to work on a machine that’s at a bottleneck in their production you’re likely to hear some variant of this:

Well, son, you take all the time you need to fix that, but just bear in mind that we’re losing $400,000 an hour while this line is down.

OOOOOH, what’s that SMELL?

It’s impossible to keep volatile chemicals completely contained, and most Plants have a distinctive smell. In some the smell is oily and sulphurous, in others sharp and acidic; the truly terrifying Plants are the ones that don’t smell at all. No smell doesn’t mean there’s nothing in the air, it just means that you don’t get any warning that there is.

Some Plants have pandemic corrosion problems. Chemicals eat away at the concrete foundations, they eat away at the steel mesh so there are dangerous holes in the rack scaffolding, and they eat holes in the employees’ skin which are passed off as “that damn rash.” I have seen type 316 stainless steel (which is a better grade than anything you have in your kitchen) turn brown with rust in a matter of weeks.

Other places are so spotlessly clean that they are more worrisome than the overtly dirty ones. One local Plant has a density of safety and, interestingly, anti- industrial-espionage signage that reminds one of the adverts on a NASCAR racer. In the obligatory safety video you are reminded that

Here at BCC we work with [omigod] which reacts violently on contact with water or air. WARNING TO WOMEN OF CHILD-BEARING AGE: [omigod] is a powerful teratogen, and if you are or might be pregnant you MUST consult with a Plant nurse before entering operating areas where [omigod] is handled.

I propose Localroger’s Law of Plant Safety: The more safety notices you see in a place, the less safe the place is.

Plants take pride in their safety records because safety is so hard to achieve, but it’s a rare thing to see the “days since last lost-time accident” sign in front of any industrial facility with four digits. Industrial accidents happen all the time and unless they claim multiple lives or spill out beyond the perimeter fence, they aren’t news.

Unbearable Sameness of Being

Plants don’t win architecture awards. The one concession to aesthetics which some Plants make is that they are located on oversized tracts of land, surrounded by berms of earth and trees, so as to be as invisible as possible. On a more practical level this also reduces the inevitable damage if something fall down go boom. However, people like to live close to their workplaces and even when they are located in the middle of nowhere, Plants have a magnetic attraction which tends to cause towns to form around them.

A small percentage of Plants will try to show off by having a really fine administration building. Since these places never build enough offices this monument will often be surrounded by “temporary” office space in the form of double-wide trailers, most so old that the floors are going soft and the roofs leaking. I’ve been into nuclear power Plants where the all-important radiation and safety screening is done in this kind of housing.

In the working areas of the Plant, there is no consideration at all. Functionality determines form. Color may be used to indicate danger or access restrictions, but is mostly dictated by process needs. Bare metal rules the day. The layout may encode those valuable trade secrets you’re warned about when they “borrow” your camera, but the basic language of tanks, pipes, valves, pump motors, racks, wiring trays, and whatnot never varies. If the control room is a blockhouse, worry. There is a reason it’s not in a tin shack closer to the reactors.

You will probably be there to work on something — there are few other reasons for a human to ever enter such a place. The component, module, process, or machine you’re there to manage will exist on a spiderweb of support and dependent functionality. No matter at what scale your responsibility lies, you will manage something that eventually merges into an impenetrable vastness far beyond your comprehension. Your charges will take power, chemicals, and human input and turn them into different forms of power, different chemicals, and annunciators for humans to read. And you will never be granted more than the most passing explanation of where the inputs came from, or for what the outputs are used.

Inasmuch as functional things are beautiful — and to some of us they are — the Plant shyly hides its beauty, cloaking the clarity of its existence behind its own sheer scale. Somewhere there are engineers who understand the processes it marshals, who can tell you every reaction, pressure gradient, transport mechanism, and staging area from the raw materials dump to the rail-car loading barn; these same engineers wouldn’t know the purpose of an actual valve or sensor if they tripped over it. The techs who keep it working can find every nut and bolt blindfolded but don’t really know why it’s all arranged the way it is. The totality of its existence is beyond mere human consideration.

OOPS

Humans fuck up. Like Microsoft says, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

In Plant parlance a fuckup is called an “unintentional energy release.” This euphemism hides the basic problem with Plants, which is their sheer scale. If you trip on the sidewalk, you may get some scrapes; you may even break a bone; if you are really unlucky you may fall onto someone else and break one of their bones. Odds are you won’t blow out all the windows in town, or kill thousands of people. Walking is a low-energy activity in the grand scheme of things.

Get into a car and have a similar fuckup, and you can easily kill yourself and an arbitrary number of strangers. It’s a matter of the energies at your disposal; when misdirected, the thousand-kilo car travelling at 50 kph can do vastly more harm than your 100 kilo body going 10 kph.

In a Plant, the energies are phenomenal. Huge tanks are superheated and pressurized; huge tanks of toxic and explosive chemicals lounge around waiting to be tapped at the wrong time or spring leaks. I have picked up the pieces after an operater added the water to the acid instead of the other way around, and a 20,000-pound capacity tank the size of a living room danced around a a process area bashing the crap out of everything in its way. I’ve visited a Plant days after a catalytic cracker exploded, killing seven, blowing out all the windows in the town that grew up around the Plant, and tearing up everything in the facility except the blockhouse-like control room. I’ve given last rites to equipment that was designed for 110 VAC operation but given 440 VAC instead.

That’s not even to mention incidents like Bhopal.

Plants are built the way they are to harness economies of scale; efficiency is their purpose, which is why they are ugly, smelly, and ubiquitous. Yet there is a fundamental danger in the whole philosophy behind Plants, because by their nature they require vast concentrations of energy to work, and when that energy is released by accident the consequences are horrible.

And this concludes our tour of Oz.

My purpose here isn’t to call for some action. I really don’t know what could be done about the Plant problem; we depend on them now to such a degree that we can’t exist without them. But I think it’s important to know what the infrastructure of your life looks like. I know a lot of tofu-munching PETA member vegetarians who have no idea how dangerous the processes are that make the vinyl and PVC they would rather use than leather. And i know right-wing Rush Limbaugh worshippers who have no idea what shortcuts are taken in the name of efficiency because the possibility of a few deaths doesn’t impact the bottom line quite as severely as a really effective safety program.

I don’t know if there is an alternative to the Plant. But I think people should know what they are like. You should be aware of what is done to provide you with PVC plumbing and HDPE milk cartons and gasoline and even silicon chips. You should be allowed to appreciate it in all its ghastly splendor, and to pass an informed judgement on it.

There have been many people who died because they could not do that. This is my testament in their honor, such as it is.



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Classic Roger Series #1: Hannibal Lecter– Transhumanist Icon

Hannibal Lecter: Transhumanist Icon was originally published to kuro5hin.org Sun Jul 31, 2005 at 03:15:14 PM EST


In certain circles you hear the word Transhumanism a lot lately. This is the idea that new technologies will make people so intelligent, powerful, healthy, and long-lived that we will not be merely human any more; we will transcend what is commonly called the “human condition” and become something more like gods.

Of course it’s very difficult to imagine what it would be like to become something so much better and different than ourselves. But it’s also an old dream of ours, and some of our brightest thinkers have tried to imagine it for us. Come with me on a slightly different reading of a character you’ve probably already met: One of the most well known and yet clearly transhuman characters in modern literature is Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer who has now appeared in three novels by Thomas Harris.

(Note: In case you are one of the six people left who have never read these books or seen the movies, this review does spoil all the endings.)


Once upon a time there was a newspaper reporter for the Associated Press named Thomas Harris. One day Harris and a couple of friends hatched a cool plan by which terrorists could kill nearly everybody in attendance at the Super Bowl. They decided to dramatize it as a novel, which they started as a group project. But the two friends dropped out and Harris completed the novel alone. Black Sunday was published in 1975. It became quite popular, in part because of Harris’ clear descriptive prose and meticulous attention to detail. It was made into a popular movie in 1977.

Harris was bitten by the writing bug. For his next project he decided to write about the FBI’s Behavioral Science section, which tries to catch criminals by using psychological profiling to model their behavior and predict what they will do next.

You can say a lot of things about Thomas Harris the writer, but one thing you can’t say is that he writes fast. It took him six years to complete the project.

Red Dragon

The villain of Red Dragon is Francis Dolarhyde, better known to the public of his fictional world as the “Tooth Fairy” after one of his favorite weapons. Dolarhyde was born deformed (with a cleft palate) and horrifically abused, not least by being denied the surgery to fix his palate until he became old enough to join the Army.

Dolarhyde is obsessed with William Blake’s watercolor The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. He yearns to Become the Dragon, and he pursues this dream in singular fashion.

Like any would-be superhero he works out. He creates a distinctive appearance, not by adopting a cape and mask but with tattoos. He makes many sacrifices. Among these are the families that will assist him. He seeks out those those who seem the happiest and best-adjusted, and he murders them horrifically. With bits of mirror placed in their dead eyes they Become the first to see what he will Become, and they draw him ever closer to that final godlike Becoming.

Dolarhyde’s nemesis is Will Graham, an FBI Behavioral Sciences agent who comes out of retirement to try and catch Dolarhyde before he can sacrifice another family. Graham has a legendary talent for thinking enough like a serial killer to guess his future moves.

Graham is retired for two reasons. Most obviously, his most famous collar nearly killed him. More ominously, he is afraid of being consumed by his talent. The original tagline for the book (before everything became about Hannibal Lecter) was “Enter the mind of a serial killer… you may never come back.” [In 2005 you could] still see that tagline on the IMDB page for the 1986 movie Manhunter which was based on Red Dragon.

Graham is lured reluctantly into the hunt for Dolarhyde by his old boss Jack Crawford. Crawford is no superhuman, but is in fact a human at the peak of his form; when he is not an expert he knows where to find one, and he knows what to say to get him back in the game. Crawford does not have the luxury of respecting Graham’s desire to stay retired. He has a major problem he can’t solve, and so he leans on Graham to go back to doing what he least wants to do.

Lecter is very much a bit player in Red Dragon. A good question would be to ask what he is doing in the story at all. What purpose does he serve? The main conflict is between Dolarhyde and Graham. A secondary conflict is Graham’s conflict with the inner demons that make it possible for him to think like a Dolarhyde. There is yet another conflict between both men and sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. In another side plot Dolarhyde trips both himself and Graham up when the unexpected affection of the blind woman Reba McClane brings his Becoming to an interesting crisis. It would not seem necessary to complicate the story even more with Lecter.

The answer, I believe, is that Lecter is an example of the state of perfection to which Dolarhyde aspires and which Graham fears. Lecter is the embodiment of what both men are capable of Becoming. Lecter respects Graham but has contempt for him because he will not Become what he could ultimately be. Lecter likes Dolarhyde (his “Pilgrim”) because he demonstrates potential, recognizes Lecter as the ideal to which he aspires, and is working hard to realize that ideal. Lecter corresponds with Dolarhyde giving him encouragement and advice.

Although Graham prevails, stopping Dolarhyde, he is again nearly destroyed by his triumph. He retires again, this time for good, as we can tell because he is only mentioned twice in passing in Silence of the Lambs and not at all in Hannibal. He has succeeded in not Becoming, and his success takes him right out of the continuing story.

Silence of the Lambs

Working at his usual feverish pace, Harris managed to complete the sequel to Red Dragon in a mere seven years. Silence of the Lambs came out in 1988. The book itself was a major hit, and is for good reason considered one of the classics of its genre.

In many ways SOTL is a twisted mirror image of Red Dragon. Instead of seasoned veteran Will Graham, we have plucky neophyte Clarice Starling. Like Graham, Starling is put on her case by Jack Crawford. Most likely he would rather have again recruited Will Graham, but Will is now really out of the picture. Instead Crawford sends Starling to see Lecter, sensing that her relative guilelessness might tempt the monster to drop them all a morsel of Clue about their new nemesis.

This villain is one Jame Gumb, another victim of horrific child abuse who like Francis Dolarhyde inherits a big house and a monstrous appetite from his abuser. Unlike Dolarhyde, who sought to Become something other than himself, Gumb seems just fine with himself; it is his victims who Become. In his lighter moments he enjoys hunting them down in his huge pitch-dark basement with the slight advantages of night vision goggles and a gun. When he is finished with them he poses their bodies in obscene tableaux, and stuffs moth chrysalis into their throats to symbolize their transformation. Unlike Dolarhyde, Gumb does not seem inclined to risk danger to himself.

We are told that Gumb “thinks” he is a transsexual, but isn’t really — a plot point that helps the FBI locate him. Instead of Becoming a girl, he decides to make himself a girl suit out of the skin of real girls. This takes tremendous skill, which Gumb has painstakingly acquired by study and trial and error. And it takes raw material, which is how he comes to the attention of the FBI.

Harris seems to have given a great deal more thought to the character of Hannibal Lecter this time; he is still a relatively minor actor, but we are given more details about him and of course his escape forms a dark backdrop to the otherwise triumphant ending. Barney, the orderly who earns Lecter’s respect by respecting Lecter, did not appear in Red Dragon. Nor did we hear much about Lecter’s actual crimes in the original book. Harris shows us Lecter in much the same way the original Alien movie showed us the monster; only a bit at a time, and we’re never sure how much of it is hidden out of our sight.

Lecter does not respect Gumb as he respected Dolarhyde; he cheerfully sells Gumb out for his own personal advantage and minor amusement. Of Gumb as his patient Dr. Lecter tells Senator Martin, “He said he wanted help to stop but actually he just wanted to schmooze about it. To rap.” In other words, Gumb wasn’t Becoming anything. This makes him uninteresting to Lecter.

So what does Lecter see in Starling? At first he helps her simply because another inmate flings semen at her; this reflects badly on Lecter’s hospitality. Simple etiquette demands that he offer up something to compensate for such rudeness. (Later, he talks the inmate into swallowing his tongue, casually killing him as if by remote control; his weapon is nothing more than his terribly complete understanding of other — one might say lesser — people.)

Lecter continues to help Starling because he finds her interesting. Despite her obviously poor upbringing he recognizes in her an uncultivated aptitude. Within the “well-scrubbed hustling little rube” with her “good bag and cheap shoes” is a person who might Become something more than she is. Lecter directs his energy not so much toward helping Starling catch Gumb as toward helping Starling improve herself.

After the Silence I

At this point I would like to speculate that Harris may have had a plan for the third book which isn’t what he ended up writing. Harris had now given us a grizzled veteran who had almost turned himself into a serial killer himself and a plucky ingenue who really had no idea what she was getting into. My guess is that the next story was originally to be of a third detective who would do what Graham feared — who would Become like Lecter in the process of bringing Lecter down.

I don’t think this was his plan for Starling because at the end of SOTL her story has achieved a satisfying closure; Harris could have left her alone with the lambs quieted and her fame protecting her from the likes of the loathsome Krendler and nobody would have complained.

After the Silence II

While SOTL was enormously popular by suspense novel standards, the whole project Became something on the order of Elvis, Zeppelin, and Stephen King with the production of the 1991 movie. Jodie Foster gave an amazingly convincing performance as the awkward but hard-working Starling, and Anthony Hopkins set the world on fire with his portrayal of Lecter.

I did not personally find Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter as enthralling as most people did; I actually thought Brian Cox’s portrayal of Lecter in Manhunter came closer to what Harris had written. But the audience spoke, and Harris actually wrote Lecter more to the Hopkins specification in the third novel, just as he kept Starling at the center of the story.

And let us not forget that Harris kept writing on schedule. It took eleven years for him to write the third book, which is one reason I suspect there was a midcourse correction when the movie came out.

Hannibal I: Lecter

Hannibal came out in 1999. It was one of the most anticipated releases in the history of modern fiction, and a huge number of Harris’ fans hated it.

Hannibal suffers in comparison to its predecessors in part because Harris is no longer able to hide the monster in the shadows, making us wonder exactly what he looks like. He has to tell us. So it’s a little like the difference between the original Alien and Predator movies and the fusion sequel AVP; a Lecter with a back story and motivations and vulnerabilities just isn’t as scary as Hannibal the Mysterious Cannibal.

In SOTL Lecter instructs Starling to ask of her villain: “What does he do, this man you want?” Her lesson is that he doesn’t kill, he covets; killing is just a means to the end of making his girl suit. Likewise, Lecter is no simple killer. Suppose we ask the same question of him?

Lecter’s senses are extraordinarily sensitive; he can learn your life story from the aftershave you haven’t used in three days. He can smell the chemical that induces schizophrenia. He can be annoyed by this sensitivity; the odor of a waiter’s watchband distracts him from his carefully chosen wine. In the midst of a dramatic escape he takes time to put unguent on a small fabric burn he has received. But he can also turn this sensitivity off at will; he betrays no emotion and conducts himself calmly as preparations are made to feed him, alive, to a herd of pigs.

Lecter has perfect memory and is extensively versed in many fields of knowledge. He knows many languages. He can rapidly pick up skills requiring manual dexterity that most of us would need considerable practice to duplicate. He is physically healthy and strong. He always has enough money to fund his expensive tastes. We are told explicitly that he doesn’t do anything as crass as kill people for their money; he has received gifts and bequests from people who find him charming, and he followed through with sensible investments.

Lecter is not quite the Nietzschian Superman for one reason: He does not divert his feelings and emotions. In fact, he arranges to feel and experience the world much more exquisitely than most of us can. He could turn those feelings off, and he does when it suits him; but he appears to find the world more interesting when it is filled with sensations.

And, of course, he kills people and eats them. What’s up with that?

Lecter was an intense boy who frightened everyone except his sister and his nurse. Overtaken by war, his family was killed and his sister was eaten by soldiers who had herded her and Hannibal and and other children together for sustenance in the bleak closing years of World War II. It is hinted that Lecter may have helped to eat his sister without realizing what the food was at the time. It is clear that the soldiers would have eventually eaten Hannibal too, except that in some unspoken way the six year old boy managed to overcome the situation.

(Harris’ upcoming fourth book will apparently shed some more light on this part of his life.) [Editor’s Note: This book was ultimately called Hannibal Rising and indeed it did deal with the boy’s horrific past.]

The lad who may have avenged his eaten sister had the aptitude to Become something more than human, but it was the incident with the soldiers and the eaten sister that forced him to start the process. Harris implies that at this point Lecter didn’t possess any of the other talents that will come to define him, but it appears that the experience would inspire him to embark on a lifelong self-improvement project.

Lecter does not dine at random; as Starling says in his defense, “he only eats the rude.” Lecter’s method isn’t simply to remove annoying things from his environment, but to turn them into something pleasant. Thus, the flautist who can’t carry a tune leaves the orchestra to become a fine meal for his friends. We might argue that Lecter’s methods are a bit excessive; but Starling makes another observation about him which is critical: “He won’t deny himself.”

Hannibal Lecter recognizes that he is no longer merely human; he is something more like a god, and it is his right to indulge those urges he finds amusing regardless of what mere humans think.

Hannibal II: Mason Verger

With Lecter’s power so fully exposed Harris needed to give him a worthy opponent. It’s obvious that any straight-up conflict between Lecter and Starling would end up with Starling munchies being served. Besides, if Starling is to Become (which is the only way to thematically complete the trilogy) then she must be forced into alignment with Lecter. So she can’t provide the major conflict.

Thus we meet Mason Verger, another of Hannibal’s victims. Lecter let Verger live instead of killing him because — you see this coming, right? — it was more amusing. Verger is paralyzed and has no face, but he is also fantastically wealthy and cruel. Verger lays expensive, intricate plans to get Lecter before the cops do, and exact his revenge by feeding Lecter alive to specially bred pigs. Meanwhile he amuses himself with smaller cruelties. He affects to run a camp for impoverished children at his estate, but his real purpose is to torment them. When they cry, his staff bring him martinis salted with their tears.

Many readers found Verger “over the top,” like a comic book villain. But Lecter is already something of a comic book superhero, so where else is he to find a worthy challenge? Verger’s money buys him everything his ruined body cannot provide: Loyal helpers willing to abuse children and commit murder for him, police, government officials, even Starling’s boss at the FBI, and not least of all his own sister.

Before Lecter breaks his neck Verger shows no tendency to inspire awe; he plays with cruelty and he plays sex games and he plays with people, but that’s all he really does. He plays. Lecter forces him to Become something greater, a dark sinister directed force. By paralyzing him and stealing his face Lecter turns him from a petty sex fiend and Eurotrash wanna-be into a creature worthy of, well, being on the cover of a comic book.

But Verger can never be the equal of Lecter. One telling passage occurs as final preparations are being made to feed the captured Lecter to the pigs; Verger wonders consciously what he will do for amusement once he has dealt with Lecter. The obvious answer is that he will be a bit empty. For all his power and focus Mason never has learned to create his own sense of purpose. Lecter, of course, has; and this is the source of much of his power.

Hannibal III: Starling

In order to bring Starling back into the story Harris has to begin by destroying her. This is a consistent theme; Becoming is painful, even agonizing, because before you can Become something new, the thing you were Before must be destroyed. Harris begins to feed Starling into the meat grinder on page one as a routine bust goes horrifically wrong. Starling is forced to gun down a woman carrying a baby, and things go rapidly downhill from there.

By the time we reach the novel’s climax Starling is stripped of her job, her authority, and her gun in a situation where it is understood by all that the murderous Lecter might be snooping around her. Her one remaining advocate, good old Jack Crawford, is weakened by the loss of his wife and a heart attack. Clarice is left with nothing but her wits and the fact that Lecter likes her.

Nevertheless, many of her fans reject her final turning; “How could she do it?” they ask in unison. And it’s a good question. The answer, as it turns out, was right there on the cover of the first edition of Red Dragon: Enter the mind of a serial killer, and you may never come back. Graham enters Lecter’s mind through his killing urges, but Starling enters through the more hospitable doorway of his taste.

Early on in Hannibal Starling muses that the catalogs and fashion magazines she is collecting to flesh out her understanding of Lecter’s taste are a kind of pornography, which she has always denied herself. In Lecter’s care she is no longer merely reading the pornography; he lets her experience fine things. This is the first element of her seduction.

Lecter uses drugs and psycho-therapeutic techniques to weaken the memories that are holding her in the world of mortals, her love for her father and the lambs screaming at slaughter. He actually digs up her father’s bones and confronts her with them, forcing her to create a sense of closure over his death. This is the second element of her seduction.

Finally Lecter confronts Starling with the man who has worked so diligently to ruin her mortal life, and prepares to feed her the very quivering brain which has been the architect of her destruction. By the time she realizes that Krendler is about to be killed on her behalf she is just far gone enough to want to see what Lecter will make of him.

Krendler himself, drugged and about to have his brain eaten hot out of his skull, recognizes that something is wrong:

“Who are you anyway?” Krendler said. “You’re not Starling. You’ve got the spot on your face but you’re not Starling.”

Minutes later, as Starling tests the bits of Krendler’s prefrontal lobe that Lecter has expertly prepared for her, the conversation continues:

“How is it?” Krendler asked, once again behind the flowers and speaking immoderately loud, as persons with lobotomies are prone to do.

“Really excellent,” Starling said. “I’ve never had caper berries before.”

As if she dines on the brains of her enemies all the time. But in all of this Starling may just be displaying a drug-induced passivity; the real turning point occurs when she utters one of the single best lines I have ever read in any novel:

“See if I sound like Oliver Twist when I ask for MORE!

So Lecter has pulled it off; Clarice Starling has Become … what? Perhaps not a killer like Lecter, but someone who shares his tastes and certainly will not complain when he indulges his urges. As Harris finishes the story with a portrait of the life Hannibal and Clarice have together, there is a sense of familiarity. And so it is; the picture Harris paints, with words instead of watercolors, is none other than The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. Harris has distracted us with stories about would-be Dragons, but in Clarice we see the Becoming of the Woman Clothed with the Sun. She is no killing Dragon but a godlike creature nonetheless, and a worthy companion for a godlike creature such as Lecter.

Hollywood Fails It

All of the movies took shortcuts, some more damaging than others. In the SOTL movie Clarice tries to save one lamb and fails; in the book she tries to save a blind horse which is doomed to slaughter, and she succeeds. Hannah the horse lives out her days giving kids rides at the orphanage where she goes after the farm. This is an important distinction; her early experience is one of saving the victim instead of just being crushed by circumstances.

The later Red Dragon movie with Hopkins as Lecter and Ed Norton as Graham borrowed heavily from SOTL, which didn’t exist when Manhunter was filmed, in order to give Lecter a bigger role. And bearing in mind the original tagline, I’m supposed to believe that Ed Norton is in serious danger of turning into … Naaaaah. The danger of Graham’s Becoming was much more palpable in Manhunter, where Graham and Lecter were physically and expressively similar.

Jodie Foster took one look at the ending of Hannibal and picked up her toys and went home. Fair enough; Ridley Scott found another actress who looked enough like her to work as a stunt double … then he fucked up the ending anyway. Gary Oldman’s Mason Verger doesn’t frighten, his fascinating sister Margot and her odd friendship with Barney are gone, but most of all Clarice does not Become. We are left only with a muddled depiction of twisted affection that accomplishes nothing for anybody.

Transhumanism Defined

To be Transhuman is to be something other than human. Just as we might expect a machine intelligence to seem alien to us and to consider us alien, we might also consider such humans who transcend their humanity to be as different.

The usual answer to this from would-be Transhumanists is that, if Transhumans are going to have all the talents and abilities, they are going to have the advantage in any war. Join up or find yourself on the losing side.

But Harris shows us a view of Transhumanism so revolting that one might expect the entire human race to rise up en masse and divert every effort to stamping it out if it should ever become more than an occasional curiosity. While most would-be Transhumanists probably do not plan on becoming cannibals, the whole point is that you really can’t plan at all on what a transhuman being would think is an appropriate way to treat traditional humans. Even if that potential transhuman being is the one that was once you. Just ask Clarice Starling.



Tip Jar

Or with Bitcoin

The Tip Jar as Revenue Model: A Real-World Experiment (Internet 1.0 Perma-free Book Publishing Technique)

Peachfront’s Note: This is a reprint of the classic Tip Jar experiment first published on kur05hin.org and widely discussed all over the internet. First date of publication was April 27, 2003 on kuro5hin.org. I’m not sure a writer would get the same outstanding results today, with dozens if not hundreds of free and perma-free books appearing on Amazon and other distributors every day!

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Localroger’s Note Dated April 27, 2003: It’s been three months since I posted my novel online for the world to read for free, with a tip jar as compensation medium. I think we have enough data now to tell how well it might work for other artists.

I will summarize the aspects of my experience which are most relevant to any artist publishing a work:

  • Distribution
  • Feedback
  • Revenue

Distribution is the number of people exposed to the work. For some artists this is more important than revenue, since they regard spreading the message as its own reward.
Feedback is how the artist learns how well his work was received; knowing that N people saw your work is not the same as knowing that 0.8*N liked it or that 0.5*N think it should be burned. Again, for some artists this is more important than revenue but it might also be more important than mere exposure; the artist might want to feel that he positively influeced the readers, or made them think.

Finally there is Revenue, the question of whether your art can pay the rent and keep the wolf from the door. Most artists would prefer not to focus on this but the circumstances of life often force us to give it top priority.

Distribution

Tracking my distribution is pretty easy since Rusty kindly configured a Webalizer report for the novel directory. Although there is a lot of ambiguity in web statistics we can learn a lot from these data.

As anyone who has ever set up a website knows, simply putting it online does not bring readers. My novel has benefitted from several major sources of publicity:

  • Rusty’s Jan 12 introductory article on K5
  • A Jan 14 mention which Rusty solicited on Cory Doctorow’s site BoingBoing
  • A Jan 16 comment thread on Slashdot started by readers under, ironically enough, a front page article introducing Cory Doctorow’s free online novel
  • A Feb 7 ani-gif banner ad on low-tech left-wing political site Bartcop.com which I bought as an experiment
  • A Feb 21 (drumroll please) front-page review on Slashdot
  • Subsequent blogspace activity, revealed in the referrers or by google search

These publicity sources were fortunately pretty much separate from one another so we can see how effective they were. In judging readership from the Webalizer report, there are two main download threads. I tend to regard anyone who downloaded all eight chapters as a reader, so the stats for the least-popular chapter file (mopi1.html through mopi8.html) bear some resemblance, if not exact, to true readership. In addition the all-in-one files including the two versions of the .zip archive (mopi.zip and mopi.ZIP) and the all-in-one HTML file (mopiall.html) represent a mixture of people who have and haven’t already read the chapters, and who will or won’t actually read what they’ve loaded.
There is a very consistent trend that about half the number of people who load the index load chapter one, and about half the number of people who load chapter one load all eight chapters. I have used this in some cases to tease results out of the referrer logs.

So taking into account all the fudge factors, I officially and by fiat declare that I have the following readership results so far:

  • From Rusty’s intro: about 1,000 readers
  • From BoingBoing: about 100 readers
  • From the Slashdot comment tree: about 100 readers, which is interesting since this was a comment thread beneath a story that sank pretty quickly
  • From the Bartcop ad: about 300 readers
  • From the Slashdot review: about 3000 readers; this might be much higher since Slashdotters were much more likely to load the .zip and /all versions
  • Overall, including all sources: between 5,000 and 10,000 readers

I am defining “readers” here as people who read most or all of the book. This is a little harsher than even publishing industry statistics; if you paid money for a printed copy, took it home, and couldn’t finish it this scheme would call you a “non-reader” even though you paid. But it’s a more accurate determination of an artwork’s influence on the world.
So one could say that MOPI has effectively sold out a typical first printing run for a non-best-selling author. However, this is a little deceptive; the “marketing” I received was very targeted, and benefitted a lot in the beginning from the reputation I have for my other writing on K5. It has also been read all over the world, from Japan to the Netherlands to South Africa to Slovenia. So in many respects I consider this a best-case distribution; most people would not have gotten so much distribution so quickly. It would also be more difficult if instead of a 250K fileset it was a 30 megabyte set of songs.

On the other hand, distribution by regular publication is glacially slow by comparison. If I’d signed a contract with a publisher on Jan 12 I would still be reviewing galleys and the first books would probably be on shelves toward the end of Summer, if that soon.

Feedback

I have received about 200 private e-mails about the book. It’s very easy to describe them: They almost exactly mirror the tenor of comments which were posted after Rusty’s introductory story.

The particular work at hand was never designed to be “friendly.” It is just about guaranteed that any particular reader will find something within it revolting or insulting. In this regard it is very similar to some Indie music which is trying “not to be Pop.” The feedback reveals that this work does not appeal to everybody, but it does appeal to a significant number of people a lot.

Because of the way the book is, this is a thing that was hard for me to find out any other way. Before Jan 12 exactly eight people had read it, but that isn’t much of a sample size and they all knew me. Now that thousands of strangers have read it I have much more confidence that it accomplishes what I thought it did.

If you peruse the google search you will see a similar pattern. The fact that the K5 comment, e-mail, and blogging response sets are all very similar convinces me that the novel is not riding on my previous efforts or my reputation on K5.

Again, had I published conventionally it might have taken me a year or more to find out how well my book worked before a live audience. But electronic publication has the advantage that feedback is always just a click away for the reader — either to tell me to go to hell or that I changed his life.

Nearly all of the mail I’ve gotten has been positive, some of it a little embarrassingly so. I credit this to the fact that someone driven off by the first pages of chapter one probably wouldn’t bother writing at all. I have received a few negative reactions, such as this one. The comments following the Slashdot review were also more negative, but they were dominated by people who had obviously only skimmed the first chapter so as to post quickly.

(I’m frankly glad a few of the negatives bothered to pipe up, because if they hadn’t I would seriously have to wonder about people :-)

Revenue

As I write this I have received about $760 in tips from 85 people. Thanks guys!

About half of the tip money came from the initial introduction, indicating either that K5’ers are extraordinarily generous or that I was getting extra bonus points for my other work here. K5 also generated my largest tips, three of $20, a $30, and one of $45. (Did I mention that some people seem to like the book a lot?)

Slashdot accounted for most of the rest simply because it accounted for most of the rest of the readers. It is worth mentioning that some people, especially in the Slashdot crowd, tipped me just for trying the model out. I got several “haven’t read it yet, but here’s $1 on principle” messages.

An especially interesting data point is the Bartcop ad for which I paid $80. (I consider this an experiment and I don’t account it against tip revenue.) This was supposed to guarantee 15,000 hits and all indications are that I got a fair click-through for my dollar. But as far as I can tell I didn’t get a single dollar in tip money. Even if a couple of small tips came from Bartcop click-throughs it doesn’t come close to covering the ad, which was extremely cheap by Web advertising standards.

A typical royalty deal from a publisher is 10% of gross, which would snag me $0.50 to $2.00 per reader depending on what kind of book it was. On the other hand much of my distribution depended on it being free; most of my readers didn’t bother to pay. (This is not a complaint, it is just an observation.) So it’s hard to tell if my royalty revenue would have been higher with conventional publication.

One thing I can tell, though, is that I didn’t make enough to cover a traditional advance. Most non-best-selling authors never pay out their advances anyway, so that’s the real metric for publication payment. You generally get $5,000 for an “ordinary book” contract. This is a sensible amount for a work that is expected to take months to complete.

Noted from a comment: I put the tip jar on the top index page so as not to impose on readers. Some may not have realized it was there or forgotten by the time they read the whole thing. So I may have been a bit too polite and discreet by not reminding people that the opportunity was there when they finished the book.

In my case I have no complaints; I never expected to make even the $760, never expected to have more than the eight readers. Because of the book’s “difficulty” I was not able to get it in over the transom at a real publisher when I tried in the late 1990’s. This way I have readers, I have feedback, and I know the book does what I hoped it would do. And all this happened in a very short time.

On the other hand I could not honestly advise anyone to try making the Internet tip jar their income source for the rent and groceries. All indications are that I got extraordinary results, and it just wasn’t enough.

The Future I: Free *

The Free movement (as in Free software, music, art, and so forth) has work to do. As of now the tip jar model doesn’t work economically as a substitute for conventional publication. (Free publication does have its upside, which I have especially appreciated since I am not depending on an advance to pay the rent.) But the next generation of artists — new artists — are the ones most in need of some kind of patronage. If they aren’t supported they will become CPA’s and forget about their art. We need a better plan.

The Future II: Me

On the novel site I made an offer to self-publish the novel in book form if I got enough support. As of shortly after the Slashdot review I made that goal, and I am keeping the tip money aside to fund this project.

However, the extraordinary success it has had in distribution and the feedback have convinced me to follow the advice of some of my readers, and try again to have it published conventionally. Right now I have a very highly regarded agent who has expressed interest in reading it, which is under normal conditions difficult to arrange. So my Web adventure has already put me in a place I couldn’t get to when I didn’t have thousands of readers, at least one of whom is an editor.

But we are back in the glacially-slow conventional publishing space and now that I’ve synopsized it and formatted the first three chapters appropriately and sent it off it will be a month or two before I know whether I have a shot at being represented. (Yes, the agent wanted a standard submission: “I can’t (won’t) read a whole novel off the screen.” And they make the rules.)

I will give this process until the end of the year. At that point if I haven’t made any progress I will self-publish the damn thing since I promised I would and I hate not fulfilling a promise. I’ll keep the ball in motion in conventional land but the self publication will not help my cause there, which is why I am delaying it.

P.S.:

Please don’t leave a comment complaining that this article doesn’t include a link to the novel in question. It’s not about plugging my novel, it’s about the process and the results.

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Peachfront’s PS: That’s the end of the original 2003 article. A short time later, Roger published The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, and…SF history was made.

Way Cool Animation Shout-Out to Prime Intellect from Kaizo Trap

So Localroger stumbled on this way cool post yesterday by Guy Collins Animation when he was checking up on The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect stats and referrers. Somebody told us that the free book has gotten 600,000 unique monthly visitors. Wowsers! We really appreciate it. And we think you’ll enjoy their animation too. Check it out!

Note from Localroger: “The animation is more than it appears; it is full of puzzles, hidden links, and easter eggs. The puzzles lead to other videos which show the girl and guy sucked back into the video game in various stages of crashing, and leading to five different endings.”

The Mortal Passage Trilogy Paperback — New Cover, New Formatting

Heads up, everybody. We now have a brand new professionally produced paperback version of The Mortal Passage Trilogy. Yes, that does mean that it now comes complete with page numbers, the publisher’s imprint, title on the spine, and all that silly stuff that CreateSpace Cover Creator left off last year. We went through an amazing number of “proof” copies and imperfect copies getting this done, so I’m thinking about having a giveaway offer soon.

Tere is also a new The Mortal Passage Trilogy paperback already available in the Create Space store.

Localroger Reviews Kink Documentary

(Peachfront’s Note: I haven’t seen this film, but I’ll be happy to hear what you think.)

Kink video

Kink product photo courtesy Amazon

Christina Voros’ 2013 documentary Kink was a very weird ride. Since I’ve taken the infamous San Francisco Armory Tour, much of the film took place in familiar spaces, so even though there were no porn shoots going on when I took the tour the film had a very personal feel.

Both on the tour and in the course of the film I got a strong sense that there were Certain Unspeakable Things which were elided. The most interesting things about both Kink and its acquisition of the Armory building were absent from the film. The funny story about how George Lucas got them the Armory was told to us on the tour but not the other one about how Peter Acworth saved the BDSM film industry.

The Armory story is so hilarious I can’t imagine why Voros didn’t feel it was worth a few minutes of screen time. On screen Acworth does allow that the building had been bought by this guy whose deal fell through so it ended up with the creditors, who wanted to sell it to another guy but that deal fell through. What isn’t said is that San Francisco is the NIMBY capitol of the observable universe and the zoning didn’t allow any commercial use for the building, and all attempts to amend the zoning were shot down by the Mission District neighbors. But long ago George Lucas was looking for a large empty space in which to blow up model spaceships for The Empire Strikes Back — cool enough that the zoning was amended to allow for the Armory to be used as a film studio. On the tour we were told that snigger California zoning law doesn’t distinguish between porn film studios and any other kind. Acworth was, as he does admit on camera, filming vids there a week after buying the place for cash.

The other thing one might expect to find in a documentary about Kink is how it saved its industry. Acworth was one of a number of people who made the interesting discovery in the late 1990’s that this new Internet thing was a way to bypass the de facto restrictions which were universally enforced by print porn publishers, who had to worry about their product being seized and legal action brought from every distant venue where magazines might be sold. On the web porn fans found a real wild West where nobody was able to enforce anything — until 2005, when the Feds began using the PATRIOT act to lean on the banks providing their credit card services with the ludicrous claim that porn was funding terrorism.

armory

Armory Studios in San Francisco, photo placed in public domain by the Armory

Acworth went to the banks which would still do business with him, warned them the letters were going to be coming, and asked what he had to do to give them confidence to push back. The result was a very elaborate set of guidelines mandating safe words, pre- and post-shoot interviews, requiring the shoot to stop immediately if the model starts crying, and several more pages of conditions. Now instead of limitations negotiated by publishers to limit physical book seizures, there were limitations negotiated with banks to give them some spine when the Feds came with bullshit letters about links to terrorism.

This is a fascinating development, not least because of the duplicity of the government in using the PATRIOT act in ways we were solidly promised it would never, ever be used when it was passed, but the only hint of it in Kink is a passing mention that they can’t do tentacle porn because “the billers consider it bestiality.” Acworth also complains that “the billers” are a moving target because they can and do change their minds about what’s OK.

But why what “the billers” care about is important is completely omitted, as is the fact that Kink is the largest BDSM porn producer nowadays largely because a lot of the other players in the market came to work for them so that they wouldn’t have to deal with “the billers” themselves.

So if so much interesting history isn’t in the documentary you might be wondering what is. For the most part it’s a “day in the life” montage of interviews and footage of the talent doing their jobs. But even this doesn’t go very deep; only a very brief interview with the metal fabricator hints at the extensive prop fab shops which support the studio. There is no mention of the amusing fact that they buy personal lubricant in 55 gallon drums (those drums being one of the cool stops on the tour).

There’s a lot of actors and directors being asked for their personal theories on BDSM, which turn out to be remarkably shallow for people who are the top professionals in their field, and there’s a lot of nuts and bolts of setting up and conducting a few shoots. The first half hour or so of the movie focuses entirely on some of the gay male site shoots, to the point one is wondering if the whole movie will be a sausage fest. But then, I guess when we’re solidly assured it’s not going to be all about exploited women, they bring in the female models and directors.

As a slice of life, it’s worth watching and has its funny moments. “OK, I’m going to show you the safe way to step on a penis,” one female director says sweetly as the male sub model visibly goes *BOGGLE*. Listening to the mostly female talent scouts discuss in very crude direct terms what various actors are willing to do is also pretty funny.

Throughout the movie one gets a refreshing sense of this very forthright and euphemism-free approach to even very extreme elements of sexuality — but only up to a point. We’re assured repeatedly that nobody wants to put anyone through an experience they wouldn’t want even if they weren’t getting paid. But of course they are getting paid, and one director does mention kind of sideways that money can create a problem evaluating consent. But the film soon switches to another who assures us that he won’t even go forward with a shoot if he doesn’t feel the model is getting off on the action.

What isn’t said is that Kink operates in a constant state of tension with the credit card banks, their Mission District neighbors, city and state zoning and porn regulations, and other factors which have to be soft-pedaled. I suppose any of those ongoing negotiations could be jeopardized if too much was said about them in public.

There is a striking contrast between this documentary and the 2009 Bell/Lorentzson Insex.com documentary Graphic Sexual Horror, which fearlessly explored both the deep history and problematic issues of their subject, such as the corrosive effect of money on the very idea of consent and the sketchy ways site founder Brent Scott pushed boundaries. Peter Acworth of Kink even appears talking very forthrightly about the underhanded misuse of the PATRIOT act to shut Insex down. But then, when GSH was made their subject was out of business and not involved in multiple ongoing negotiations with existentially dangerous powers.

While Kink is an interesting behind the scenes peek I learned more about how it got where it is from GSH, a film about one of their defunct competitors. Given its avoidance of hard site history Kink might have gone deeper into issues it does try to cover such as the models’ motivations and the essential nature of BDSM, but those are shallowly covered by sound bites caught in the idle moments of working porn shoots. Overall Kink is a worthwhile look into the workings of the studio and the working lives of the talent, but any arguments it thinks it’s making are unlikely to be understood by a viewer who isn’t already persuaded.

On the other hand, maybe Voros had another calculus in mind. After months of waiting for Netflix to decide to carry the film I finally bought a DVD so I could see Graphic Sexual Horror. Even though Kink is just as graphic in its inclusion of representative site content, I was able to watch it by putting it in my Netflix DVD queue and waiting for it to fall out in order. I suppose that’s a win. Personally, though, if I was trying to make an inoffensive film, I’d pick a different subject.

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CHAPPiE: The AI Done Got Bling (a review by localroger)

Note from Peachfront: CHAPPiE is the latest movie reviewed by localroger. I haven’t seen this movie. But the comments will be open for two weeks if you’d like to leave your thoughts. Take it away, Roger…

official Chappie movie poster

movie poster courtesy Wikipedia & Neill Blomkamp

Visionary District 9 director Neill Blomkamp is back with AI coming of age movie CHAPPiE, a film that by all previous experience should have been a hot mess of tangled ideas but actually works much better than it has any right to. I think this movie is worth seeing, so I won’t drop too many spoilers here.

There is a lot to criticize about CHAPPiE, and the critics have done so; as I write this it sits at a dismal 30% on Rotten Tomatoes’ critic tomatometer. But RT has it at a respectable 67% with audiences, and IMDB at 7.4 of 10. The thing is, for all its sins — it skims the background, it rushes through Chappie’s “childhood,” it crams two or three whole plot metaphors into one can, and it runs home to a dualist idea of consciousness that will make the real life AI people toss their popcorn in disgust — it manages to tell a clear, solid story of flawed but sympathetic characters who are living a myth we can all recognize.

Chappie’s creator Deon (Dev Patel) spends his days programming combat police robots, but for years he has been spending his nights trying to implement artificial consciousness. When Deon’s nighttime experiment reaches a critical point, like many real life AI researchers he realizes that he needs to give it a robotic body so it can interact with the real world. But as successful as his robotic cops have been, Deon’s boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t interested in “a machine that can write poems.” So Deon bends the rules, in a move that’s more Prometheus than Jehovah, hijacking a wrecked droid scheduled for destruction to fix up and host his personal project.

It is at this point we find out why Chappie’s story begins with a tightly choreographed scene of a drug deal gone horribly and violently wrong. A group of gangster thugs who need to come up with a lot of money very quickly to save themselves from even more violent gangsters target Deon as the guy who might have the “remote control off switch” for the robotic cops. In fact he has no such thing, but he does have Chappie, a baby with the potential to be more than human but no experience at all. The thugs commandeer Chappie, and two of them, Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), end up falling into the roles of Chappie’s “mommy” and “daddy.”

This is, of course, a ridiculously contrived gimmick and it works perfectly because it is so true to the central metaphor; after all, God may have created us in his image, but many of us end up with parents no better suited to raise us than Yolandi and Amerika and God doesn’t seem to be able to do anything about that, either.

Deon tries to give Chappie a moral compass, making him promise not to do harm or do crimes, but Chappie does end up doing wrong, because his daddy deliberately misleads him so he will assist in a heist and and out of fear when he realizes Deon has put him in a flawed body doomed to die in a few days because its damaged battery cannot be replaced.

As this is going on Deon’s colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman) is getting miffed that his robot isn’t getting funded because all the money is going to development of Deon’s autonomous humanoid “Scouts.” Vincent’s “Moose” is a larger, more heavily armed robot that came off the same assembly line as ED-209 in the original Robocop, except that Moose is controlled by a human wearing a neural interface helmet. Nobody is interested in Moose because it’s too big, too heavily armed for the urban crime control the Scouts have revolutionized, and the Scouts don’t need human operators.

So while Deon is busy with the gang members and Chappie, Vincent (whose background is more military than engineering) decides to sabotage the Scout program by downloading corrupted firmware into all of them. This all culminates in a colossal battle echoing the one between Robocop and ED-209, except this time it’s the smaller humanoid Chappie who is a pure machine and the hulking Moose that has a human pilot.

If this all sounds rather physical for a movie with so many religious ideas in its DNA, you might do well to remember that even the Wachowskis have admitted that The Matrix is basically a wrestling movie. What is refreshing about CHAPPiE is that it serves up this alternate creation myth without the usual cathedral-like spaces, clean room altars, and choral arias of movies like Tron and Transcendence. Chappie is born into a dirty, messy, violent world where daddy doesn’t teach you to swagger because he wants you to be bad so much as because he wants you to survive.

There is a lot going on in CHAPPiE, and I suspect this is one reason some people have trouble with it. Unlike a lot of other movies that run for 120 minutes there’s no half hour that should have been left on the editing room floor. Every time it looks like one plot or device is being stretched a bit thin something different happens to divert your attention. The escalating tension is broken by occasional bits of hilarity, such as Chappie being taught to be “cool” and getting tatted (with spray paint and stencils) and blinged up by the thugs.

If the philosophy and science are C-grade the characters and cinematography make it up; even the thugs are humans who prove capable of love and respect, and while it’s not completely technically accurate some of the computer development scenes with Deon give an accurate sense of what it feels like to do that kind of work.

While I don’t agree with the way the ending unfolded for technical reasons I respect and understand why the movie took the approach it did; if it were possible to easily save Chappie by simply copying his code to other Scouts or a SD card there would have been no suspense. It’s hard enough for a movie to deal with the idea of an AI as a human character without adding things like multiple instances and serial immortality to the mix.

There isn’t a lot that is new in CHAPPiE; it takes its place in a respectable line of pictures which formed up when HAL 9000 went bonkers in Kubrick’s 2001. I think what I like best about CHAPPiE is that, while it places itself at the focal point of creation like Tron and Transcendence, it is not so in awe of itself that it leaves the world. Chappie isn’t the genocidally powerful Colossus or Skynet. it’s not the unfathomably superintelligent yet neurotic HAL 9000. Chappie is like the droids of Star Wars in that he has to make his way in a violent and dangerous world, but he is unlike them in that he is the first of his kind and nobody will take his existence for granted. Niether Chappie nor his own god-humans seem very godlike, even when they are transcending all expectations.

And I think that is, in fact, what would be new about CHAPPiE, if it weren’t several thousand years old. In CHAPPiE humans function more like pagan gods with our own flaws and vulnerabilities than like the pure entities of Christianity which are described by so many adjectives beginning with omni-. It’s not a new thing, but it is a new-ish thing for the cinema. And it provides for a much better story, because really, it’s very, very hard to tell an interesting story about anything with an omni- in it. Having done it myself, I know that very well.

All in all, CHAPPiE is a movie that does a lot of things wrong that last year’s mega flop Transcendence did right with regard to technology and future speculation, but it does the most important thing right — the thing that Transcendence missed. CHAPPiE tells an engaging story with sympathetic characters. Critics or no critics, that’s what it’s all about.

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The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect: Reviews from Goodreads Part 1

Wow. I should have checked The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect on Goodreads a lot sooner. I did excerpt a five star review from Goodreads reviewer Kiersi but I must have taken it directly from her Goodreads page, because I had no idea of all of the other nice reviews posted to that site. Thanks, guys.

I can’t possibly excerpt quotes from all of the other 90 reviews, especially as I’m still reading and digesting them, but here are a few comments that I’ve already found that offer some insight. I’ve chosen to clip out a few quick quotes to give you a taste of what people are saying.

But feel free to follow the links to get each reviewer’s full comments and ratings…

William Hertling: “…the author does a great job of dealing with the practical and philosophical issues of what it means to get AI to behave ethically towards human using Asimov’s three laws of robotics and what that would do to the human psyche, as well as what happens in a post-singularity world where every desire can be instantly fulfilled.”

Girish: “…I’m reminded of this famous quote by Derek Parfit: “We live during the hinge of history…We shall soon have even greater powers to transform, not only our surroundings, but ourselves and our successors. If we act wisely in the next few centuries, humanity will survive its most dangerous and decisive period.”

Muneel Zaidi: “Elements of this story definitely pay homage to classic science fiction, dystopian, and dark fantasy novels, but it remains very original.”

Cassie Journeay: “I have never been a big fan of sci-fi, but this novella captured me instantly. With large tones of existentialism and an indepth look at an interesting possibility, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, never letting me down once. BDSM is also a large topic, which I greatly appreciated since many people will become uncomfortable with reading about that culture, let alone writing it.”

David Rutter: “…this story serves better to illustrate the flaws in Asimov’s Three Laws than even Asimov’s own “I, Robot” did. Furthermore, it makes evident the need for humans to understand ourselves and our desires completely before embarking upon the final leg of the quest for Friendly Artificial Super-Intelligence. Acting with incomplete knowledge, with any but the most rational and well-informed motives, could result in a tiny mistake that amplifies into an eternity in a world we don’t want.”

Wow. There are lots more, so I’m going to do this again some time, but that’s enough thought-provoking book review commentary for now.

By the way, if you ever want me to excerpt or link your review of MOPI or anything else Roger has written on the fan site, let me know where it is so I can check it out.

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