Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

"I am completely operational, and all of my circuits are functioning perfectly."

This past weekend, between working on my lectures for this semester, refining a series of models, and trying to fix a glitch in my main computer, I had the chance to go see I, Robot. For those who don't know, this is a new movie starring Will Smith based on the robot novels and short stories of Isaac Asimov.

Now, given my general negativity, I'm sure you're expecting me to smack this film around a little bit. Hell, given my criticism of astrosociology, you might expect that I am fairly opposed to science fiction on principle. In truth, however, I have to say that "I, Robot" is quite a good film. For those with little interest in science fiction, it includes a good helping of action and humor (assuming, of course, you find Will Smith funny. In this film he has a fairly good script to work with, and so I found him quite amusing, but tastes may vary). For those who DO like science fiction, however, this movie has two very impressive features.

The first of its selling points is that it has probably the most realistic depiction of artificial intelligence (AI) in any film I've seen. AI has long been an element in science fiction, stretching all the way back to the earliest stories of man creating intelligent life, such as H.G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau" and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." This new life in the form of a sentient computer probably first took center stage in the form of HAL 9000, the murderous computer in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was based on the fiction of Arthur C. Clarke.

Since 2001: A Space Odyssey, we have seen AI wax and wane in terms of the realism of its depiction. The box office hit The Matrix earns points for depicting AIs with distinctly different psychology than our own... and then loses points for giving them interests in human sexuality. And I don't mean academic interests. To understand my objection to this, we'll try a little exercise: everyone who thinks their PC would cop a feel if given the chance, raise your hands.

Right. I didn't think so.

I, Robot wins, however, for giving us several different types of AI whose range of behavior is strongly determined by their hardware, whose logic proceeds in a manner more or less consistent with what their human makers intended, and whose motivations, while often alien, are at least sensible within their context. Such represents an impressively detailed treatment for Hollywood.

The other major way in which I, Robot succeeds is as an interpretation of Asimov's work. "I, Robot" is, indeed, the title of one of Asimov's books, but there is no single story that this movie attempts to duplicate. The book "I, Robot" is a collection of short-stories, rather than a single work, so this movie could not have succeeded by literally staying close to the book. Instead, I, Robot moves into the universe built by Asimov and uses it to tell a story that revolves around the same themes that motivated the author. I don't want to blow the movie for you, but I can tell you that some of the interactions between humans and robots (particularly the ones that occur in the climactic moments) are almost directly adapted from Asimov's published work. While the movie does not even attempt to simply translate a story onto the screen, it does somehow manage to capture the essence of Asimov, and produces a story that Asimov himself might well have written. Well... except for the action sequences. Asimov had a rather positive and peaceful view of mankind.

The contrast to what has been done to other sci-fi classics in recent years could not be more stark. A contemporary of Asimov, Robert Anson Heinlein is one of the best known science fiction writers of all time. Often referred to as "the Dean of American Science Fiction Writers," Heinlein produced a more cynical type of science fiction that provided an interesting counterpoint to the ebullient work of Asimov. One of Heinlein's most famous works is the novel Starship Troopers, which did not receive the same loving treatment as I, Robot when it was translated (Using "translated" very loosely) to film in 1997.

Heinlein's book depicts one man's personal growth and coming of age amidst a titanic struggle between humanity and a rival insectoid, but intelligent and technological, species. The movie depicts something very different. Where Heinlein wrote about a very alien species of insects that build starships, the movie depicts swarms of remarkably stupid, but persistent, creatures who shoot down starships by firing plasma out of their ass. I am so not kidding here. Where Heinlein gives us a military that makes mistakes, but labors to avoid them and do the right thing, the movie gives us soldiers and commanders who are only marginally more intelligent than their insectoid foes. The movie also includes such classic dialogue as "They sucked his brains out." Once more, I am really not kidding. I assure you, having read Heinlein's Starship Troopers several times, there is no brain-sucking to be found. Most ironic, Heinlein's entire novel includes depictions of only two battles, the majority of it is spent describing training of various sorts. The movie is nearly constant bloodshed in battles that could charitably be described as "ill advised."

What is probably most disturbing to me is that the movie misses Heinlein's point entirely. This novel is, more than anything, a political allegory, in which Heinlein shares his peculiar form of political thought (A sort of odd cross of libertarianism and fascism) with the reader. While you may or may not agree with his views, the movie distorts some very interesting ideas in appalling ways. Probably the best example of this comes when the focal soldiers of the book are training to throw knives. In both book and movie one character asks their drill sergeant why they are training with knives when one man could do more damage by pushing a button (i.e. by firing a nuke at a target from orbit). In both book and movie the sergeant calls a halt to the exercise to deal with the question, but following this book and movie diverge.

In the book Heinlein explains, via his characters, that the point of war is not to kill the enemy, but to enforce your political will. Killing is desirable only insofar at it is needed to accomplish your objectives. Moreover, a government that has only two options, do nothing or nuke the other guy, is in the position of a parent who can only spank their child with an axe. Training infantry in a future of starships and nuclear weapons is, then, a rational move to provide options intermediate between "do nothing" and "total war." By contrast, in the movie the drill sergeant throws a knife through the questioner's hand and remarks, "The enemy cannot push a button, if you disable his hand." Perhaps the movie's version has some faint similarity to the argument of Heinlein, but it is so faint that I can only see it if I squint really hard.

This is, ultimately, how I, Robot succeeds when so many science-fiction movies fail. It faithfully captures the spirit and ideas of Asimov's work even though it has no actual story to act as its source material. By contrast, the movie version of Starship Troopers adheres more or less closely to the broad outlines of the book, but could not have diverged more strongly from Heinlein's meaning if it wanted to... as I am convinced it in fact did.

Science fiction is not a literature of characters, or plot, or even language. Science fiction is frequently written in the terse, spare prose popularized by Heinlein himself, which is hardly surprising given that sci-fi authors often have Ph.D.'s in chemistry, physics, engineering, and other disciplines that do little to inspire literary magic. Science fiction is, however, a literature of ideas. It's a branch of literature where an author poses an interesting "What if?" and the readers follow along not because the characters are so compelling and believable (though sometimes they are that. Orson Scott Card's excellent novel Ender's Game stands out as a story with both fascinating ideas and compelling characters) but because they're genuinely curious about this "What if?" So long as those ideas are preserved in the film, as they were in I, Robot sci-fi fans will approve, even if the plot itself bears little resemblance to the author's original work. When those ideas are sacrificed, however, what is left will often be nothing more than dull, uninspired crap (much like this blog) not worth the celluloid it's printed on.

What science fiction fans want isn't a movie crammed with cool effects (Although we won't say no to those) but rather a movie crammed with interesting ideas. Is that really so much to ask for?

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