Posted 31 July:
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- Andy Duncan offers a last word about SF in literary year's-best anthologies
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Dear Locus Online,
Some notes on A.I.:
The movie is not an examination of Artificial Intelligence as much as a tale
of children. "I'm sorry, I did not prepare you for the world." is the line of
dialogue that is the first sign that this is a story. Spielberg is saying
that all of us are thrown out into a world of violence and sex and religion
and science that we don't emotionally understand. A part of us is always
yearning for that unobtainable "Perfect Day". No matter how old we get, we
need the unconditional love and acceptance.
A.I. owes more to Dickens than Clarke. This film is a mature creator at work, angry over the idea that the world does not conform to the ideals of Disney
and fairy tales he grew up with.
Spielberg used Kubrick's cold universe as the backdrop for a movie about the
unobtainable ideals of childhood. Kubrick looked for God. Spielberg moves
past that search for God (after the boy finds Hurt), and into a personal
search for fulfillment. A bittersweet film, that follows through on Spielberg's ouevre from Duel to E.T. to Hook to this film. Spielberg needed that last segment of the film to tell his story. As the world gets more barren and
colder, so does the story, until its final moment in darkness.
A quick observation: Why do the robots at the end of the movie look as they
do? -- Look to the film. Look to the company logo of the Mecha creators.
There is the idealized version of perfection, as seen through the eyes of
their creator -- Bill Hurt's character. The company that created them strove to
present this universal image (seen several times throughout the film) of a
sexless, pure humanity. Of course, the robots would eventually "evolve" to
Give the screenwriter/director credit. Everything is in place for a reason.
28 July 2001
Dear Locus Online,
There is sufficient textual clues throughout A.I. to make the nature of the
beings at the end of the film clear to any but the most illiterate film viewer.
The robots at the end of the film are nearly identical in form to the corporate logo of the robot company. So a deliberate design decision was made by Spielberg and Co.
When David first appears in the smoked glass, his form mimics the logo, and the later appearance of the robots. A bit of foreshadowing.
Gigolo Joe gives a speech at Dr. Know's suggesting that robots will be all that remain after humanity is gone. He is proven right.
The robots refer to David as having known 'living beings', suggesting that they did not view themselves as 'living beings'.
As far as the question of 'what were they doing for 2000 years?'. How about serving a dying humanity, then evolving without further assistance?
Considering how far computer systems have advanced in the last fifty year, who is to say how far they might advance in the next 2000. Especially if they became fully intelligent and self-replicating.
And as for may snide remark earlier, the history of SF film is populated by films that were ill-understood and un-popular when first released. Time and understanding will redeem A.I., as it did 2001 and Blade Runner.
"More Human than Human"
27 July 2001
Dear Locus Online,
I admit it, I only saw A.I. once, so I may be misremembering, but... didn't
the voiceover as the third part opened explicitly state that the human race
had died out and the mechas had been evolving themselves for 2,000 years? We
had no confusion that the characters at the end were robots and not aliens,
and I really thought it came from the narration.
Ian Randal Strock
24 July 2001
Dear Locus Online,
In his insightful review of A.I., Gary K. Wolfe called it Steven
Spielberg's "first attempt at a fully-imagined future world." As far as theatrical releases go, that's true; but exactly 30 years ago, during his early, brief career as a television director, Spielberg made a curious episode of the series The Name of The Game.
Normally crime melodrama, with crusading editors in a magazine empire owned by Gene Barry as the heroes, the series appeared as a weekly 90-minute TV movie starring one of the show's three rotating leads. Those with Barry occasionally got stranger, featuring elaborate fantasy sequences, and the most elaborate was "Los Angeles: A.D. 2017", directed by Spielberg from a script by frequent sf writer Philip Wylie. Save for its frame, the episode is entirely set in the titular future and wholly divorced from series continuity.
In a rather old-fashioned sleeper-awakes story, Barry finds himself in an environmentally devastated world, where L.A. has been driven underground. He is assigned a female guide, who gives him a grand tour of the dystopian future, with its geriatric rock bands and roboconfessionals, and falls in love with him. This ends tragically when
Barry is invited to join the corrupt elite, refuses, and tries to escape; but fortunately, it turns out that It Was All A Dream...
I saw this when it aired in 1971 (whose last digits were Orwellianly inverted by Wylie for the title), and in syndication in 1979. Both times, I watched for Wylie; it came as quite a shock the second time to see the now-famous Spielberg with the director's credit. Despite its nomination for a 1972 Hugo, (and a 1971 novelization by Wylie from Pyramid), it still seems to have slipped through the cracks of collective memory. It would make an interesting contrast with A.I. for some enterprising con film room or videotape releaser wanting to celebrate Spielberg's 30th anniversary as sf filmmaker.
30 July 2001
Dear Locus Online,
Having seen Final Fantasy this past weekend, at least in part because of
John Shirley's glowing review for Locus Online, I have to report a profound sense of disappointment. Far from the stunning visuals promised, the movie is dark and dank for the most part -- drab where it should be colorful and unimaginative where it needs to be transcendent. As for the ecological themes, all I can say is that two Japanese animations -- Nausicaa: Valley of the Winds and Princess Mononoke -- not only do a much more coherent job of presenting such themes, they do it with much more breath-taking animation. In fact, Final Fantasy is remarkably incoherent plot-wise. The idea of alien ghosts sits uneasily (even ridiculously) within the SF construct. Yes, the
creatures themselves are quite wonderful. However, they function here as pretty eye-candy in a movie full of wooden dialogue and stock situations. Finally, turning back to the animation, there is much to like about it in terms of how it can be developed in future films. At the same time, is the final goal of animation to become a photograph of reality? I personally don't think so.
24 July 2001
Dear Locus Online,
I just wanted to thank everyone for all their help in figuring out the
title of a science fiction book that a library patron was looking for. He
was trying to find a book that he had read that had to do with a planet of
mutants, with one person having a mutation that made people forget him as
soon as they left his presence. I gave all of your responses to the
patron and he was so pleased. Mute by Piers Anthony was the title he was
looking for. A Gift from Earth by Larry Niven was mentioned in a lot of
your responses (and said to be a very good story, too, if you're looking
for something to read).
They say in library school to use experts as reference sources -- "they"
were right. Thanks a lot!
Federal Way Regional Library
23 July 2001
Dear Locus Online,
A brief response to the argument that the beings at the end of A.I. are manifestly robots:
To claim that they are robots because Kubrick said they were robots in his script misses a crucial point: As the literary critic I.A. Richards said nearly 75 years ago, what matters is the text -- what is in the text, or, in this case, on the screen -- and not what the author intended to be in the text or the movie. The beings at the end of A.I. certainly do not look like robots. Although a case could be made that they are robots, this case is much more difficult to make than their identification as aliens,
since they look like aliens, and land in some sort of flying vessel. (And, as Mark Kelly pointed out, if they are robots who come from Earth, what were they doing for 2000 years?)
All best wishes,
23 July 2001
[ A perfectly valid critical approach -- but I, for one, am grateful for having read Clarke's novel 2001 before seeing the film 2001 when it opened many many years ago (I was very young at the time; it was a formative experience!) and wouldn't care to speculate what I'd have made of that film without knowing what Clarke meant it to be about. I'm also perfectly willing to reconsider my reaction to a film, or book or story, based on external evidence; thus, I'd fault A.I. on its execution of the advanced mecha notion more than on its inherent conception of that idea -- I'll admit I left the theater thinking they were aliens too. As this and the following letter indicate, A.I. is perhaps a film better understood as a peculiar fairy tale than as a literal SF speculative fiction.
Dear Locus Online,
Yes, as everyone knows, the beings at the end are robots. To even half-think
they might just be aliens is to destroy whatever point Spielberg is making
with this movie.
The reason why they look the way they do is simple: they look almost exactly
like Cybertronics' robot logo we're shown again and again throughout the
movie. They stem from human design, and the fact that humans would make
robots that look vaguely human and/or like stereotypical aliens is certainly
What doesn't make sense is the fact that by using someone's DNA they can
bring that person back to life but only until she falls asleep. Huh? And
that they could bring someone back who would conveniently forget or not care
about the things our hero would rather she forget or not care about, and yet
would certainly remember and care about him. Huh? Or are we supposed to
think the robots just made up the DNA story and actually just created a
pleasant daydream for David so that he could then "die" (?) in peace? I
don't get it.
17 July 2001
I am a Star Trek fan who is writing her dissertation on Gender and Race in Star Trek. I am including a chapter on what other fans think about gender/race in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager and was wondering if your journal would be willing to post the address of the website I have created that asks fans to talk about how they interprete both shows. My website address is http://people.ku.edu/~casavant. If not, any advice you have on how to get my site address to other Star Trek/Science Fiction fans would be well appreciated.
16 July 2001
Dear Locus Online,
In my most recent incarnation as an academic, I actually presented a paper on the sf magazines and the canonical year's-best anthologies, namely The Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Awards series. Harlan Ellison [regarding his interview comment in the July 2001 issue of Locus Magazine] has reason to be proud. Before "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore," only three stories from sf magazines ever were reprinted in The Best American Short Stories volumes, and all three were from F&SF in the 1950s: "Dead Center" by Judith Merril, "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts" by Shirley Jackson, and "The Man Who Lost the Sea" by Theodore Sturgeon. The only O. Henry volume selection from an sf magazine, to my knowledge, was from Ellen Datlow's Omni in the 1990s, as was the Ellison: "Unidentified Objects" by James P. Blaylock.
If one goes looking through the volumes not for stories from sf magazines but for stories by sf writers, the pickings aren't quite as slim. In the Best American series, one finds Michael Bishop (1 appearance), Nelson Bond (1), Jack Cady (4), Charles G. Finney (1), Ursula K. Le Guin (2) and Ray Bradbury (4). In the O. Henry volumes, one finds Peter S. Beagle (1), Miriam Allen deFord (2), Thomas M. Disch (2), Stephen King (1), William Kotzwinkle (1), Joanna Russ (1) and Ray Bradbury again (2). All these writers, however, are represented by stories originally published outside the sf magazines, from The New Yorker onward.
15 July 2001
Re: Paul Levinson's letter. As others will no doubt point out, those are not aliens at the end of A.I., but advanced robots. They are the inheritors of the earth and the progeny of humanity and the robots that humanity created.
How do I know they are not aliens? The setup is one thing that leads to it. We have seen throughout the film different generations of mechas. David, we understand from Hobby's dialogue and from the copies of him and the female version in crates, is only the first of a whole new race of mechas that will have human attributes. The evolved mechas in the end are natural result of this evolution.
Also, the way they interface with David indicates that they are of the same basic physical nature (remember the way David interfaced with the telephone?). So is the way the evolved mechas interface with each other. And from the dialogue of the evolved mechas, we understand that, like humans, they are looking for answers about their origin and the humans who created them (they practice archeology pretty much the way we do). If you remember, the evolved mechas's dialogue insists on how important David is to them. The reason he is that important is that he is the first of their species.
A.I. is far more complex than anything Spielberg has ever done. Spielberg has written a very tight story that demands the full attention of the viewer. There is however an ambiguity, not in the story, but in the visuals. The evolved mechas do look like the archetypal aliens. That may have been intentional on the part of Spielberg -- a way to tell us that evolved creatures and life forms may be inorganic.
[ Yes, they're robots -- the idea that advanced robots would find David at the end was part of Kubrick's original scenario for the film. Still, one might reasonably ask why advanced robots would happen to look like standard-issue slinky E.T. aliens; rather than an intentional message from Spielberg, it strikes me as a simple failure of visual imagination. Also, the searching-for-origins theme is overplayed; where have these advanced mechas been these 2000 years? Having a robotic Dark Ages?
In response to Harlan Ellison's claim of being only sci fi author ever published in Best American Short Stories, and the follow up stating that Ursula Le Guin was another author included, I would like to add that back in 1945, Ray Bradbury was included in that year's anthology, the story being "The Big Black and White Game".
I agree with most of Gary Westfahl's analysis and criticism of A.I., but wanted to post a note in defense of the much maligned ending of the movie.
First, the ending is easy to criticize and warranting of criticism. A group of ill-defined aliens or whatever appear out of nowhere and provide a bittersweet ending -- in contrast to the just bitter ending up until then. Spielberg, unable to resist a crowd-pleasing ET or Close Encounters wind up, apparently dilutes and perhaps fractures a lumpy but nonetheless powerful story.
But I think a case could be made for the ending, even with its flaws, providing a powerful lesson of its own. David, unable to conceive of anything other than a happy fairytale resolution of his predicament, casts his fates to his impossible beliefs and the universe. We know, of course, that fairytales can't come true; this is no Wizard of Oz.
But the appearance of the alien beings shows that, given time and space enough, given the infinity of the universe, anything is indeed possible -- possible, moreover, on rational, scientific grounds. The science is unexplicated, and the aliens characters are cardboard, but Spielberg nonethless put them in the realm of the real universe -- the universe of Mary Shelley and Isaac Asimov, which is to say a possible universe emerging from ours -- and not the fantastical, utterly unreal realms of Baum and company.
Thus the movie starts in science fiction, flirts with fairytale, but in the end veers back to science fiction. And that, whatever else is right or wrong about the movie, gives it a surprising power.
In the July 2001 Harlan Ellison interview/monologue, Ellison says, "I was in the Best American Short Stories, ferchrissake! I'm the only one in the field who's ever been there." This isn't quite true. Ursula K. Le Guin had a New Yorker story ("Professor's Horses," Nov. 1, 1982) selected for the 1983 Best American Short Stories, a full 10 years before Ellison's selection. There might be one or two other sf/f genre writers so anthologized. While it's probably true that the various BASS editors don't often select sf/f for the annual collections, it's not as if we're completely ignored, either.
[ Le Guin also had "Sur" included in the Best American Short Stories of the Eighties.
Re: Susan Manning's query about an old SF novel:
The book she may be looking for is called Mute by Piers Anthony, and is out of print. The character has a mild deformity (one leg shorter than the other I believe, and some size discrepancy between his hands) He lives on a mutant colony, and is the person who assigns jobs and work. He also is impossible to remember. Don't like Piers Anthony myself, but I read the book when I was twelve, and it sounds like it's the one.
Robin P. Hankin