Review: Refugee

Refugee (Bio of a Space Tyrant, Book 1)
By Piers Anthony (1983)

The main character in Piers Anthony’s Refugee is named Hope Hubris, something that doesn’t take as long to get used to as one might think. Hope is a refugee from one of Jupiter’s moons, forced to flee with his family toward Jupiter when an impulsive act of violence against a wealthy white boy leaves his Hispanic parents no reasonable alternative. With his parents and two sisters, he boards a space bubble, a crude transport designed for utility, not comfort or speed, and his family is mistreated before it even blasts off: the space bubble is overbooked, overloaded, and under-provisioned.

The passengers learn almost immediately how vulnerable their craft is when it is boarded by space pirates who do horrible violence to the refugees. The bubble is easy pickings, as it has no real defenses, and its occupants have nowhere to turn for help. The entire novel, except for one lengthy sequence on the surface of another moon, is a series of encounters with pirate ships, each taking its share of whatever the harried refugees have to offer. It’s not pretty, and it gets progressively uglier with each episode.

I’ve read about ten Anthony novels, which is a tiny dent in his bibliography—I count thirty-nine published books just in the 1980s—and his works have always had a strange, dark tint about sex and violence. Mostly sex. Most of it is hinted at in punny titles and the freedom that made-up worlds in fantasy and science fiction afford, but this novel is many shades darker, with such cynicism about sex that I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish this six-novel series. While it does not glorify violent sexual encounters, the cynical telling is nearly too much to endure, which I suspect is the point: these refugees have to confront some of the worst evil in others and the survivalist instincts in themselves just for the tiniest hope of a better life for their children, and of course not all of them will make it.

Still, the telling seems to cross a line from horrifying to fascinating. I believe quite firmly that some time before they enter their teens, children need a close-up look at a dead dog at the side of a road. They have to hold their literally morbid curiosity up against their realization of death’s finality, and come away with some kind of vague sense of the value of life. It’s a terrible thing to ponder, this need to look right at death in order to understand life, and Anthony seems to feel this way also about rape vs. sex, sex vs. love, and even bodies vs. people. Is it an artistic statement, or chilling titillation? Or is Anthony making the case that, like children unable to look away from the dead dog, we are unable to confront our darkest truths without feeling the same thrill?

I could make a legitimate case for any of these possibilities, but I’m not sure I want to. It’s practically pornographic, the way Anthony engages our emotions in dealing with this stuff, and I just don’t have the heart for it anymore. I’ve already decided I will at least begin book two, Mercenary, but I’ve hit my threshold for cynicism. A dip below this line, and I think I’m done.

Refugee is an interesting story with a mostly compelling narrative arc and characters I really care about, but a person can handle only so much revulsion while rooting for characters to rise above this revulsion. For me, it’s this much.

2.5 of 5 stars. I sorta like it.

Review: Ex Machina

Ex Machina (2015)
Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleason, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno. Written and directed by Alex Garland.

exCaleb is a programmer working for the most-used search engine in the world. He wins a contest whose prize is a week spent with the company’s founder at his private mansion, a compound so top-secret that the helicopter flying him there must land in a field from which the house cannot even be seen. “This is the closest I’m allowed to get,” says the pilot. “Just follow the river until you see it.”

machOn his arrival, Caleb is informed that he’s there to participate in a test of the company’s latest artificial intelligence. As the human component in the tests, his goal is to determine whether the human-shaped container for the AI, whose name is Ava, can interact with a conscious being in such a way that the human cannot tell he is conversing with a computer. But Caleb voices one of the problems with this kind of testing: a chess computer might be able to beat any opponent, apparently thinking better than a human, but does a chess computer know that it’s playing a game? Does it even know what chess is? How do you interrogate a computer so that you can be convinced the computer knows what it is? And once a computer is intelligent and self-aware enough to pass that test, how do you know you can trust any of its responses? And once it starts to ask you questions, how do you know you’re not the one being tested?

inaAs science fiction, Ex Machina is interesting and thought-provoking, if not quite as provocative as better films in the genre. As thriller, it’s a lot more successful. Not as good a science fiction as Oblivion, for example, but as good a thriller as In Time. Oscar Isaac as the billionaire founder and Domnhall Gleason as Caleb are an excellent combination, and the set design is wonderfully cold and glassy. Everyone’s talking about Alicia Vikander nowadays, and now I can see why. She’s sort of the Mara Rooney of 2015.

A better film than its advertising hinted at, and a nice surprise worthy of its critical response.