Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie”: No Gray Robots

Neill Blomkamp, the creator of District 9 and Elysium, is working on a new film called Chappie , about a group of scientists who create a robot who can think and feel for itself, and about its struggles to learn and find its place in the world.

I’ve watched the trailer, which is all that we know about the movie so far, and thusly of course it’s hard to make a full discussion about the film just based on those few minutes. However, the trailer itself seems so trite and empty that it makes me want to discuss it, and to a larger extent the “genre”, if we can call it that, of the Pinocchios, of things not alive that want to be human, and it seems to me that there’s a lot of ground these films don’t cover-these A.I.s want to be adorable and human, as in the case of Johnny 5, the Iron Giant, Machine,¬† Pinocchio himself, and a half-dozen I’m not thinking of at this moment, not to mention the ones that have aliens instead of robots as the central figure.

I’m trying really hard not to be a cynical bastard. I’m not seeing anything new or amazing or original here. “Artificial intelligence is too unpredictable!” Are there evil robots in this world? Sorry, I know, if you don’t like it why comment? It’s just that I’d like to see a film about a robot who doesn’t want to be human but instead explore what it means to be a robot. It seems like we either have good or evil, not both, and that’s just too simplistic. Humans aren’t all evil or good, why should something that wants to BE human fall into those narrow areas?Are our only options Ultron or Chappie, Data or Lore? Is there only black or white?

I suppose it’s the same reason there are so many cookie-cutter action films and rom-coms and horror films: the studios know what works and is safe and profitable. There’s no problem with this approach, since it’s a business and risks without rewards are not a winning prospect if you want to make money. I just feel that there’s such a rich and unexplored area here that could be the basis for good films that would make a buck AND make us think, and people are being sold short on the possibilities, which is a disservice to everyone concerned. Johnny 5 can be alive, but what happens next? That’s the story I want to see, the robot teenage years, not just the miracle of artificial birth. It’s easy to make us cry, harder to make us think.




So, I’m thinking of taking a big step-writing a short story (with the above as title) that will hopefully, with love and attention, become a long story. It’s going to be a crime/horror yarn with an idea that’s been humming in my brain for a while: what if there was a killer with no victims? He’s seen in their area, he has a shaky alibi, the people vanish with evidence of foul play-but there’s never a body. It grew out of an observation I made one day while out to lunch (and I was eating, too). I saw an old doorway, one of those entrances to a downstairs apartment or storage room. The door was dusty and old-no idea when it had been used. And I imagined a group of cops breaking it down and finding a body that had clearly been only recently killed. They could be anywhere, hidden behind a door you pass everyday…..

It’s an interesting idea, I think, but it needs some work, and I’ve never really written a “villain” character, as much as I like to read them. It will be an interesting challenge. I’ll add updates as I get bits done. First up: characters. The problem, and one I’m actually oddly looking forward to beating, is now not to make anyone too evil or too heroic. I’ve not had the right life experiences to capture either mindset, and so building them will be something worth doing, even if I fail at it.

And then of course there’s that old creative boogeyman: how to make it unique, different, stand out from the crowd? At the same time, you don’t want that “hook” to be too obvious or silly: “He’s a cop, but he’s a black gay leper in an iron lung!” A book’s plot should likewise be simple to sum up, but not always easy to categorize; the movie trick of framing a story as “X meets Y” whether that’s Godzilla and Harry Potter or boy and girl works fine for a visual medium, but the human imagination is thousands of times more complex than any movie, and so it needs more grist for the mill.

I’ll add updates as I get bits done.

The Last Story

They fell from the sky in their thousands, the soldier-slaves of an empire. The first wave had easily wiped out the planet’s defenses without a scratch. The fact that hundreds of stories had been told about aliens, visitors from the sky, and an invasion only added to the terror; many later survivors left tales of a helplessness, waiting for “someone” to save them. No one did. The world’s military forces, banded together in the face of the common enemy, were quickly crushed.

The Queen was pleased. She had never walked across a battlefield after a cleansing. She had been concerned that it would not meet her dreams, but She need not have worried; the blood was exquisite. Everywhere She looked there were heaps of the human dead and Her own fodder. She’d been mildly perturbed that Hers had not been enough, and precious additional troops had been needed. Their blood was not as beautiful, though. She’d seen so much of it that the humans’ red was a delight. Her golden robes had been carefully chosen to complement that shade, based on the few captives they’d taken. Of course, the odds of anyone besides Her own admiring it was remote, but she had turned on Her personal cameras anyway, to allow Her subjects to gaze at her beauty.

There hadn’t been that many worlds in their path. Most of the inhabited ones were either too simple to warrant wiping out. One or two looked too close to their own level to risk any attack; she was on a pleasure cruise, not a warpath. If she came home with significant losses, there would be real trouble. Oh, they could clone any losses well enough that their clusterfolk would never know the difference (or dare to tell), but the skill lay in domination, not overwhelming with muscle.

A sudden noise made Her glance over. Four of Hers were approaching, holding between them the arms of a lone human. She noted with distaste that they themselves were reddened, though their dull gray armor did not set it off as well as Her own clothes. The human seemed to be unharmed, though.

The human was dragged and thrown into a heap at her feet, though he struggled to his feet with remarkable quickness. She saw no blood on his body, either human or Hers. His clothes were plain, but were not the armor of a soldier. Why had they spared him? Who was he?

The human glanced at Her. “I am a storyman. Your face makes your thoughts obvious.” She raised a hand to smite him. For no good reason, She hesitated.

“What is a storyman? Is it a kind of soldier? You do not look like a fighter.”

The human shook his head. “I am a vessel. I remember what has happened and think about what will and may happen. We’ve been called bards, historians, futurists, and philosophers.” When She didn’t respond, he asked “Surely your own people have legends, myths, tales of your past and future?”

She paused. “Some. They all concern the erasure of other life, since We are perfect. From the beginning, all other life has been secondary to Us, as it should be. Tales of particular daring or-” She stared at the human. “You speak the Tongue! How?”

He blinked slowly. “I tell stories. It would be silly to tell them if my audience couldn’t understand them, wouldn’t it? Your arrival was not in a vacuum. We knew of you long before you came here.”

“And what stories would you have told me? It is a sadness that you live. You have nothing to teach Us, nothing to give Us. Perhaps in a million years the next rulers of this planet will be useful to Us, but you are a waste. Some few thousand of you still live, but that is only temporary.”

His gaze hardened. “So that’s the only reason you came. Simple bloodlust.”

The Queen smiled. “What is the purpose in being the best if you cannot show it? I will take some small part of your world with me back home as a trophy. You will yourself…” She paused, then her grin widened. “You will yourself become one of our stories. Surely that would please you?”

The storyman dropped his eyes. “I had hoped…..that we could discuss your reasons. That perhaps there was some deeper purpose behind your actions, something that we could use to make peace.”

She laughed. It was cool and amused and light. Behind the human, She saw Her soldiers looking on nervously, and a question occurred to Her. “How is it that you are still alive? My troops have orders to kill any human on sight.”

He shook his head, still not looking up. “I am a special case, in that I am…not precisely human. I am designed to record and display information, so I have been altered somewhat, to take advantage of my gifts. Your killers must have sensed that.”

“Gifts? What gifts?”

“When I tell a story to someone, they can see it as clearly as if it was happening in front of them. The places, the characters, all of it…becomes real for them.”

“If this is true, then you most be the ruler of this world, its king. You were the master here.”

“No. I guarded my power. I was their friend, the person who made the days pleasant and I kept them entertained. I could have made servants or weapons for them, but that would have made them weaker. Yes, weapons. So much of our history and the stories of humans were about war and how it never changes. Even a fraction of them would have saved the planet.”

The Queen laughed again. “And yet, here you are, the last person alive on a dead world. All of your stories are useless without the humans you coddled.”

He slowly raised his eyes to meet Hers, and the Queen saw something terrible in their depths: a relief, and lessening of some great pressure. “You misunderstand. My stories work for whoever¬† hears them, as I wish it. You understand me, and can hear me. And your slaves are recording this as we speak, so all of them can see me and hear my voice.” He gave her a slight smile. “It will be my last story, just one creation to pay you back for everything you have done. My first favorite character, from the first story I fell in love reading. He is not kind, or good, or a hero to my people. He is greedy, and vicious, and cunning, and evil. You are much alike.” He closed his eyes and began to chant, blood suddenly running from his nose, ears and mouth.

“I call you, Mighty One, Golden One, Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities. Your armor is like tenfold shields, our teeth are swords, your claws spears, the shock of your tail is a thunderbolt, your wings a hurricane, and your breath death! I call you and make you real to take and ravage this world as you wish!”

The Queen fell back, screaming at her soldiers to fire, her slaves to protect her, but it was too late. The human’s soft, pleasant voice kept going as he collapsed, laughing through blood, and a shadow spread across them, and great heat as from from a furnace. And they began to die, and the world, and at the same time on a thousand other worlds, became a Desolation.

City Wolf

I’ve always been interested in werewolves, so I thought I’d try my hand at writing a poem about one:

Running down the alley
Eyes bright, nose keen
Moonlight and streetlight shining down
The wind howling against you
Warm inside your fur
Every person you pass food/prey or friend/pack
Yet not knowing it
Then stepping through the door into the shop
Human again for a time