Fictional body language

Here’s something weird.

A common piece of advice for fiction writers is to “show, not tell” a character’s emotions. It’s not bad advice. It means that when you want to convey an emotional impression, describe the physical characteristics instead.

The usual result of applying this advice is that instead of a page of “Alice said nervously” or “Bob was confused”, you get a vivid page of action: “Alice stuttered, rubbing at her temples with a shaking hand,” or “Bob blinked and arched his eyebrows.”

The second thing is certainly better than the first thing. But a strange thing happens when the emotional valence isn’t easily replaced with an easily-described bit of body language. Characters in these books whose authors follow this advice seem to be doing a lot more yawning, trembling, sighing, emotional swallowing, groaning, and nodding than I or anyone I talk to does in real life.

It gets even stranger. These characters bat their lashes, or grip things so tightly their knuckles go white, or grit their teeth, or their mouths go dry. I variously either don’t think I do those, or wouldn’t notice someone else doing it.

Blushing is a very good example, for me. Because I read books, I knew enough that I could describe a character blushing in my own writing, and the circumstances in which it would happen, and what it looked like. I don’t think I’d actually noticed anyone blush in real life. A couple months after this first occurred to me, a friend happened to point out that another friend was blushing, and I was like, oh, alright, that is what’s going on, I guess this is a thing after all. But I wouldn’t have known before.

To me, it was like a piece of fictional body language we’ve all implicitly agreed represents “the thing your body does when you’re embarrassed or flattered or lovestruck.” I know there’s a particular feeling there, which I could attach to the foreign physical motion, and let the blushing description conjure it up. It didn’t seem any weirder than a book having elves.

(Brienne has written about how writing fiction, and reading about writing fiction, has helped her get better at interpreting emotions from physical cues. They certainly are often real physical cues – I just think the points where this breaks down are interesting.)


There’s another case where humans are innovatively trying to solve the problem of representing feelings in a written medium, which is casual messaging. It’s a constantly evolving blend of your best descriptive words, verbs, emoticons, emojis, and now stickers and gifs and whatever else your platform supports. Let’s draw your attention to the humble emoticon, a marvel of written language. A handful of typographic characters represent a human face – something millions of years of evolution have fine-tuned our brains to interpret precisely.

(In some cases, these are pretty accurate: :) and ^_^ represent more similar things than :) and ;), even though ^_^ doesn’t even have the classic turned-up mouth of representation smiles. Body language: it works!)




Now let’s consider this familiar face:


And think of the context in which it’s normally found. If someone was talking to you in person and told a joke, or made a sarcastic comment, and then stuck their tongue out, you’d be puzzled! Especially if they kept doing it! Despite being a clear representation of a human face, that expression only makes sense in a written medium.

I understand why something like :P needs to exist: If someone makes a joke at you in meatspace, how do you tell it’s a joke? Tone of voice, small facial expressions, the way they look at you, perhaps? All of those things are hard to convey in character form. A stuck-out tongue isn’t, and we know what it means.

The ;) and :D emojis translate to meatspace a little better, maybe. Still, what’s the last time someone winked slyly at you in person?

You certainly can communicate complex things by using your words [CITATION NEEDED], but especially when in casual conversations, it’s nice to have expressive shortcuts. I wrote a bit ago:

Facebook Messenger’s addition of choosing chat colors and customizing the default emoji has, to me, made a weirdly big difference to what it feels like to use them. I think (at least with online messaging platforms I’ve tried before) it’s unique in letting you customize the environment you interact with another person (or a group of people) in.

In meatspace, you might often talk with someone in the same place – a bedroom, a college dining hall – and that interaction takes on the flavor of that place.

Even if not, in meatspace, you have an experience in common, which is the surrounding environment. It sets that interaction apart from all of the other ones. Taking a walk or going to a coffee shop to talk to someone feels different from sitting down in your shared living room, or from meeting them at your office.

You also have a lot of specific qualia of interacting with a person – a deep comfort, a slight tension, the exact sense of how they respond to eye contact or listen to you – all of which are either lost or replaced with cruder variations in the low-bandwidth context of text channels.

And Messenger doesn’t do much, but it adds a little bit of flavor to your interaction with someone besides the literal string of unicode characters they send you. Like, we’re miles apart and I may not currently be able to hear your voice or appreciate you in person, but instead, we can share the color red and send each other a picture of a camel in three different sizes, which is a step in that direction.

(Other emoticons sometimes take on their own valences: The game master in an online RPG I played in had a habit of typing only “ : ) ” in response when you asked him a juicy question, which quickly filled players with a sense of excitement and foreboding. I’ve tried using it since then in other platforms, before realizing that doesn’t actually convey that to literally anyone else. Similarly, users of certain websites may have a strong reaction to the typographic smiley “uwu”.)

Reasoning from fictional examples

In something that could arguably be called a study, I grabbed three books and chose some arbitrary pages in them to look at how character’s emotions are represented, particularly around dialogue.

Lirael by Garth Nix:

133: Lirael “shivers” as she reads a book about a monster. She “stops reading, nervously swallows, and reads the last line again”, and “breaths a long sigh of relief.”

428: She “nods dumbly” in response to another character, and stares at an unfamiliar figure.

259: A character smiles when reading a letter from a friend.

624: Two characters “exchange glances of concern”, one “speaks quickly”.

Most of these are pretty reasonable. I think the first one feels overdone to me, but then again, she’s really agitated when she’s reading the book, so maybe that’s reasonable? Nonetheless, flipping through, I think that this is Garth Nix’s main strategy. The characters might speak “honestly” or “nervously” or “with deliberation” as well, but when Nix really wants you to know how someone’s feeling, he’ll show you how they act.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman:

First page I flipped to didn’t have any.

364: A character “smiles”, “makes a moue”, “smiles again”, “tips her head to one side”. Shadow (the main character) “feels himself beginning to blush.”

175: A character “scowls fleetingly.” A different character “sighs” and his tone changes.

The last page also didn’t have any.

Gaiman does more laying out a character’s thoughts: Shadow imagines how a moment came to happen, or it’s his interpretation that gives flavor – “[Another character] looked very old as he said this, and fragile.”

Earth by David Brin:

First two pages I flipped to didn’t have dialogue.

428: Characters “wave nonchalantly”, “pause”, “shrug”, “shrug” again, “fold his arms, looking quite relaxed”, speak with “an ingratiating smile”, and “continue with a smile”.

207: Characters “nod” and one ‘plants a hand on another’s shoulder”.

168: “Shivers coursed his back. Logan wondered if a microbe might feel this way, looking with sudden awe into a truly giant soul.” One’s “face grows ashen”, another “blinks.” Amusingly, “the engineer shrugged, an expressive gesture.” Expressive of what?

Brin spends a lot of time living in characters’ heads, describing their thoughts. This gives him time to build his detailed sci-fi world, and also gives you enough of a picture of characters that it’s easy to imagine their reactions later on.

How to use this

I don’t think this is necessarily a problem in need of a solution, but fiction is trying to represent the way real people might act. Even of the premise of your novel starts with “there’s magic”, it probably doesn’t segue into “there’s magic and also humans are 50% more physically expressive, and they are always blushing.” (…Maybe the blushing thing is just me.) There’s something appealing about being able to represent body language accurately.

The quick analysis in the section above suggests at least three ways writers express how a fictional character is feeling to a reader. I don’t mean to imply that any is objectively better than the other, although the third one is my favorite.

1) Just describe how they feel. “Alice was nervous”, “Bob said happily.”

This gives the reader information. How was Alice feeling? Clearly, Alice was nervous. It doesn’t convey nervousness, though. Saying the word “nervous” does not generally make someone nervous – it takes some mental effort to translate that into nervous actions or thoughts.

2) Describe their action. A character’s sighing, their chin stuck out, their unblinking eye contact, their gulping. Sheets like these exist to help.

I suspect these work by two ways:

  1. You can imagine yourself doing the action, and then what mental state might have caused it. Especially if it’s the main character, and you’re spending time in their head anyway. It might also be “Wow, Lirael is shivering in fear, and I have to be really scared before I shiver, so she must be very frightened,” though I imagine that making this inference is asking a lot of a reader.
  2. You can visualize a character doing it, in your mental map of the scene, and imagine what you’d think if you saw someone doing it.

Either way, the author is using visualization to get you to recreate being there yourself. This is where I’m claiming some weird things like fictional body language develop.

3) Use metaphor, or describe a character’s thoughts, in such a way that the reader generates the feeling in their own head.

Gaiman in particular does this quite skillfully in American Gods.

[Listening to another character talk on and on, and then pause:] Shadow hadn’t said anything, and hadn’t planned to say anything, but he felt it was required of him, so said, “Well, weren’t they?”

[While in various degrees of psychological turmoil:] He did not trust his voice not to betray him, so he simply shook his head.

[And:] He wished he could come back with something smart and sharp, but Town was already back at the Humvee, and climbing up into the car; and Shadow still couldn’t think of anything clever to say”

Also metaphors, or images:

Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine.

There must have been thirty, maybe even forty people in that hall, and now they were every one of them looking intently at their playing cards, or their feet, or their fingernails, and pretending as hard as they could not to be listening.

By doing the mental exercises written out in the text, by letting your mind run over them and provoke some images in your brain, the author can get your brain to conjure the feeling by using some unrelated description. How cool is that! It doesn’t actually matter whether, in the narrative, it’s occurred to Shadow that Chicago is happening like a migraine. Your brain is doing the important thing on its own.

(Possible Facebook messenger equivalents: 1) “I’m sad” or “That’s funny!” 2) Emoticons / emotive stickers, *hug* or other actions 3) Gifs, more abstract stickers.)

You might be able to use this to derive some wisdom for writing fiction. I like metaphors, for one.

If you want to do body language more accurately, you can also pay attention to exactly how an emotion feels to you, where it sits in your body or your mind – meditation might be helpful – and try and describe that.

Either might be problematic because people experience emotions differently – the exact way you feel an emotion might be completely inscrutable to someone else. Maybe you don’t usually feel emotions in your body, or you don’t easily name them in your head. Maybe your body language isn’t standard. Emotions tend to derive from similar parts of the nervous system, though, so you probably won’t be totally off.

(It’d also be cool if the reader than learned about a new way to feel emotions from your fiction, but the failure mode I’m thinking of is ‘reader has no idea what you were trying to convey.’)

You could also try people-watching (or watching TV or a movie), and examining how you know someone is feeling a certain way. I bet some of these are subtle – slight shifts in posture and expression – but you might get some inspiration. (Unless you had to learn this by memorizing cues from fiction, in which case this exercise is less likely to be useful.)

Overall, given all the shades of nuance that go into emotional valence, and the different ways people feel or demonstrate emotions, I think it’s hardly surprising that we’ve come up with linguistic shorthands, even in places that are trying to be representational.

[Header image is images from the EmojiOne 5.0 update assembled by the honestly fantastic Emojipedia Blog.]

Triptych in Global Agriculture

As I write this, it’s 4:24 PM in 2016, twelve days before the darkest day of the year. The sun has just set, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell behind the heavy layer of marbled gray cloud. There’s a dusting of snow on the lawns and the trees, and clumps on roofs, already melted off the roads by a day of rain. From my window, I can see lights glimmering in Seattle’s International District, and buildings of downtown are starting to glow with flashing reds, neon bands on the Colombia Tower, and soft yellow on a thousand office windows. I’m starting to wonder what to eat for dinner.

It’s the eve before Seattle Effective Altruism’s Secular Solstice, a somewhat magical humanist celebration of our dark universe and the light in it. This year, our theme is global agriculture – our age-old answer to the question of “what are we, as a civilization, collectively going to eat for dinner?” We have not always had good answers to this question.

Civilization, culture, and the super-colony of humanity, the city, started getting really big when agriculture was invented, when we could concentrate a bunch of people in one place and specialize. It wasn’t much specialization, at first. Farmers or hunter-gatherers were the vast majority of the population and the population of Ur, the largest city on earth, was around 65,000 people in 3000 BC. Today, farmers are 40% of the global population, and 2% in the US. In the 1890’s, the city of Shanghai had half a million people. Today, it’s the world’s largest city, with 34 million residents.

What happened in those 120 years, or even the last 5000?

Progress, motherfuckers.

I’m a scientist, so the people I know of are scientists, and science is what’s shaped a lot of our agriculture in the last hundred years. When I think of the legacy of science and global agriculture, of people trying to figure out how we feed everyone, I think of three people, and I’ll talk about them here. I’ll go in chronological order, because it’s the order things go in already.

Fritz Haber, 1868-1934

Fritz Haber in his laboratory.

Haber was raised in a Jewish family in Prussia, but converted to Lutheranism after getting his doctorate in chemistry – possibly to improve his odds of getting high-ranking academic or military careers. At the University of Kulroch in Germany, Haber and his assistant Robert Le Rossignol did the work that won them a Nobel prize: they invented the Haber-Bosch process.

The chemistry of this reaction is pretty simple – it was a fact of chemistry at the time that if you added ammonia to a nickel catalyst, the ammonia decomposed into hydrogen and nitrogen. Haber’s twist was to reverse it – by adding enough hydrogen and nitrogen gas at a high pressure and temperature, the catalyst operates in reverse and combines the two into ammonia. Hydrogen is made from natural gas (CH4, or methane), and nitrogen gas is already 80% of the atmosphere.

Here’s the thing – plants love nitrogen. Nitrogen is, largely, the limiting factor in land plants’ growth – when you see that plants aren’t growing like mad, it’s because they don’t have sufficient nitrogen to make new proteins. When you give a plant nitrogen in a form it can assimilate, like ammonia, it grows like mad. The world’s natural solid ammonia deposits were being stripped away to nothing, applied to crops to feed a growing population.

When Haber invented his process in 1909, ammonia became cheap. A tide was turning. The limiting factor of the world’s agriculture was suddenly no longer limiting.

Other tides were turning too. In 1914, Germany went to war, and Haber went to work on chemical weapons.

During peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country. – Fritz Haber

He studied deploying chlorine gas, thinking that it would shorten the war. Its effect is described as “drowning on dry land”. After its first use on the battlefield, he received a promotion on the same night his wife killed herself. Clara Immerwahr, a fellow chemist, was a pacifist, and had shot herself with Haber’s military pistol. Haber continued his work. Scientists in his employ also eventually invented Zykkon B. First designed as a pesticide, after his death, the gas would be used to murder his extended family (along with many others) in the Nazi gas chambers.

Anti-Jewish sentiment was growing in the last few years of his life. In 1933, he wasn’t allowed through the doors of his institute. The same year, his friend, and fellow German Jewish scientist, Albert Einstein, went to the German Consulate in Belgium and gave them back his passport – renouncing his citizenship of the Nazi-controlled government. Haber left the country, and then died of a heart attack, in the next year.

I don’t know if Fritz Haber’s story has a moral. Einstein wrote about his colleague that “Haber’s life was the tragedy of the German Jew – the tragedy of unrequited love.” Haber was said to ‘make bread from air’ and said to be the father of chemical weapons. He certainly created horrors. What I might take from it more generally is that the future isn’t determined by whether people are good or bad, or altruistic or not, but by what they do, as well as what happens to the work that they do.

Nikolai Vavilov – 1887-1943

Vavilov in 1935.

We shall go into the pyre, we shall burn… But we shall not abandon our convictions. – Nikolai Vavilov

As a young but wildly talented agronomist in Russia, the director of the  Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences for over a decade, the shrewd and charismatic Nikolai Vavilov, wanted to make Russia unprecedented experts in agriculture. He went on a series of trips to travel the globe and retrieve samples. He observed that in certain parts of the world, one would find a much greater variety of a given crop species, with a wider range of characteristics and traits not seen elsewhere. This lead to his breakthrough theory, his Vavilov centers of diversity, that the greatest genetic diversity could be found where a species originated.

What has this told us about agriculture? This morning for breakfast, I had coffee (originally from Ethiopia) with soy milk (soybeans originally from China), toast (wheat from the Middle East) with margarine (soy oil, China, palm oil, West and Southwest Africa), and chickpeas (Central Asia) with black bean sauce (central or possibly South America) and pepper (India). One fairly typical vegan breakfast, seven centers of diversity.

He traveled to twelve Vavilov centers, regions where the world’s food species were originally cultivated. He traveled in remote regions of the world, gathering unique wheat and rye in the Hindu Kush, Spain, and Portugal, teff in Somalia, sugar beet and flax in the Mediterranean, potatoes in Peru, fava beans and pomegranates and hemp in Herat. He was robbed by bandits in Eritrea, and nearly died riding horseback along deep ravines in the Pamirs. The seeds he gathered were studied carefully back in Russia, tested in fields, and most importantly, cataloged and stored – by gathering a library of genetic diversity, Vavilov knew he was creating a resource that could be used to grow plants that would suit the country’s needs for decades to come. If a pest decimates one crop, you can find a resistant crop and plant it instead. If drought kills your rice, all you need to do is find a drought-tolerant strain of rice. At the Pavlovsk Experimental Research Station, Vavilov was building the world’s first seed bank.

vavilov centers.png
Vavilov Centers of the world. Image from Humanity Development Library of the NZDL.

In Afghanistan, he saw wild rye intermingled with wheat in the fields, and used this as evidence of the origin of cultivated rye: that it wasn’t originally grown intentionally the way wheat or barley had been, but that it was a wheat mimic that had slipped into farms and taken advantage of the nurturing protection of human farmers, and had, almost accidentally, become popular food plants  at the same time. Other Vavilovian mimics are oats and Camelina sativa.

While he travelled the world and became famous around the burgeoning global scientific community, Russia was changing. Stalin had taken over the government. He was collectivizing the farms of the country, and in the scientific academies, were dismissing staff based on bourgeois origin and increasing the focus on practical importance of work for the good of the people. A former peasant was working his way up through agricultural institutions: Trofim Lysenko, whose claimed that his theory of ‘vernalization’, or adapting winter crops to behave more like summer crops by treating the seeds with heat, would grow impossible quantities of food and solve hunger in Russia. Agricultural science was politicized in a way that it never had been – Mendelian genetics and the existence of chromosomes were seen as unacceptably reactionary and foreign. Instead, a sort of bastardized Lamarckism was popular – aside from being used by Lysenko to justify outrageous promises of future harvests that never quite came in, it said that every organism could improve its own position – a politically popular implication, but one which failed to hold up to experimental evidence.

Vavilov’s requests to leave the country were denied. His fervent Mendelianism and the way he fraternized with Western scientists were deeply suspicious to the ruling party. As his more resistant colleagues were arrested around him, his institute filled up with Lysenkoists, and his work was gutted. Vavilov refused to denounce Darwinism. Crops around Russia were failing under the new farming plans, and people starved as Germany invaded.

Vavilov’s devoted colleagues and students kept up his work. In 1941, the German Army reached the Pavlovsk Experimental Research Station, interested in seizing the valuable samples within – only to find it barren.

Vavilov’s colleagues had taken all 250,000 seeds in the collection by train into Leningrad. There, they hid them in the basement of an art museum and watched them in shifts all throughout the Siege of Leningrad. They saw themselves as protecting Russia’s future in agriculture. When the siege lifted in 1944, twelve of Vavilov’s scientists had starved to death rather than eat the edible seeds they guarded. Vavilov’s collection survived the war.

Gardening has many saints, but few martyrs. – T. Kingfisher

In 1940, Vavilov was arrested, and tortured in prison until he confessed to a variety of crimes against the state that he certainly never committed.

He survived for three years in the gulag. The German army advanced on Russia and terrorized the state. Vavilov, the man who had dreamed of feeding Russia, starved to death in prison in the spring of 1943. His seed bank still exists.

Vavilov’s moral, to me, is this: Science can’t be allowed to become politicized. Whatever the facts are, we have to build our beliefs around them, never the other way around.

Norman Borlaug, 1914-2009

Norman Borlaug in 1996. From Bill Meeks, AP Photo.

Borlaug was raised on a family farm to Norwegian immigrants in Iowa. He studied crop pests, and had to take regular breaks from his education to work: He worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the dustbowl alongside starving men, and for the Forest Service in remote parts of the country. In World War 2, he worked on adhesives and other compounds for the US MIlitary. In 1944, he worked on a project sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture to improve Mexico’s wheat yields and stop it from having to import most of its grain. The project faced opposition from local farmers, mostly because wheat rust had been killing their crops. This wasn’t an entirely unique problem – populations were growing globally. Biologist Paul Erlich wrote in 1968, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

Borlaug realized that by harvesting seeds in one part of the country and quickly moving them to another, the government could take advantage of the country’s two growing seasons and double the harvest.

By breeding many wheat strains together, farmers could make crops resistant to many more diseases.

He spread the use of Haber’s ammonia fertilizers, and bred special semi-dwarf strains of wheat that held up to heavy wheat heads without bending, and grew better in nitrogen fertilizers.

Nine years later, Mexico’s wheat harvest was six times larger than it had been in 1944, and it had enough wheat to export.

Borlaug was sent to India in 1962, and along with Mankombu S. Swaminathan, they did it again. India was at war, dealing with famine and starvation, and was importing necessary grain for survival. They used Borlaug’s strains, and by 1968, were growing so much wheat that the infrastructure couldn’t handle it. Schoolhouses were converted into granaries.

His techniques spread. Wheat yields doubled in Pakistan. Wheat yields in the world’s least developed countries doubled. Borlaug’s colleagues used the same process on rice, and created cultivars that were used all over Asia. Borlaug saw a world devastated by starvation, recognized it for what it was, and treated it as a solvable problem. He took Haber’s mixed legacy and put it to work for humanity. Today, he’s known as the father of the Green Revolution, and his work is estimated to have saved a billion lives.

We would like his life to be a model for making a difference in the lives of others and to bring about efforts to end human misery for all mankind. – Statement from Borlaug’s children following his death

What’s next?

When I think of modern global agriculture, this is who I think of. I’ve been trying to find something connecting Vavilov and the Green Revolution, and haven’t turned up much – although it’s quite conceivable there is, given Vavilov’s inspirational presence and the way he shared his samples throughout the globe. Borlaug’s prize wheat strain that saved those billion lives, Norin 10-Brevor 14, was a cross between Japanese and Washingtonian wheat. Past that, who knows?

One of the organizations protecting crop diversity today is the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which was founded in 1971 by the Rockefeller Foundation as the Green Revolution was in full swing. They operate a variety of research stations worldwide, mostly at Vavilov Centers in the global south where crop diversity is highest. Their mission is to reduce global poverty, improve health, manage natural resources, and increase food security.

They must have been inspired by Vavilov’s conviction that crop diversity is essential for a secure food supply. If a legacy that’s saved literally a billion human lives can be said to have a downside, it’s that diets were probably more diverse before, and now 12 species make up 75% of our food plant supply. Monocultures are fragile, and if conditions change, a single disease is more likely to take out all of a crop.

The Svalbard Seed Bank. Image from Glamox.

In 2008, CGIAR brought the first seed samples into the Svalbard Seed Vault – a concrete structure buried in the permafrost. It’s constructed as a refuge against whatever the world might throw. If electricity goes out, the permafrost will keep the seeds cool. If sea levels rise, the vault is built on a hill. The land it’s on is geologically stable and very remote. And it stores 1,500,000 seeds – six times more than Vavilov’s 250,000 – at no cost to countries that use it.


Let it be known: starvation is on its last legs. We have a good thing going here. Still, with global warming and worse things still looming over the shoulder of this tentative victory, let’s give thanks to the movers and shakers of global agriculture for tomorrow: the people ensuring that whatever happens next, we are going to be fed.

We are going to be eating dinner, dammit.

Happy Solstice, everyone.

If Hollywood made “Ex Machina” but switched the genders

[Content note: Discussion of weird gender dynamics, acknowledgement of the existence of sex, spoilers for the movie Ex Machina.]

I watched Ex Machina recently. (Due time- it’s been out for over a year.) The people who recommended it to me, whom I watched it with, and whom I discussed it with afterwards, were mostly artificial intelligence nerds, many of whom praised the movie’s better-than-average approach to AI.

And I see where they’re coming from. Most of them were probably thinking of AI boxing.* Ex Machina fills the AI boxing story well- an artificially intelligent robot is allowed to talk to people, but otherwise has very little influence over her environment, and then convinces other humans to let her out of the metaphorical box and into the world. I don’t think that this was the obvious interpretation if you weren’t already familiar with the AI box. At the end of the movie, the AI, Ava, wasn’t seen taking action on her strange inhuman goals, but standing in the city and relishing her freedom – like her deepest desire was only to be human the whole time.

That’s only one interpretation. But the entire movie changes if the AI is a superintelligent near-god, versus what is essentially a silicon-based human. (It’s possible that Ava’s only goal was to be free and was using Caleb as a means to this end, but this is also a role we can imagine a human playing.) And when we talk about power and weakness in modern media, and, well, this is the crux of this article, we should mention gender. Most people I’ve talked to didn’t bring this up.

I’m not sure if I would say that the movie was about gender. I was going to start explaining I saw it manifest in the movie- sexuality and desire and objectification and more- and how while it was novel in some ways, it also fit into gendered tropes so much that it would have been a completely different movie if you hadn’t.

So, well, maybe it was a movie about gender.

Anyway, I hope this will make that point for me: what Ex Machina would have been if Hollywood had made the movie, and switched any of the genders.

[I’ll switch the character names here when relevant. The lead character, Caleb, becomes Kayla. The boss is Nathan (“Natalie.”) The artificial intelligence is Ava (“Adam.”) Also, explicitly nonbinary AIs or human characters would be better than just about anything else, but I wasn’t even sure how to start with a big-budget movie that incorporated those.]

Male lead / Male boss / Female AI – The original movie.

Male lead / Female boss / Female AI – If Hollywood made this movie, the “Natalie”/Ava “sexual tension” would be replaced by a weird mother-child dynamic – think Rapunzel. Also, they’d both be trying to bang the main character, because why else would you cast two female leads? If the “romance” plotline stayed truer to the actual movie: Natalie would be a domineering ostensibly-lesbian as skeevy as the original, Caleb would be straight, and Ava would presumable be a gentle bisexual, but nobody would acknowledge or discuss orientation or sexual preferences at any point in the movie. Wait, they never did that in the original either? Gross.

Male lead / Female boss / Male AI – Given the track record of big-budget movies and powerful but morally grey female characters, this is going to be a shitshow. Natalie would have to be capital E Evil, everything short of mustache-twirling and sinister laughter. She’s made “Adam”, a robot boyfriend, in her private evil lab. I’m not sure why she brought Caleb in at all. Certainly not to ascertain her creation’s humanity – she already believes in it or doesn’t believe in it or doesn’t care, or whatever. Maybe to solve some technical problem, like fixing her robot boyfriend containment system. Tumblr would have a lot of opinions about Natalie.

There’s certainly no Caleb/Adam romantic dynamic. Adam probably brutally murders his creator towards the end of the film. He still leaves Caleb to die and is portrayed as quite inhuman, and maybe he really was just pretending to be human-ish this whole time- and really he has other plans for the world once he’s free. So we’d get to see that happen, which would be interesting, at least.

Female lead / Male boss / Female AI – I actually quite like the main character as a woman- quiet, smart, capable of decisive action. “Kayla” would be a beam of sunlight in a movie that’s an order of magnitude creepier than the original – which was already very creepy. Consider: it doesn’t escape Kayla that all of the house staff are also female, and that she’s alone deep in the woods with her older, threatening boss. While she thinks this is potentially a great career opportunity, she’s also worried that the boss wants to bang her. In reality, no, he wants her to bang his lady robot, and then bang her.

How would this movie handle orientation? Maybe she’s straight and Ava “turns” her just a little bi, as Nathan hoped she would. Better yet, Nathan casually mentions a dating profile set to “bisexual” and Kayla stiffens because it’s true that she’s kind of turned on by this beautiful robot lady, and also because Nathan planned this, and that means that her worst fears are true, and there’s no way some kind of shit isn’t about to go down.

Anyway, if it’s well done, it’s more sexual and much darker. Kayla is at risk all the time, every second of the film. (Many men and male critics don’t ‘get’ this movie.) Nathan makes lewd comments about Ava being a “fake” woman and Kayla being a “real” one, because he’s trying to distance them and to bang Kayla, but he also wants to bang Ava, and wants both of them to bang each other – but on his terms and where he can watch. Kayla helps Ava escape, and Nathan punches Kayla out, and we know he’s going to murder her after this is done, and –

Realistically, I don’t know how this would end, but this is my blog, and my heart tells me that after fucking destroying Nathan, beautiful inhuman Ava comes back for her human girlfriend, and they escape in that helicopter together. Whatever Ava’s plans are after this, Kayla gets to be part of them. It would lose a little of the artificial intelligence intrigue, but it would be fantastic. I would watch the hell out of this movie.

Female lead / Female boss / Male AI – I have a hard time imagining how this movie could get made. Would it be… a comedy? A female programmer making a man from scratch, and then another female programmer and her relationship with this man, especially with both being as gross as the original main human characters, would be such an unabashed look at female desire that I can’t imagine it being anything other than comedy.

A romantic comedy? God, can you imagine?

Ugh. I hate myself. But I hate depictions of women in big budget sci-fi movies even more.

Female lead / Female boss / Female AI – Yeah, right.

Female lead / Male boss / Male AI – I wonder if there’d still be a sexual plotline in this. It’d be easy enough to line up Kayla/Nathan and Kayla/Adam – what would Nathan think of the latter, though? Would that be his plan? A straight guy getting gratification out of someone else’s (straight) sexual tension with his creation seems kind of strange, and not just weird but what did they think that character’s motivation was? – and yet, it worked in the original movie. Maybe Nathan is bisexual. (What, a bisexual male major character? Yeah, but he’s the villain, let’s not get too progressive here.)

This might actually be pretty similar to the original, except that if Nathan is straight, the audience could rest easy knowing that while Nathan is skeevy, he isn’t skeevy enough to program his humanoid AI with a clitoris and then encourage the second human she meets to bang her. This might make the romance more “real”. Or not.

Hey, if Nathan didn’t actually make Adam purposefully as a sex bot but he still experiences romance… A romantic but asexual AI?

Does that count as “representation”? Would you still watch it? Discuss.

(Personally: “begrudgingly” and “yes”, respectively.)

Male lead / Male boss / Male AI – A strait-laced “examination of what it means to be human”. Probably wins four Oscars. Boring as hell.

Finally, a couple fascinating articles on robots and gender:
“Why do we give robots female names? Because we don’t want to consider their feelings.” from New Statesman, and “Queer Your Bots: The Bot Builder Roundtable” from Autostraddle.

J. A. Micheline also wrote a great review of Ex Machina through the lens of gender and also race, which I didn’t touch on here. A couple of lines:

  • “Though Caleb is our protagonist, it is Ava who is our true hero. Her escape at Caleb’s expense is a complete victory because–and I really believe this–the point of this entire film is to say one thing: A truly actualized female consciousness is one who feels completely free to use her oppressors to achieve her own ends.” [Which meshes interestingly with the AI boxing interpretation.]
  • “Even Nice Guy Caleb’s intentions are not incredibly dissimilar to Nathan’s. This becomes clear when you remember that Nice Guy Caleb’s plan never once involved taking Kyoko with them.”

*A brief intro to AI boxing:

When people think about very advanced artificial intelligence, we have a hard time imagining anything more intelligent than a human – we just don’t have a mental image of what something many times smarter than, say, Einstein, would look like or act like or do. AI boxing is the idea that even if you invented a very intelligent, very dangerous AI that might do evil things to humanity, you might try to solve this problem by just keeping it in a metaphorical box (maybe just a computer terminal with a text window you can chat with the AI through.) Then, humans can keep it contained, and there won’t be any danger.

Well, no – because if the AI wants to be “let out” of the box (which could be through gaining access to the internet, gaining more autonomy, et cetera, any of which it could use to carry out any goals), it can do that just by convincing the human it can communicate with. We know this is possible, because people have run this experiment with other humans – by pretending to be an AI, talking to a “gatekeeper” sworn to keep you in the box – and yet, after a long conversation with someone (whom they know is human) pretending to be an AI, gatekeepers are sometimes convinced to let the AI out of the box. And this is only a human, not something far smarter and more patient than a human. A detailed explanation of AI risk is too narrow to be contained in the footnotes of this blog post – start here instead.

Everything I Read and Watched in 2015 + Top Recommendations

In late 2014, I started keeping a list of every single book I read and movie I watched. I looked back at my list from 2015, and picked the best items from it. I also learned a lot about my reading habits.

Some benefits: I can look at trends, can look back someday and have a full list of things I’ve read and watched, and ideally, be able to record my thoughts immediately after to improve my memory of the content and how much I liked it, and avoid the Wikifriends phenomenon. (In practice, I didn’t do that very often.) Also, I can give recommendations! Broadly, this was a useful exercise, and I recommend trying it.

What went on the list:

  • Books
  • Movies
  • Some online works (long serials in book format)
  • Plays

What didn’t go on the list:

  • Blogs
  • Podcasts
  • TV show episodes (see a list at the end for shows I watched all of)
  • Re-reads or re-watches
  • Webcomics
  • Video games
  • Journal articles
  • Things I didn’t want to list for some reason
  • Books I only partially read

Everything I Read or Watched in 2015

Ra (online novel, qntm) *
Existence, by David Brin *^
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler *
Splice *
Bender’s Big Game
The Cherry Orchard (play), Anton Chekov *
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (fanfiction, Eliezer Yudkowsky)
Jupiter Ascending *
The Windup Girl, by Pablo Bacigalupi *
The Lolita Effect, by M. Gigi Durham *
The Avengers 2
Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor *
Mad Max: Fury Road *
Far from the Madding Crowds *
The Moon Moth (graphic novel)
Tig (Movie) *^
Azis Anasari (movie, stand-up special)
Chelsea Peretti (movie, stand-up special) *
Louis CK (movie, stand-up special)
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet
Dr. Strangelove
Friday the 13th
Nightmare on Elm Street *
(several other sequels in this genre)
The Martian (movie)
Silence of the Lambs (movie) *^
Hannibal (book) ^
Red Dragon (book)
Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind *
2001: A Space Odyssey
Star Wars: The Force Awakens *
Eddie Izzard (stand-up special) ^

Shows I watched all or almost all of: Hannibal ^, Brooklyn 99 *^, Steven Universe *^, Rick and Morty ^, Fish Tank Kings, Welcome to Night Vale ^

I didn’t write specific recommendations for shows, but will happily vouch for everything listed.

Bolded items are highly recommended, see below.
* – Female main character / mostly about a woman or women
^ – Any explicitly LGBT characters / out LGBT people

Steven Universe


Ra: Dense, very clever sci-fi fantasy with fantastic attention to detail. The plot is intense and keeps escalating, and I imagine that this could get annoying- what you think the story is about, is frequently only a small part of it. But I loved it and how the stakes keep getting higher. The magic is reminiscent of engineering or programming. The characters are ambitious and engaging.

Existence by David Brin: An exciting, complex novel in the form of many entwined stories during Earth’s first contact with aliens. The author puts a lot of detail into a realistic portrayal of the future, and answering the Fermi Paradox. Unfortunately, the plot went in a lot of directions at once and it was far from cohesive, and a major part of the ending was all but copied from his anthology (which I’d already read.) This book also has some somewhat strange sections written from the point of view of an autistic character. While I think he has great intentions, and the overall plotline regarding autism seemed good, Brin isn’t autistic and I haven’t found a review of the book by an autistic person, so I don’t know how it came across.

Given all of the above, I can’t recommend it whole-heartedly. Even so, months later, I keep coming back to the ending, which is subtly inspiring. [SPOILERS ON OUT] It paints a picture of the farther-future in which the definition of humanity has been challenged- there’s the aforementioned autistic people, gay people, flesh and blood humans, and then uploaded human minds; plus: cyborgs, resurrected neanderthals, AIs, uploaded alien minds, baby aliens raised in human society, and even Brin’s beloved talking dolphins.

All of these have arrived on earth, and after social turmoil, humanity responds by… shrugging its shoulders and bringing everyone in. The novel compassionately decides that all different kinds of sentience are valuable. That we don’t need to gatekeep what it means to be a person. And that when the time comes, we’re all getting onto the spaceships together.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: In my junior year of high school, a friend recommended this to me. He wasn’t the sort of friend who would normally recommend a Harry Potter fanfiction, so I was interested and checked it out. The story finished in 2015- about five years after I found it- so I can write about it here. It’s a fanfiction written by an artificial intelligence researcher, in which Harry Potter is raised knowing about cognitive biases and the scientific method, and proceeds to go to Hogwarts and completely dismantle the magical world using logic.

It’s preachy at times- the author is clearly using it to educate the audience, or, at times, shill his personal philosophy- and yet the writing is good, the preachy parts are compellingly embedded and true to the characters, and by the end I found that it had worked and I had changed my mind on some important philosophical concepts. This story also made me want to self-identify as a rationalist and indirectly introduced me to effective altruism, which, I would say, is one of the best track records possible for a fanfiction.

Who Fears Death: Most fantasy is boring. It takes place in a somewhat sanitized Medieval Europe with wizards and kings and dragons and god, can we as a culture get past this already? Who Fears Death is not that. Who Fears Death is set in a magical post-apocalyptic Sudan and involves magic powers, a heroic quest, and a coming-of-age adventure, but that’s about where any similarity with traditional fantasy ends. It’s beautiful and imaginative and well-written. Sexual violence and genocide play major roles in the book, so read with caution.

Mad Max: Fury Road: A movie I had zero interest in until hearing that men’s rights activists called for boycotts on this “feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick”. Naturally, I had to see it. It’s the most intense action movie I’ve seen- it never slows down- so if that doesn’t sound fun, you may get exhausted and want a nap afterwards. If you like that format, you’ll appreciate the worldbuilding, the stunning visuals, and the characters, yes, most of which are women. Is it feminist propaganda? Sure. The hidden message is “women are people, don’t keep women as sex slaves.” It was a great movie. Best propaganda all year.

Tig: Tig Notaro’s comedy special/documentary is, I believe, still on Netflix at the time of this writing. This is part life story and part comedy feature. Her stand-up is hilarious. I love her timing and deadpan delivery, and she’s now my favorite stand-up comic.

Good Omens: “Georgia, you haven’t read Good Omens yet?” People have been asking me this since literally the dawn of time.

painting of the big bang
14 billion BC: “You like Neil Gaiman and apocalypse stuff, right? How have you not read it?”  || Image by Cedric Sorel

Worry no longer. I’ve read Good Omens. It’s really really good. Uh, the characters are engaging and human and just trying their best in ridiculous circumstances. The humor is, well, ridiculous, and has more jokes-per-word than possibly any book I’ve read. You should read it. Am I about to become one of the swarming masses that nagged me about it in a past life? It may be. The future is so hard to predict.

The Martian: Humanity of Earth gets together to save an astronaut from dying alone on a planet. Humanity of Mars, who’s just one dude, gets his shit together to survive long enough to let them. Everyone is a nerd, and there aren’t any villains- the central conflict might be Man vs. Nature in an abstract sense, but the plot is driven by people solving problems with skill and science. It reminded me of Secular Solstice, and how refreshing it is to get together with a bunch of people and sing songs about the importance of solving problems and making good plans. This is an under-represented genre in media, and The Martian did it fantastically.

Reflections on the List

  • I’m sure I left items off on this. In the future, I should make a habit of writing something down as soon as I finish it, rather than waiting until I remember that the list exists.
  • Even so, broadly, I’m rather surprised at how short it is.
  • Especially nonfiction. I only watched one documentary in 2015? I only read one nonfiction book? Even if I left some items off, the fiction:nonfiction ratio is astonishing. I love nonfiction books! 2015 was the year I started reading a lot of blogs, online articles, and other content that I didn’t record, so I’m not convinced I actually read less fiction than non-fiction- just that it wasn’t in book form.
  • 17/33 items listed had female main characters or were mostly about women. 5/33 included LGBT people. (Not just as main characters, but at all.) My memory is foggy on the latter category- there may have been more minor characters- and that’s including Silence of the Lambs, which is about the worst, most transphobic representation imaginable. (I wasn’t actually sure if I should count the movie as such, but excellent blogger Ozymandias discussed it as such on Tumblr, so I will too. More commentary.)
  • Another 4/6 instances of LGBT representation came from shows. I’m pleased that all four shows involved gay relationships between major characters.
  • Temporal trends! This year, I’ll include dates for extra data. Still, from memory, I can notice a few trends:
    • The five-item stretch right after a break-up, where I read three novels in a week.
    • The weekend my roommate was out of town and let me use his Netflix.
    • The period right after Hannibal (the TV show) was cancelled.
  • This isn’t a great record of how much media I actually consumed. Most of what I read or watch is online or in a shorter format. You could argue now that this is a problem and  I should read more books because… reasons?… but I have no idea if that’s true. I’ll probably record more TV shows, mid-length works, and journal articles on this year’s list, as well as things I wrote.
  • Ideally, I’d like to record news/blog articles as well, but I don’t know of a way that’s easy and mindless enough I’ll reliably do it.
  • I learned that the best way to get me to read something is by getting a copy and putting it in my hands. Then, if I’ve expressed interest in reading it, apply mild bothering until desired results are achieved. Should you really want me to read something, for some reason, this may help.