Review: Avengers: Infinity War

Robert Downey Jr., who portrays Tony Stark/Iron Man, at San Diego Comic Con International in 2014. (Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore). 

By William H. Stoddard

The films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe are an unusual, and possibly unique artistic project: a cinematic series set in a shared fictional universe, one that develops from film to film, with later films referring to earlier. Of course there have been trilogies and other series of films, but this design not only is at a greater length, but has multiple branches following different groups of characters. There’s a main storyline that began with The Avengers and progressed through Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and The Black Panther, but other films have told different types of stories: a mock epic in Guardians of the Galaxy, a caper film in Ant-Man, and a story of supernatural initiation in Doctor Strange, for example. The latest film, The Avengers: The Infinity War, attempts to bring these all together into a climactic story—or at least, the first half of one; it ends with a cliffhanger. I went into the theater not sure this film would be worth seeing, and I can see some flaws in it, largely reflecting the vast differences in tone among the earlier films; but the overall result was impressive and moving. And I think this largely reflects the central role of theme in the script.

An immediately evident theme of Infinity War is environmentalism: Its antagonist, Thanos, is motivated by a fear of overpopulation, for which he envisions consequences much like those Paul Ehrlich warned against—and apparently, in this world, those consequences actually came about. Now, there are valid environmental concerns that it’s prudent to address—and there have been libertarian proposals to address them at least since R.H. Coase’s 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Cost.” But some versions of environmentalism treat it as a new justification for economic central planning, despite the dismal environmental record of planned economies; and a few more radical versions call for things such as the end of economic growth or the reversal of past growth, for an end to human reproduction, or even for outright human extinction. Thanos’s draconian solution to population growth puts him in this last small group of green fanatics.

What makes the difference among these variants? The last two are utilitarian (note that Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, advocated giving equal weight to human and animal feelings of pleasure and pain—akin to current “animal rights” thinking, though Bentham rejected any kind of rights as “nonsense on stilts”). That is, they thought it was legitimate to trade off different people’s pleasure and pain: To inflict suffering on one person in order to give another person a greater benefit, or to bring small benefits to a large number of other people. In the words of one of the early Star Trek films, utilitarianism says that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” In contrast, many versions of libertarianism reject such thinking as collectivist, and call for what Ayn Rand described as a “non-sacrificial ethic,” one in which no person can be deprived of life, liberty, or property for another’s gain. And this idea, too, shows up in Infinity War, notably in Steve Rogers’ statement, “We don’t trade lives.”

Of course, Rand’s concept of “sacrifice” is narrow: Her characters are prepared to risk their lives to save a factory, to rescue a benefactor, or to serve justice, and her quintessential self-interested hero is ready to commit suicide rather than see the woman he loves tortured to gain his cooperation, acts that most people would call “sacrifices.” And this sort of choice is seen all through Infinity War. In fact, the entire film seems to be about the theme of sacrifice: On one hand, Thanos’s sacrifice of others’ lives, extolled by his henchman Ebony Maw as “the privilege . . . of being saved by the Great Titan” (but a privilege Thanos seemingly doesn’t plan to share, even when his work is done), is coerced sacrifice, imposed by force on terrified victims. On the other, Thanos’s adversaries voluntarily give things up, or endure suffering, to attain something they value: Thor goes through an ordeal to make a new weapon, Groot gives part of his body to provide it with a handle, the Black Panther leads his entire kingdom into a battle against Thanos’s forces that may destroy it, and the Vision—who has consistently advocated “the needs of the many”—urges the destruction of the Mind Stone that animates him to keep it out of Thanos’s hands. Even Thanos himself has to make a sacrifice, to give up what he loves, as the price of his gigantic quest. These and other scenes all reflect that common theme, which gives unity to the entire film. And at the same time they cumulatively show the difference between paying a high price for something you value, and being made use of to serve someone else’s ends, even if those ends are presented as a noble purpose. All of this makes Infinity War not simply an action story, or melodrama, but a drama, whose characters have to make hard choices, choices that reveal what is truly important to them.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been amazingly successful. I think this latest film helps show why: Their films aren’t just action and violence and special effects, impressive though those are. They’re about something. When one of their characters goes into combat, the audience almost always knows what they’re fighting for and who they are. And this has a big payoff in audience involvement, one that lets them bring together a huge cast of characters and have the audience already prepared to care about what happens to them, and how they face this new ordeal.

Review: Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

By Chris Hibbert

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

I really enjoyed reading Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, though it was more the setting than the story that had me entranced.

Doctorow envisions a relatively high tech future with a strong upper class with strict controls on many aspects of society, but there’s an informal, unsupported safety valve that makes it possible for people to get out from under the plutocrats (called Zottas here). Doctorow’s society is fraying around the edges, so there are lots of abandoned industrial facilities and vacant land that people who are fed up can Walkaway to. Once there they create informal voluntary societies, and exploit the abandoned wealth they find around them. As with Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom this is a reputation based society, but many of the people who fuel this iteration explicitly reject the ideas of ratings and rankings and tracking contributions. People work together for the joy of it, and record their ideas and plans so others can replicate what works and improve on what doesn’t.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

In a focal early scene, Limpopo and her companions have been working for months to build a habitation called the Belt and Braces in the wilderness. Limpopo leads by doing a lot of the work, and she has argued convincingly that using leaderboards and rewarding people based on their contributions are ineffective ways to encourage desirable behaviors because they incentivize the wrong kinds of effort. Jimmy had lost an earlier round of this argument and been asked to leave. He returns with a crowd of allies one day when Limpopo is working outside, and his crowd uses the lack of formal rules to rewrite the software controls and impose a reward structure. A common response to this kind of disagreement would be to wage a “revert” battle in the software, but Limpopo uses this opportunity to demonstrate the depth of her commitment to the “Walkaway” philosophy by announcing that she’s not going to fight over it. Instead, she’ll go somewhere else and start over, leaving Jimmy with full possession of an empty shell. When pressed, she declares “I didn’t make it. It wasn’t mine. I didn’t let him take it.” The Walkaway philosophy is to not have belongings, so as not be attached to your stuff. It’s impossible to steal from them because they don’t acknowledge ownership.

The Art of Not Being Governed by James C. Scott

For me, the model that strikes home is the ability to withdraw from an existing government and decamp to a new location to just start over. The current international order doesn’t seem to leave any gaps for things like this, but I’m currently in the middle of reading James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, which presents a history of South East Asia that says that the shape of the societies in that part of the world has been driven for millennia largely by the people who moved to less accessible locations in order to escape governments that were getting unbearable. Scott argues that the sociology of the closely related peoples living in hills and valleys were driven more by which crops and living arrangements were easy for governments to count and tax in the valleys, and hard for them to find and more durable in the remote and higher settlements.

Doctorow doesn’t try to argue that it’s easy, and in fact shows that the walkaway crowd is doing an immense amount of work in order to rebuild. I find this model of decentralized self government very sympathetic. There’s no acknowledged government with territorial exclusivity, and people are able to leave if they don’t like the way things are being run. There is plenty of open room to move to, and there’s enough generalized wealth at hand and accessible know how that people don’t feel tied down.

The unfortunate part of Walkaway is that Doctorow needed a conflict, and the one he sets up is that the Zottas are jealous of their control over society, and see the walkaways as a threat, so they’re willing to kidnap, torture and send in the troops in order to regain control. In the final battle scene, a Zotta leader’s daughter is in the target area, and the Zotta’s back down. But in the meantime, the walkaway society’s story is one of resisting violence from outside rather than the peaceful coexistence they’re working so hard to get.

I agree with Doctorow’s aesthetic sense; focusing on this society after the Zottas have ceded control wouldn’t provide conflict at the same existential level, but it would be a much nicer place to live, both for those who walk away and those who remain behind in the “default” economy.

Doctorow knows how to tell a story: There are a lot of funny and touching scenes in the story, and he covers a lot of ground. In addition to the overall situation which I’ve focused on so far, the story covers many kinds of relationships, uploading makes a major sub-plot, and the unequal distribution of society’s benefits is explored. He does have a darker outlook than I on where technology is heading. The reason there are riches lying around is that the Zottas would rather shutter outmoded plants than sell them and allow someone else to exploit the resources they contain. There are many highly trained mercenaries around that the Zottas can hire who will do their bidding, no matter how distasteful it might seem to us. But that’s visible in many of his other stories, and he still manages to be entertaining and paint a hopeful picture about how people can get along together and build something great. This book is being considered for this year’s Prometheus, and it’s my current favorite.

Review: The Corporation Wars: Insurgence, by Ken MacLeod

By Chris Hibbert

Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars: Insurgence is the second book of a trilogy. It (along with the first book in the series, Dissidence, is a finalist for the Prometheus award this year.

Insurgence continues the story of awakened robots struggling for freedom, and uploaded human ex-combatants fighting to retake the planetary system the robots had been mining and exploring.

This installment focuses less on the robots’ claim to be agents worthy of separate respect, and more on the uploaded warriors struggle to figure out the nature of the reality they inhabit while mostly following orders to fight the battles their supervisors are pursuing. Their ultimate worry is that they don’t have enough information to tell which side they’re fighting on or who they are battling to subdue. When you live in a simulation (particularly when you can tell that someone else has access to the control panel) it’s a little difficult to be sure that your choices aren’t effectively controlled by someone else.

Next, cracks appear in the simulation, and “real” revived people see the shortcomings, but non-player-characters (MacLeod calls them philosophical zombies) think everything is normal, so the real people can tell who’s just a simulated person. The idea of zombies in philosophy (sometimes “p-zombies”) is an exploration of the idea of consciousness. What if there were beings that acted just like people, but had no consciousness? Would it make a difference to them? Should we accord them lesser rights?

I consider the idea of p-zombies to be incoherent, but many smart people treat the question as exploring an important distinction. MacLeod here undercuts the point of the argument since there are actual behavioral differences. It isn’t an exploration of whether consciousness matters, it’s just that some characters in the story are imperfect simulations without an inner life, and the actual thinking beings can tell who they are. At the same time, MacLeod makes sure we notice that the robots and AIs who are active in the battles and the scheming do have an inner dialogue, and are making plans and collaborating with others to get things done.

The starting position for the agencies that represent the current Earth government and act under its protection is that only humans are allowed to be sentient. Even AIs’ powers are circumscribed. Whenever self awareness arises otherwise, it must be stamped out. It’s not clear why this would be a plausible stance, since it’s clearly the case that the AIs can become self-aware for short periods, and autonomously operating robots have the capacity for spontaneous self awareness given the right trigger. So they must be constantly battling to defeat uprisings, and track down newly minted sophonts who either try to escape from control, or hide in occupied systems. It would make more sense to forbid use of tools with the capacity for self awareness, than to constantly try to stomp them out. I’d also have a hard time going along with a regime that wanted to outlaw and destroy a class of beings because they were self aware. Self aware and hostile is a separate thing, but that’s not the distinction they’ve settled on.

Before one of the final battles, one of the leaders of the simulated humans challenges the combatants to each eat a slice of p-zombie flesh to prove that they believe they’re in a simulation, and that there can’t be any moral issues with simulated eating of simulated meat from simulated people that were never actually alive or aware. Except for a few who object to the initiation-ceremony aspect of the act, they all partake.

So there’s a lot of exploration here of of philosophical questions of identity, and what it means to be human. The questions of liberty are mostly focussed on what kinds of agents deserve respect as actual people, though I think MacLeod fumbled some of the issues. The action is interesting and the conflict exciting. Besides there are also weaponized communications packets, interrogations of potentially hostile agents by sending them into a dungeon simulation, double and triple agents, and terraforming. It’s a pretty good read, and the lead-in to part three, of course, leaves a few things to be resolved.

(Chris Hibbert is treasurer and past board president of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.)

Review: The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, by Ken MacLeod

By Chris Hibbert

Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars: Dissidence is the first book of a trilogy. It (along with the second book in the series, Insurgence) is a finalist for the Prometheus award this year.

Book CoverThe story starts with a scene in which a pair of mining robots exploring an asteroid (in a distant solar system) and representing different corporate interests have an encounter, which leads them to realize they have opposing interests, which leads them each to recognize that they have interests, which leads them to self-awareness. The corporations are in a tenuous situation, trying to assert their ownership of the robots, trying to be civil about their contractual cooperation, but objecting strenuously to breaches by the opposing robots. The corporations end up fighting one another, while the robots band together and spread the concept of self-awareness to other nearby robots with sufficient computing capacity. Since the corporations don’t seem likely to grant them independence, the robots form an independent faction in the upcoming battle. The corporations are loath to destroy their valuable property just yet.

When they do decide that military actions are called for, they end up dredging up opposing troops of uploaded warriors from past wars. All the AIs and non-self-aware robots and other actors are under a deep compulsion that only humans and their uploads can actually be armed for combat, even against rogue self-aware robots. So the “humans” spend parts of their time embodied as people in a planetary environment, training and relaxing between missions. In the missions, they’re downloaded into articulated space-battle suits. Every time they die in battle, they return to the training site to start again. Over time, they find reason to doubt the reality of their home, and eventually detect serious cracks.

The uploads gradually learn enough about their realities to doubt that they’re still fighting for the side they were loyal to in their first lives. Apparently part of the distinction between uploads and awakened AIs is that the operators can’t tinker with opinions and loyalties directly, but they can easily lie and mislead about who they’re representing, and what their opponents are fighting for. Of course, it wouldn’t be an interesting story if the operator’s control couldn’t be subverted.

Ken MacLeod tells a good story, and gets us to think about what kinds of entities should have rights. The authorial point of view allows him to show the action in the eyes alternately of the awakened robots and the revived soldiers, so we feel their fundamental humanness. The characters, ex-human and non-human alike, think about who they should allow into their coalition and whether other actors are actually aware or just act like it, and have varying motives.

My biggest complaint about the story and the characters’ attitudes is a simple universal acceptance among them that some other characters aren’t self-aware and thus can be treated as objects, based simply on statements from other people in authority roles. In war, it doesn’t make much sense to worry about whether the people shooting at you are actually thinking beings, but deciding that some category of bystanders don’t have inner lives should be a cause for more investigation. It’s an easy allegation to make, and not far from common attitudes about one’s enemies that we’ve mostly moved past.

It will be interesting to see how MacLeod resolves these issues in Insurgence and in Emergence, the concluding novel of the trilogy which is due to be published in the fall of 2017.

(Chris Hibbert is treasurer and past board president of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.)