30. No Fate
I learned about the apocalypse when I was 11 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
My viewing of the movie corresponded with a rare occasion in our house: my mom was sick, and my dad had rented her a stack of VHS tapes to watch. Among them was the new Arnold Schwartzenegger film, which was R-rated and, as a rule, off the table for me. The poor woman: I must have known her defenses were down. Laying on the couch, my mom caved easily at my pleas to watch it.
I don’t expect that you’ve seen T2 in awhile, so let me refresh you: the gist is that by the year 1997, Skynet — an ill-intentioned artificial intelligence network — becomes sentient. Humans scramble to gain control over their creation, and the robotic forces unleash a nuclear holocaust in response. Humans would not survive, but the robots would.
By 1997, time travel is possible, too. And so John Connor, the leader of the human resistance, dispatches a Terminator (Schwartzenegger) from the future back into the past to protect him as a child because Skynet, too, has mailed a killing machine — the T-1000 — backward to keep him from ever existing.
I’m telling you this because a big budget action film about the end of the world was, in a way, a beginning for me. I can only imagine my face as I watched it: big glasses lit up by mushroom clouds and gun battles. It was the start of a lifelong fascination with things that both horrify and beguile.
If, by 11, I had thought about the world ending, I don’t recall. I do remember, at that age, being very motivated to “Save the Earth,” but I doubt I had taken the consequences of not doing so to its logical conclusion. I had immediate concerns, like gathering the nerve to plunge off the high-dive at the community pool, watching more R-rated movies, petting dogs.
In the ensuing three decades, I have seen Terminator 2 many, many times — more times than I can count or explain. It had been quite awhile since I’d seen it, but last week, I watched it again.
I was in the middle of a week writing alone in a quiet cabin, trying to get through a pile of ideas that had been sitting untouched for too long. I arrived stressed and frantic that even five days wouldn’t be enough time to make sufficient progress, so I turned off my phone, switched off the wi-fi on my computer, and got down to work.
When, inevitably, my brain was liquefying from so much writing, one evening I walked over to the nearby lodge, where a large VHS library was available for guests to borrow. I schlepped a TV/VCR and a copy of Terminator 2 back to my quiet cave.
Some things remain the same. The silvery, liquid T-1000 was just as wonderful as I remembered: the quiet villain who horrifies without words, the way it turned fingers into knives and poured itself into the shape of whatever it needed to be.
But for the most part, it felt like I was watching the movie with a pair of different eyes. A big part of my love for T2 had always been Sarah Connor: the fearless, gun-wielding, Army fatigue-wearing character who did pull-ups and never smiled. But, this time, I saw Linda Hamilton’s depiction differently: a tormented mother haunted by her own paranoia, which had forced her to become a killer, a warrior, a zealot. She was unrecognizable even to herself.
There’s this one scene — you know the one I’m talking about — where Connor, in a nightmare, watches a version of herself through a chainlink fence. On the other side, she has curly locks, wears a soft pink dress and plays with her son on a playground. Connor, the militant and the watcher, silently screams warnings at her naive self, playing in blissful ignorance. She shakes the fence, yelling “run!” and “wake up!” But her words are silent like dust.
The sky explodes: a flash of bright white. A red mushroom cloud. The blissfully ignorant go up in flames. “Children look like burnt paper,” Connor had predicted, earlier in the movie. “They fly apart like leaves.”
Connor awakes with a gasp; it was a dream.
After that scene I got up and clicked the TV off. I had seen this movie so many times and, yet… It was too much. Too violent. Too many guns. Too much of something, though what I wasn’t sure.
I sat there staring at the blank screen, rain hitting the window panes. I thought about how, in a way, I had been lucky to learn about the concept of apocalypse this way: a cautionary science fiction tale where, at the end, my mom assured me this was all fake. It would never happen.
Of course, now I know other children grow up learning of fiery apocalypse through church, where sinning means tempting the hand of a vengeful God. That is one focus of the book I published last year, and the human fascination with the end of the world.
Last summer, I published an extra chapter that didn’t make it into the final book on the website Crime Reads. It’s called “July 22, 2020: The World Ends (For Some)” — a day it felt like the world could really end. Here’s a quick excerpt:
Today was supposed to be the last day of the world, the day four horsemen would ride across the sky on sinewy white steeds—sweat and spit falling to Earth like hailstones. If the Book of Revelation was any guide for what the end of the world would look like, I imagined that the bassy cacophony of those hooves would be so thunderous, people everywhere would drop to their knees, clapping hands over ears, horrified and awed by their power. The clouds—red and towering higher than we ever knew the sky could go—would part like the Red Sea to make way for the bringers of our doom.
It is 7:02 pm Pacific Standard Time on July 22, 2020, and the world has not ended. Yet. I do not think that it will, but doomsday author-turned-doomsday prophet Chad Daybell and his wife, former beauty queen and mother Lori Vallow Daybell, believed today was the day. The end of the world as we know it.
Nonetheless, it has been a very bad day.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made all of humanity (or at least the subsection of humanity who currently acknowledges it is real) understand devastation in a way that no tsunami or earthquake, or terrorist attack, or bombing, ever has. It is the crisis that affects every human on the planet, all at once. An apocalypse all on its own.
During infinite days inside, at home, I’ve come to understand that every single day, millions of worlds end and new ones begin. The worlds contained within us, of course, end when we die: the way we think, the unique ways we express ourselves. And every day we survive gives opportunity for a new birth.
I was thinking about all of this when, upon my return back home and to digital life, I saw this headline as the top story on The New York Times’ website: “Alarmed by A.I. Plagiarism: Colleges Revamp How They Teach.” A taste:
Across the country, university professors … department chairs and administrators are starting to overhaul classrooms in response to ChatGPT, prompting a potentially huge shift in teaching and learning. … The moves are part of a real-time grappling with a new technological wave known as generative artificial intelligence. ChatGPT, which was released in November by the artificial intelligence lab OpenAI, is at the forefront of the shift. The chatbot generates eerily articulate and nuanced text in response to short prompts, with people using it to write love letters, poetry, fan fiction — and their schoolwork.
As a writer, I don’t feel like this technology is world-ending. But I do have a lot of questions — questions of the existential variety.
Do we really want machines to think for us?
How much more of our brain power are we willing to give away?
Why is it that we don’t want to think? Is it that we are saving our energy for some other use, or is it that we are so tired that we don’t even want to use our brains anymore?
And why is it that we keep trying to give parts of ourselves away?
Last week, largely without digital technology, I started to remember how vast the world used to feel, back before the Internet filled every crack and crevice, every moment and space. Without it, I remembered how quickly things quiet down, how there’s space to inhale.
I am not afraid of a robot apocalypse, nor am I anti-technology — I mean, obviously, you’re reading this on an online newsletter platform. But I do have real concerns about why tech is used to homogenize our thoughts and about the paralysis of imagination.
For ChatGPT to work, it pulls from the information we’ve already shoveled into the furnaces of the Internet. As another Times piece pointed out: “the new chatbots are remarkable but their answers can mix fact with fiction — just like the internet from which they learned.”
And so, unless I’m mistaken, the technology can’t think of anything new to say. For that reason, I remain confused by the hysteria that it will have wide appeal.
But I also don’t understand a lot of things that are popular. Like the popularity of movie remakes, which never seem to have many new things to say. For this reason, I have not seen Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator Salvation, Terminator Genisys, Terminator Dark Fate, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or any of the other spin-offs. I guess I just want a new world to peer into, not the same one over and over again. I think this makes me an outlier.
It took me two separate sittings to get through T2 last week. My bandwidth for violence is so different than it used to be. And, to be honest, after that harrowing doomsday scene, the movie devolves into a lot of shooting and explosions. Cops shoot at Terminator, Terminator shoots at cops. T-1000 shoots Terminator. Sarah Connor shoots T-1000. Shooting is the answer to everything until, of course, the ending (spoiler alert?): the seemingly-unconquerable, all-knowing T-1000 quietly falls into a vat of hot molten steel, dissolving in seconds.
Later, I consulted the Internet to understand this ending — funny, I know. I learned that smelting was perfected by Indigenous people around 400 BC. So, in the end, Terminator 2 offers the viewer a predicament to hold: that even in a world of perfect technology, averting final judgment may come by way of understanding ancient practices. The ways of old can conquer the ways of the new.
When it comes to writing, I do not think ChatGPT will be the fiery demise of human thought. Not yet, at least.
Recently over dinner, my family and I played around with ChatGPT, trying to figure out a way to stump it, to break it. It was impressive in a lot of ways, yes — producing ad copy in seconds, taking our notes for revisions. But when we asked it to write an ad in the style of Ernest Hemingway, it was no In Our Time.
The words were there, but they were thin. All facade, no depth. Living skin tissue stretched over a metal skeleton.
A couple of quick notes:
Thank you to everyone who took my reader survey last month. It was very, very helpful. A few of you suggested a “mail bag” feature, in which I answer your questions about writing, reporting, etc, and I’m happy to consider such queries. If you’ve got a question you’d like answered, send me a note. I will keep you anonymous.
My friend Kathleen McLaughlin, a freelance journalist from Butte, Montana who writes all about class inequality in the West, has an amazing book coming out. It’s called Blood Money, and you can pre-order it here. If you’re in Portland on Tuesday, Feb. 28, please come to Powell’s Books on Burnside, where I’ll be in discussion with her all about it.
HELLO LEAH! WOW! There is much here for me to absorb and contemplate - thank you....but while I'm doing that I have to mention that we both have the same last name....SOTTILE.
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