Science Fiction has taken on a whole new meaning with the inauguration of Donald Trump. Once again we’re in the realms of presidential confabulation matching the aspirations of Ronald Reagan when he took the ultimate ‘high ground’ with his doomed Star Wars initiative. This time, however, it’s not missile killing satellites, rather the fictions that Trump is spinning around global warming that need to have light shone upon them.

A Chinese hoax, the erosion of American jobs and tax dollars being fed into United Nation’s climate change programmes, just a “bullshit” [sic] theory… Trump’s general opposition is well recorded, in spite of such visual evidence as yet another massive chunk of the Antarctic ice shelf breaks free. What has changed now that he’s taken office, are his ploys and personnel appointments in order to help sell these fictions to the American people. Admittedly, this might all just be a tactic of his destabilising rhetoric, but it’s still disturbing to hear evidence of what’s already been put in place.

October 2016 saw him appoint climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to oversee the transitional efforts at the Environmental Protection Agency. In the meantime, the president’s belief in ‘clean coal’ – i.e. a process where all harmful emissions generated by energy production are completely neutralised – is pure Sci-Fi. The technology doesn’t currently exists and ongoing research projects have been plagued by delays and financial overspends. Then we have Trump’s claims that US wind farms are manufactured abroad and are lethal to local bird populations – both accusations countered in a recent Huffington Post story.

NASA plays a pivotal role in the data capture on climate change, and while Trump’s transitional team heading into that organisation aren’t as divisive as Myron Ebell, there is an indication that environmental data will be ‘revised’. Thankfully, as reported in Wired, a group of activists were already on the case nullifying such a revisionist approach by data mining numerous government pages.

So science and fiction merging in the most insidious manner, which could well add to an increasing despondency in any readership. But, as relayed in one of November’s posts, we’ve spent too long retreating into our virtual playgrounds. Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to channel our collective interests in the future into actions that may actually help shape it.

Tags: , , , , ,

A couple of posts ago we identified that both 1997 and 2009 were both vintage years as far as cinematic Sci-Fi was concerned. Which, by some fag packet maths reckoning, means it’ll be 2021 before we get another cluster of quality films. It’s no shock then to realise, in hindsight admittedly, that 2016 won’t be bucking this spurious trend. Despite the superlative reviews for Rogue One, and Star Trek Beyond being completely serviceable, there’s still not enough to make it a stand out year. Even Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, with its emphasis on narrative over special effects, still didn’t mark itself out as being a classic – although we can but hope for more movies in this cerebral vein.

So what does the New Year hold for fans of the genre?

We’ve called out Seth Ickerman’s vanity project on Drozbot before, but the film’s premise of merging the real world with the virtual remains intriguing. Plus there’s now a dedicated website where you can witness the film’s impressive opening trailer.

Ridley Scott is a name that ends up being frequently mentioned on these pages, and 2017 has not one but two films returning from his oeuvre. However, the sad reality is that both Blade Runner 2049 and Alien Covenant have some tough acts to follow. The former needs to take one of the most iconic Sci-Fi movies of the 1980s to a new and relevant space, whereas the baggage that surrounds the latter already weighs heavily against its hopes for success.

In other quarters, we have another film heavy with heritage about to receive the live action treatment – Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell. Scarlett Johansson is once again showing off her interest in Sci-Fi by taking up the role of the female cyborg protagonist – although her recent outings with Under the Skin and Lucy make us cautious for another mixed reception. And, talking of Lucy, we have a new endeavour from director Luc Besson with Valerian. We’ve not been complimentary about his output over the years here on this site, but we’ll reserve judgement despite the opening trailer seeming to hint at a Jupiter Ascending clone.

Daniel Espinosa’s Life, with both Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds bringing some serious acting skill to the production, is also of interest. But our greatest hope for the year sits with the sequel to a surprising 2014 tour de force. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 is scheduled for release this April, and we’ll be hunting out our “super awesome” mixes in anticipation!

Tags: , , , , ,

Science Fiction has always taken a bold stance on the subject of death. A final frontier that can take even the bravest and best of us and leave those behind with a very palpable reminder that everythig here on Earth is, for the time being, wonderfully transient.

Captain Kirk can, and did, die on screen. As did Spock, only to miraculously return and then be taken from us again in a very real sense. Death has always been a reality in Gene Rodenberry’s creation ranging from the sublime – with the Next Generation showing ongoing grief at the absence of Tasha Yar – to the risible with John Scalzi’s Red Shirts.

Like Spock, a similar trick of resurrection was also performed by Han Solo in Star Wars. I remember being traumatised at a trailer shown on a British children’s TV series, Screen Test, which displayed my personal hero being frozen in carbonite. No explanation was given as to what was going on, and the death of central figures had already been highlighted as a result of Darth Vader cutting down Obi Wan Kenobi. Lesson learned. The Star Wars universe was a dark and capricious one. Much like our own.

This year has been a tough one for Sci-Fi fans, whichever way you look at it. From the death of David Bowie at its beginning, then with the demise of Alan Rickman, Nicholas Fisk, Anton Yelchin, Kenny Baker and now Carrie Fisher. Their departure is, however, vitally important to those who remain. There’s a growing appreciation for Fisher as someone much more than just Princess Leia – an actress who bemoaned the sterotypic depition of her character while simultaneously bringing a gun-toting, wise cracking female commander to life within the leading ensemble.

Death is real, but its anthesis is creation – both bilogcal and artistic. Thanks to these dearly departed, and their drive to create while they were with us, we all lead richer lives. As such, a debt of gratitude is owed to them all.

Tags: , , , ,

Ed Power, writing in The Irish Times, recently decried the original Star Wars as being a pivotal moment in the downfall of Science Fiction. While I can empathise, writing off the subsequent 39 years of creativity within the genre seems to be more provocative than considered.

No irony is lost here on the fact that the USA is now more the evil Empire than the Nazi regime George Lucas used as a reference. Nor that the constant firework displays of the director’s prequels didn’t stray from the binary opposition of good versus evil. But there have been a host of other films that bear out Power’s call for a more thought-provoking approach to the fantastical. While he does cross-over into the realms of literature within his article, the focus of his piece is predominantly cinematic. Admittedly, not every movie can be superlative, and Sci-Fi does have more than its fair share of fillers.

And so, to avoid this turning into a seasonal listicle, let’s just stick with the most stimulating movies as far as this site is concerned. In the 1980s, Blade Runner (1982), Brazil (1985) and Akira (1988) were all created, whereas the 1990s featured 12 Monkeys (1995), Cube (1997), GATACA (1997) and – for all the flaws of its sequels – The Matrix (1999). Move into the 2000s, and you’ll find Donnie Darko (2001), Primer (2004), Moon (2009) and District 9 (2009). All those before we get into the likes of Inception (2010) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

How we treat robots, and what that means for us as their creators; The development of a society based upon a sanitised form of eugenics; Presentiment and time travel leading to narrative structures that make the head spin… Yes, the genre is awash with crap, and thanks to its pulp heritage it always will be. But there are enough transcendent moments in the above to turn any pause for thought into a welcome period of prolonged contemplation.

Tags: , , , , ,

quantum-computer

Moore’s Law was recently discussed at ARM’s TechCon annual event for partners within the microchip manufacturing industry. Coined by Gorden E Moore of Intel in 1965, the law posited the idea that processor speeds, or the overall processing power of computers, would double every two years. It’s a rule that has held true for the past half century, but now micro technology is finally reaching its limits. It’s no coincidence then that Microsoft are currently investing heavily in the new scientific field of quantum computing. As chips reach their physical limitations, and the demand for global data shows no sign of slowing, it seems fitting to consider the genre heritage and future of this computational frontier.

Many machines have been put forward by science fiction writers previously, and these in their own way have been influenced by the real world process of miniaturisation. (Consider the world sized computers in Forbidden Planet or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy versus the cranial processing of, say, Ex Machina.)

Interestingly, some fictional representations of circuit free computation have been closer to the quantum mark – despite its inherent in-determination. Cult Sci-Fi film of 1974, Zardoz, dramatised a crystalline central processor that used light for its calculations. Meanwhile, Ursula Le Guin’s intergalactic communication device, the Ansible, could easily be seen to exploit the “spooky action at a distance” of quantum entanglement. Greg Egan’s Quarantine (1992) has been considered to be one of the earliest depictions of the idea. But others have contested this by siting Isaac Azimov’s use of “molecular valves” throughout the “Multivac” computer in his 1956 story, The Last Question. As for what comes next, genre pick-up is still pretty light despite the stimulating subject matter. However, there is now a dedicated annual creative competition called Quantum Shorts.

If computing at an atomic level does become a reality, one of the first areas of research to be impacted will be artificial intelligence. As a result, if Robin Slone is to be believed, complex acts like writing a blog post will become second nature to the robots of tomorrow. So then if Drozbot, a blog about messages within machines, was continued by a machine… Oh how comic, oh how apt.

Tags: , , , ,

Imaginary boundaries are plentiful in Sci-Fi. Maps overlying on shifting territories, zones and sectors wherever you look. Time and again, tales contemplate the outside getting in, or those trapped inside getting out. Now with Trump following such inspirational and successful forebears as Qin Shi Huangdi, Hadrian and Maginot, we have a new imaginary boundary made manifest and, this being Drozbot, our thoughts turn to all the genre walls ever constructed.

The mega cities of 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd immediately spring to mind. Walled urban jungles crowded with so many that only a fascist police force can bring some kind of order to those inside. More pertinent maybe is the fictional wall between the US and Mexico in the film Monsters, where the illegal aliens are manifested as extraterrestrial entities with inscrutable motivations. Or perhaps the walls of Pacific Rim have a more palatable, less relevant sting to them, protecting populaces from trans-dimensional beasts that emerge from the deep.

Most recently, the segregation in Channel 4’s The Aliens – which aired before both Brexit and the Trump campaign – did a horribly accurate job of foreshadowing what was just around the corner. But, thinking about it, Sci-Fi has always sat outside the walled garden of canonical literature. While it offers numerous cautionary tales about the dangers and impracticability of walls, the genre is also at risk of hiding behind one as a result of its increased popularity.

A natural reaction to a world turning its back on others, favouring isolationism and building such walls is to retreat – see Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation. Why not move further into the fantastical worlds the genre has created and disengage from the here and now? Perhaps its no coincidence that super heroes are also at an all time high regarding popularity, just as society turns to the oh-so-easy unification of ideology and cult of personality. There is no Tony Stark to come and extricate us from this mess, and leaders who seek power for power’s sake don’t lead us anywhere we can collectively be proud of.

Adrift – a Gravity-esque game set on a destroyed space station – contains an audio file that references President Kennedy’s speech inspiring a nation to go into space. To quote, “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.” Space without boundaries, where walls are about collective survival not subjugation. Look at all these games, all the books, the films, the shows, the words and the music and consider them more a platform for inspiration and action, rather than something to cower behind.

Tags: , , , ,

chappie

Looks like machine learning is a hot topic once again. With both West World and season two of Channel 4’s Humans capturing viewers imaginations, the idea of what it means to create intelligence – and what that tells us about ourselves – is definitely in vogue.

We’ve explored human interpretations, and anthropomorphism, of what machine life might be like many times on this site. However, there’s a weirder narrative that tends not to get as much pick-up – probably due to the fact that it’s still very much in its formative stages. And yet, tales of machine’s stimulating their own learning are out there.

Back in 2009 the Science Museum commissioned a project that saw a trio of robots learning to sing collectively as part of their 100th year anniversary. Two years later and a video showing what happens when two chatbots were linked in conversation created a stir in the Sci-Fi community – most notably as a result of just how philosophical the discussion became.

In 2013 there was an apocryphal story of a AI run Quake server, where all the NPC combatants ended up descending into an uneasy peace. There’s still no corrobration, but the fact that it echoes the plot of John Badham’s Wargames (1983) ensures its inclusion here. Which brings us to last year where advances in robotics resulted in two humanoid machines – from the Neurorobotics Research Laboratory in Germany – learning to mirror and evolve their behaviour.

Most recently, though, Google have created the first piece of entirely machine built encryption. What’s especially interesting about this final story, is that two AIs were set in competition to outwit a third AI that was tasked with cracking the ciphers they produced. The experiment was a success with both machines learning from one another and, effectively, locking the third party out. As ever, fears of a Skynet singularity and a world dominated by machines followed the news – although that’s most likely a projection of our own insecurities. If we’re lucky the AIs we create will be more like those of Wargames and the Quake story above; smarter and more harmonious.

Tags: , , , ,

phase-iv

Hot on the taloned heels of witnessing the Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary, comes a reading of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds on the BBC Radio iPlayer. Predictably, it’s all the motivation this site needs to contemplate genre themes around nature turning against us en masse.

The Birds, first published in 1952, set a high benchmark for all emulators that followed and, as a result, output ever since has been pretty dire in comparison. From the low rent Killer Bees (2002) to the big budget, but equally risible, The Happening (2008), success has been more about tight narratives as opposed to special effects or the way nature chooses to dispatch us.

Probably the most compelling and Sci-Fi orientated trilogy in this space is James Herbert’s The Rats (1974), Lair (1979) and Domain (1984). While the story begins with all the typical tropes in place – ecological issues, a prolific creature and a small group of involved individuals – by Domain we’re experiencing a post-apocalyptic world in which the human survivors battle against the vermin for some kind of subterranean existence.

Insects provide another suitable threat to humanity but, once again, with mixed results. Even the writing of Arthur Herzog III, the directorial skills of Irwin Allen – fresh from The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – and the inclusion of Michael Cain as leading man couldn’t bootstrap The Swarm (1978) above average. Nicholas Edwards’ novel Arachnophobia had a better transition into film in the same year as the book was published (1992). However, it’s Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974) that makes it onto the Drozbot hit list. Even today its favouring of ideas over thrills, bold cinamatography and Dali-esque Surrealism creates something that can’t easily be dismissed. Plus, it’s just become available on Netflix in the UK.

We could delve deeper and consider works that employ both dogs and cats as potential threats – such as David Fisher’s The Pack (1976) – but the general outlook remains one for improvement. There’s plenty of room to revisit this sub-genre and the increasing ecological threat of humanity upon our planet, offers an interesting twist with the premise of a vengeful Gia. It’s a bug infested baton buried in the middle of a rat-king, but there’s creative potential there for anyone brave enough to reach in and pick it up.

Tags: , , , , ,

HYPER-REALITY from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

Despite science fiction having an optimistic bias – apocalypses tend to have ‘post’ attached to them, and police or invading alien states have their resistance movements – sometimes the future that’s being framed isn’t necessarily one we’d desire for ourselves, our children, or our children’s children.

Renowned documentary maker Adam Curtis has just released an epic entitled HyperNormality onto the BBC iPlayer. It’s a thought-provoking piece that takes the philosophical theories of Jean Baudrillard, and his contemporaries, and expands upon them to encompass the media driven world we live in today. For Baudrillard the idea of Hyper-Reality is an environment in which the authentic has become increasingly obscured by simulacra that have no direct reference to reality. Las Vegas is just one of his exemplary touch-points, and it’s also a focus for Curtis and his critique – specifically of Donald Trump. The ongoing problem that we have, is that creatives in the science fiction genre – and the influence that they exert upon post-modern culture – are partially responsible for the mess of information we’re struggling to decode.

Advertising is always a useful lens that reflects the current state of affairs, and it’s one that also exemplifies the convergent nature of science fiction to what Curtis is highlighting. No more so than in some of the odd crossovers that have aired recently. Compare the following adverts from British Gas, Deus Ex, Channel 4’s Humans and Jibo, all of which could easily pass as a trailer for Charlie Brooker’s latest series of Black Mirror. The interesting differentiator is that two of these promote this unified future as attractive, while two present something we should be wary of. The narratives, the themes, the style, however, are practically interchangeable. If the ad and marketing creatives are hot on the heels of current Sci-Fi tropes, then you can see the impetus to shift, to move and to reinvent. Curtis’ crisis in the real world extends to those scribbling away in the margins of fiction, resulting in a decreased amount of room to manoeuvre.

So here’s to whatever comes next. To the post-modern Lovecraftians, the rural cyber crime writers and those that pen pangender romance novels. You, and the weird and wonderful futures you’ll imagine, have the Drozbot seal of approval.

Tags: , , , ,

scot-bendall

While we may well be about to witness the homogenisation of the novel as a result of big data, there are still a few silver linings to the future of literature.

In the past, the only thing that was stimulating about uniforminity was a long line of orange spine Penguin books, most likely bringing together the genre works of H G Wells, George Orwell and John Whyndham. Now, Penguin (Random House) is honouring its Sci-Fi heritage on not one, but two counts. First, Richard Bravely is living up to his name by commissioning Scot Bendall from London design agency La Boca to create a vivid range of front covers. There’s something very reminiscent of site favourite Bob Haberfield’s work within these, especially from the period in which he worked on so many Michael Moorcock covers. The double hit, however, comes from the fact that the publishing house has just launched a new website. Unbound Worlds emerges from the critically acclaimed Suvudu and is aiming to continue the good work of the former, while also creating weekly email newsletters and working to cover even more publications than before. Penguin doesn’t get a monolpoly on reinventing itself within a traditional space however, as Kensington Publishing brings Rebel Base Books to the shelves.

Maybe not the most electrifying news within the genre right now, especially considering how West World is currently dominating the headlines. But space should always be given to the likes of Tor and the novel… When so many words are expended every single day to pick through all the nuances of super hero film and TV adaptations, it’s good to pay respect to those committed to long form both in its creation and its reception. Take a leaf out of Elon Musk’s, er, book why don’t you.

Tags: , , , , ,