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.

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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.

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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.

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Previously on the site we’ve touched upon robots playing music, and the weird and wonderful use of technology in the modern performance space, but the crossover of Sci-Fi inspired tracks remains under-represented. The narrative behind Black Sabbath’s Iron Man may well be genre appropriate, but it’s their own with no authorial influence behind the scenes.

Prog rock ensemble, The Alan Parsons Project, probably has one of the earliest examples of this with the concept album I Robot named after Issac Asimov’s blueprint to artificial life. Also within the same experimental space an older, more measured Mike Oldfield can be found with his album Songs of Distant Earth borrowing from the Arthur C Clark’s novel of the same name.

Move into the more synth pop vibe of the late 1970s and, surprisingly, you’ll find Kim Wilde crooning about Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Unsurprisingly, Dick’s work is also heavily referenced as a source of inspiration in Gary Numan’s 1979 album Replicas. Over the period, though, it’s the omnipresent adaptation of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds by Jeff Wayne that dominates.

Gwenno Saunders – known simply as Gwenno when performing – has recently capitalised on the shortfall here by releasing Y Dydd Olaf (The Last Day) based upon Owain Owain’s 1976 novel of the same name (see above). The original dystopian tale of a robotic populace cloning human leaders, references a Welsh diary hidden from a mono linguistic hive mind – something that resonated with Gwenno as she found her musical voice within her native language.

The ultimate unity of science fiction and music lies somewhere on Iain M Bank’s hard drive. His last project, before his untimely death in 2014, was a musical one – a symphony composed from his home studio in Scotland (video here, time code 49:00). An orchestral thread can be found throughout his Culture works, within books like Look To Windward and The Hydrogen Sonatta, and the posthumously published collection of his poems released in 2014 could well add lyrical wealth. Who knows if there are any plans to pull such a project together. If there were though, Drozbot would be all ears.

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The sphere of influence is predictably riddled with odd connections when it comes to this site’s favourite genre. Take Kent Jones’ documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut that was released in 2015. On initial inspection it’s an exploration of two directors, their craft and mutual respect for each other. Not all that many in-roads for fans of Sci-Fi you might think, however…

While Hitchcock’s work focused upon suspense and psychological horror, it’s hard to watch The Birds (1963) and not consider every apocalyptic film that was to follow. The formula of established normality and interpersonal group tensions that are suddenly shattered by an inexplicable, natural/biological horror has often been replicated. From David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) through Ron Underwood’s Tremors (1990), to just about any contemporary infestation/zombie film, Hitchcock’s pervasive presence can be felt.

There are some interesting collaborations to be unearthed as well. The Birds leading man, Rod Tailor, was also the lead in George Pal’s 1960 version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. It’s the film’s child star, though, that provides the strongest Sci-Fi legacy. You may well recognise a young Veronica Cartwright behind her more mature roles as Nancy Bellicec in 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Lambert in Alien (1979). The Birds was also a birth place of what was to become Disney’s Imagineers. Ub Iwerks pioneered an early version of today’s green screen technology, (“yellow” back then) and built on the animated Sci-Fi legacy of the likes of Joshua Meador who brought the monster from the ID to life in Fred M. Wilcox’s 1956 Forbidden Planet. Finally, genre greats within the literary arts have a debt of gratitude to Hitchcock too, with John Whyndham’s work receiving publication in an anthology by the director, and his story – Consider Her Ways – being adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour TV show (1962-65).

With François Truffaut, the genre connections are more overt. It’s easy to see Hitchcock’s influence regarding symbolism throughout his adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 (1966). The film’s excellent score by Bernard Herman that combines motifs that hark back to Forbidden Planet and Vertigo (1958) is another direct link. But let’s also not forget the homage paid by Steve Spielberg to Truffaut by casting him as Claude Lacombe in Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977).

As I said, it’s a plethora of odd connections but a wonderful web of influence nonetheless.

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Robert Aikman (2)

Robert Aikman isn’t as widely known or as appreciated as some of his contemporaries, but his tales of the uncanny still resonate with modern aficionados of the strange. If you’re unfamiliar with the name, think on a lineage that encompass M.R James, passes through Aikman, onto Roald Dahl – in Tales of the Unexpected mode – and then out into the psychodramas of J. G. Ballard and Will Self. Not necessarily overt horror, or monster of the week, but something more sub-dermal and terrifyingly closer to home.

Despite having over 50 short stories published in his life time, Aikman’s commercial success was perpetually hampered by a lack of public attachment and the near constant distraction of numerous extra curriculum activities. Today, however, there’s a growing number of advocates of his work among the more esoteric echelons of publishing and broadcast.

Sword and sorcery pioneer Fritz Leiber, horror author Peter Straub and co-creator of the League of Gentleman Mark Gaitiss have all paid their respects or produced adaptations of the writer’s works. Now author, publisher and all round Aikman fan, Storm Constantine, is about to release her own homage to this fellow writer of “strange tales”.

Dark in the Day is an anthology of the weird, penned by such luminaries as Tanith Lee set alongside those new to the genre. It’s publication comes as a result of a collaboration between Immanion Press and Staffordshire University, and is co-edited by Paul Houghton – senior lecturer in creative writing. Reason enough you might think to endear itself to this site, but there’s also the personal (and delightful) boon of having my own story – The Vigil – included within its pages.

The book will be on sale direct from the publishing house next month, and more details of this eldritch tome and other books of oddity can be found here.

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State of Alarm

Be careful what you wish for. After playing a good chunk of both Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided there’s the growing sense that the geeks really might inherrit the Earth. True, we’ve been around in proto forms for over a century, but look at the oh so brief evolution of role playing gaming from, say, Dungeons and Dragons in 1974 to the game experiences mentioned above, and you can see the point. Relevantly, both titles also incorporate visions of technologically advanced societies controlled using paramilitary police forces. And herein lies the typical cautionary note. While modern Sci-Fi still questions the rise and need for such strong armed policing, it also has a tendency to glamourise its deployment.

The City Protection Force (and KSEC) in Mirror’s Edge, originally scripted by Rhianna Pratchet, is the realisation that the rise of corporate power (and the increasing use of private security firms) leads to a more financially viable service than any government sanctioned organisation. (I frequently refer to the Security Commission – AKA SecCom – in my own writing.) Look to the equally aggressive law enforcement agents of Deus Ex and again we’re heading into the uncomfortable territory of Judge Dredd and RoboCop. Both were written as critiques of right-wing/capitalist control of society, but both were also dangerous, exciting and cool.

All well and good when confined to the realms of fiction but when Operation Hercules was initiated in the UK, the same level of attraction and unease spilled into the real world. As with Guillaume Menuel’s miniature creations (see above), we’ve come a very long way from the friendly bobby on the beat. There’s something incredibly sad about this addition to the streets of London, but there’s also something very Sci-Fi about the framing of these images, about the body armour, about the allure of “counter terrorism”. The genre may well have moved from the peripheries to the centre as far as gaming is concerned, but is this creative output also influencing a more mechanised/weapons-friendly future? Uncertain? Then why not perform an image search for “future police”, then look again at the publicity shots from Operation Hercules and see just how much the lines have blurred.

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William Neil Harrison isn’t a name you’d immediately recognise in the pantheon of Sci-Fi writers, but his influence does currently hold sway within Drozbot’s remit. With the 2016 Olympics in full swing, thoughts inevitably turn to representations of future games past. As such, Harrison was very much responsible for getting the (ahem) ball rolling with his 1973 short story Roller Ball Murder. This brief tale was subsequently picked up by Norman Jewison, and was turned into the still powerful 1975 movie starring James Caan.

At least three comic variations based upon this initial future sport were then spawned and sustained throughout the remainder of the 1970s. First in Action comic with Death Game 1999, and then twice in 2000 AD with Harlem Heroes (1977) bringing jet packs to the competitive endeavour, and then Mean Arena (1980). The creative drive of both Pat Mills and the lesser known Tom Tully played heavily in all three narratives.

As far as TV and film are concerned, Rollerball cast a long shadow and it was only with the proto-Hunger Games of David Peoples’ Salute of the Jugger (AKA, The Blood of Heroes, 1989) that another team-based future sport was able to hold its own. There were asides within other serialised shows of course – Pyramid in Battlestar Galactica and Parisses Square from Star Trek (wonderfully parodied in Hyperdrive; skip to 3:52) – but rarely as the central focus. Real Steel (2011) is probably the most recent and successful example of pure future sports film (that isn’t gladiatorial in nature), aside from the universally dismissed remake of Jewison’s original Rollerball directed by John McTiernan in 2002.

Literature has a much wider spread of future sports, ranging all the way from rocket racing to golf. Predictably, the superlative SF Encyclopedia has a full entry that goes beyond the Olympian theme here. As for the non fictional future of sports, Japan will take the baton for the 2020 Olympics and skateboarding will make its first official appearance. So who knows, perhaps esports is the inevitable next step.

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Harry 20 on the High Rock

We’ve not been altogether complimentary about Luc Besson’s continued work within the Sci-Fi genre in the past, but we’d never advocate getting the law involved. Not so John Carpenter. When not creating sound-tracks for movies he didn’t direct himself, his efforts – at least those of his lawyers – have been targeting Besson’s 2012 film Lockout. Starring fellow Sci-Fi unfortunate, Guy Pearce, the plots of this and Carpenter’s Escape From New York do appear incredibly similar. (Check the two trailers out for yourself here and here.) There are however a batch of other futuristic prison breaks out there for consideration.

First up, and hot on the heels of Carpenter’s 1981 movie, is Gerry Finley-Day’s and Alan Davis’ Harry 20 on the High Rock. Appearing in 2000AD from June 1982, the cartoon series – echoing Besson’s Lockout – was set on an orbital prison created by a corrupt political regime back on Earth. Perhaps they too should sue for Besson for plagiarism.

Skip forward a nine year stretch, and you’ll find yourself banged up in Wedlock (1991) – an open prison system where Rutger Hauer is kept captive due to the explosive collar he’s forced to wear. Similarly, a mere year later, Christopher Lambert also finds himself locked in Fortress (1992), but instead of cranial detonation, death of escaping inmates is triggered by ‘intestinators’ implanted into the gut. No Escape (1994), starring Ray Liotta is probably the best of this average bunch of Sci-Fi thrillers, with an island penal colony replacing the outer space and underground settings. We could go on to mention, the ‘halo’ penitentiary of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), along with a stack of other weird and wonderful means of incarceration, but these are more asides as opposed to themes.

As a result, we have to look to video games for the next full-term off-planet stretch behind bars. In Vivendi Universal’s Chronicles of Riddick, Escape from Butcher Bay (2004), we catch up with the augmented assassin fresh from Pitch Black (2000). And so full circle to Lockout…

It’s always unpleasant when your geek parents fight, but more so when the Sci-Fi output of both parties has been patchy. For every The Last Battle (1981), there are several Lucys (2014). For every The Thing (1982), another Ghosts of Mars (2001). It’s unlikely that they’d ever be willing collaborate on a project now, but just think of the potential output if we could just lock them up on a film set and throw away the key.

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Black Mirror

The painfully slim-line, and equally enticing and repellent, Black Mirror is back. Not on Channel 4, as per the previous two series, but exclusively on Netflix.

Birthed from the tech savvy and cautionary mind of Charlie Brooker, the previous six episodes and one Christmas special were an unsettling combination of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected and something altogether darker. Torture of child killers, social ostracisation taking unfriending to a reality altering level, a UK Prime Minister forced to have sex with a pig in order to save a princess… There were no punches pulled while the weird was just familiar enough to elicit chills.

Now doubled in size, all six episodes of series three have been named with San Junipero, Shut Up and Dance, Nosedive, Men Against Fire, Hated in the Nation and Playtest airing from the 21st of October. Details about the themes of each episode are scant, and only one production image has come to light so far – a symmetrical vertical split image of a bus interior, where passengers in dead-pan masks and wigs consult the black mirrors of their smart phones.

Talking of phones, while Goodwin’s Law currently seems to have been railroaded by Pokémon GO, the virtual reality phenomenon is actually relevant in the context of this article. While being interviewed during a Television Critics Association panel in Los Angeles, Charlie Brooker quipped that he hadn’t foreseen the magnitude of the game’s popularity. Behind the scenes, however, mashup director Patrick H. Willems had already worked the Japanese creature hunter into a Black Mirror pastiche.

Returning to Brooker’s press conference he went on to echo the sentiments of this site, emphasising that technology was simply a vehicle or tool. Ultimately, Black Mirror’s tales were about how humans react to technological shifts and the feelings they invoke. However, he did state that 2016 so far had represented, “free publicity for the show”. Looking back on some of the posts here since January, we’d have to agree.

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