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: , , , ,

star-wars-episode-2

Sequels are an understandable part of the ongoing pageant of Sciffy. Even the likes of James Tiptree Junior and Samuel Delaney weren’t and aren’t adverse to the sprawling scope of a multi-book narrative. There’s space in opuses like these to generate a real measure of time and character development but, in the hands of marketing teams, the sequel can become a much more cynical endeavour. As a result, the jitters we have around the latest slew of ‘franchise reboots’ and follow-ups aren’t dissipating.

A recent and notable example of incredulity towards spin-offs focused on the serialisation of 12 Monkeys – a questionable sentiment echoed by the film’s creator, Terry Gilliam. That said, the show is still airing on Syfy and is now well into its second series. So there’s obviously a demand for it.

There’s also the mooted sequel to Blade Runner that’s been gathering momentum through a series of casting announcements. Odd that there’s the desire to continue a tale penned by one of the Sci-Fi greats who specialised in rapid fire novels each set against their own peculiar backdrops, especially when you consider the lukewarm audience reception to the original.

Another cult classic, Dune, is also making a cinematic come back – possibly as a result of fan reappraisal of the failed Jodowsky project that was then superseded by the weird and flawed adaptation by David Lynch. There was the serialised mini series which aired in 2000. But while it did display a tighter adherence to the original text, it couldn’t convey the scale of the book’s set pieces on its meagre SFX budget. Room for improvement then, so perhaps a re-imaging could result in a classic.

Most beleaguered of all Sci-Fi franchises, though, has to be Alien. A practically perfect piece of survival horror, even before the term was coined, which then transformed into an all-out action sequel at the hands of James Cameron. Then what? A slow bleeding out of sequels that culminated in the visually impressive but structurally desolate Prometheus. While being critical of such a much loved part of the genre is practically an act of self harm, the prospect of Alien Covenant doesn’t engender any confidence in a franchise reboot.

As for one-off concepts and projects, well they’re just as likely to fail. But there is something wonderful when the likes of The Martian and Arrival cut through the noise. You never know, though, there might be a group of marketeers out there already pitching The Martian 2: Return to the Red Planet and Departure as viable money spinners right now.

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: , , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , ,

francois-truffaut-451

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.

Tags: , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , ,