Bringing the space opera into the media of video games is a tricky proposition. What players actually want from such adventures is a multitude of planetary systems, with populated cities and orbital stations, that you journey between via a space ship. A digital rendition of the paper-based RPG Traveller, for want of a better comparison. Or perhaps the conflated power fantasy of both Stars Wars and Trek. What you inevitably encountered, until recently, was a well-managed, walled garden that hinted at a wider cosmos somewhere just beyond the game’s limitations.

The original Elite, with its focus on trade and space combat, was the first video game to attempt the audacious endeavour of creating a galaxy of possibilities. It still didn’t generate any sense of character, or planet-based exploration, thanks to the technology of the time and the sheer amount of processing power required to achieve a wider perspective. Look to the latest iteration in the series today and, while there’s a lot more detail and personality on your journeys through space, it’s still all centred around your vehicle. Consider the diversity of population in the latest city-based Sci-Fi adventure, Cyberpunk 2077 – which, amazingly, brings road transport into the mix – then times this across multiple planets, with multiple species, and you can understand the processing debt programmers would have to manage.

Mass Effect did a laudable job of having a character-driven plot set against a sizeable universe with a good mixture of well-populated locations. It paved the way for the ever growing universe of Destiny (1 and 2), but both franchises still sadly lack the thrills of ship-to-ship engagements.

The procedural generation of environments was the cool tech solution that revolutionised things for Hello Games. After a rocky start, No Man’s Sky is among the first titles to tick all the required boxes of creating a playable space opera. While the ground combat pales against the slick execution of Destiny, the fact that you can travel, trade and battle across a mind-boggling array of planets is still incredible. The recent addition of a multiplayer only added to its levels of engagement – and that’s before you dig into the huge number of Sci-Fi tropes that are recognised throughout the game.

Elsewhere, Chris Roberts, of Roberts Space Industries, cut his creative video game teeth with the Wing Commander series – which was one of the first games to bring characters to an Elite-styled space shooter. His return to the genre is even more ambitious, but the development of Star Citizen has been arduous and plagued with complaints of dissatisfaction from its investors. You have to respect the scale of the endeavour, but it definitely feels like the preserve of the high-end PC gamer. That said, there is a development team in Toronto about to bring a similar experience to the Nintendo Switch. Although Starlink: Battle for Atlas is definitely skewed towards a younger audience, the combination of planetary exploration and interstellar combat looks like a great option to get your space opera fix while on the go.

What’s amazing is that while other video games feel recognisable and familiar despite their ambition – depictions of city life in GTA and Assassins Creed, fidelity and real world car physics in Forza – the playable Space Opera is still formative. Great strides have been made recently, but we’re still waiting that ‘killer app’ paradigm shift. Perhaps Bethesda Games and Starfield will be the ones to grasp that prize, perhaps not. Regardless, we’ll be among the first on the boarding ramp, space helmet in hand and intergalactic travel bag hovering at our side when it releases.

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It’s only in recent years that video games have really taken the lead over cinema. There’s a real sense of innovation and smart story telling coming through that’s indicative of a creative format truly coming of age. Although, as far as Hollywood is concerned, only the big game franchises are actually worth cinematic adaptation – which inevitably results in average to poor executions. Flip the coin, however, and look at how good Sci-Fi cinema has influenced games and you find a very different level of appreciation.

Speedball 2, the 1990 sequel to the Bitmap Brothers early future sports game is a very obvious homage to Howard Jewison’s 1975 film Rollerball. Strip out all the corporate control and politics from film, and you’re left with a fast and physical escalation of your team through the sport’s global ranks.

Looking to the bigger franchises, Alien has spawned a slew of games over the years since its 1979 debut. Sadly, a lot of these iterations have been unremarkable. That said, there’s been a lot of praise for Creative Assembly’s survival horror Alien Isolation but, here at Drozbot, Alien 3 on the Sega GameGear is still the one to beat.

Star Wars and Star Trek both follow suit regarding just how many games there are out there, but finding quality in among this blanket output is tricky. Have we here on Drozbot played any great games from these genre giants? Star Wars Battlefront, maybe…?

Returning to the less homegonised outliers, The Strugatksy Brother’s book Roadside Picnic became a very ponderous film in the hands of Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979. Both of which then acted as a launch point for GSC’s Stakler game series. While true to the alien zone notion of the origin novel, titles in the series have had a mixed reception. Whereas the same principle of our inability to comprehend the truly alien, still finds fertile film output in the guise of Alex Garland’s Annhilation (2018).

Pitch Black (2000) is also a worthy addition to the list. Coming out of a low-budget left-field and kick-starting Vin Diesel’s big screen career, it then went on to become one of the best film to game crossovers ever with Starbreeze’s The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.

Finally, extraterrestrial linguistics have bought about some of the oddest examples of game adaptation. Not really explored in film until Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), it was originally tackled as a game concept in 1988 with ERE Informatique’s Captain Blood As with the translation mechanics of, say, No Man’s Sky, this game saw you creating an icon driven lexicon to help you on your quest. Jump forward to today and we find Inkle Studios revisiting the linguistic detective work with Heaven’s Vault.

There are a host of other titles out there that have taken some of the most influential Sci-Fi films and turned them into great games. While we’ve certainly done an injustice to many by not calling them out here, hopefully the kind of quality Hollywood engenders in game designers might one day be replicated back in Tinsel Town. Then again, perhaps a media that runs to hours upon hours of entertainment will always struggle being encapsulated into film. Here’s hoping Netflix bootstraps the already Half Life-esque Cloverfield universe into a full-blown mini series.

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It’s always heartening to know that, whenever the Sci-Fi news feeds get bloated, literature is there to fall back upon. The past few weeks have been no exception as the true well-spring of inventive and left-field thought continues to push its way through an ersatz covering of fan merchandise and TV series updates.

First up is the welcome news from Forbes that sales of Sci-Fi and Fantasy literature have doubled since 2010. Rallying after a dip in 2009, purchases are at a renewed high water mark – although almost 50% of these novels are digital and self-published. Still, evidence enough that the pulp genre pulse is stronger than ever.

Within the ongoing struggle for the promotion of diversity, we have Google celebrating the brief but impactful life of Octavia Butler via a home page doodle. Plus, one of the lead creators of the Expanse book saga discussing his thoughts after the alt-right political schism in his homeland. (There’s also great news within this interview with Daniel Abraham about the rescue and continuation of the TV adaptation by Netflix!)

Elsewhere, the UK’s Financial Times bemoans the genre’s ongoing lack of diverse voices within its authorship – while celebrating the works of Marlone Jones and Tomi Adeyemi among others. However, the wider Afro Futurism movement continues to generate fresh and intriguing perspectives. Take Neuro Speculative Afro Feminism as a perfect example. Created as a Sci-Fi multimedia hair salon by a female, New York foursome, it’s actually a collective response to the deaths that triggered the Black Lives Matter protests in North America.

Look further east to the increasing influence of Chinese authors – something we’ve reported on previously here on Drozbot – and you’ll find genre diversity going from strength-to-strength. A cursory search of ‘must read’ listicles returns at least one or two works by Asian authors – Yoon Ha Lee and Ken Liu both being touted as noteworthy.

Ultimately though, the reality of long form is that it takes dedicated time to experience. Where once you could cover pretty much everything within the genre, our busy lives now mean we can only focus on small windows into these amazing worlds. Hopefully Drozbot will continue to act as a gatekeeper and filtration system, ensuring the very best use of your precious time.

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Thanks to the excellent Boing Boing for highlighting Jonathan McIntosh’s marvellous video essay on films that helped formulate his compassion as a child. For Drozbot, it’s interesting to note that he quotes the film critic Robert Ebert talking about movies being devices for generating empathy – which in turn resonates with the P.K. Dickian concept of the Voight-Kampff machine and empathy boxes of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

That aside, the notion of whether there are enough empathetic Sci-Fi movies was an interesting challenge to address. Unlike McIntosh, we cannot keep the focus tightly on the 1980s, but there are more than enough films out there to replicate the sentiment – thanks partially to his already covering E.T. (1982), Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Batteries Not Included (1987). One notable absence from the decade, however, is Enemy Mine (1985). Based upon Barry Longyear’s Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel, the story definitely ticks the ‘empathy for the other’ that McIntosh references, while also promoting black and white lead characters – albeit with Louis Gossett Junior sweltering under layers of prosthetics.

While the Sci-Fi films of the 1950s focused on B-Movie sensationalism, there was one truly empathetic, stand-out movie in their ranks. We’ve mentioned time and time again here on Drozbot, but Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) remains a heart-wrenching exploration of tragic loss and fateful acceptance, while also breaking swathes of fresh ground in special effects.

The mind-warping concepts, cautionary tales and downbeat endings of the genre throughout the 1970s make empathetic high water marks hard to find. Meanwhile, the cold war paranoia and all-out action of the 1980s leaves the empathy rich Blade Runner (1982) out on a limb. By the end of the Century it’s an odd piece of retro animation that finds a way into our hearts. Reflecting back on the monster movies of the 1950s, while never losing sight of the destructiveness of mankind, Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) once again focuses on the marginalised, the dis-empowered and the ‘other’ rather than typical, heroic tropes of the era.

Admittedly, there isn’t a plethora of these kinds of films within the genre, but there is a marked increase in their frequency as the 2000s get into their stride. Both Takahito Akiyama’s Honioko (2005) and Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) use the tried-and-tested model of robots as the child-like observers and mimics of the best of human nature while they struggle against depictions of us at our very worst. After these, the flood gates of our emotional relationship with science fiction and technology open up with Brit Marling, Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman all manning the sluice gates. Seems that, despite all the doom, gloom and misgivings, our empathy generating devices are working overtime to pave the way to a much more sensitive and caring future.

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John Hawthorn got in touch with us about his recent article on advances in cybernetics. It’s a great overview covering a broad range of what’s going on with both the hardware and software that’s allowing us to augment our lives in hitherto unimaginable ways.

Living cyborg Neil Harbisson, who has monochromatic vision and a cranial implant that allows him to experience colour via electrical impulses, gets a mention. As does Neurobridge who, in a similar vein to Elon Musk’s Nuralink, are researching mechanical interfaces with the human mind. But it’s Hawthorn’s reference to the growing number of people that have sub-dermal implants that is of most interest to our site.

Mark O’Connell’s book To Be a Machine is just one investigation into the growing sub-culture of Transhumanism. Within it he considers everything from wearable technology, through the use of chip implants to the ethical minefield of removing healthy limbs in favour of more powerful, versatile and longer-lasting prosthetics. In fact, when considering artificial limbs, the divide between fact and fiction has become wafer thin. Just consider these videos from Sarif Industries and Hero Arm and tell us which infomercial is a videogame promotion and which is a real company.

Exoskeletons are a near perfect vehicle for the contradictory elements within cybernetics, especially when you consider both the medical and military applications. Creating body armour that makes a single solider on the battlefield stronger, faster and more durable – as in Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow – raises issues of a combatative technocracy. Whereas the same technology applied to a bed-bound quadriplegic sudden becomes transformative.

No more so are the ethical boundaries contested than in the artificial enhancement of our own cognitive abilities. Scientists may still be deliberating whether sentient artificial intelligence is achievable, but that doesn’t stop theorists thrashing out the implications of encoding and uploading our consciousness into machines. Again, referring back to the idea of a technocracy, would such digitised immortality be the preserve of just the wealthy or tech savvy? Looking back at the principles of Eugenics in the late 19th Century, and it’s mutation into ethnic cleansing, it’s easy to map out totalitarian outcomes of these advancements – especially when you effectively remove the mortality of any given despot.

As ever, we’re on the cusp of these marginal technologies nudging their way towards the mainstream. But for every homemade, 3D printed hand, there’s a GoogleGlass languishing in the vault of failed experiments. It’s good that all these complexities are being worked through now, as heading back over the boundary between human and machine, once that threshold has been properly crossed, will be impossible.

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The ever warm topic of robotics is heating up once again.

It’s hard to disentangle if the advent of two robot related TV shows is causing this spike of automated interest, or whether a bunch of companies have held their recent press releases to coincide with the promotional campaigns for said shows. Regardless of the timing, or the machinations of marketeers, there’s no doubting a shift in the wider messaging around the advent of more sophisticated robots within our lives.

To help define what we’re on about, have a look at these two pieces of data released by the business publication Forbes. The first shows off the countries that currently have the highest populations of industrial robots, while the second similar list marks out the countries with the greatest risk of human job losses to robotic workforces.

More demonstrable evidence of this tipping point can be found in the fact that Japan is addressing one interesting Sci-Fi issue – The Silver Tsunami – by introducing robot engineers to supplement an aging construction workforce. A similar situation is happening within North American agriculture, where the combined factors of a retiring itinerant workforce and a better standard of living in their native countries is leading to diminishing number of labourers within fruit farming. The solution? Harvest CROO Robotics!

It’s not just the human workforce that are being supplanted by increasing numbers of machines. While The Guardian’s round-up of robots mimicking animal behaviour neglects to mention Festo’s styalised droids, it does refer to NASA researching robotic bees for Mars exploration, as well as an octopoid robot powered by chemical reactions and hydrolics – that means zero mechanics parts.

So these are just some of the stories clustering behind the sensational moments depicted in the already well-received Westworld season two (see above), and the return of Channel 4’s Humans. Whether we like it or not, social demands, technological advancements and the needs of industry are making these fictions a reality. Which means the robotic revolution isn’t coming. It’s already here.

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We’ve always tried to highlight the peripheral gems within the peripheral entertainment that is Sci-Fi. But what happens when that genre goes more mainstream than ever before?

Over the past few months we’ve called out the number of high production value films and TV shows that continue to emerge – most notably on Netflix. With Amazon’s recent signing of ‘Zoe’ by Drake Doremus and the serialisation of William Gibson’s The Peripheral, there seems to be no slowing down in futuristic interest. A backlash to this current glut is, however gaining momentum.

Ridley Scott has been critical of the genre in the past, citing a concern that visual output was becoming homogenised – backed up by a recent article in Esquire. Meanwhile, James Cameron has complained – rightly so in our books – about the sheer volume of super hero movies coming out of Hollywood. Admittedly, there has been opposition to these statements with a number of younger fans and critics highlighting an ‘old guard’ increasingly out of touch. But there’s also been some notable defence.

Perhaps this is all just a bi-product of the genre’s heritage. For every Samuel Delaney ‘Nova’ in your pantheon of great literary works, there was a plethora of forgettable pulp fiction currently languishing in charity shops across the world.

The argument falters, though, when considering the current two-fold crisis. First, the world has already become an imagined space where we all carry personal computers, have our elections hacked by technocrats and wonder at whether robots becoming domestic appliances is a good and useful thing. Secondly, the genre is now so mainstream that it’s struggling to generate new and engaging ideas in the glare of perpetual public scrutiny.

Hopefully, there’s enough innovation still happening on the outskirts – new thinking that just needs time to gain a foothold within the zeitgeist. Charlie Jane Anders believes so, and this site has already been advocating the interesting reinventions that have been happening within LGBT, Afrofuturism and the recent bloom of Chinese authors.

Regardless, saturation remains a bad thing. A negative reaction is coming, and we will see a drop off in popularity as production investment favours something with a better return. Sci-Fi though, has a proven track record of adaptation. The bug-eyed monsters fell away when the mind expanding ’60s and ’70s investigated inner space which in turn, dropped back to allow room for cyberspace. What all the creatives within whatever medium need to do, is follow the advice of Eames from Inception and not be, “afraid to dream a little bigger darling.”

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There’s something of the Asian continent in the air around Sci-Fi at the moment, and we’re not just talking about the space station currently hurtling towards the planet.

Chinese artist and disident, Aie Weiwei plays a central role in the short film The Sand Storm which was kickstarted and filmed under the official radar in Beijing. First aired in 2014, you can watch it now on Vimeo here. (Note that there’s also a deeper Asian genre link between Aie Weiwei’s costume and that worn by James Hong, playing Hannibal Chew in the original Blade Runner.) Elsewhere, Benedict Wong, although admittedly a native Manchunain, seems to be constantly on our screens in one Sci-Fi role or another. He has most recently appeared in Impossible Planet as part of Channel 4’s Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, and as Lomax in Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018). Maybe a couple of tenuous links for the sake of building out a topic, but there’s a wide selection of new written work to back this up.

We’ve mentioned Luci Cixin’s book, The Three Body Problem, in other posts on the site, but now Amazon are reportedly paying one billion dollars for the television and production rights. The tale depicts an alien invasion set across the historical backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, which seems like a bold investment in darker, more cerebral science fiction – away from the capes, codpieces and proliferation of super powers.

Hong Kong is about to host its second genre conference as well. The bizarrely titled Melon: Sci-Fi and Beyond, created by venture capitalist Fritz Demopoulous, will begin on the 19th April and will provide a platform for emerging and established writers. Among them we can expect to see Chen Qiufan who has earned the title ‘China’s William Gibson’ by fans of his work, plus Tang Fei whose short story collections are beginning to find an audience here in the west, and Bao Shu who has already been published in English through Clarksworld. Talking of translations, while they’re still sketchy, an increasing number are appearing for all the above authors – however, with mixed results. Regardless, with the ever mutable landscape of science fiction looking towards China for fresh input, perhaps now is the time to sample some of this growing Eastern promise.

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While we’d hate to be driven to write by the self-proclaimed racist currently in charge of the third largest army in the world, his recent call for a “space force” eclipses Ronald Regan’s misguided Star Wars program in acts of sheer fuckwittery. And yet, despite the willy waving and budgetary hole such an endeavour would cause, it’s not that far-fetched.

As forward-thinking Sci-Fi fans, we might like to think of outer space as a demilitarised zone or perhaps somewhere politically neutral, like the Arctic on Earth. The reality is that this strategic high ground has been contested ever since Soviet Russia launched Sputnik in 1957. Although this wasn’t the first, nor sadly the last, piece of codependency between warfare and technological advancement, there’s no doubt the time of Sci-Fi combat is already upon us.

We’ve dwelt upon Boston Dynamics and their ability to create some of the most, er… provocative robots ever. Regardless Skynet singularity fears and these machines being co-opted into a military service, their previous owners DARPA haven’t shed too many oily tears since selling off the company. Instead, they’ve been busy creating digital comic books that highlight the risks of cyber warfare for West Point cadets. Not only that, but they’re also working on adapting the biological characteristics of the near indestructible Tardigrade to aid in the creation of a battlefront stasis device to hibernate wounded soldiers until they can reach a field hospital. Extrapolate on this and once the military can put its soldiers in and out of stasis, so follows the opportunity of sending them out to claim extraterrestrial territory and… Colonial marines, we salute you!

The tragic reality is where one space faring nation leads, others will follow. Forget peaceful and scientific exploration of the solar system. Suddenly, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers become a possibility – without a hint of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical touch – as does John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and the more pacifist perspective with The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

Space shouldn’t be a launch pad for territorial divides, colonial efforts, the Wild West, or a ‘Scramble for Africa’ styled drive to get rich quick. While we’d like to advocate a united federation of planets approach to the space around us and the cosmos at large, that too has at its heart a fully armed star fleet. Perhaps the final frontier is actually worthy of a completely fresh approach. What this might be has yet to be decided, but whatever we try has to be better than the carbon-copied, geriatric strategies of the banker, the industrialist and the warmonger.

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Why are we talking about Netflix yet again? Well the subscription TV Channel is once more the standout centrepiece of Sci-Fi related activity. While we have The Shape of Water (above) securing a stack of Oscar nominations and The Black Panther dominating the box office, Netflix is still the most dynamic force within the genre at the moment.

Take The Cloverfield Paradox as a fully-formed, exclusive case in point. Not only does it provide an origin story to both Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, its transdimensional setting has set geek minds racing about a potential crossover with the Half-Life universe. Too far fetched? Well, J.J. Abrams is currently engaged with both Portal and Half-Life movie adaptations, while Darren Tratchtenberg – director of 10 Cloverfield Lane – also directed Portal: No Escape. We say, “let the speculation roll!”

Duncan Jones’ Mute has also just been released onto the service. Although not receiving critical recommendations thus far, it has provided a platform for the director to air his desire to bring 2000AD comic book heroes Rogue Trooper and Slane to the screen. While on the topic of retro Sci-Fi, the original Lost in Space was tacky at best and the 1998 film (by Stephen Hopkins) was a deplorable mess, but hope springs eternal on Netflix in the shape of challenging reboots.

The most important and latest update however, is that Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff Vander Meer’s Annihilation is already garnering rave reviews in the US. The film, starring Natalie Portman, will be with us on Netflix is just a few weeks’ time. It’s worrying that a potential shortfall in audience will mean the film won’t be receiving a cinematic release in Europe, and that those who are not part of the subscription service will initially miss out. Question is, does the price provide enough value when considering the growth and quality of the shows in question. It’s a resounding ‘yes’ here on Drozbot.

To wrap things up we also have The Expanse season three confirmed to air on SyFy by April 2018, which means we should see it join the previous two seasons on Netflix before the end of the year. All we need now is for The OA, which is currently in production, to join it and we’ll be looking at a monumental year for fans of the genre.

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