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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So the reviews are coming in and fears that Simon Pegg might have made Star Trek Beyond the fourth film in his Cornetto trilogy are dissipating. It looks like we’re in for another gripping ride into the final frontier. From a wider perspective though, it feels like a franchise reemerging from a difficult time.

The aftershocks within the nerdcore regarding Leonard Nimoy’s death are still being felt. Thankfully, the tributes are finally coming to fruition, with the documentary For The Love of Spock about to be released. There’s no way such a dedication, even one made by his son Adam, can fill the void left by such a Sci-Fi icon, but there’ll no doubt be solace found for the fans in its screening. The death, however, of our new Pavel Chekov is a totally different and freakishly sad affair ensuring Anton Yelchin’s swan song will leave a bitter/sweet taste with all who watch.

Moving from the tragically sublime to the ephemeral, but sticking with tribute as a theme, a group of artists have celebrated 50 years of Star Trek by creating 50 works of art. It’s a mixed bag of interpretations, but there are some gems hidden away in there.

The more positive news continues with the announcement back in May of an all new TV series coming at the start of 2017. Meanwhile the cross-over between science and fiction keeps up its momentum in this anniversary year, with the International Space Station releasing their own promotional video.

Love it or hate it, any 50 year creative franchise deserves acknowledgement, and the examples above prove that its ethics, of being better and going further, still have the power to motivate audiences around the world.

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Elsewhere on the site we’ve already explored the age of the synthespian, but there’s one factor that hasn’t been accounted for in our previous stories, namely the advent of uncanny valley.

First penned by the theorist, Jasia Reichardt in her 1978 work, Robotics: Fact, Fiction and Prediction, the notion builds upon the Freudian concept of the uncanny – a state where the seemingly familiar becomes suddenly alien to the observer.

In the realm of animation, video games and, most recently, modern robotics the ‘valley’ denotes a shift towards disquiet when faced with increasingly realistic representations of the human form. Aesthetically we tend to accept caricatures and simplified, cartoon versions of ourselves, but head towards photo-realistic artificial likenesses and, unless skillfully executed, we get the jitters.

Out of all the examples above, animation has the longest tradition of replicating the human form, but until the coming of computer animation, rotorscoping was about as realistic as depictions got.

In video games, more than anywhere else, one key area where the uncanny valley set up an uneasy residence is with facial animation. It’s probably the result of a now outdated need to avoid screen burn, with coders remedying the situation using avatar idle animations. What this practice has resulted in, however, is a general resistance towards characters simply doing what all humans do, i.e. occasionally presenting a relatively motionless form. As a result, computer animators are a long way from capturing the kind of micro expressions that any great actor can use to convey a character’s inner feelings. Take Robert Di Nero sitting in a diner in Goodfellas. Scorsese frames the scene in one long, lingering shot in which you unconsiously glean that Jimmy Conway has decided to ‘whack’ one of his associates. How does Di Nero convey this? Simply by smoking a cigarette and staring after his intended victim.

Consider instead, Peter Stomare’s portrayal of the limbo bound psychologist Dr Hill in Until Dawn (above). Admittedly, this is a survival horror video game, so the intended effect might be to illicit the uncanny, but it still makes for odd watching.

Unlike video games, Robotics – due to the current lack of sophistication in animatronics – is still a fair way from causing a sustainable sense of unease, but it’s a field that’s developing swiftly. Perhaps, as part of its home grown take on aesthetics, it could learn from the errors of other mediums and consider that sometimes less really is more.

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V for Vendetta

This site has followed a consistent and simple purpose. To look at the messages codified into machines by creatives in all fields, and to present these considerations of our future. While my home country readjusts itself to the turmoil instigated by a minority seeking power, it would be remiss of us not to reiterate the thoughts of those that have already stood on such thresholds in their imaginations. The rise of British fascism is as much of a reality right now as the ‘reds under the bed’ were to post-war America. But to not define cautionary tales where domino effects lead to bleak consequences would be to go against everything we do here. So, by embellishing a retrospective – and apologising up-front for the volume of links – here are three years of cautionary tales:

Back in 2013 we highlighted yet another instance in the “1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual” erosion of Orwell’s original message with London Transport’s misguided messaging.

In 2014, there’s the combined elements of a “reworking” of the above dystopain novel, alongside the battle against the slow encroachment of our online liberties. Looking back at this now, and considering the reference to Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, his words continue to resonate, both in comic form and during his 2007 interview.

Next up, Drozbot welcomes the era of drone surveillance in 2015, albeit with the caveat that those wielding such technology really should take moral responsibility for its application.

Finally, to bring us all up to date, you can find this most recent post that examines the messages conveyed in fantastical advertising and how it reflects upon us as a culture. In this, there’s reference to Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem, but it’s probably more suitable to consider the perennial relevance of his film Brazil.

So not that many Sci-Fi portents considering the longevity of this site – which we can take as part of a generally optimistic outlook – but enough to ponder upon and, hopefully, to be inspired to avert.

Keep calm and carry on listening to Sci-Fi!

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While the UK is about to embark upon deciding its future within the European Union, space science is compelling us to look beyond our provincial trials and tribulations. While the NASA PR machine goes into a new, super-slick mode with its promotion of the arrival of the Jupiter near-polar orbiter mission (JUNO) above, it’s just one story in a torrent of interplanetary distractions.

In our own atmosphere we find the frankly stunning landing of the SpaceX first stage booster on a drone controlled ship. This audacious piece of calculation and engineering is best seen to be believed, and sits on a par with the wonderful complexity of the Curiosity Mars rover’s descent onto the red planet. Talking of which, the plucky little robot has been adding to its growing album of selfies with some absolutely stunning images.

Meanwhile, British astronaut Tim Peake has also just returned to Earth after his six month mission. As well as waxing lyrical about the many physical beauties of his home planet, he has also fired the planetary exploration debate by backing the European Space Agency’s preference to go to the Moon rather than aiming for Mars – as targeted by NASA and SpaceX. It’s a staging strategy that’s also been backed by former NASA flight controller Chris Kraft, as highlighted in a recent article by Eric Berger. Interestingly, there’s new evidence – published by Glyn Collinson in Geophysical Research Letters – that Mars may well be a be the best option for terraforming due to the potential of it having a weak electrical field, much like the Earth. Venus, however, is looking like it’s even more inhospitable.

As you can see, there’s a wide range of updates and theories all adding to the interesting home tensions that Tim Peake has literally plunged into.

Sci-Fi likes its unions, its Federations and Rebel Alliances. It’s born out of a deep-seated belief that we need to work together to overcome obstacles. In this instance, the underlying theme is to either mend the only home we know, or to thin our ever increasing numbers across our neighbouring heavenly bodies. Perhaps together we can become more than the narrow-minded scare tactics that currently litter UK news feeds. Perhaps the answer to the question ‘where next?’ is to stop navel gazing and to look up.

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Trillions

While the paperback illustrations of pulp Sci-Fi dominated the imagination, the words inside their covers were fairly impenetrable for the younger reader. Thankfully, in the UK, there was always Nicholas Fisk who brought his own distinct brand of the other-worldliness to school libraries across the country. It’s sad, then, to discover that he has died at the age of 92.

He leaves behind him a range of weird and wonderful stories that not only entertained, but also never talked down to their readership and never balked at describing the horrendous if the plot required. So there’s no disrespect intended in the punning title of this article, rather a heartfelt nod to Fisk’s artistry as a story teller.

The Guardian’s obituary outlines numerous elements of the author’s life, including Fisk’s focus on ‘believable realism’, ensuring that all his outlandish tales were built upon the most solid of foundations. What the article neglects to cover is the sheer depth of Sci-Fi topics that this prolific writer engaged with.

Cold war politics set on an experimental spaceship piloted by children – Space Hostages. The J. G Ballard-esque Trillions that depicts mysterious crystals falling across the Earth from space. Or sinister eugenics as uncovered by a young, 22nd Century protagonist in A Rag, A Bone and A Hank of Hair… Despite this breadth of subject matter, it was Grinny that probably had the deepest, and most terrifying affect on Fisk’s youthful audience.

Embodied in this was a playful attack on the taboo of not respecting your elders – even if they are odourless, glowing aliens, – and his descriptions of old age (as viewed through childlike eyes) really makes the aging process seem horridly grotesque. Satisfyingly, Great Aunt Emma – the insidious off-world fifth columnist – finally gets her comeuppance, but via one of the most disturbing scenes in children’s fiction. It’s a victory, of sorts, but one that comes with the full weight of conscience attached.

Grinny was brought back into print in celebration of Fisk’s 90th birthday two years ago. Maybe it’s too soon to call for an anthology of his greatest Sci-Fi works, and maybe the appetites of modern children are too desensitized to be shocked by the author’s fearlessness in presenting the unpalatable. That said, they’d be impoverished without at least one of Fisk’s works in their bookcases. Sadly, though, that’s an impoverishment older readers will just have to come to terms with now another unique voice within the genre has fallen silent.

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Royal Albert Hall Space Spectacular

You’ve got to give the Royal Albert Hall credit where progressive credit’s due. Not only did their recent Space Spectacular continue Drozbot’s theme of live Sci-Fi, but it also brought a fresh audience to the soundscapes of classical music. There’s no denying that John Williams, and his return to full orchestration of Sci-Fi movies in the 1970s, helped develop the listening habits of a generation, but the event’s 17 piece programme didn’t just stick with the ‘hits’ of that most prolific composer.

Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, presented as the show’s opening piece, was nicely underpinned with a reference to Alex North’s original film score for 2001 A Space Odyssey. It’s hard to conceive of that film with anything other than Stanley Kubrick’s preferred classical selection, and North’s music sadly sounds weaker as a result of the movie’s iconic status – even with the inclusion of György Legeti’s avant-garde Requiem.

However the surprises, secreted in both the schedule and show notes, didn’t end there. Sir Arthur Bliss and the march from William Cameron Menzies and Alexander Korda’ Things to Come, spilled over into a more Modernist approach to the future as postulated by H.G. Wells. This was subsequently extended with the inclusion of Jupiter and Mars from Gustav Holst’s Planets, culminating in the John Williams at probably his most experimental with the score to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

While electronic music was understandably avoided, there were some interesting references to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the synthesized adaptation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ. This, in turn, brings to mind Wendy Carlos’s adaptation of Henry Purcel’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary – that opened Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – as well as Isao Tomita’s adaptation of Williams’ extraterrestrial opus. Connections within connections…

As we mentioned in a previous Drozbot post, this all comes as yet more evidence of the cultural acceptance of Sci-Fi as a valid artform. There is, out there, a new generation receiving similar influences through the works of composers like Jessica Curry within video games. This wonderfully replicates what John Williams was achieving in the 1970s and, also, ensures a continued appreciation for classical music. If the much maligned Sci-Fi can move into the mainstream, then we predict the Royal Albert Hall holding a video games extravaganza in the near future.

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