Archive for the 'News' Category

After recently watched a pig carcass be portioned, while the man wielding the knives and saws bemoaned the fact that mass production of meat was leading to the end of the high street butcher, thoughts in these parts turn to the future of food production.

Not wanting to come over all ‘The Modern Parents’ in Viz, but the sustainability of meat as a source of protein is something that niggles around the edges of anyone looking to the future. We’ve mentioned it here on Drozbot before, but this single industry outstrips vehicle emissions as the prime producer of green house gases. Them’s the facts, even before we get into the more ethical question of how we use psychological denial to disassociate ourselves from all the mechanisation that goes into slaughtering and packaging meat, or even producing milk. (Something that Melanie Joy has dug much further into via her concept of Carnism.)

Tomorrow’s food production is also something that Korean film director Boon Joon-Ho has dealt with previously in his film adaptation of Jacques Lob’s Snowpiercer. In this the proletariat third-class passengers on a train snaking around the globe, were fed via processed insects, whereas fish and vegetable production were reserved for those in first class. Now, with Okja, Joon-Ho has brought the issue of sustenance front and centre. It’s a tale of a genetically modified ‘super pig’ and its relationship with one little girl who wants to save it from mass consumption.

While talk of 3D printed meat is still in the experimental and hugely expensive stage of development, and the Earl Grey tea replicators of Star Trek merely a pipe dream, perhaps there’s a much simpler way we can take control of our carnivorous palates. True, if we all turn vegetarian or vegan overnight we’ll effectively have to rethink all of the historic domesticated breeds. But, when you place the future of the entire Ecosystem against the continuation of, say, the Suffolk Sheep, then perhaps it’s time to get a sense of perspective. At least Okja’s arrival in three days time will provide some much needed food for thought.

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Successful Sci-Fi has never shied away from nostalgia. In a genre where invention is one of its corner stones, the past is there to be plundered, but to also act as a grounding mechanism for explorations into the unique.

Take Star Trek, as a near perfect example. It’s employment of maritime history – plus a thread of nautical film drama – is there to ground its audience in something familiar while simultaneously challenging them. It’s interesting to note that series stepping too far from the show’s tried and tested formula, haven’t been as well received as those that have adhered. Which is probably why J J Abrams opted for a reboot of the original series, as opposed to the tabula rasa approach of Discovery. While it appears to be a series replete with references to the show’s universe, the presentation already seems to lack heritage, appearing overly shiny and jarringly polished. We’ll reserve judgement until it actually releases this autumn, though.

Look to the likes of Stranger Things and Guardians of the Galaxy and you’ll find that grounding force of nostalgia at work in both. One is a pure homage to a wealth of Sci-Fi and horror movies of the 1980’s – much in the same vein as J J Abrams’ 2011 film Super Eight. Meanwhile, the other has a central character entangled in a melancholic love of his childhood and dead mother, his treasured memories of the 1980s constantly battling with the miscomprehension of the aliens that surround him.

Then, within the multifarious realms of video games, you’ll still find the same mechanics at work. From the Film Noir influence and retro sound tracks of the BioShock and Fallout series, to the use of World War 2 as a launch pad for the likes of Wolfenstein and a host of other alternate histories.

In literature too, you can consider the whole swathe of Steampunk – from the early works of Michael Moorcock and the Oswald Bastable books through Neil Stephenson’s Diamond Age to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and beyond – as another example of this tension between the familiar and the outlandish. It’s a balancing act and one that’s increasingly getting skewed for creatives trying to imagine futuristic settings while battling against the fact that Sci-Fi representations and technological reality are becoming increasingly convergent.

Perhaps then, looking backwards really is the way forward for the genre.

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Once again Radio 4 Extra has been keeping the faith, for want of a more secular term, as far as Sci-Fi is concerned. Time and again, the station has brought innovative drama to our ears and, as with this latest post, triggered off wider thought processes.

This time around it’s the serialisation of Ted Chaing’s ‘Understand’ (1991) that’s turned audio concepts into a memory palace of associated pieces. It’s a tale of a comatosed individual who’s intelligence is subsequently boosted way beyond human capacity as a result of biochemical intervention. While Chaing skillfully handles his personal approach to the topic, it’s one that’s been tackled numerous times before.

Daniel Keyes 1958 short story, that went onto become a full novel by 1966, is a standout example of the concept. While Flowers for Algenon, and it’s story of a mentally sub-normal individual brought up and beyond the level of genius, forms part of a wider heritage of intellectual bootstrapping, it does so through the use of medical experimentation. Other tales, like A.E. Van Vogt’s 1946 ‘Slan’ and John Wyndham’s ‘The Crysalids’ (1955) envisaged the alteration as a result of evolution, or irradiation.

Thomas M Disch’s novel Camp Concentration (1968) politicised drug-based intelligence boosting by setting the experiments inside a concentration camp for dissidents. As with Flowers for Algenon, the progression to a higher level of self awareness, comes at a price – a cost made all the more poignant with an expansion of inner, conceptual spaces within the confines of a totalitarian regime.

More recently, we’ve seen the adaptation of Alan Glyn’s 2001 book The Dark Fields into the film Limitless (2011). Again the topic is one of an individual made hyper intelligent through the use of a drug, but told as a realistic techno drama, as opposed to scientific or state controlled experiment. It’s also a sly exposé of the shadowy practices of modern pharmaceutical companies which, once again, shows how the subject matter has the capacity to sustain itself. So much so, that a TV series was launched in 2015. It stretched the concept to 22 episodes in total before being cancelled before a second series. Finally, bringing us almost up to date, is Luc Besson’s 2014 film Lucy in which Scarlett Johansson develops drug-fueled supernatural powers, stretching the concept of mental enhancement to the point of incredulity.

So, are we any closer then to a chemical improvement of our minds? Elon Musk’s latest project, the Neuralink, is pure transhumanism – a process by which we internalise our interfaces with technology. Plus there are a plethora of other theorists arguing that man/machine interfaces are the only way we’ll survive as a species.

As for purely drug-based enhancements… News just in! Nootropics have just become a hot topic, once again narrowing the margins between a Sci-Fi trope and another prospective future.

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Margret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale, and its imminent airing in the UK as a TV series, once again brings to mind the notion of ‘mainstream’ writers finding scope for expression within Sci-Fi. The author herself has caused irritation in the past thanks to her comments about the genre. Apologists have supported the idea that genres, in themselves, promote a canonical order that Atwood wishes to disrupt. While the more dismissive have stated she didn’t want to be lumped in with all the other ‘less literary’ pulp novels. Whatever her motivations, we have to recognise the fact that her mainstream presence continues to grow, despite her most recent books definitely being Sci-Fi in nature.

Typically, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction gives a great overview of mainstream writers who have generated critical acclaim and success by dipping their toes into the realms of the fantastical. However, surprises still pop out beyond the more recognised novels such as George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 and Kingsley Amis’s alternative history The Alteration. One notable absence is P.D. James and her Children of Men – another dystopian novel that focuses on a United Kingdom trapped in catastrophic depopulation. What’s remarkable about this isn’t just the fact that the dedicated crime writer could turn her hand so well to Sci-Fi, but that she penned such a departure in her 70s. Another dystopia is presented in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange which horribly predicts behavourial science being used to sanitise and influence a population – look at any of the current work of Cambridge Analytica and be afraid.

Russel Hoban deserves to sit by himself as a unique agent of crossover. Much loved by the UK mainstream critics, all but two of his works contain supernatural elements of one type or another. That said, these are usually not the main driving force behind the setting or plotting, which makes his ‘pure’ Sci-Fi title Ridley Walker more relevant to the theme of this post – interestingly, as with A Clockwork Orange and Iain M Banks Feersum Endjinn, Hoban writes the whole book in a setting specific vernacular. Also here you’ll find Michael Crichton who’s back catalog slips effortlessly between Sci-Fi and other genres, with all his work still being mined to this day by idea hungry TV and movie industries (see Westworld above).

Of course, the flow goes both ways and referencing Iain M Banks above (note the ‘M’) inevitably leads to his sizable mainstream output as Iain Banks. Other Sci-Fi authors have attempted to jump borders with varying results. Philip K Dick’s 1975 novel Confessions of A Crap Artist wasn’t enough of a sales success to drawn him away from Sci-Fi, whereas Kurt Vonegut Jnr – in much the same way as Hoban earlier – found genre boundaries a much more malleable affair. Of course, we’re avoiding a who swathe of cross-pollination between the pulp genres here – Sci-Fi Crime, Sci-Fantasy, Sci-Horror etc. – but the ease of this sharing among the pulps only acts to underline the effort required to go against the flow. Even Iain Banks had The Wasp Factory under his belt before he could indulge in his passion for Sci-Fi. Things are changing, though, and perhaps we’ll finally see a Sci-Fi novel receive mainstream recognition during the lifetime of its author.

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Looking back, 1997 had a few standout moments as far as science was concerned. Dolly the sheep was cloned and born, the Pathfinder probe landed on Mars and the ThrustSSC set the first super sonic land speed record. It was also the year that the Cassini probe launched from Cape Canaveral on a 20 year expedition to explore Saturn and its 53 moons.

During the mission, the European Space Agency deployed the Huygens probe to Titan. This secondary unit provided the first on-site data about the moon’s nitrogen rich atmosphere, its weather conditions and potential for surface floods of liquid methane and ethane as well as a sub-surface ocean.

This was all back in 2005. Since then Cassini has extended its primary mission, waiting for Saturn’s equinox and solstice in relation to the Sun. Over this period, it has sent back a wealth of information about the dynamics of the planet’s moons, the nature of its signature rings and a stack of jaw dropping imagery.

Now the long enduring spaceship is set for its swan song (see video above). However, to avoid contaminating the neighbouring celestial bodies, NASA have planned a daring sequence of manoeuvres. Sweeping in an elliptical orbit, Cassini has already made its first pass between the body of Saturn and its innermost ring, bringing back fresh images of the polar vortex – a hurricane of gargantuan proportions. From this point it will then perform a number of further passes until it ultimately plunges into the gaseous depths of the planet sometime in September. The spacecraft will continue to collect and transmit scientific data, but NASA are expecting connection with the vessel to be severed as soon as it starts to tumble. Regardless, it’s an audacious finale to the mission, and one cleverly orchestrated to appeal to a much wider audience than just die-hard NASA fan-base.

So then, it seems apt on a Saturn Day such as today, to consider Cassini’s final months orbiting around our gaseous neighbour, and to even listen to the voice of its rings as we prepare to bid it a temporary farewell.

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So are we completely screwed environmentally? With America, sorry The Donald, turning his back on the 2015 Paris climate accord there’s a fresh sense of doom about the future of our planet’s climate. Interestingly, it’s a sentiment echoed by James Lovelock, the originator of the Gia theory. In an interview with The Guardian at the tail end of 2016, he had revised his initial timeline for complete environmental disaster, but only because the predictions resulting from early computer modelling had proven wildly inaccurate. Always the provocateur, he’s now toying with the idea of a future ruled by autonomous robots, while retaining a happy-go-lucky approach to the chances of us ever changing our ways. He famously detected the hole in the ozone layer created by spent CFC emissions, but also put forward the idea of shipping all the remaining banned products off to Mars to bolster our neighbour’s atmosphere. However, as part of the recent BBC series of documentaries on colonising the red planet, Lovelock voiced the opinion that we really didn’t want to go there. Better to at least try and get our house in order. We’ll take the liberty then of passing on his apologies to Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkings, both advocates of increasing our chances of species survival by establishing off-world colonies.

Elsewhere, Musk has been increasing his personal carbon footprint with a level of rocket-based dexterity that continues to capture imaginations. Yes, the successful reuse of one of his Space X booster rockets released a ton of carbon dioxide, but we can forgive him. His dogged pursuit of technologies that will help humanity have to be taken into account. Not only was Tesla part of the vanguard of desirable electric cars, now joined by the Sci-Fi styled i-series from BMW, but Musk’s work in car battery technology has led to the Powerwall. The premise behind the device harks back to early differential tariffs like Economy 7 in which charging happens at low-cost, non-peak periods. Power can then be drawn during peak demand times within your household, thus driving energy usage and bills down.

Sticking with batteries, and older scientists for that matter, John Goodenough (94 to James Lovelock’s 97) has just had a breakthrough in relation to solid state batteries. He and his team have been working with glass electrolytes, of all things, and have recorded a tripling of battery longevity – something Mr Musk will no doubt be interested in.

While it’s heartening to see innovation and business get behind halting an ecostrophy, we have to be watchful that an impending sense of disaster doesn’t lead to inaction. It’s also sad to note that these innovations above are coming out of the USA, especially when the New Scientist is calling for ecological import taxes on The Donald’s homeland. On an individual level, a bit of basic research means it’s relatively easy to source your needs from companies outside of the US. Plus, there’s the daily consideration of diet, and the simple fact that beef and lamb production outstrips motor usage as generators of green house gasses. Seems that the old adage of think global, act local might still hold true.

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Seems like video games are finally getting the research they deserve. While we can still expect tabloid headlines bemoaning just how terrible this form of entertainment is for adults and children alike, articles are starting to emerge that explore just how gamers are affected by their pastime. We’ve know for years that games have had to accommodate the strange ways the soft machines of our brains are wired. There’s the ‘normal’ and ‘inverted’ settings on a controller’s joy stick, how some people get travel sick from playing in a first person perspective, and how those without stereoscopic vision are lost to the 3D and virtual reality experiences.

A few years ago a study discovered that patients in a burns ward required less pain relief medication when distracted while playing games on Sony’s PSP. This experiment was then replicated in 2016 by Professor Dale Edgar from Australia’s University of Notre Dame, this time using a Nintendo Wii, with similar results.

Now, in 2017, we’ve already seen a couple of stories about researchers getting in on the gaming kick. First up is a group of scientists from the University of Washington who have created a gaming app that rates anyone folding a series of proteins. High scoring runs of Foldit are then analysed by the research team in a marvelous adaptation of crowd sourcing. Also in March we discovered that the Karolinska Institute in Sweden had been utilising the shape matching game Tetris to help lessen the emotional impact of those suffering from post-traumatic stress. As with the Australian study, it seems that the specific distraction of matching shapes to spaces can be just as effective with emotional pain as other games can be for physical distress.

We now experience haptic systems in our phones every single day, so it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to get to the full sensory feedback systems of Ernest Clein’s, Ready Player One. In this his protagonist, Wade Watts, transforms himself physically simply through the act of playing games while wearing a suit that generates a sensory image of the virtual world. A vision of the future? Keep an eye on the gamers, as they may well be the first to get there.

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It’s always surprising that Star Wars can still surprise. Here we are 20 years after Episode IV hit the silver screens, and the franchise still has the power to keep fans on their toes.

Take the little know fact that the script for what is still considered the best of all the films in the series – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – was co written by female sci-fi pulp writer Leigh Bracket. An interview with her was broadcast as part of the BBC’s documentary We Are the Martians: Seeing Is Believing this March. In this her personal literary influences were mapped out with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard pushed to the fore, plus she was a friend and associate of Ray Bradbury. Through her novel writing career she was engaged with Sci-Fi and, like her influencers, she focused on crafted story telling, high adventure and the red planet. Look to her screen writing accolades as well, and you’ll discover the film noir classic The Big Sleep (1946) and western classic Rio Bravo (1959) – both of which fed into the smart plotting and smarter dialogue of Empire. Which makes her being eclipsed by a host of other, lesser writers, all the more baffling.

The death of Carrie Fisher at the end of 2016 was one of the worst surprises of what we can magnanimously call an ‘eventful’ year. Thankfully, we still get to see her final performance. Scinecefiction.com has confirmed that The Last Jedi will remain unchanged despite the fact that the actress won’t return for the third installment. It’s a great mark of respect for Fisher and, as with Leonard Nimoy and John Hurt, there’s no doubt her Sci-Fi legacy will continue on to the next generation of fans.

Finally, in this triptych of Star Wars curiosities, Wired has released a behind-the-scenes peek into the workings of Rogue One (2016) director Gareth Edwards. What’s surprising in this five minute mini documentary isn’t the fact that Edwards manages to sneak in a cameo role, but rather that Darth Vader’s iconic scene wasn’t even filmed until the cutting room edit. Just goes to show that sometimes last minute pivots can still create something outstanding.

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There’s a wider cyberpunk theme resonating through the first of this month’s posts, triggered predominantly by one of the sub-genre’s originators, Bruce Sterling. Presenting yet another provocative keynote speech at this year’s SXSW festival, his focus – among myriad topics – was on the social exclusions a post-work society would produce. Putting forward a world in which robotic labour makes humans redundant, he then went on to consider the rise of a patriarchal, techno aristocracy and the resentment that such a ruling class would generate among a breadth of minorities. He also argued that we should forego our egotistic narratives about being dominated by machines, get to grips with global warming and take charge of the legacy we’re leaving to our children – all great topics to dig into another day. For now, though, this notion of exclusion within the realms of modern cyberpunk is already generating traction.

Originally the core novels that presented the internet as a virtual space that could be experienced were replete with marginalised voices. Assassins disguised as Japanese tourists, Rastafarians commandeering space habitats, female protagonists with eye glasses continually connected to the web, an indigenous Alaskan islander on a revenge mission against America because his father had survived being nuked by the USA not once, but twice…

Japan, although approaching this burgeoning digital world from a very different set of cultural sensibilities, still led the way for female protagonists during the 1990s. Chief among these was Mamoru Oshii’s Anime Ghost in the Shell (1995). Jump forward 27 years and we encounter a round of controversy centering on the Hollywood re-imaging of this iconic film, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi. Some native Asian fans have put time and effort into complaining about this cultural “white-washing”, news channels within fandom have investigated rumours of post-effects ethnicity, while the original studio thinks that the lead actress is “well cast”. There’s also an argument that this will bring Masamune Shirow’s original Manga to a wider audience, plus it’s another Hollywood film with a woman – albeit a sexualised cybernetic woman – at the centre of the action. However, the need to erode narratives that perpetuate an inaccurate view of our current society remains – especially within the non-conformist genre of Sci-Fi.

Look briefly to games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016) and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 and we still find sexualised women and white male protagonists sustaining Hollywood stereotypes. Return to film, and we have the imminent Ready Player One and Blade Runner 2049. Both fall under the umbrella of cyberpunk, and both feature white male leads. It’s a far cry from the diversity that Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and their compatriots originally imagined. At least Bruce has promised that his next project will be a book based upon his adopted homeland of Italy. Let’s hope he continues his good work pushing boundaries, and those trying to sanitize the sub-genre take note.

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Away from all the ‘scandal’ of a lost public opportunity to lampoon the ongoing horror-show of Trump’s administration, this year’s Oscars did generate a notable genre-based highlight. Science-Fiction led the charge in an overall 29% uplift in female protagonists across all films in 2016, which is a fantastic counter to the current rise in retrograde thinking.

As we reported in the last post, Hidden Figures played into these statistics, as did Amy Andrews in Arrival alongside Felictiy Jones in Rogue One. Paul Feig’s all female reboot of Ghostbusters should also be recognised for its quadruple boost, as should Luke Scott’s first feature length endeavour, Morgan. Away from the leading lights, though, we should also call out Sofia Boutella’s portrayal of Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane and Jennifer Lawrence in Morten Tyldum’s Passengers. A mixed bag of quality to be sure, but a disproportionate number of headlining women compared to other genres.

Emma Watson, currently adding to the 2017 female protagonist quota with Beauty and the Beast, has also highlighted to Entertainment Weekly the schism that stops male identification with female leads. She’ll also be adding further improvement with her role as Mae Holland in James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of The Circle. Sadly, the film is also the last outing for Sci-Fi legend Bill Paxton, whose recent death has saddened anyone who remembers him from such films as Weird Science (1985), Aliens (1986), Slipstream (1989) and Apollo 13 (1995). Hopefully the ladies of February won’t mind his inclusion here. I’m sure they’d be in the best of company.

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