Archive for September, 2014

Captain Kirk

News that William Shatner may well be reprising his role as James T Kirk in JJ Abram’s latest Trek reboot has caused mixed reactions among fans. Two camps emerged after his filmic death in Generations (1994) – the disgruntled who had hoped for some kind of heroic exit full of memorable last lines, and those that actually liked the fact that without his team around him Kirk was, ultimately, vulnerable. Shatner, understandably favouring dissatisfaction, went on to pen a series of books in which Kirk’s corpse was discovered and resurrected by the Borg – this in conjunction with Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. Others, like myself, preferred the more suitable end of a great man dealing with the fragility of age. From his acceptance of reading glasses in Wrath of Khan (1982) to his refusal to relinquish emotional pain in The Final Frontier (1989), there was a real sense of gradual character development. Respect to Shatner and the writers for their joint work on this, regardless of the overall quality of the films that framed this ongoing drama.

But now, the two camps are back. Do we want or need the iconic captain to return, perhaps simply for a more fitting demise? Usually you’d find me resisting any form of tinkering, but Kirk and Star Trek are a rare exception in that they actually thrive on the nurturing of geek irreverence. Perhaps it’s because both haven’t been afraid to poke fun at themselves, have jumped the shark and come out stronger as a result. There are a small collection of these instances that resonate – things like Fall on Your Sword’s Shatner of the Mount, or Thee Shatners Stronger Than Kirk and, lest we forget, everything Zapp Brannigan.

In fact, JJ Abram’s disregard for the earlier ‘classic’ timeline is just such an instance of well targeted irreverence, and just when you thought there was no way to make Kirk any cooler, the director creates this slick character insight. With creative chops like this, I’d be surprised if Shatner’s resurrection disappoints.

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Spider Tank

If you like your skiffy, then the current omnipresence of Destiny is a head turner. It’s a slice of visual opulence that’s been triggering my SF trope synapses consistently as it starts out on its journey among the planets.

While there has been some criticism around the game’s narrative, there’s no doubting that the bigger picture is one that, at worst, is of note and, at best, is something that sci-fi and games fans will be sifting through for years to come. Yes, there are the obvious comparisons to the Halo series and, yes, there are plenty of borrowings from Bio Ware’s Mass Effect. But, if you’ve lived in the visual medium of the genre, you can hardly turn a corner without seeing a derelict office block, or computer interface that feels it’s already registered somewhere in your brain.

‘The future is old’, for an opening and sweeping instance – seen so many times in the early pulps, driven by 1950s fears of nuclear apocalypse and realised wonderfully in the design credo of Syd Mead on Blade Runner. Or, while we’re looking at the broad strokes, how about the imagery of Romantic landscape artist Casper David Friedrich and his signature characters typically viewed from behind while contemplating their individual universes.

Sentient machines also abound in Destiny, from the sarcastic resignation of your companion ‘ghost’ – read Banksian knife missile – to the servile cleaning staff of the Tower player hub. (Actually, on this… The Humans and Awoken – read space elves – had better watch themselves. Playing as a member of the resident machine race, the Exo, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about my siblings having all the menial tasks thrust upon them.)

Not convinced? Let’s throw in the obligatory big dumb object in the guise of The Traveller, the threat from an outer dark force – see Babylon 5’s Shadow race among numerous others – plus a sprinkling of speeder bikes, skeletons in spacesuits, multi-limbed aliens and…

Whether you fall into the pro or anti narrative camps may well colour your desire to get involved in the game, and that’s fair enough. But any sci-fi spod worth their salt should at least experience the rich mental tapestry of Destiny in some form.

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Ubik

Weirdly, it seems as if one of my pet fascinations and one of my web-based bugbears are set to merge.

On the one hand, impressions around the ‘internet of things’ purport a brave new future where all kinds of domestic appliances take on fresh and useful lives in cyberspace. Fridges which transmit their contents to your mobile while you’re at the shops, watches that record biological feedback for health checks and toothbrushes offering instant discounts on oral hygiene products if teeth are sufficiently scrubbed.

On the other hand, we encounter the ongoing battle for freedom within said web – a fight currently being waged by organisations like Fight for the Future against the cash-driven lobbying of America’s cable companies and their influence on the policies of the Federal Communications Commission.

As ever, science fiction has already navigated the more cautionary scenarios across this emerging landscape. Personally, Joe Chip arguing with the door of his apartment in Philip K Dick’s Ubik – wonderfully illustrated by Matt Taylor above – has always been a touchstone. A potentially dark and (excuse the pun) unhinged future where devices demand payment simply to function. The scene was the well-spring for my own ‘death by furniture’ piece, Delivery, and yet one that simultaneously feels prophetic and no longer that outlandish today.

In other SF quarters, Bruce Sterling has just published his new essay called The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things where he explores digital commerce and governance desperately moving to monetise and control the internet. Meanwhile, Wired has extrapolated the idea of the fully integrated house being attacked by so-called ‘script kiddies’ in a domestic take on the now familiar disrupted denial of service (DDOS).

Finally, for aficionados of dystopia, similar worse case scenarios can be found in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – consider Mildred’s obsession with household electronics – and J G Ballard’s Subliminal Man (1961) where shopping frenzies are driven by blip-verts flashed at unsuspecting consumers via road signs.

Still think the internet of things is a cool and radical new horizon for technology? Pause and think again about who will profit from and who will control this new wave of consumerism.

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