Archive for October, 2014

Event Horizon

Oh, the presumed inevitably of this blog post. It’s Halloween so, obviously, an overview of past and future Sci-Fi horror is in order. Well, actually… What started out as an appreciation of the likes of (deep breath) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, The Thing, Videodrome, Cube, 28 Days Later and Splice, has now turned into something completely different. There was even going to be a prospective view on Tarsem Singh’s latest outing, Selfless, and a consideration of whether, once again, it would be a case of style over substance. But, sadly not.

When pooling opinions on what should and shouldn’t go into a post such as this, practically everyone came back with Dead Space the Movie. Sorry, Event Horizon. To which my response was, “What? No!”

The premise of a ship falling into a hellish dimension and bringing something terrible back, is essentially cool. It’s also a film that comes weighted with a heavy English bias; Paul W S Anderson as director, filmed at Pinewood, Sean Pertween and Jason Isaacs in the cast… All of which should resonate on a personal patriotic level. And then… That’s really it for the positives.

Some sympathy for Anderson can be found in the fact that the studio forced him to cut over 30mins of the more gory scenes, but a gallon of claret can’t make up for a plethora of flaws. Inane one liners abound, Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne both seem to be orbiting each other on autopilot – compare their performances in Jurassic Park and The Matrix respectively – and the plot is, at best, passable.

Then there’s the less artistic, more tangible stuff like the fact that the ship’s interior dimensions don’t seem to match the external scale first encountered by the Lewis and Clark scout ship. Or how about the explosive bolts designed to separate the sections of the Event Horizon itself? In zero gravity? With a fragile cocoon of air at risk of being punctured? Just no. The design crime to cap them all, however, has to be the name placement of the ship. Meters high. On the front. Illuminated by lights. So that the short-sighted denizens of trans-dimensional hell know they’ve hitched a lift on the right vessel?

I’m sure that there’s a pedestal for Event Horizon in the Sci-Fi pantheon of fandom. It’s just that, for me, it’s rightful place is in its own private hell – possibly with Sunshine and Prometheus to help with the flagellation.

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Gakutensoku Japanese Writing Robot

The Japanese Hoshi prize for science fiction has hit mainstream headlines. Maria Whyte Hoshi – daughter of author Shinichi Hoshi who died in 1997 – outlined to press that submissions from non-human entrants would be considered for next year’s competition. Animals, aliens and computers have all been added to the criteria, leading to a flurry of mixed reactions by both media and Sci-Fi fans.

Uplifted animals – broached by such SF authors as David Brin – remain a controversial aspect of a wider investigation into animal intelligence and animal behaviour. While there has been some amazing research into Bonobos – coincidently pioneered by Japanese primatologist Takayoshi Kano – animal visual art has traditionally been the creative preserve of ape kind. As such, it may still be a while before our closest biological competitors generate a self-contained narrative. Learned behaviour, or an expression of self? Let’s leave that discussion open for now, but it is one that dovetails nicely with the next entrant category; the alien.

If the focus is on the anthropomorphism of the extraterrestrial, then sci-fi can provide that in a double heart-beat. It’s even comfortable addressing the post-colonial re-evaluation of genre fiction created by indigenous cultures. If, however, we’re taking about a submission from ‘out there’ then a multitude of hurdles have to be crossed. The biological nuances of being ‘Japanese’ for one, then the cultural constructs of a pictographic language, literature, the short story and even the most approachable element of the whole creative endeavour – i.e. the sci-fi genre itself. All elements that would have to be taken into account before any space scribe could hope to communicate.

Which leaves the most likely source of revolutionary entries being authorial simulations or emergent AI. Above you’ll see the the Gakutensoku, a 1928 writing robot that was created by the biologist Makoto Nishimura. There’s a direct lineage here that reaches right back to the automatons of Jaquet-Droz’s and beyond; an ongoing fascination with machines – and narrators, for that matter – mimicking human behaviour through the creative medium. But is artificial creativity still an impossibility? Sci-fi author Adam Roberts doesn’t think so. Speaking in response to the Hoshi prize news, he referenced ‘how to write’ books and how they already exist within a flow-chart like matrix of instructions that could well be computerised.

Whatever the results, the Hoshi family have stimulated discussion and uplifted the genre in public perception. As Maria stated, “I wanted the award/competition itself to be science fiction. After all, if it can’t expand the imagination of the general public, what’s the point of having a sci-fi competition?” Well, quite.

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There’s something restless about sci-fi. A genre continually engaged with the bleeding edge of technology, reforming itself around any given challenge to social mores and loving nothing other than the odd, self-generated schism to keep all involved on their toes.

Recently it was the threatened death of the genre that helped to re-forge its creators’ imaginations – if all stories (romance, horror, thriller, crime et al) exist within an increasingly technological world, then what space for sci-fi?

Now comes a fresh tearing asunder instigated by Neil Stephenson with Project Hieroglyph. It’s a pretty simple premise to reinvigorate a more optimistic and science-based approach to idea generation within the genre. A shift away, if you will, from the rinse and repeat, ersatz teen dystopias that currently proliferate.

Long story blogified, there’s been an understandable backlash against such a simplification of the current state of things – which, to give Stevenson his provocative credit, is probably at least part of his desired outcome. Whether Project Hireoglyph will generate stories good enough to inspire the young to pursue a career in science is yet to be seen, but the New Wave and the New Weird were built upon similar layers of dissatisfaction. As such we, as audience, can but hope.

One older tale, however, already sits perfectly in the grey borderlands between the polar opposites of utopia and dystopia. The Hugo award winning ‘The One’s Who Walk Away from Omelas’ (1974) by Ursula Le Guin posits a beautiful city overflowing with good humour and equanimity. And yet, something dark literally lingers in the foundations. One child, picked randomly from the populace, exists isolated, squalid and unloved in the city’s bowels. It’s the implicit knowledge of this deprivation that allows the citizens to continue their productive existence in the light – a metropolitan expansion of, “there but for the grace of god go I”. Understandably, some cannot live with this knowledge and choose to walk away, hence the title.

As ever, binary oppositions don’t carve out or defined the parameters of sci-fi, rather they act as the sandbox in which all its proponents play.

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