Archive for May, 2015

If there’s one SciFi theme that’s analogous to the nature of play, it has to be the empowerment of everyday objects. A child can pick up a stick and the object’s reality immediately becomes malleable with the overlay of imagination. A wand, a sword, a staff…

The first time I encountered this in literary form was with Alan Garner’s 1965 novel Elidor. In this tale of inner city fantasy, a group of children gather seemingly banal objects needed to defend a magical realm just a cosmic side step away from our own.

It’s an idea that drops in and out of genre popularity, but always resurfaces as a useful trope – especially when a prop department’s budget is tight. Take The Master’s Tardis as a case in point. Unlike The Doctor’s malfunctioning police box, the TV series’ sister ship has appeared as a grandfather clock, a roman column, a statue and a bank of computers (among others) – with only one of these seeming to be a bespoke creation rather than the result of scavenging through some BBC warehouse.

With Christopher Leone’s and Laura Harkcom’s 2006 series The Lost Room, the notion becomes the central mcguffin of all six episodes in the mini series. In this show a trans-dimensional motel room leaves an esoteric trail of contents, with each item having its own special ability. The bus ticket teleports anyone tapped with it to a specific location, the comb slows time, the pen microwaves anyone it touches… It’s a compelling mechanic that, sadly, simply didn’t have the audience momentum to grow into a fully fledged series. On a more contemporary level the hats that can open doors through reality in George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau (2011), and the badge in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (2015), obey the same imaginative principles – incredible power contained within something seemingly mundane.

So it’s a potency that may well be the result of an echo back to early play, but there’s little doubting that, because of its power as a narrative mechanic within SciFi, as well the other ‘pulp’ genres (haunted dolls anyone?), we’ll no doubt see it turning up time and again. A ‘bad penny’ of story telling, if you will.

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Syd Mead Future Vehicle

Just before the heady fumes of the hi-octane, yet smart, Mad Max: Fury Road wafted through the auditorium, two car adverts beamed out from the 3D screen. First was for the Audi RS3. The second for the BMW i8. As you can see, both were produced to a level of quality characteristic with the subject matter. However, both also led to a level of incredulity not experienced since the early 2000s when vehicles repeatedly masqueraded as wild animals.

The visual birthing of the RS3 from the inside the workings of Audi’s R8 immediately brought to mind the satirical – possibly prophetic – car ad in the otherwise broken Southland Tales. The i8 advert, while at least promoting BMW’s new electric car, seems to have been conceived by one of the creative agencies that usually devise unhinged Christmas perfume commercials. All of which left the lingering feeling of video commercial and car manufacturing industries equally out of touch with the real world.

Meanwhile, at the other extreme of our proposed vehicular future, we have the rise of the autonomous car. Not something overly surprising for SciFi fans – Isaac Asimov first wrote about the notion in his 1953 short story Sally. But the idea of a vehicle controlled by a ‘positronic’ brain/computer program remains complex. Is this burgeoning technology as appealing as it’s made out to be? While Google’s ‘toy cars’ seem to offer a relaxed, non-polluting vision of the future, they are yet another example of the individual being forcibly tied into a computerised system that they have no control over. Maybe it’s a fair price to pay when levied against carbon emissions and the sheer tedium of current traffic flow. Then again, it’s hard to shake the dictatorial unease triggered by Minority Report’s unique car chase.

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Humans Channel 4

There are times when the inherent integrity of science fiction is humbling. Yes, the genre is currently squirming in the aftermath of its own version of gamer gate, but the fact that it is so open and inclusive means that even reactionary elements are heard, considered and then either supported or derided. It’s a mess, but a very self-aware, contemplative mess and one that has more than enough homegrown tales of caution about stifling freedom of speech to ensure Noam Chomsky will never have reason to complain.

There have always been questionable libertarians, homophobes and closet racists who have decided that SciFi is a worthy – and probably safe – platform for their views. History has been rewritten through its lens, a religion has been formed and a lot of truly terrible books, films, TV and radio plays have been produced. All of which, while challenging to personal tastes, is wonderfully nonprescriptive.

It’s unsurprising then that while the genre takes itself to task over the views it voices, it is always a basic reflection of the times we live in. Look at the demonising of minorities, and then consider the flurry of android-based ethical tales that have recently appeared. While Quantic Dream’s Kara tech demo, within the games space, perfectly captures the uncanny effect of these ‘living dolls’, there are numerous other recent examples. Swedish TV’s Real Humans, created by Lars Lundström, was aired in 2012. This was then followed more recently by Gabe Ibáñez’s 2014 film Autamaton which starred Antonion Banderas. This year we’ve already seen Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and now Channel 4 are releasing their own, distinctly British, take with Humans this June. Which as far as French/Swedish/Spanish/British cross pollination goes, already seems pretty diverse to me.

So, while the Sad Puppy saga may well be disheartening for some, it’s also evidence of just how adaptive SciFi can be and that, my friends, is why it will endure. To steal from one of the past highlights in machine/human relations… All this has happened before, and it will happen again.

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