Archive for March, 2016

Sometimes it’s best to set your sights further afield. When your Sci-Fi news feed is chock-a-block with super heroes, ersatz TV series – possibly containing super heroes – and totally unnecessary film remakes (Jacob’s Ladder), it’s time to pack your imaginations and head to the space port. Not that you’ll find a warm welcome when you finally go orbital.

Beyond the ionosphere there are two notable pieces of research that NASA are currently engaged with in the hope of creating more efficient and expandable space habitats. The first is their testing of a new adhesive based upon the analysis of gecko feet. The ‘grippers’ should mimic the switch on/switch off climbing abilities of said lizard, and are hoped to be included on microbots that could service the exterior of the International Space Station, or be sent out to glue technical additions onto existing satellites.

While we’re aboard the ISS, there’s also research being conducted into inflatable habitats. If all goes well with its scheduled launch in April, the Space X Dragon capsule will deliver a 6ft by 8ft module that will bloom into a 12ft by 10ft operational area. The Bugelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is mostly made up of aluminium and fabric. This may sound decidedly insubstantial when considering the inhospitable environment, but is actually a recognisable model for construction – albeit one employed in a totally novel manner. That said, space debris remains an ongoing concern for the space station, which has to routinely change orbit to dodge potential collisions.

Such orbital manoeuvring leads us nicely onto Japan’s errant Hitomi satellite, which stopped communicating with Earth soon after establishing itself in orbit on the 17th February. A team of investigators believe that something hit the black hole research vehicle, but remain unsure as to what. Meanwhile the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), have established fleeting contact with the damaged craft, raising hopes that it can be resurrected. At least the impact wasn’t on the same magnitude as our final update.

Two amateur astronomers have observed something colliding with Jupiter. Not as spectacular as the famous Shoemaker-Levy impact of 1994, the images – captured by Gerrit Kerbauer in Australia and John McKeon in Ireland – still demonstrate how important our most massive neighbouring planet actually is. (It’s postulated that without its gravitational shield life, as we know it on Earth, would never have had the necessary time to evolve.)

Ultimately, space remains an incredibly unforgiving and engaging environment that calls upon our best levels of ingenuity on all fronts. As least, for the time being, it’s also proving to be a much more interesting backdrop than the current slew of average Earth-bound genre stories. Here’s hoping all things Sci-Fi pick up in April.

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Technology writers are having a virtual field day with artificial intelligence at the moment. Settle on any of the leading sites and you’ll encounter a plethora of tales about sentient robots stealing your job or taking over the world in true Skynet fashion. But dig a little bit deeper and there are some interesting and inspiring detours away from the click-bait scaremongering.

Recently on a BBC Horizon programme about those seeking immortality through uploading consciousness, professor Miguel Nicolelis employed the wonderful analogy relating to the complexity of the human mind, saying, “the brain is like an orchestra that every time it composes or plays a tune, the tune itself changes the instruments.” No wonder conversational systems, or chat bots, while expressing an uncanny level of mimicry, struggle to be convincingly human, let alone pass Alan Turing’s groundbreaking test.

Microsoft’s fielding of Tay is a perfect example of where AI can go off the rails. Initially constructed as a self-teaching conversationalist – utilising the internet as a source tool – it was taken offline after just 24 hours. Maybe it was the actions of a concerted group of trolls, or perhaps the result of our collective, puerile approach when engaging with one of the most powerful tools we’ve ever created. Regardless, Tay’s chatty teenage algorithms were compromised and rapidly descended in to a cesspit of racist abuse.

Despite the speculative horror stories then, it seems as if any breakthrough in true artificial intelligence will continue to be elusive. This being Drozbot, however, the potential of their creation, and of them also becoming wonderfully malevolent, is simply too much to dismiss – especially when iconic cinematic examples are still being pawed over by fans. For now, though, The Matrix and all of its self aware ilk, are just pipe dreams – albeit virtual ones.

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Ace F-388 Paperback Original (1966). Cover by Jerome Podwil

We’ve employed several pages here on Drozbot talking about Sci-Fi written from indigenous perspectives, but haven’t really considered the issues of translation and getting hidden gems out to a wider audience.

If you’re reading this, and you’ve been reading Sci-Fi for a while, you’ve no doubt already encountered the likes of Stanislaw Lem, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Pierre Boulle and, most notably, Jules Verne. There are, however, a host of other non-English titles out there, but precious few publishers willing to take up the challenge of creating good translations for untested, non-native speaking markets.

Japanese writers have been prolific within the genre for many years. Unsurprisingly, in a culture whose language is based upon pictographs, the novel hasn’t received a similar level of translation as, say, Astro Boy. That said, there are some standout editions that can be discovered. Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (1999) is a brutal fin de siècle that sees teenagers forced to kill each other in a hunting ground almost a decade before Suzanne Collins popularised the concept. If you fancy less ultra violence or something in a more surreal vein, then perhaps Kawamata Chiaki’s Death Sentences (2012) would suit. Similar to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), it’s about a pervasive piece of art – in this instance a poem – that has the viral bi-product of inducing suicidal thoughts in anyone who reads it.

Chinese translations have also brought a fresh perspective, with Koonchung Chan offering a more Italo Calvio take on oddity. The Fat Years is a tale about a missing month within Chinese records that seems to have been wiped from the memories of everyone aside from a small group of investigators. A long shout from the otherworldly vistas of, say, the Strugatskys, it does offer a chilling and Orwellian insight into living within a totalitarian state. If you’d rather a sliver more tech in long form, there’s Liu Cixin’s trilogy that launched with The Three Body Problem. Alien contact and intervention at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution creates a volatile backdrop for the narratives of the generation-spanning ensemble cast.

Cuba is our next and final destination on this world tour of Sci-Fi, and it’s here that we find the collected works of Agustin de Rojas. Like Lui Cixin above, he too engages with the daunting task of the epic trilogy, starting with Espiral in 1982 and culminating with El año 200 in 1990. Combined they tell the explicit tale of space exploration and world threatening conflict among the super powers back on Earth. Implicitly – like the Three Body Problem – they’re an investigation into what happens to an individual’s ideology as it’s forced through the filter of cultural reconditioning. But de Rojas’ relevance here stretches beyond his own contribution to literary Sci-Fi, as he also translated Isaac Asimov’s work into Spanish and helped popularise fellow Cuba genre writers via the publication of Una Leyenda Del Futuro.

Translation then, not just in the written word but in the shift from one medium (or one location) to another. If anything, our openness to uploading consciousness, or teleportation, or immersion in virtual realities is all about questioning boundaries. As such, seeking out tales in new tongues really should come as second nature.

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