Archive for May, 2017

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.

Tags: , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , ,