Archive for October, 2017

Our Sci-Fi cups runeth over! With the release of Stranger Things last week we’re hitting a high water mark as far as quality genre shows on the subscription channel are concerned.

While we remain indebted to Channel 4 for bringing Black Mirror to our screens having all three seasons, and the Christmas special, of Charlie Brooker’s opus on Netflix now seems entirely appropriate. Also hats off to Amazon for their adaptation of Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that the big red N currently has so much more to offer.

True the level of quality remains hit and miss. Self/less (2015) is a terrible film that makes no sense at all even at the level of a script, let alone realised on screen. However, the likes of District 9 (2009), The Butterfly Effect (2004) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) completely reverse the trend.

Talking of Star Trek, Discovery is another welcome joy that honours and challenges its predecessors, while delivering everything you might want from a Sci-Fi show at a breakneck pace. The casting of Jason Isaacs as the conflicted Captain Lorca, is also an act of genius as Netfix fan girls and boys will already be totally invested in him as an actor thanks to Brit Marling’s The OA.

Then over from SyFy you have The Expanse which is really getting into its stride with a second series, especially with Thomas Jane’s Detective Miller becoming an iconic, grizzled space cop. Additionally, let’s not forget Rik and Morty, Orphan Black, Dirk Gently, Cowboy Bebop… All downloadable and available on the go – albeit in piecemeal fashion.

Actually, with Cowboy Bebop, there is one thing that Netflix doesn’t do a great job of and that’s creating an extensive back catalogue. This is probably due to contractual limitations laid down by the distributors and, as such, great films that were once on the system can no longer be located. Classic series like Dr Who and Star Trek do appear in their entirety and, as time is the new limited commodity, you can always apply the data of Graph TV to ensure you only get to view the highlights of any series. All of which means if you want a Sci-Fi good time for the majority of the time, Netflix is currently king.

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The more we think about it, the more Dan Simmons’ work seems obliquely prophetic. We’ve mentioned it here on Drozbot before, but the combined narratives of Ilium (2003) and Olympos (2005) put forward a far future in which society is divided into Elio-like ‘post-humans’ and Morlock-like servitors (robots called the Voynix) – the latter created to keep the former in a state of placid contentment.

Jump to the increasing backlash against big data controlling mass opinion, and the general lack of critical thinking – generated by a desire for information in bite-sized formats – and it’s easy to sense a rising concern that we’re sleep walking into a state of techno idiocy. In Ilium one of the central characters is informed that Earth’s data sphere (effectively the web bootstrapped to the nth degree) is hardwired beneath his skin. Upon accessing it, he’s confronted with how limited he and his people have become as a result of the machine powers now ruling the planet. The idea is adapted from George Orwell’s concept of Newspeak, in which a populace is controlled by limiting its ability to express complex ideas. Which isn’t that far away from the voices of concern emerging among Silicon Valley’s web and app creators, who are already speaking out against the addictive feedback loops they’ve created.

The second factor in Simmons’ reduction of civilisation is the rise of artificial intelligence. Are we, as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking believe, at increased risk of machine intelligence taking over? In both Ilium and Olympos there are different types of AI with conflicting appreciations of their human creators. With the biological-based Moravecs and Rockvecs, who live in the outer zones of the solar system, you have your typical level of benevolent sentience. (Interestingly, the first European law to allow the prospecting of asteroids has just been passed, bringing the idea of robot mine workers one step closer.) On the other, darker side of the equation is Setebos, a god-like, many handed AI that’s set on destroying humanity using the servitors under its control. A possible or even probable threat from our current perspective? Well, considering that Google have just created an AI that can repeatedly best masters of the Chinese board game GO, and that a South Korean company, Hankook Mirae Technology, has just developer a walking mech suit… No, I’m sure we’ll be just fine.

There’s a lot of fanciful elements in both Ilium and Olympos; cable car systems running on pylons modelled on the Eiffel Tower, a data library on the peak of Mount Everest, a ’10 Commandments” styled rift that runs the width of the Atlantic… But, thanks to the intervening decade since their publication, they now seem to highlight the consequences of humans made ignorant and enslaved by technology. Perhaps it’s time to re-read them both, especially considering our current position on the cusp of such emergent technologies. Then again, as the likes of Simmons, Orson Scott Card and Dean Koontz all fall under increasing scrutiny as a result of their own intolerance, perhaps not.

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