It’s been three years since Robin Williams tragically took his life and we’re still missing his influence here on Drozbot. Not specifically in comedic frame – although Mork and Mindy was part of a general ‘opening up’ to Sci-Fi throughout the 1970s – but more through his ongoing struggle with the human condition. That’s not to say the legacy of films he has left us isn’t without its otherworldly moments, but there’s a much richer, over-arching theme tied into these that shouldn’t be ignored.

Williams’ early on in his career engaged in the tradition of existential film when he starred in The World According to Garp (1982) – a cinematic tradition that stretches back through Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Edward A Blatt’s Between Two Worlds (1944). Before Spike Jonez and Charlie Kaufman cornered the market on ontological oddities, Williams was already laying the foundations as an actor willing to tackle the more problematic topics of human existence.

Returning to the film adaptation of John Irving’s novel about T.S. Garp, the theme of the world being both insane and full of sorrow resonates at the heart of William’s career and his life. Nine years after this film, and he’s co-starring in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991) – a warped adaptation of the Arthurian myth, with a pinch of Don Quixote mixed in. Once again in this, Gilliam’s exploration of what constitutes insanity in an already ludicrous world seems the ideal vehicle for Williams. Two years later and the actor returns to fantastical existentialism in Being Human (1993), a film which depicts a protagonist experiencing multiple lives from the Stone Age to modernity. Then, just a year later, Williams’ hectic film schedule delivers What Dreams May Come (1994). Vincent Ward’s exploration of a conceptual afterlife offers the incredible and the tragic in equal measures, as the protagonist chooses to rescue his suicidal wife over a solitary existence in paradise. By the turn of the 21st Century, the vehicle may well have become high-tech, but the theme of Marl Columbus’ Bicentennial Man (1999) remains familiar as William’s robot learns what it means to be human. Group all of these films together and the argument that they each form a part of an ongoing existential project becomes compelling.

The sad reality was that Williams was personally wracked with moments of energetic zaniness and crushing depression and self doubt. While some have talked about his suicide as the ultimate act of self-determination, others have lamented over the fact that his psychological pain simply became too much for him to bear. Whatever his motivations in the closing hours of his life, his decision means that he joins the likes of Bill Hicks, Hunter S Thompson and David Foster Wallace – all great and incredibly humane American artists, and all of whom turned existence into an act of choice rather than an inevitability.

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A friend of the site recently speculated on what visionary science fiction might look like today. Discussion was raised about those creatives who had appeared to be ahead of their time in the past; Alfred Bester, Philip K Dick and Samuel Delaney were all name-checked. This then led to reference of the cabal of writers who were there at the birth of cyberpunk in the early 1980s, and then, unsurprisingly, onto the topic of Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon – adapted as a new Netflix series launching 2nd February 2018 (see above).

First published in 2002 Morgan’s book didn’t arrive with the birth of the internet, nor the novels that riffed off the incredible advances in computer technology which arrived at the end of the 20th Century. It did, however, fall within the Cyberpunk genre while also promoting the notion of consciousness being encoded and transmitted between host bodies. As a visionary piece though, the technology it presents is still very much a problematic and contentious pipe dream – even with Elon Musk’s recent kick start of a human/machine interface.

Robin Andrews over at IFL Science tackles the problem head-on. In his article he describes the complexity and vulnerability of encoding the 86 billion neurons that spark away in an average cranium. Even if you ignore the sheer vastness of data capture required, you then run into the next hurdle of timing. There’s little benefit in encoding the mind when it’s in a downward spiral of dotage. Better to capture yourself at the height of your capabilities while in the prime of your life. But what then? Is the digital construct still you? Do the divergent experiences – you running in biological isolation, while it’s fully connected to the internet – mean you end up with two entities? Perhaps you want to indulge in some well-intentioned editing and get rid of all that disruptive behaviour that’s hampered your corporeal form? If you do, are you then removing self determination from another sentient being?

The other core premise of Altered Carbon is the ability of the protagonists to upload into host bodies. While cloning nudges the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable increasingly towards the realms of science fiction, it still remains an emotive minefield. Just look at the fresh controversy surrounding China’s advances in monkey cloning and it’s obvious that the passage towards digital and biological immortality isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon.

Perhaps then Morgan’s Altered Carbon is indeed visionary, but only in relation to some far-flung time when all these problems have been surmounted – definitely not the near future as posited in both the book and the TV show. Until that distant horizon, when there is no division between the human and machine consciousness, we’ll just have to make the most of our short-lived, limited and yet wonderfully complex brains.

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If there ever could be a patron saint of this website, it would be Mary Shelley.

Many have speculated on the influences that led to the conjuration of Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus and the birth of modern science fiction. Perhaps the author was influenced by tales of the experiments of Luigi Galvani, or the work of the “thunder and lightning man” Andrew Crosse. Or perhaps she did encounter reports of Jaques-Droz’s clockwork automaton in her childhood – a favourite theory of Drozbot, naturally.

Now there are ample chances to ponder the story’s origin in conjunction with a host of Mary Shelley related publications and activities planned for 2018.

A fully illustrated version of the tale is now available from Rockport Publisher with David Plunkert bringing his visionary style to the text. Or, if you’re more fleet of foot than the monster itself, you could nip down to Bournemouth University this February. Here you’ll find Professor Christopher Frailing kicking off the 2018 Shelly Frankenstein Festival with a lecture exploring how this massively influential novel has evolved into modern myth.

If all that has whetted your appetite for a more in-depth examination of the tale and it’s creator, Lucy Todd over at the BBC has pulled together an exemplary overview of Frankenstein, alongside a great collection of its many adaptations. Within this there’s also the welcome news that Universal Studios are filming a remake of the fan classic Bride of Frankenstein with director Bill Condon at the helm after his live action version of Beauty and the Beast. Hopefully, this adaptation will dig back into the pathos of the 1935 film and not be overly comedic – Mel Brooks has already been there and done that most excellently.

Whatever the inspiration for the novel, Frankenstein’s bicentenary underlines the importance of its themes in contemporary society. On a macro scale, we see the increased responsibility that comes as a result of stealing fire from the gods, while down in the microcosm of the everyday, there’s an increasing urgency concerning our attitudes towards our machine creations and how their introduction will affect humanity.

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Wow, another year whips by and the annual round-up of the best Sci-Fi flicks in 2017 and the obligatory speculative look at 2018, is already upon us.

It’s been another quality year with the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 not falling short after the 2014 tour de force. Also, Okja brought action and humour to the dark world of GM food. Blade Runner 2049 paid credible homage to the original, although couldn’t match the same level of empathy or heart, while the Last Jedi effectively sealed the deal with another cracking installment in the Star Wars saga. Question marks were raised as to the commercial viability of Sci-Fi blockbusters with the box office failures of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and, sadly, the aforementioned Blade Runner sequel. Thankfully, financial downturns haven’t dampened Hollywood’s appetite for escapism with enough genre movies coming in 2018 to allow for another great spread of thought-provoking entertainment – perhaps the top grossing and, er, wonderful Wonder Woman ($821MM) has something to do with this vote of confidence.

We’ve already considered Ready Player One earlier in the year, and so its the adaptation of the first book in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern trilogy that opens our 2018 list. Annihilation (see above), directed by Alex Garland and staring Natalie Portman focuses on the journey of a biologist into a Stalker-esque forbidden zone in search of her missing husband. We’re also about to see some big directorial names take on the role of financial backer.

First is Peter Jackson who has backed and help to write the screen play for Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. The Steam Punk saga, which sees Christian Rivers at the directorial helm, focuses on a warped future in which London has become a mobile and predatory city that feeds on lesser settlements. Next up is James Cameron who is finally getting to release his vanity project, Alita: Battle Angel. Robert Rodriguez will direct the mix of live action and CG, and the trailer – alongside Cameron’s passion – has left us hopeful for an accurate adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s original manga. (Let’s just draw a veil over Rupert Sander’s Ghost in the Shell shall we?) Finally, on the cinematic radar at least, there’s also a Neil Armstrong biopic coming starring Ryan Gosling. First Man will look at the life of the astronaut and the incredible mission that led to his monumental first steps on our nearest celestial neighbour.

Take all of the above – plus all the small screen shout outs that we’ll come to in the New Year (Altered Carbon, we’re looking at you) – and it’s another smorgasbord of quality distraction. However, as is our wont here on Drozbot, the future isn’t just about distraction. Hopefully the speculative visions presented here hold the power to inspire and maybe, just maybe, a few of you will leap to that spur and bring about some much needed change in 2018.

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The arrival and passing of A/2017 U1 in the centenary of Arthur C Clark’s birthday is a wonderful piece of celestial serendipity.

Renamed ‘Oumuamua, after the Hawawiian term for ‘scout’ – triggered by the fact that is was first spotted by the Haleakala observatory in Hawaii – the cylindrical lump of interstellar rock entered almost perpendicular to Earth’s orbit. Working the object’s trajectory back along its path, it was then revealed that the traveller was in fact from interstellar origin – as in not something returning from the Oort Cloud at the periphery of our solar system.

The similarities between this unexpected guest and Clarke’s 1973 novel, Rendezvous with Rama, are intriguing. Despite the fact that Oumuamua isn’t artificially constructed, nor is it a vast, rotating habitat, scientists do have a limited window to research the meteorite before it passes beyond useful investigation. So far the object’s colour indicates that it’s been travelling through deep space but, beyond that, there’s no real mystery. Even the latest attempt by the SETI system to ‘hear’ if the object is producing any artificial noises, has underlined the likelihood that it’s just a natural phenomenon, albeit a timely one in relation to Clarke – much like the Blue Moon that coincided with the burial of Neil Armstrong at sea.

Capitalising on Clarke’s centenary, the BBC have already repeated a dramatised version of Rendezvous with Rama on Radio 4 Extra, and discussions around the author’s capacity for prediction, alongside the more negative aspects of his lifestyle, are all back in the limelight a mere nine years after his death.

Perhaps, though, the most striking thing about A/2017 U1 is the fact that its trajectory meant for a relatively late detection. First picked-up on the 19th October 2017, the meteor was already heading back out of the solar system after passing within the orbit of Mercury. Not necessarily a ‘near miss’ for planet Earth, but its sudden arrival once again highlights how limited our odds are for continuation of the species. We really do need to think about moving out and away from this blue dot we call home. A sentiment we’re sure Arthur C would approve of.

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People are expensive. If you’re an employer in this late capitalist stage of Western society, you have to consider your overheads. For the conscientious there are pensions and healthcare, even before you get into the basics of heating buildings, IT support, toilet facilities, refreshments…

Thankfully, hard-nosed profiteers and shoppers at ASDA can take heart. Parent company, and long-term resistor to workers’ rights, Walmart, are trialling robot cleaners in some of their larger US stores. Just think of all the money they’ll save downsizing their global janitorial staff. Savings that will allow them to work even greater margins on their sweat shop manufactured clothing ranges. Savings that shoppers will experience via more bargain deals and a fuller shopping cart.

It’s just one troubling factor in the growing roboticism of our world, and while we here at Drozbot advocate that technology isn’t inherently evil, the repercussions of its application really should be highlighted and questioned.

In the UK, Channel 4 is doing just that with a series of programmes dedicated to the “Rise of the Robots”. From automated cars to the increasing sophistication of sex and psychoanalytic bots, the five shows – and subsequent discussions on forums and social media – should go some way to broadening the discussion.

Sci-Fi still has its role to play too within the blurring lines of fact and fiction. While we like to laugh at just how crude and vulnerable robots remain, short films like Slaughterbots and Rise seem less and less far fetched. Especially when you look at yet another landmark video from Boston Dynamics – albeit one reassuringly underpinned with its own out-take.

Be in no doubt, the robots aren’t coming, they’re already here in the guise of automated factories, toilets, gene sequencers, toys… What we need to be concerned with is where they’re going and what the destination will mean for their weak and transient creators.

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Tomorrow’s World returning to our lives, albeit as a podcast, is a good thing.

The original show ran from 1965 until 1999, promoting a popularist approach to technology that kept audiences tuning in every Thursday night – partly to see the live demonstrations impressively fail, but also to get a sense of what the future held for the average UK citizen. The mobile phone received its first public airing, CD players were shown off, as were early home computers and games consoles – wonderfully demonstrated by ex WW2 spitfire ace Raymond Baxter. To a young and impressionable Sci-Fi fan, the show held the power to present difficult realities in a pragmatic, down-to-earth manner. You couldn’t help confront you own mortality when faced with the technological revolution of carbon fibre replacement heart valves. However, any existential angst was off-set by the presenters’ air that, despite setbacks, science really was the best tool with which to shape our future.

Lampooned by alternative comedians for its cheesy presentation, the show did dip and dive into the realms of ‘cool’. The programme’s 1980s theme tune, by Richard Denton and Martin Cook, was a great piece of electronica that has stood the test of time. Let’s also not forget the show’s regular showcase of electronic keyboards, including an early recording of German electro pioneers, Kraftwerk, playing live. There was also some cross-pollination between this show, and the altogether more challenging work of one of its early presenters James Burke. His shows on the nature of reality were mind-bending stuff.

Now, in the very capable hands of Brit Wray and Ellie Cosgrave, Tomorrow’s World is back as a multi-layered piece of audio excellence. Shows are coming in around an hour in duration, with topics such as the well-spring of scientific ideas, floating cities and artificial intelligence all receiving in-depth consideration. If you haven’t already had a chance to sample their informative and yet playful approach, head over to the show’s home page and get involved!

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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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Hugh Hefner remains a divisive figure his support of Sci-Fi is still worthy of note. Since its first publication in 1953, Playboy has hosted a plethora of outstanding writers, elevating the magazine above other ‘one-handed’ literature and even challenging the boundaries of accepted sexual conventions.

Ray Bradbury’s famous Fahrenheit 451 received its first airing among Playboy’s pages, as did the work of Philip K Dick and Ursula K Le Guin – her story Nine Lives winning the Nebular award in 1969. But it was Charles Beaumanot’s ‘A Crooked Man’ (1955) – a futuristic tale in which everyone is gay and heterosexuality is outlawed – that shocked the conservative audience of its time.

Support for the genre went beyond the magazine as well, with Hefner funding Playboy’s own Sci-Fi imprint which predominantly compiled the stories from the magazine into a series of anthologies. He also courted genre TV series stars (Nichelle Nichols famously trading her usual Star Trek footwear for some thigh-high leather boots) plus his legacy of the erotic ‘centrefold’ has been become a staple pastiche (pun intended) of countless Sci-Fi shows.

The darker side of pornography – the degradation of women, the ‘violent’ segmentation of their bodies through image cropping – was something Hefner couldn’t escape and, sadly, Sci-Fi played a part in this too. Dorothy Stratten was one of Hefner’s ‘bunnies’, who rose through the ranks to become Playmate of the Year by 1980. Her fame led to her starring in a Sci-Fi spoof called Galaxina (1980) and while a career in Hollywood beckoned, it drove a wedge between her and her increasingly jealous husband. She was just 20-years-old when she was murdered by him as a result of an affair she was having with film director Peter Bogdanovich – who subsequently documented her short life and career in Killing of the Unicorn (1985).

While Hefner’s personal love for Weird Tales probably acted as the spur to bring speculative writers to a mainstream audience, there’s no escaping the fact that for every one who benefited from his patronage, there were also others that found his attention detrimental.

He was 91 when he died on the 27th of September.

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