Posts Tagged 'Philip K Dick'

Here we are then, on the cusp of the sequel to one of the most influential Sci-Fi films of all time; Blade Runner. Casting about for opinion among friends and fans of the original, there’s a healthy dose of trepidation – fueled, in part, by a line of recent and questionable cinematic outings by Ridley Scott. There’s also a growing sense of anticipation and a pile of questions about how such an influential view of the ‘future’, now sits within a society regularly in receipt of robot and artificial intelligence advertising.

Talking of marketing, things seem fairly reserved as far as bandwagon merchandise goes – aside from the typical spread of T-shirts and uninspiring phone covers. There is, however, an interesting piece of branding from Johnnie Walker with the release of their Blade Runner inspired whisky that matches the bottle design of the original film. But, before we get all high and mighty about cashing in on fandom, let’s not be too swift to judge the marketers. The 1982 movie had its own layers of supporting merchandise, most notably with Ertl’s die-cast vehicle miniatures.

There are a couple of other interesting stories emerging alongside some encouraging noises from early reviewers. First up, is that Shinichirô Watanabe, director of the most excellent Cowboy Beebop, was approached to produce a short anime prequel to the latest film. “Blade Runner Blackout” is exclusively available on Crunchyroll and compliments the earlier shorts “Nowhere to Run” and “2036: Nexus Dawn”. Meanwhile, rapper El-P has released a snippet of his “rejected score” which he pulled together for one of the film’s trailers. Sci-Fi stalwart, Hans Zimmer, eventually got the gig for the official sound track, but El-P’s interpretation still packs a punch and seems to draw upon Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s wonderful score for Akira.

Are the stars aligning then? The topics originally raised in 1982 haven’t gone away and are even more pertinent now after a direct thread of combined influence. Just look at the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Channel 4’s Robots, the latest iteration of Westworld and a host of other titles that continue to wrestle with the growing reality of robots becoming a part of everyday existence. As ever, they remain the perfect vehicle for our hopes and fears for the future, as well as being a precision polished mirror in which our own humanity is reflected.

With all this in mind, October the 6th can’t come soon enough!

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It’s heartening to realise that the Sci-Fi short film still has a home on our TVs. While the likes of the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits have moved to a vaulted, and yet mostly untouched space in the minds of fans, there is still a place for the eerie one-off and the thought-provoking stand alone.

Obviously Black Mirror has found its deeply disturbed niche audience and is now returning for a fourth series on Netflix. For anyone not initiated, it’s best consumed at a rationed pace. Not to savour its sparse number of episodes, rather to cope with the fact that each one spawns a burrowing mind worm filled with associations and ideas. So strong are the episodes that even Hollywood is taking note. Robert Downey Junior has just optioned the rights to produce a feature length version of ‘The Entire History of You’.

Now in the UK on Channel 4, a near perfect union is about to grace our screens – our favourite Sci-Fi novelist presented in short form via Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams. The series will run for 10 episodes this September, with each one focusing on a ‘best of’ selection from his copious back catalogue of short stories.

While not a return to the heady days of the late 20th century – when you’d continually bump up against the aforementioned US TV series, a technological Tales of the Unexpected, a mentally scaring Hammer House of Horror or an adaptation of a J G Ballard short – it’s still proof that this format has an audience. Plus, if you want more chilling Sci-Fi shorts, be glad that Neill Blomkamp – resting from a stint in Hollywood – hasn’t let his creative drive languish. Check out Oats Studios and relish the truncated perfection housed therein.

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We concluded the last Drozbot post talking about Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and the theme of empathy within its pages. Talk of emphatic responses, coupled with Sci-Fi, and immediately images of Diana Troy from Star Trek: the Next Generation spring to mind. Other examples beyond her, though, are few and far between. There are plentiful examples within the realms of the comic super hero, and the mutants therein, but precious few in novels and film. OK, Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and… Anyone else as memorable? We think there’s a valid reason for this derth, however. Empaths are notoriously tough to write.

Imagine you’ve got a seemingly friendly antagonist who’s actually a serial killer in disguise. Once they bump into your onboard empath… What then? Or, you decide to set a scene where your characters visit the site of a recent atrocity, resulting in your empath being overwhelmed and becoming a mere, writhing plot device to show just how bad things were. But this is just the benevolent empaths. Corrupt the ability to sense and act upon the emotions of others, and you’ve got The Pusher from the X-Files, or Kilgrave from Jessica Jones. Evocative stuff!

President Obama famously highlighted an empathy deficit within America. Although an understandable appraisal, considering the rise of the narcissistic cult of social media, it should be seen as a call for a shift in attitude towards interpersonal technologies as opposed to limiting these technologies themselves. The rise of populist movements, the use of algorithmic predictive behaviour models in voting, the fact that lies can no longer stay hidden… It’s a true pluralistic, Dickian mess. But there are positive stories coming to the fore of people rejecting given forms of self-centered behavior – as with the rise of real world empaths giving readings for businesses and individuals.

Ultimately, there’s hope and change in the air and, if there is anything to be fearful about within a PKD future, it’s whether Blade Runner 2049 is actually going to be any good.

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If you’re here, then you’re probably aware of the T-shirts that read, “1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual” It’s a satirical garment we’ve referred to before on Drozbot in relation to surveillance culture. But our thinking now is that the current state of the world requires something more messy, less didactic, yet equally dark and unhinged. Something more Philip K Dick perhaps?

It seems incredible that Dick’s multiple visions of our future continue to be as prophetic today as they were at their inception. For instance, with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump we’re facing a typical Dickian rift in reality that could easily be a plotline to match Time Out of Joint. Corrupt, self-serving leadership giving rise to a pressing need for voices of dissent to be heard above the agenda driven media – Radio Free Albemuth anyone? A simulacra of a president with no seeming referent? A seething pile of hyperreality that’s left us all feeling anxious and alienated?

How about increased robotics with machines in the service industry appearing in ever more friendly, more humanoid guises? How long then before automated psychiatrists are giving their human clients counselling as per The Preserving Machine? Or, in a more ambivalent forerunner of the Internet of Things, how soon before we’re arguing with machines about our failure to pay a opening fee, as per the automated doors in Ubik?

The key theme that the author never relinquished, no matter how destabilising the landscapes he created, was heart. There’s a famous PDK quote that goes, “A human being without the proper empathy or feeling is the same as an android built so as to lack it, either by design or mistake.” Something we should all learn from. With the empathy box, in the ever relevant Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the trials of the embattled Mercer and the blurred lines generated between humans and the ‘feeling’ machines of that book, Philip K Dick blazed a trail that we’re still feeling our way along today. At least, with the growing political outrage and anti-capitalistic sentiment, there’s a sense that working together is the only way to mend a tear in reality before it gets any bigger.

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David Bowie Low

So we lost Lemmy, David Bowie and Alan Rickman in the space of a month, which is monumentally depressing. As is the general outpouring of emotion surrounding each and all of their deaths. Some of it has been heartfelt, some of it poetic, some random and raw – all demonstrating that it’s a mess whichever way you look at it. But it is still a thing and, for this site, it’s a Sci-Fi thing that really should be captured and marked in some cathartic way.

While we could wax lyrical about Bowie’s outsider/otherworldly influence, or Lemmy’s part in The Toxic Avenger series or even Rickman’s voicing of Marvin in the otherwise terrible Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s probably best to keep simple. So, in honour of the collective and ‘best in class’ influence these three have had on this site, let’s consider their outputs within the genre.

Chronological order gives us Bowie first in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976). An extraordinary feature that tempered the experimentation of Roeg’s earlier work, such as Performance (1970), with a much stronger narrative structure. Bowie turns in a convincing performance, although it could be argued that the division between the Thomas Jerome Newton character and his then stage persona didn’t take much of an stretch. That said, the scenes of an ailing alien world pitted against the senseless fear and cruelty of humanity still leaves a unique and uneasy taste. Honourable mention has to also be given to Bowie’s portrayal of Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006).

Next up Lemmy, although his Sci-Fi filmic work offers little to choose from – that is if you draw a demarcating line through his roles in more than one Troma Entertainment scholck horror. It falls then to his water taxi driver cameo in Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990) as the best suited Sci-Fi outing for Motorhead’s formidable front man.

Last, but by no means least, Alan Rickman. Surprisingly, for a thespian so associated with the fantastical, his body of work is actually pretty light on pure Sci-Fi. Thankfully, 1999 saw the release of Dean Parisot’s wonderfully crafted Galaxy Quest,. In this, Rickman’s jaded, frustrated Shakespearean actor, AKA science officer Dr Lazarus, is a joyful and poignant thing to witness. It’s a key role that helps bolster this hilarious satire of everything fan culture holds dear, allowing us – the oh so knowing recipients of its barbs – to laugh along and feed proud with it. Which, against the general despondency of losing these three most excellent men, could well be the perfect antidote to the malaise of their departure.

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They Live

The Christmas glut manifested itself in many ways. There was the understandable excess of food and drink – practically inevitable at that time of year – but also a surfeit of hard-sell advertising. The moon-based John Lewis advert (scroll down for Christopher Hooton’s critique) was the epitome of schmaltz, and with a sentimental Sci-Fi slant to boot. So it seems only fitting that we respond, in a slightly more barbed manner, with a deeper look at the Don Drapers of tomorrow’s world.

Adverts have always added credence to fantastical worlds – from the promotions for Soylent Green as a product, to the “I’d buy that for a dollar” ads of Robocop. But Sci-Fi writers have also used the sales medium to convey deeper meanings from ‘elsewhere’.

The roadside billboard/hoarding was famously used as a motif in J.G. Ballard’s The Subliminal Man, where adverts carry hidden messages to create consumer dissatisfaction with existing household products. The premise was then taken to an even more sinister level where advertisements were effectively obscuring the reality of a world already infiltrated by aliens in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Then, finally sanitised and made benevolent, although still a message from the ‘other’, in Mike Jackson’s satire L.A. Story (1991).

The final example, while twee in execution, dovetails nicely with a more Philip K Dickian approach to advertising. A Ubik level of deeper messaging, if you will, being conveyed through everyday objects – much like the crossword revelation scenes in M Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water (2006). There’s a tension here as well though, registered by both Ridley Scott in Blade Runner (1982) and Terry Gilliam in Zero Theorem (2013). The idea that this esoteric truth can sometimes be buried so deeply beneath the falsehoods of the overt advertising message that it belies comprehension. It’s a trope the author William Gibson has been engaged with on several occasions as well, from the Joseph Cornell styled boxes in Count Zero to Cayce Pollard’s brand allergy in Pattern Recognition. The hidden meaning is there to be interpolated but, in identifying the new data points, the characters are forced into new and uncomfortable comprehension. As philosopher Slavoj Žižek says in his analysis of They Live, freedom hurts.

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With the passing of remembrance Sunday here in the UK, and welcome arrival of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime, it seems like an opportune time to have a quick, and wry, Sci-Fi rummage through the alternative histories of the Third Reich.

As advocated by Spike Milligan, the best antidote to fascism – and the insanity of war for that matter – is pastiche and comedy. Such was the motivation behind Norman Spinrad’s 1972 Nebular Award winning novel, the Iron Dream. In this we find Hitler as an immigrant to America who has become successful through writing low-brow, right-wing science fiction.

If, however, you’d prefer the serious approach then there’s Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992). In this a Nazi World War 2 victory acts as the backdrop for a party investigator uncovering the ‘hidden’ history of the Holocaust.

On a personal, and literary level, Achtung! Cthulhu offers a weird and wonderful hybrid between H.P. Lovecraft’s horror mythos and the allied and axis conflicts of WW2. A complex and fertile backdrop to write against and, with the advent of the Dark Tales compilation launching at this year’s Dragon Meet, an opportunity to play a part in this creative heritage.

Finally, we return to the ridiculous and a shift to film and game interpretations. While the former only really offers the Time Out segment from Twilight Zone the Movie, the risible Iron Sky, Hell Boy and maybe – at a stretch – Kung Fury, the latter is chock full of Hitler’s minions. Games remain the perfect medium for alternative histories involving the use of mecha instead of tanks, a plethora of Nazi zombies and, of course, Wolfenstein.

The bigger questions behind all of this, though, is whether it’s okay to use WW2 as such a creative well-spring. Hollywood continued to make war movies throughout the 1950s and hundreds of novelists have researched and written in this milieu before. Perhaps, due to the lack of appreciation of Sci-Fi, there’s an inherent fear that we may be belittling all of the atrocities, all of the loss of life. For me personally, I return to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5, and realise that he made the apposite choice of turning his war memoir into a story about time travel.

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Scanner Darkly

Precogs don’t have an easy time of it in Philip K Dick novels. Their awareness of the future is inevitably bound with the tragic realisation that they can’t do a thing to change it. Take the protagonist in The World That Jones Made. He has the miraculous ability to see one year into the future, but this ultimately leads to the bleak reality of living the last year of life with his own assassination sprinting down the timeline towards him. Thankfully, precognition isn’t something that has come to pass in the real world, but a disturbing level of PKDickian premonitions are still manifesting.

Previously, here on Drozbot, we’ve touched upon the burgeoning Internet of Things, and how this is analogous to many of the computerised devices in PKD’s universes. Admittedly, the semi-sentient status of his machines is a far reach from your fridge reordering milk, but there’s an ambivalence to them that highlights a healthy distrust. Giving too much control, or too much data, to the machines, the marketers and the government, is unwise.

Another device that appears repeatedly across many of the author’s stories is the Johnny Cab. Self-driving vehicles that, once again, tend to exhibit more humanity than some of their human passengers. Google’s driverless vehicles seem a far shout from this proposed future, but the convenience they offer remains part of a larger data system over which the end user will have little or no control. Again, technological advancement tempered by nervous unease.

Perhaps our machine overlords will be benevolent, much like the sentient, military killing machines in The Defenders who keep humans locked in their own bunkers for the benefit of the planet. Again, look to the fighter drones on any contemporary battlefield and PKD’s foresight seems even more incredible, formulating his ideas as he was in 1953. In this short story, as in The Simulacrua and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, another repeated trope appears, that of the robot being indistinguishable from its human counterparts. It’s an obsession that seems to have hooked Japan more than any other nation and, as a result, hardly a month goes by without another uncanny android being revealed.

Finally we come to A Scanner Darkly and the state sanctioned surveillance culture it presents. Of all PKD’s Sci-Fi futures, I find this one the most chilling. While scatter suits are the preserve of the military attempting to cloak large vehicles, the idea of our reality being obscured or even falsified by those in power (state, god or even reality itself) is a powerful one. Look into the black lenses of omnipresent CCTV cameras, especially those that resemble the prior civic forms of street lamps, and Dick’s informant culture seems just one sleepwalking step away.

Collectively, all this tech adds up to a predictive chicken and egg scenario. Is the future being mapped out as the influence of PKD’s ideas resonates with us, or was Phil simply a procog who could literally see the shape of things to come. There is evidence for the latter in that he wrote of foreseeing his own demise, slumped face down between a sofa and a coffee table. The stroke that led to his hospitalisation and subsequent death did indeed floor him in just such a position. A tragic procog then perhaps, but one reminding us to always be mindful of the futures we imagine for ourselves.

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BioShock Infinite

Two years ago, I was all over the hyperreal. While still playing through BioShock Infinite we, as a family, visited Paris. Beyond the discombobulating jolt of climbing Le Tour Eifel, we also travelled to Disneyland where the multilayering of Main Street and Space Mountain (shown here in Disney collaborator Ray Bradbury’s private art collection) effortlessly overlapped with Ken Levine’s Columbia. As Disneyland should be, it was all adventure without risk, but it still struck me as interesting that such a simulation of the ‘real’ world should enthuse cultural theorists, sci-fi writers and game makers alike.

French sociologist Jean Baudrillard thought Disneyland Anaheim was actually more connected to ‘the real’ than the simulated, self-referencing mobius strip called Los Angeles that surrounded it. As part of his working through of Hyperreality, he described how the theme park functions as a hallucinatory distraction from the lack of any cultural foundations, or cognitive purchase points, the individual may have within the post-modern world. Not so weirdly, sci-fi savant Philip K Dick also engaged in defining reality through the medium of Disneyland, but did so in a way that wasn’t confined to the academic ivory tower. That said, many people miss the comparable playfulness shared between the two writers, and the cautionary messages they communicate about the nature of reality. As a salient point of divergence, Dick’s fears were more conspiratorial, considering to what end the, “pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms” might be used. Which, awkwardly, is what the majority of Drozbot is about – a sense of wonder at these sophisticated phantasmagoria designed to entertain and make money for their creators.

We should consider, however, that Disney – while currently holding more than its fair share of geek dreams – is a company built upon a legacy of imagining a better tomorrow. You can argue all you want about whether that goal has been subsumed into a drive for cash, but the legacy remains. When Bradbury was called in by Disney to design Spaceship Earth at Epcot, it was out of a mutual optimism for the future – a sentiment that the company will no doubt be promoting yet again via the film Tomorrowland.

Returning to Philip K Dick, he closes his brief essay on reality with the words, “For years [Disney] had the Lincoln Simulacrum [who], like Lincoln himself, was only a temporary form which matter and energy take and then lose. The same is true of each of us, like it or not.” In comparison, Leonard Nimoy’s final tweet before he died yesterday read, “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.” But let’s not be glum about the entropic nature of life. Instead, in parting, let’s enjoy this perfectly apt sci-fi/Disney/Spock crossover.

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Ubik

Weirdly, it seems as if one of my pet fascinations and one of my web-based bugbears are set to merge.

On the one hand, impressions around the ‘internet of things’ purport a brave new future where all kinds of domestic appliances take on fresh and useful lives in cyberspace. Fridges which transmit their contents to your mobile while you’re at the shops, watches that record biological feedback for health checks and toothbrushes offering instant discounts on oral hygiene products if teeth are sufficiently scrubbed.

On the other hand, we encounter the ongoing battle for freedom within said web – a fight currently being waged by organisations like Fight for the Future against the cash-driven lobbying of America’s cable companies and their influence on the policies of the Federal Communications Commission.

As ever, science fiction has already navigated the more cautionary scenarios across this emerging landscape. Personally, Joe Chip arguing with the door of his apartment in Philip K Dick’s Ubik – wonderfully illustrated by Matt Taylor above – has always been a touchstone. A potentially dark and (excuse the pun) unhinged future where devices demand payment simply to function. The scene was the well-spring for my own ‘death by furniture’ piece, Delivery, and yet one that simultaneously feels prophetic and no longer that outlandish today.

In other SF quarters, Bruce Sterling has just published his new essay called The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things where he explores digital commerce and governance desperately moving to monetise and control the internet. Meanwhile, Wired has extrapolated the idea of the fully integrated house being attacked by so-called ‘script kiddies’ in a domestic take on the now familiar disrupted denial of service (DDOS).

Finally, for aficionados of dystopia, similar worse case scenarios can be found in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – consider Mildred’s obsession with household electronics – and J G Ballard’s Subliminal Man (1961) where shopping frenzies are driven by blip-verts flashed at unsuspecting consumers via road signs.

Still think the internet of things is a cool and radical new horizon for technology? Pause and think again about who will profit from and who will control this new wave of consumerism.

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