Posts Tagged 'science fiction'

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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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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Considering the problematic receptions of the likes of Interstellar (2014), Jupiter Ascending (2015) and, most recently Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets (2017), maybe Brad Pitt should have thought twice before embarking on his latest Sci-Fi epic, Ad Astra. He starred in the adaptation of Max Brookes’ World War Z in 2013, but his engagement with the genre has been sparse to say the least – Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys is over two decades (two decades?!) old now. So, are we looking at another misguided addition to the ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ vault? Well, here are the positives…

James Gray, director of the recent Lost City of Z is at the helm. While his genre heritage is nonexistent, he is at least going into the project with his eyes open. In this interview with Collider, he states that he’s “terrified” of the tricky nature of nailing good Sci-Fi. He’s also trying to create as realistic a representation as possible, which is a reassuring point of difference from other more fantastical, effects-driven titles. Plus a factual focus has played well with audiences in the past five years – Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015).

Script duties are falling to Gray as well, collaborating with relative unknown Ethan Gross who’s penned several episodes of the X-Files-esque TV series Fringe. As for the plot… Everything revolves around Pitt who plays Roy McBride – a military space engineer in search of his absentee father who went searching for extraterrestrial life 20 years ago. So far, so Fallout 4/Guardians of The Galaxy: Volume 2. So what of the talent?

There’s no doubting that Mr Pitt has a good eye for a script and tends to put in a sterling, self-depreciating performance. Added to this is the confirmation that he’ll be joined by movie stalwarts Donald (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) Sutherland, and Tommy Lee (Men in Black) Jones as well as Oscar Nominated Ruth Negga who appeared alongside Pitt in World War Z. All positives thus far.

Filming’s already started and the scheduled release is for 2018 – so expect a teaser trailer to appear in this site’s traditional end-of-year film wrap. Until then, we’ll follow the wider credo of the film’s title, “Per aspera ad astra” – through hardship to the stars. Here’s hoping for a stellar piece of work.

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Public Service Broadcasting 'GO!' Official Video from Yes Please Productions on Vimeo.

Public Service Broadcasting performed another superlative rendition of their space race anthem ‘Go!’ (above) at this year’s Latitude Festival. While the band’s latest album delves the underworld of the UK coal industry at its height and collapse, the track ‘Progress’ still produced all the technological thrills of their previous Race for Space. Although they’ve moved elsewhere topically, it seems the elision of rocket science and music remains prolific.

The ever reliable San Francisco online radio station, Soma FM, has been doing something similar for years with Mission Control – a mesmerising combination of NASA archived communications and ambient music. However, the space agency releasing its sounds library into the public domain in 2014 generated some great new collaborations. Quindar is a project helmed by Mikael Jorgensen of the band Wilco and art historian James Merle Thomas. Together they’ve commissioned a series of tracks that employ NASA sounds as part of their electronic-heavy Hip Mobility EP. Similar output has also emerged from the Italian creative collective, Fabrica Music Area, with their EP 80AU, available on Bad Panda Records.

All part of the on-going union of music and space travel that stretches back to the 1961 playing of music to Yuri Gagarin while he waited on the launch pad – according to this BBC timeline. A historic high water mark had to be the sending of two golden record discs into space strapped aboard the Voyager One and Two spacecrafts – something that, in turn, inspired Jack White of the White Stripes to sponsor the first ever play of a record in space.

To finish, on the day after Frank Turner gave a sterling performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival, a song he didn’t play as part of his set, but fits perfectly with this post’s theme. Silent Key is a homage to the astronaut/teacher Christa McCauliffe and her tragic death aboard the Challenger shuttle in 1986. Turner’s haunting lyrics proving that music and space travel will continue to orbit each other for a long time to come.

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The idea of parallel universes has been around in science fiction for a long time, but the adaptation of that into the ever useful concept of the ‘multiverse’ can probably be traced back to DC comics introduction of ‘Earth 2′ in the 1960s.

Around the same time Michael Moorcock was scattering seeds of crossover characters and locations throughout all of his Eternal Champion series. A useful literary tool, it also allowed the author to satirise current pop icons and political figures with impunity – something picked up later by Pat Mills with his Nemesis the Warlock series and Alan Moore and his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

UK writer and actor Ben Moor is among the more recent proponents of the idea with his radio series ‘Undone’ – series three currently being aired on BBC Radio 4 Extra. As with Moorcock, and the creative talent that came out of the 2000AD comics, there’s a thick vein of tongue-in-cheek humour running through the multiple versions of London that a reluctant Edna Turner is charged with protecting. Plus, if you like Douglas Adams, you find a similar level of hilarity and pathos underpinning the inter-dimensional action.

Stephen Baxter also draws upon a similar notion of multiple universes, calling his particular amalgamation the Manifold. If you have the time and inclination, Moon Six is a great short piece of fiction by him, and a great launch point for the concept.

Talk of Baxter and his inclination towards the more scientific end of the Sci-Fi spectrum, leads nicely to the fact that the quantum theory of the multiverse has been around since the 1950s.

Perhaps then there’s consolation to be had that there’s a universe running almost parallel to ours where Brexit and Trump didn’t happen, and perhaps we were lucky enough to have a sneak peek at what might have been.

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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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