Posts Tagged 'Speculative Fiction'

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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After recently witnessing a pig carcass be portioned, while the man wielding the knives and saws bemoaned the fact that mass production of meat was leading to the end of the high street butcher, thoughts in these parts turn to the future of food production.

Not wanting to come over all ‘The Modern Parents’ in Viz, but the sustainability of meat as a source of protein is something that niggles around the edges of anyone looking to the future. We’ve mentioned it here on Drozbot before, but this single industry outstrips vehicle emissions as the prime producer of green house gases. Them’s the facts, even before we get into the more ethical question of how we use psychological denial to disassociate ourselves from all the mechanisation that goes into slaughtering and packaging meat, or even producing milk. (Something that Melanie Joy has dug much further into via her concept of Carnism.)

Tomorrow’s food production is also something that Korean film director Boon Joon-Ho has dealt with previously in his film adaptation of Jacques Lob’s Snowpiercer. In this the proletariat third-class passengers on a train snaking around the globe, were fed via processed insects, whereas fish and vegetable production were reserved for those in first class. Now, with Okja, Joon-Ho has brought the issue of sustenance front and centre. It’s a tale of a genetically modified ‘super pig’ and its relationship with one little girl who wants to save it from mass consumption.

While talk of 3D printed meat is still in the experimental and hugely expensive stage of development, and the Earl Grey tea replicators of Star Trek merely a pipe dream, perhaps there’s a much simpler way we can take control of our carnivorous palates. True, if we all turn vegetarian or vegan overnight we’ll effectively have to rethink all of the historic domesticated breeds. But, when you place the future of the entire Ecosystem against the continuation of, say, the Suffolk Sheep, then perhaps it’s time to get a sense of perspective. At least Okja’s arrival in three days time will provide some much needed food for thought.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Looking back, 1997 had a few standout moments as far as science was concerned. Dolly the sheep was cloned and born, the Pathfinder probe landed on Mars and the ThrustSSC set the first super sonic land speed record. It was also the year that the Cassini probe launched from Cape Canaveral on a 20 year expedition to explore Saturn and its 53 moons.

During the mission, the European Space Agency deployed the Huygens probe to Titan. This secondary unit provided the first on-site data about the moon’s nitrogen rich atmosphere, its weather conditions and potential for surface floods of liquid methane and ethane as well as a sub-surface ocean.

This was all back in 2005. Since then Cassini has extended its primary mission, waiting for Saturn’s equinox and solstice in relation to the Sun. Over this period, it has sent back a wealth of information about the dynamics of the planet’s moons, the nature of its signature rings and a stack of jaw dropping imagery.

Now the long enduring spaceship is set for its swan song (see video above). However, to avoid contaminating the neighbouring celestial bodies, NASA have planned a daring sequence of manoeuvres. Sweeping in an elliptical orbit, Cassini has already made its first pass between the body of Saturn and its innermost ring, bringing back fresh images of the polar vortex – a hurricane of gargantuan proportions. From this point it will then perform a number of further passes until it ultimately plunges into the gaseous depths of the planet sometime in September. The spacecraft will continue to collect and transmit scientific data, but NASA are expecting connection with the vessel to be severed as soon as it starts to tumble. Regardless, it’s an audacious finale to the mission, and one cleverly orchestrated to appeal to a much wider audience than just die-hard NASA fan-base.

So then, it seems apt on a Saturn Day such as today, to consider Cassini’s final months orbiting around our gaseous neighbour, and to even listen to the voice of its rings as we prepare to bid it a temporary farewell.

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