Posts Tagged 'Speculative Fiction'

There’s something of the Asian continent in the air around Sci-Fi at the moment, and we’re not just talking about the space station currently hurtling towards the planet.

Chinese artist and disident, Aie Weiwei plays a central role in the short film The Sand Storm which was kickstarted and filmed under the official radar in Beijing. First aired in 2014, you can watch it now on Vimeo here. (Note that there’s also a deeper Asian genre link between Aie Weiwei’s costume and that worn by James Hong, playing Hannibal Chew in the original Blade Runner.) Elsewhere, Benedict Wong, although admittedly a native Manchunain, seems to be constantly on our screens in one Sci-Fi role or another. He has most recently appeared in Impossible Planet as part of Channel 4’s Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, and as Lomax in Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018). Maybe a couple of tenuous links for the sake of building out a topic, but there’s a wide selection of new written work to back this up.

We’ve mentioned Luci Cixin’s book, The Three Body Problem, in other posts on the site, but now Amazon are reportedly paying one billion dollars for the television and production rights. The tale depicts an alien invasion set across the historical backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, which seems like a bold investment in darker, more cerebral science fiction – away from the capes, codpieces and proliferation of super powers.

Hong Kong is about to host its second genre conference as well. The bizarrely titled Melon: Sci-Fi and Beyond, created by venture capitalist Fritz Demopoulous, will begin on the 19th April and will provide a platform for emerging and established writers. Among them we can expect to see Chen Qiufan who has earned the title ‘China’s William Gibson’ by fans of his work, plus Tang Fei whose short story collections are beginning to find an audience here in the west, and Bao Shu who has already been published in English through Clarksworld. Talking of translations, while they’re still sketchy, an increasing number are appearing for all the above authors – however, with mixed results. Regardless, with the ever mutable landscape of science fiction looking towards China for fresh input, perhaps now is the time to sample some of this growing Eastern promise.

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While we’d hate to be driven to write by the self-proclaimed racist currently in charge of the third largest army in the world, his recent call for a “space force” eclipses Ronald Regan’s misguided Star Wars program in acts of sheer fuckwittery. And yet, despite the willy waving and budgetary hole such an endeavour would cause, it’s not that far-fetched.

As forward-thinking Sci-Fi fans, we might like to think of outer space as a demilitarised zone or perhaps somewhere politically neutral, like the Arctic on Earth. The reality is that this strategic high ground has been contested ever since Soviet Russia launched Sputnik in 1957. Although this wasn’t the first, nor sadly the last, piece of codependency between warfare and technological advancement, there’s no doubt the time of Sci-Fi combat is already upon us.

We’ve dwelt upon Boston Dynamics and their ability to create some of the most, er… provocative robots ever. Regardless Skynet singularity fears and these machines being co-opted into a military service, their previous owners DARPA haven’t shed too many oily tears since selling off the company. Instead, they’ve been busy creating digital comic books that highlight the risks of cyber warfare for West Point cadets. Not only that, but they’re also working on adapting the biological characteristics of the near indestructible Tardigrade to aid in the creation of a battlefront stasis device to hibernate wounded soldiers until they can reach a field hospital. Extrapolate on this and once the military can put its soldiers in and out of stasis, so follows the opportunity of sending them out to claim extraterrestrial territory and… Colonial marines, we salute you!

The tragic reality is where one space faring nation leads, others will follow. Forget peaceful and scientific exploration of the solar system. Suddenly, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers become a possibility – without a hint of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical touch – as does John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and the more pacifist perspective with The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

Space shouldn’t be a launch pad for territorial divides, colonial efforts, the Wild West, or a ‘Scramble for Africa’ styled drive to get rich quick. While we’d like to advocate a united federation of planets approach to the space around us and the cosmos at large, that too has at its heart a fully armed star fleet. Perhaps the final frontier is actually worthy of a completely fresh approach. What this might be has yet to be decided, but whatever we try has to be better than the carbon-copied, geriatric strategies of the banker, the industrialist and the warmonger.

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Why are we talking about Netflix yet again? Well the subscription TV Channel is once more the standout centrepiece of Sci-Fi related activity. While we have The Shape of Water (above) securing a stack of Oscar nominations and The Black Panther dominating the box office, Netflix is still the most dynamic force within the genre at the moment.

Take The Cloverfield Paradox as a fully-formed, exclusive case in point. Not only does it provide an origin story to both Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, its transdimensional setting has set geek minds racing about a potential crossover with the Half-Life universe. Too far fetched? Well, J.J. Abrams is currently engaged with both Portal and Half-Life movie adaptations, while Darren Tratchtenberg – director of 10 Cloverfield Lane – also directed Portal: No Escape. We say, “let the speculation roll!”

Duncan Jones’ Mute has also just been released onto the service. Although not receiving critical recommendations thus far, it has provided a platform for the director to air his desire to bring 2000AD comic book heroes Rogue Trooper and Slane to the screen. While on the topic of retro Sci-Fi, the original Lost in Space was tacky at best and the 1998 film (by Stephen Hopkins) was a deplorable mess, but hope springs eternal on Netflix in the shape of challenging reboots.

The most important and latest update however, is that Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff Vander Meer’s Annihilation is already garnering rave reviews in the US. The film, starring Natalie Portman, will be with us on Netflix is just a few weeks’ time. It’s worrying that a potential shortfall in audience will mean the film won’t be receiving a cinematic release in Europe, and that those who are not part of the subscription service will initially miss out. Question is, does the price provide enough value when considering the growth and quality of the shows in question. It’s a resounding ‘yes’ here on Drozbot.

To wrap things up we also have The Expanse season three confirmed to air on SyFy by April 2018, which means we should see it join the previous two seasons on Netflix before the end of the year. All we need now is for The OA, which is currently in production, to join it and we’ll be looking at a monumental year for fans of the genre.

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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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