Posts Tagged 'Speculative Fiction'

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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So are we completely screwed environmentally? With America, sorry The Donald, turning his back on the 2015 Paris climate accord there’s a fresh sense of doom about the future of our planet’s climate. Interestingly, it’s a sentiment echoed by James Lovelock, the originator of the Gia theory. In an interview with The Guardian at the tail end of 2016, he had revised his initial timeline for complete environmental disaster, but only because the predictions resulting from early computer modelling had proven wildly inaccurate. Always the provocateur, he’s now toying with the idea of a future ruled by autonomous robots, while retaining a happy-go-lucky approach to the chances of us ever changing our ways. He famously detected the hole in the ozone layer created by spent CFC emissions, but also put forward the idea of shipping all the remaining banned products off to Mars to bolster our neighbour’s atmosphere. However, as part of the recent BBC series of documentaries on colonising the red planet, Lovelock voiced the opinion that we really didn’t want to go there. Better to at least try and get our house in order. We’ll take the liberty then of passing on his apologies to Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkings, both advocates of increasing our chances of species survival by establishing off-world colonies.

Elsewhere, Musk has been increasing his personal carbon footprint with a level of rocket-based dexterity that continues to capture imaginations. Yes, the successful reuse of one of his Space X booster rockets released a ton of carbon dioxide, but we can forgive him. His dogged pursuit of technologies that will help humanity have to be taken into account. Not only was Tesla part of the vanguard of desirable electric cars, now joined by the Sci-Fi styled i-series from BMW, but Musk’s work in car battery technology has led to the Powerwall. The premise behind the device harks back to early differential tariffs like Economy 7 in which charging happens at low-cost, non-peak periods. Power can then be drawn during peak demand times within your household, thus driving energy usage and bills down.

Sticking with batteries, and older scientists for that matter, John Goodenough (94 to James Lovelock’s 97) has just had a breakthrough in relation to solid state batteries. He and his team have been working with glass electrolytes, of all things, and have recorded a tripling of battery longevity – something Mr Musk will no doubt be interested in.

While it’s heartening to see innovation and business get behind halting an ecostrophy, we have to be watchful that an impending sense of disaster doesn’t lead to inaction. It’s also sad to note that these innovations above are coming out of the USA, especially when the New Scientist is calling for ecological import taxes on The Donald’s homeland. On an individual level, a bit of basic research means it’s relatively easy to source your needs from companies outside of the US. Plus, there’s the daily consideration of diet, and the simple fact that beef and lamb production outstrips motor usage as generators of green house gasses. Seems that the old adage of think global, act local might still hold true.

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Seems like video games are finally getting the research they deserve. While we can still expect tabloid headlines bemoaning just how terrible this form of entertainment is for adults and children alike, articles are starting to emerge that explore just how gamers are affected by their pastime. We’ve know for years that games have had to accommodate the strange ways the soft machines of our brains are wired. There’s the ‘normal’ and ‘inverted’ settings on a controller’s joy stick, how some people get travel sick from playing in a first person perspective, and how those without stereoscopic vision are lost to the 3D and virtual reality experiences.

A few years ago a study discovered that patients in a burns ward required less pain relief medication when distracted while playing games on Sony’s PSP. This experiment was then replicated in 2016 by Professor Dale Edgar from Australia’s University of Notre Dame, this time using a Nintendo Wii, with similar results.

Now, in 2017, we’ve already seen a couple of stories about researchers getting in on the gaming kick. First up is a group of scientists from the University of Washington who have created a gaming app that rates anyone folding a series of proteins. High scoring runs of Foldit are then analysed by the research team in a marvelous adaptation of crowd sourcing. Also in March we discovered that the Karolinska Institute in Sweden had been utilising the shape matching game Tetris to help lessen the emotional impact of those suffering from post-traumatic stress. As with the Australian study, it seems that the specific distraction of matching shapes to spaces can be just as effective with emotional pain as other games can be for physical distress.

We now experience haptic systems in our phones every single day, so it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to get to the full sensory feedback systems of Ernest Clein’s, Ready Player One. In this his protagonist, Wade Watts, transforms himself physically simply through the act of playing games while wearing a suit that generates a sensory image of the virtual world. A vision of the future? Keep an eye on the gamers, as they may well be the first to get there.

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It’s always surprising that Star Wars can still surprise. Here we are 20 years after Episode IV hit the silver screens, and the franchise still has the power to keep fans on their toes.

Take the little know fact that the script for what is still considered the best of all the films in the series – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – was co written by female sci-fi pulp writer Leigh Bracket. An interview with her was broadcast as part of the BBC’s documentary We Are the Martians: Seeing Is Believing this March. In this her personal literary influences were mapped out with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard pushed to the fore, plus she was a friend and associate of Ray Bradbury. Through her novel writing career she was engaged with Sci-Fi and, like her influencers, she focused on crafted story telling, high adventure and the red planet. Look to her screen writing accolades as well, and you’ll discover the film noir classic The Big Sleep (1946) and western classic Rio Bravo (1959) – both of which fed into the smart plotting and smarter dialogue of Empire. Which makes her being eclipsed by a host of other, lesser writers, all the more baffling.

The death of Carrie Fisher at the end of 2016 was one of the worst surprises of what we can magnanimously call an ‘eventful’ year. Thankfully, we still get to see her final performance. Scinecefiction.com has confirmed that The Last Jedi will remain unchanged despite the fact that the actress won’t return for the third installment. It’s a great mark of respect for Fisher and, as with Leonard Nimoy and John Hurt, there’s no doubt her Sci-Fi legacy will continue on to the next generation of fans.

Finally, in this triptych of Star Wars curiosities, Wired has released a behind-the-scenes peek into the workings of Rogue One (2016) director Gareth Edwards. What’s surprising in this five minute mini documentary isn’t the fact that Edwards manages to sneak in a cameo role, but rather that Darth Vader’s iconic scene wasn’t even filmed until the cutting room edit. Just goes to show that sometimes last minute pivots can still create something outstanding.

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