literary categories

July 12, 2019

 

Ian McEwan on literary categories:

I think that the novel — and I think we should usually talk about ‘the novel’ rather than ‘the literary novel’ or ‘the science fiction novel’ — but the novel is a very good means of examining colossal social change, but also of [examining] the moral dilemmas that new technologies are going to make us confront. I think there could be a resurgence, a revitalization, of the form, in which — quite possibly — concepts and categories of ‘literary’ novels up against ‘science fiction’ novels will completely vanish, because we’ll need the technical grasp of technologies that the best science fiction yields to us, and we’ll need the traditional examinations of moral dilemmas that the literary novel has always prided itself upon. So I look forward to these categories just dissolving.

Ian McEwan
WIRED 4th April 2019

Don’t look now, but intelligent robots are about to decide if you live or die.

Somehow, while we weren’t paying attention, we slipped into a universe where the robots from Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” stories are about to surround us by the millions. The self-driving cars being sold by Tesla and other manufacturers aren’t quite there yet, but we are quickly entering a world where AIs will be making moment by moment choices about your survival. Consider this scenario: Your car is driving you down a two-lane highway with concrete dividers on either side when an I-beam falls off the truck ahead of you. In the other lane is a motorcycle. Should your car swerve, missing the I-beam but hitting the motorcyclist? Or try to brake, knowing it can’t stop in time and possibly killing you? A human driver would act on reflex,  but a computer has plenty of time to consider the options and decide who should survive.

David Walton
Interview with John Scalzi, 13th June 2019

Swedish illustrator Simon Stålenhag depicts an uncomfortable collision of present and future where people much like us seem to confront a brave new technological reality. These really are jaw-dropping digital science fiction artworks
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Buy them HERE

In fact, the apocalypse as male paradise is something you’ll run into again and again in this novel.  Huge swathes of text are given over to lasciviously explaining how, in order to re-populate the earth, men will have to sleep with as many women as possible (whether they like it or not – it’s all for genetic diversity reasons, you see). Using the apocalypse as an excuse to basically legitimise rape, or, at best, polyamory, is all kinds of messed up. There are whole chapters that read like a pervy manifesto or teenage sex fantasy (“they’ll HAVE to have sex with me now”). But it’s stupid in a structural sense too: there are long passages of dialogue explaining why all this would be necessary, but such discussions are taking place only days after the arrival of the blindness/Triffids/plague, when surely the more immediate concerns of finding clean water, shelter and other survivors should be taking precedent over long-term plans for coupling and repopulation?

Apocalypse as Paradise: John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids
Tomcat in the red room blog

our heritage

July 4, 2019

Cripes! Life seems so hectic, don’t it? So much to do; so little time to do it. Rushing round trying to save the environment while vacuuming, flossing, cooking meals, writing, and feeling particularly pissed off that a nodding bell-end like Jeremy Hunt (Jessa the Hunt), in his attempt to become prime minister, thinks the answer is to bring back fox hunting!

Using a pack of dogs to rip a fox apart is, according to the Hunt, “part of our heritage.”

It’d appear that molecular biologist Christopher Johnson and his colleagues in the States have created a biological enzyme that can chew efficiently through throwaway plastics like those that make water bottles and soap containers. The team is optimistic they can engineer a world where humans keep using this overabundant material – without winding up literally or figuratively overwhelmed by it. In that world microorganisms will digest polymers into their chemical components so they can turn a profit as new and better products.

Ummm!!?

Anyone remember the TV series Doomwatch? The first episode, The Plastic Eaters was written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. It told of an enzyme that went out of control and gobbled up plastic, including all the plastic parts of an aircraft in flight – oh, dear! what a tragedy –

Pedler and Davis used the same idea in a novel, Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater. Perhaps a copy should be sent to Mr Johnson and colleagues as a warning?

I note the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, condemns all the fiscal proposals/suggestions/promises made by the two candidates hoping to become our future prime Minister. He condemns, too, the economic proposals of the Labour party. Mr Hammond, affectionately nicknamed ‘Spreadsheet Phil’, gives the impression of a monomaniacal sociopath wandering through a wild orgy of the flesh, thinking only about marginal rates of return, regardless of cost to our society as a whole –

ability to do mischief

June 16, 2019

Why give a robot an order to obey orders — why aren’t the original orders enough? Why command a robot not to do harm — wouldn’t it be easier never to command it to do harm in the first place?  Does the universe contain a mysterious force pulling entities toward malevolence, so that a positronic brain must be programmed to withstand it? Do intelligent beings inevitably develop an attitude problem? (…) Now that computers really have become smarter and more powerful, the anxiety has waned. Today’s ubiquitous, networked computers have an unprecedented ability to do mischief should they ever go to the bad. But the only mayhem comes from unpredictable chaos or from human malice in the form of viruses. We no longer worry about electronic serial killers or subversive silicon cabals because we are beginning to appreciate that malevolence — like vision, motor coordination, and common sense — does not come free with computation but has to be programmed in. (…) Aggression, like every other part of human behaviour we take for granted, is a challenging engineering problem!”

Steven Pinker
How the Mind Works

unusual events

June 15, 2019

High-Rise has a brilliant opening sentence, which is quintessentially Ballardian: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months’. The savagery is displaced to a subordinate clause, yet because it precedes the subject of the sentence it disturbs everything in the bland details that follow. High-Rise is about a slick, ultra-modern 40-storey tower of a thousand living units designed for a middle-class technocracy of surgeons, TV producers and ad executives. It is the modernist dream of the house as ‘a machine for living in’. It is presided over by the enigmatic architect, Anthony Royal, in the penthouse at the top of the building.

Almost as soon as the building reaches capacity, however, the social fabric of the high rise begins to disintegrate. Communal areas become flashpoints as clans from different floors begin to emerge and fight over territory. Social stratification strictly matches floor level. The metaphor of social climbing is rendered literal. The novel is focalised through three main characters, each an emblem of these emerging ‘clans’. Threats and intimidation escalate into violence, theft and raids on rival territories by warring parties. When a body falls from the roof, no one reports the incident, because the residents have now fully entered into a kind of tribal ‘primitivism’, where a murderous logic must be pursued to its end. Residents stop going to work or leaving the building, regressing into hunter-gatherer behaviours, living on the last tins of dog food and water scooped from toilet pans. The book ends once the main narrator, Robert Laing, has pursued his embrace of this perverse trajectory to its illogical conclusion. He comes to rest, ready to return to the outside world, as if his journey up the high rise has finally released all of his neurotic, middle-class repressions. The last paragraph shows the first signs of the same violence beginning to overtake the adjacent tower. The cycle is starting again.

Roger Luckhurst
An introduction to High-Rise

Dune had to be made. But what kind of spaceships to use? Certainly not the degenerate and cold offspring of present-day American automobiles and submarines, the very antithesis of art, usually seen in science fiction films, including 2001. No! I wanted magical entities, vibrating vehicles, like fish that swim and have their being in the mythological deeps of the surrounding ocean. The ‘galactic’ ships of North American technocracy are a mouse-gray insult to the divine, therefore delirious, chaos of the universe. I wanted jewels, machine-animals, soul-mechanisms. Sublime as snow crystals, myriad-faceted fly eyes, butterfly pinions. Not giant refrigerators, transistorised and riveted hulks; bloated with imperialism, pillage, arrogance and eunuchoid science.

Alejandro Jodorowsky
Jodorowsky’s Dune

In December 1974, a French consortium led by Jean-Paul Gibon purchased the film rights to Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 science fiction novel Dune and asked Jodorowsky to direct a film version. Jodorowsky planned to cast the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, in what would have been his only speaking role as a film actor, in the role of Emperor Shaddam IV. Dalí agreed when Jodorowsky offered to pay him a fee of $100,000 per minute of screen time.[26] He also planned to cast Orson Welles as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen; Welles only agreed when Jodorowsky offered to get his favourite gourmet chef to prepare his meals for him throughout the filming.[27] The book’s protagonist, Paul Atreides, was to be played by Jodorowsky’s son, Brontis Jodorowsky. The music would be composed by Pink Floyd and Magma.[26] Jodorowsky set up a pre-production unit in Paris consisting of Chris Foss, a British artist who designed covers for science fiction publications, Jean Giraud (Moebius), a French illustrator who created and also wrote and drew for Métal Hurlant magazine, and H. R. Giger. Frank Herbert travelled to Europe in 1976 to find that $2 million of the $9.5 million budget had already been spent in pre-production, and that Jodorowsky’s script would result in a 14-hour movie (“It was the size of a phonebook”, Herbert later recalled).[28] Jodorowsky took creative liberties with the source material, but Herbert said that he and Jodorowsky had an amicable relationship. The production for the film collapsed when no film studio could be found willing to fund the movie to Jodorowsky’s terms. The aborted production was chronicled in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. Subsequently, the rights for filming were sold to Dino de Laurentiis, who employed the American filmmaker David Lynch to direct, creating the film Dune in 1984.

(Wikipedia entry for Alejandro Jodorowsky)


Most science fiction dystopias use custom-made sets to communicate an aesthetically consistent, fantastical and disturbing new reality (Blade Runner, Metropolis, Brazil). But Alphaville was more interested in deriving confusion and anonymity from already-existing places. Establishing shots are rare, and Godard uses abstract imagery, like flashing lights partially cut out of frame, to signal psychological dead ends and spatial breaks. Alan Woolfolk’s essay “Disenchantment and Rebellion in Alphaville,” explains that Alphaville is a rat’s nest of transitory zones: corridors, lobbies, and stairs, all powered by an unaccountable bureaucracy. It even throws our protagonist Lemmy Caution off his game. When asked what he thinks of Alphaville, he says, “It’s not bad, if I knew where I was…” The film is defined by the denial of spatial understanding, not any grand stroke of world-creation.

Zach Mortice
Alphaville is 50: After Modernism Lost its Meaning, it Still had its Looks

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, humans enhance the drudgery of their noxious worlds by dialling into a device called the “Penfield Mood Organ.” They have reached the point where they can’t experience their own emotions without the aid of an interface. When Deckard’s wife awakes in the morning, she feels nothing whatsoever but she has a vague sense of depression, so she punches a number into the mood organ, like a jukebox, and the organ channels the emotion into her. That she chooses a negative emotion attests to how detached humans have become from their feelings. Feeling depressed is almost a novelty. Deckard admits to dialling into the mood organ more often than he’d like. His number is 481 and it projects “an awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future.” Or hope . . . albeit through a surrogate.

Alex Lyras
More real that real: Philip K Dick’s visionary posthumanism