Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction
The BBC just announced that, as he approached the age of 92, Ray Bradbury has left us all to it. Since starting this blog many of the people I revered as a child have died but with the passing of Ray Bradbury goes not just a man but a feeling. A sense of wonder. A feeling that right now, just millimetres beyond our senses lies a vast world of infinite imagination. A feeling that, when the hubbub of the day has died down, when the cars engines have been turned off, the last door has been slammed shut and the drunks have gone to bed, for those with just the patience to wait and be silent, something spectacular might occur.
I loved his short stories which were not about armies, companies or organisations. There were no grand themes and there were no heroes or villains. The stories were about people and their relationship with the world. They were about how we feel when something astounding happens.
It is odd that no particular story stands out in my mind but the feeling of a warm and quiet night where something strange is happening has stayed with me along with the names of the stories. “Long After Midnight”, “The Golden Apples of The Sun”, “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit”, “Dark They Were And Golden Eyed”, “The Small Assassin, “Dandelion Wine”.
Dystopianism has become the default preset for Science Fiction and the radio is already burbling on about Fahrenheit 451 but it was not always this way. In the early years of Science Fiction there was dystopianism and there was Space Opera but there were also a determined bunch of authors who refused to let the genre crystallise around them. They set their own style and stretched the meaning of Science Fiction. Michael Moorcock merged cutting edge science with fantasy amidst a host of fantastic characters, the prescient Philip K. Dick portrayed how advanced technologies would become so embedded in our lives that we would regard it as mundane as tap water and Ray Bradbury sometimes strayed so far that the stories carried little more than the feeling. But that feeling is what I shall remember him for. A feeling of quiet awe that inspired me to gaze up at the sky on warm nights and wonder which shining light might be heading my way?
Last Sunday (11th December 2011) I watched the second program in the series Black Mirror on Channel 4. I’d seen a bit of a buzz about Black Mirror on Twitter but refused to get lured in. Partly this may have been because it was created by Charlie Brooker and I have ambivalent opinions of Mr. Brooker. Yes, he is funny and can be quite sharp but I’ve sometimes thought his antics a bit contrived.
Sunday’s episode was entitled 15 Million Merits and portrayed a society where people are doomed to spend their lives either sitting in cubicles playing dumb video games, watching dumb TV and cycling on treadmills to produce electricity to run the videos and TV.
In this world, nothing is physical. The screens cover entire walls, floors and ceilings. People who are overweight occupy a lower class and wander around cleaning up after the game players. Each player gains credits and may use these to dismiss advertisements or collect their credits for a chance to audition for a X-factor style show and potentiality become famous and escape the treadmill. One guy decides to try and make a difference and, by threatening suicide at an audition, is allowed to rage against the machine on prime time TV. The inevitable result is that he impresses the panel with his passion and is employed to rage away twice a week on a video channel.
A pretty obvious reflection of western society as it is today. Overdone for effect but nonetheless fairly literal. Even the rebel who is absorbed into the system is a well understood phenomena and we’ve seen this again and again from Mick Jagger’s knighthood to Bryan Ferry’s adverts for Marks and Spencer.
However, I was impressed with Black Mirror, not so much for it’s originality, but because it restated the ideas in stark and contemporary terms. It’s storyline was tight and without needless decoration. It is all too easy in consumerist society to be drawn in by the hype. We consider we are being ironic but slowly slowly we start to believe the hype. Slowly we think we really NEED a 4 by 4. Slowly we start to doubt our ideals. Perhaps we’re just out of touch. Perhaps the winners of X-Factor are real artists? Perhaps Deal or No Deal is an engaging game show.
The prediction of Science Fiction are never true but what good Science Fiction does is to hold up a mirror to our civilisation and show us the absurdity of our lives. The world of Black Mirror is not in our immediate future yet it is close enough in many respects to remind us that we are all being duped. Mr. Brooker has produced a fantastic piece of television, in this episode at least, and I look froward to next Sunday’s program.
When I was a kid I was into the space program. I stayed up late watching the moon landing and I dreamed that, one day, I would watch a launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida. I bought all the model rocket kits and was a bit unique in this respect as most kids of my age were into football or kung fu. In the evenings I would stay up to listen to the “Bongs” of News at Ten to see if there was an item on the space program. Gradually, after 1969, the space program lost momentum and fewer and fewer bongs included astronauts. The public had become blasé about space.
No matter, I had discovered Science Fiction. I started on Marvel comics. The outsider characters were my favourites: Spiderman, The Hulk, the Silver Surfer. I graduated to the novels of Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock and Phillip K. Dick. I eagerly devoured the meagre diet of Science Fiction films which were screened on British TV: The Day The Earth Stood Still, Silent Running and Dark Star. I was regarded as a little eccentric by my peers. One guy told me that I could see a brick and think it looked like a space ship……and I could.
I listened to Hawkwind and Tangerine Dream and subscribed to two magazines: Omni and Analog. These ran Science Fiction stories alongside the latest thinking in science and technology. I discovered the wonder of fractals and read about memes, chaos theory, alternative universes and virtual reality.
In 1977 Star Wars and Closer Encounters Of The Third Kind were released and at last we had big budget films with fantastic special effects. Science Fiction was suddenly popular.
I studied computer science at school and got a job as a computer operator working on minicomputers known as PDP11s running an operating system called RSTS/E. Our first machine had 96K of RAM and the disk drives were the size of washing machines and held 40 megabytes each. Locked away in machine rooms with computers the size of wardrobes I was pigeon holed, not as a “techy”, but as a “computer person”. Nobody knew what we did and nobody set any rules. We dressed how we wanted, we worked how we wanted and we had a lot of fun. Moving to London I discovered an obscure science fiction book shop in Denmark Street called Forbidden Planet.
Home PCs became available and it was possible to create fractal images with the press of a button. Computer gaming got going and the simple text based games such as Advent and Dungeon, which I had played at work, were replaced by full colour shoot ‘em ups.
Something odd was happening: My interests were becoming main stream. The popular media seemed to be mining my childhood for ideas.
In 1982 Blade Runner was released and suddenly all the weird and disturbing themes of Phillip K. Dick were simplified, tarted up and splashed all over the big screen. A fantastic film yet the special effects and the charisma of the actors overshadowed the subtle and mundane realism with which Dick somehow manages to portray the strange and insidious.
In the 80s a wave of technology based innovation ran through finance and banking and governments deregulated. Money sloshed around the industry and fortunes were made. Computers became ubiquitous and as fast as Intel improved the hardware capacity Microsoft bloatware ate it up. People started paying allegiance to software vendors as if they were football teams; Windows vs OS2, Windows NT vs Netware and, these days, iPhone vs Android. Had we all lost the plot?
Publishers such as New Riders churned out endless poorly edited books claiming to teach IT but which were little more than rewritten documentation. Computer departments appeared in book shops. In the early 80s I struggled to find books on operating systems and networking but by 1990 the computer departments in bookshops were ballooning and Foyles devoted a whole floor.
The money attracted Price Waterhouse and KPMG who read a few books on technology, set themselves up as consultants and started selling the bleeding obvious back to customers. The smooth talking suits followed a simple creed: “Bullshit baffles brains” and if there was one thing they knew about it was bullshit.
Hollywood made feature length versions of the old Marvel comic books. Batman in 1989 then moving on to the anti-heroes of my youth, Spiderman in 2002 and the Silver Surfer in 2007.
In 2001 the Lord of The Rings was released. Hold on, this was getting personal. Was nothing from my childhood sacred? It seemed that the very stuff of my psyche was being commandeered by the corporations. The fabric of my personal philosophy was being ground up, digested and regurgitated back at me stripped of subtlety, emotion and meaning.
The spirit of the 60s and 70s was optimism and hope. Science would create a bright future. “Just machines to make big decisions, Programmed by fellers with compassion and vision” sang Donald Fagan belatedly in 1982. I recommend listening to this song and reading the lyrics. The young may get a feel for the optimism of a different age and the old man like to remember.
However, the seeds of doubt were always present and I had picked up on them in my youth. Now the dystopian ideas of Phillip K. Dick were taken up by new authors such as William Gibson and transformed into cyberpunk. In 1999 The Matrix was released portraying a sinister world in which humanity lived unknowingly in a virtual world while their physical bodies lay inert.
The marketing industry got into its stride and started targeting our sub-conscious. We mortgaged our futures to pay for the dreams used to sell deodorant. As Dick had predicted the corporations bent reality to maximise their profits.
This week Hollywood are, again, engaged in recycling cultural icons from the past. A new movie has been released based on the marvel comic book character Captain America. Perhaps, at this time of conflict and economic uncertainty, America is trying to return to its youth. Trying to revert to those days when most of us had faith in science, democracy and the future.
But what does the future hold? What stories or icons or memes of today will Hollywood recycle in thirty years time? Corporations cannot generate art they can only package and sell it. They can only reproduce existing ideas so where are the ideas? The blind optimism of the 60s and 70s is as outdated as the cynical greed of the 80s and 90s.
It’s time for a new direction but our compass is still spinning.
So why do I feel optimistic? Right now we are on the cusp of change. Right now is when the seeds of the future are being sown. I am maturing in years and rather than thinking about spaceships and time travel I find myself speculating about pensions and politicians. I suspect that the young already have an idea of where we’re going.
It would be nice if they shared it with the rest of us.
The concept is good, an apparently empty planet named Carpathia awaits a ship from Earth bringing escapes from a nuclear holocaust – We haven’t had a post holocaust escapade in a while have we?
The ship is the last to escape and is having problems landing. Meanwhile on Carpathia the obligatory angry tosser insist on carrying a gun and going around shouting at everyone. Yes, the script relied on the usual blend of contrived aggression and shouting.
There is brief mention of sinister others who have been eradicated to make way for the human arrivals though we are led to believe that some may have survived and this probably lays the groundwork for future episodes.
Mainly the action takes place outside amongst some fantastic scenery though there is the usual control centre replete with numerous computer screens and silly slidey doors.
The program ended with the deserved death of shouty man on the planet’s surface and the ship breaking up as it re-enters the planet’s atmosphere. Amongst the final shots was a one of shouty man in some kind of escape capsule. Is this a flashback or did this obstruction to an intelligent series survive?
The program has promise though I do hope they can all calm down and consider the wonder and potential of their situation.
Worst line so far: “Do you want to get out of here and go somewhere else?”
The Los Angeles Times reports that the International Contemporary Furniture Fair has just occurred at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York. Probably the most important work to be unveiled was the Solar Queen. This is a model of the British Queen Elizabeth II from Kikkerland with a waving hand powered by a miniature solar panel atop her black handbag. This is not to be confused with the Solar Queen Series of Science Fiction novels by Andre Norton.
Just discovered this reading of the first chapter of The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester.