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Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction

“The future is there… looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become”*…

 

Octavia Butler

 

Tim Maughan, an accomplished science fiction writer himself, considers sci-fi works from the 1980s and 90s, and their predictive power.  Covering Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Steven King, P.D. James, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Bladerunner, he reserves special attention for a most deserving subject…

When you imagine the future, what’s the first date that comes into your mind? 2050? 2070? The year that pops into your head is almost certainly related to how old you are — some point within our lifetimes yet distant enough to be mysterious, still just outside our grasp. For those of us growing up in the 1980s and ’90s — and for a large number of science fiction writers working in those decades — the 2020s felt like that future. A decade we would presumably live to see but also seemed sufficiently far away that it could be a world full of new technologies, social movements, or political changes. A dystopia or a utopia; a world both alien and familiar.

That future is, of course, now…

Two science fiction books set in the 2020s tower over everything else from that era in their terrifying prescience: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). These books by the late master kick off in 2024 Los Angeles and are set against a backdrop of a California that’s been ravaged by floods, storms, and droughts brought on by climate change. Middle- and working-class families huddle together in gated communities, attempting to escape the outside world through addictive pharmaceuticals and virtual reality headsets. New religions and conspiracy theory–chasing cults begin to emerge. A caravan of refugees head north to escape the ecological and social collapse, while a far-right extremist president backed by evangelical Christians comes to power using the chillingly familiar election slogan Make America Great Again.

Although it now feels like much of Butler’s Parable books might have been pulled straight from this afternoon’s Twitter or tonight’s evening news, some elements are more far-fetched. The second book ends with followers of the new religion founded by the central character leaving Earth in a spaceship to colonize Alpha Centauri. Butler originally planned to write a third book following the fates of these interstellar explorers but, sadly, passed away in 2005 before she had a chance. She left us with a duology that remains more grounded and scarily familiar to those of us struggling to come to terms with the everyday dystopias that the real 2020s seem to be already presenting us.

Not that this remarkable accuracy was ever her objective.

“This was not a book about prophecy; this was an if-this-goes-on story,” Butler said about the books during a talk at MIT in 1998. “This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is I certainly hope not.”

In the same talk, Butler describes in detail the fears that drove her to write this warning: the debate over climate change, the eroding of workers’ rights, the rise of the private prison industry, and the media’s increasing refusal to talk about all of these in favor of focusing on soundbite propaganda and celebrity news. Again, these are fears that feel instantly familiar today…

What Blade Runner, cyberpunk– and Octavia Butler– had to say about the age we’re entering now: “How Science Fiction Imagined the 2020s.”

* William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

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As we honor prophets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1984 that Apple aired an epoch-making commercial, “1984” (directed by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott),  during Superbowl XVIII– for the first and only time.  Two days later, the first Apple Macintosh went on sale.

 

Written by LW

January 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Total annihilation has a way of sharpening people’s minds”*…

 

War of the Worlds

 

HG Wells was the great modern prophet of apocalypse…

In five fecund years, from 1895 to 1900, he wrote 12 books, including the ‘scientific romances’ that made his name and laid the foundations of modern science fiction — The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man. He paved the way for so much of what came after — the sci-fi of Huxley, Orwell, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, JG Ballard and Michael Crichton, and his books have inspired over 30 films, with The Invisible Man set for another remake this year…

His books — both fiction and non-fiction — are tales of apocalypse, which in the ancient Greek etymology means ‘the unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling’.

What you meet in Wells’ books, again and again, is the violent uncovering of the new, the ripping back of the lace curtain of Victorian customs. Like Ballard, Wells had a sense of how suddenly and utterly things can change, how long familiar and ingrained customs can disappear in a moment. Victorian England must have seemed like it would stay the same forever and ever. And then, suddenly, Queen Victoria is removed ‘like a great paperweight’, and everything is in flux.

Australians are learning that today — how everything we take for granted — homes, food supplies, electricity, water, clean air, even law and order — can be taken from one in an instant. Likewise, The War of the Worlds gave complacent imperial Victorians a sudden sense what it’s like to be conquered and humiliated, to be scrabbling for survival. ‘I felt a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel’…

What can he teach us about our present moment? How can we survive and endure the apocalyptic unravelling of hydrocarbon capitalism, which is what (I suggest) we vividly see happening today. The most important lessons he gave us are (1) take the Long View and (2) don’t turn away from technological innovation, however dangerous and unsettling it is…

Jules Evans (on a return visit, having supplied yesterday’s subject) explains: “What HG Wells can teach us about surviving apocalypse.”

* Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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As we batten down the hatches, we might recall that it was on this date in 749 that a devastating earthquake struck parts of Palestine and the Transjordan, epicentered in Galilee.  The cities of Tiberias, Beit She’an, Hippos, and Pella were largely destroyed, while many other cities across the Levant were heavily damaged; the casualties numbered in the tens of thousands.

earthquake

Scythopolis (Beit She’an) was one of the cities destroyed in the earthquake of 749

source

 

“The future isn’t what it used to be”*…

 

Blade runner

 

When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was released in 1982, its dystopian future seemed light years away. But fans of the critically-acclaimed science fiction film might [be] feeling a little funny. As its opening sequence informs us, the movie takes place in Los Angeles, November 2019…

That’s to say, from now on, Blade Runner is no longer set in the future.

220px-Blade_Runner_(1982_poster)

For a list of other works whose futures are already past, visit Screen Crush (the source of the image at the top); and for a more complete list, click here.

* variously attributed to Paul Valéry, Laura Riding, Robert Graves, and (with the substitution of “ain’t” for “isn’t”) Yogi Berra

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As we adjust our expectations, we might send imaginative birthday greetings to Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler; she was born on this date in 1914.  Better known by her stage name, Hedy Lamarr, she became a huge movie star at MGM.

By the time American audiences were introduced to Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr in the 1938 film Algiers, she had already lived an eventful life. She got her scandalous start in film in Czechoslovakia (her first role was in the erotic Ecstasy). She was married at 19 in pre-World War II Europe to Fritz Mandl, a paranoid, overly protective arms dealer linked with fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany. After her father’s sudden death and as the war approached, she fled Mandl’s country estate in the middle of the night and escaped to London. Unable to return home to Vienna where her mother lived,  and determined to get into the movies, she booked passage to the States on the same ship as mogul Louis B. Mayer. Flaunting herself, she drew his attention and signed with his MGM Studios before they docked.

Arriving in Hollywood brought her a new name (Lamarr was originally Kiesler), fame, multiple marriages and divorces and a foray into groundbreaking work as a producer, before she eventually became a recluse. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Lamarr’s life isn’t as well known: during WWII, when she was 27the movie star invented and patented an ingenious forerunner of current high-tech communications…

The story of the movie star who invented spread-spectrum radio, the secure signal technology that helped the Allies avoid having their radio communications intercepted by the Axis forces, and that lies at the heart of the cellular phone system that we all use today: “Why Hedy Lamarr Was Hollywood’s Secret Weapon.”

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid” – Hedy Lamarr

220px-Hedy_Lamarr_Publicity_Photo_for_The_Heavenly_Body_1944 source

 

Written by LW

November 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.”*…

 

The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836 (oil on canvas)

Thomas Cole: “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836)

 

Your correspondent is headed to the steamy Southeast for his annual communion with surf, sand, and delicacies of the deep-fried variety.  Regular service will resume on or around August 26.  By way of hopping into hiatus on a high note…

The conviction that Trump is single-handedly tipping the United States into a crisis worthy of the Roman Empire at its most decadent has been a staple of jeremiads ever since his election, but fretting whether it is the fate of the United States in the twenty-first century to ape Rome by subsiding into terminal decay did not begin with his presidency. A year before Trump’s election, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was already glancing nervously over his shoulder at the vanished empire of the Caesars: “Rome rotted from within when people lost confidence in their culture and institutions, elites battled for control, corruption increased and the economy failed to grow adequately.” Doom-laden prophecies such as these, of decline and fall, are the somber counterpoint to the optimism of the American Dream.

And so they have always been.  At various points in American history, various reasons have been advanced to explain why the United States is bound to join the Roman Empire in oblivion…

Tom Holland compares and contrasts (very engagingly) the late history of the Roman Empire with that of the U.S., and (very amusingly) second-century Emperor Commodus with Donald Trump; he concludes:

History serves as only the blindest and most stumbling guide to the future. America is not Rome. Donald Trump is not Commodus. There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall. This is not an argument for complacency; it is an argument against despair. Americans have been worrying about the future of their republic for centuries now. There is every prospect that they will be worrying about it for centuries more.

Enjoy the essay in full: “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is.

* Max Beerbohm

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As we recognize that this doesn’t actually mean that we can breathe any easier, we might send fantastically far-sighted birthday greetings to Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he was born on this date in 1884.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts, and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was as a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

Gernsback, wearing one of his inventions, TV Glasses

source

 

Written by LW

August 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Let It Bleed”*…

 

bloodletting

Science sometimes goes down an incorrect path. Though the path is wrong, a detailed superstructure of learning gets built on top of the incorrect premise. Such was the case with the medical practice of bloodletting in the early 1800s, where detailed procedures were developed regarding which veins to open for a given set of symptoms. One leader in this practice was America’s Dr. Benjamin Rush:

Early in the [1800s], … physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by what rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible.

However, because people, even when they are thoroughly enmeshed in descriptions of reality which are at variance with reality, are still seldom devoid of the powers of observation and independent thought, the science of bloodletting, over most of its long sway, appears usually to have been tempered with a certain amount of common sense. Or it was tempered until it reached its highest peaks of technique in, of all places, the young United States. Bloodletting went wild here. It had an enormously influential proponent in Dr. Benjamin Rush, still revered as the greatest statesman-physician of our revolutionary and federal periods, and a genius of medical administration. Dr. Rush Got Things Done. Among the things he got done, some of them good and useful, were to develop, practice, teach and spread the custom of bloodletting in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use. He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence.

His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians. And yet as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling ‘the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.’ Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched…

As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense…

Via DelanceyPlace.com, an excerpt from Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Bloodletting.”

* The Rolling Stones

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As we drip, we might recall that it was on this date in 1949 that the first science fiction series debuted on American television, the DuMont Network’s Captain Video and His Video Rangers.  Written by such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, James Blish, and Jack Vance, it was– even in its time, when early television productions often were thrown-together affairs– considered crude, owing much to the fact that the daily show was done live on a meager budget.  Indeed, the actors were paid so little they actually made more money from appearing in character at supermarket openings, county fairs, and the like than they did from their salaries.

Still, it ran for a total of 1,537 episodes, and quickly spawned competitive sci-fi offerings like Tom Corbet, Space Cadet and Space Patrol.

Captain_Video_title_card source

 

Written by LW

June 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

“This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: ‘At the time, no one knew what was coming’.”*…

 

PKD

 

Well, maybe someone had an inkling…

Philip K. Dick‘s Radio Free Albemuth (1985).

Unlike Dick’s many stories set in a dystopian future, this one is set in a dystopian present — one in which an opportunistic incompetent, the mouthpiece for a crackpot conspiracy theory and front-man of a right-wing populist movement, becomes president of the United States with the secret support of the KGB and the FBI. (“Why should disparate groups such as the Soviet Union and the U.S. intelligence community back the same man? … They both like figureheads who are corrupt. So they can govern from behind.”) As he wages war against “Aramchek,” an imaginary subversive organization, President Fremont abrogates American civil liberties; this leads to the emergence of a resistance movement… organized through transmissions from a superintelligent, extraterrestrial being or network known as VALIS. (See Dick’s 1981 novel VALIS.) Nicholas Brady, a record store employee, is the recipient of these transmissions, and a kind of subliminal organizer of the resistance; his experiences are a lightly fictionalized version of Dick’s own infamous “2–3–74” gnostic freak-out. As Brady becomes a successful record producer (encoding anti-Fremont messages into folk songs), his best friend, science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, struggles in vain to stay out of the clutches of the right-wing populists. Brady’s ultimate song-message is written by a woman named Aramchek; it is recorded by a band called, yes, Alexander Hamilton.

Fun facts: Drafted in 1976, published posthumously despite not being finalized. The novel was adapted by John Alan Simon in 2010; the film stars Jonathan Scarfe as Brady, Shea Whigham as Dick, and Alanis Morissette as Sylvia Aramchek…

Via the ever-educational HiloBrow

* Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

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As we ponder prescience, we might recall that it was on this date in 1960 that The Twilight Zone aired its 31st episode in its inaugural season, “The Chaser.”  As IMDb recounts, “a young man obsessed with winning over an uninterested beauty gets more than he bargained for when he buys a love potion to gain her affection.”

twilight zone source

 

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know”*…

 

world history

Map of the globe with a focus on trade and expansion, c. 1565, based on an earlier map by Giacomo Gastaldi. Image credit: Library of Congress

 

As we look forward to 2019 and beyond, we might do well to pause and take a look back…

This animation shows how humans have spread and organized themselves across the Earth over the past 200,000 years. The time lapse starts with the migration of homo sapiens out of sub-Saharan Africa 200,000 years ago, with a few thousand years passing every second. As the agricultural revolution gets underway and the pace of civilization quickens, the animation slows down to hundreds of years per second and eventually, as it nears modern times, 1-2 years per second…

Via Kottke.org.  See also time lapse animations of the history of Europe from the fall of Rome to modern times and human population through time. (via open culture)

* Harry S. Truman

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As we listen for the rhymes, we might wish the happiest of birthdays to Isaak Yudovich Ozimov– aka Isaac Asimov– who was born on this date in 1920.  A biochemistry professor, he is better remembered as an author– more specifically, as one one of the greatest science fiction authors of his time (imaginer of “The Foundation,” coiner of the term “robotics,” and author of “The Three Laws of Robotics”).  But Asimov was extraordinarily prolific; he published over 500 books– including (in addition to sci fi) 14 books of history, several mysteries, a great deal of popular science, even a worthy volume on Shakespeare– and wrote an estimated 9,000 letters and postcards.

Isaac.Asimov01 source

 

Written by LW

January 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

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