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Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction

“Sometimes that light at the end of the tunnel is a train”*…

 

The moment of impact

As the U.S. remained mired in an economic depression in 1896, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (commonly known as “the Katy” line) faced two major problems: how to boost revenue and ticket sales amid increasing competition in the rail industry and what to do with an aging fleet of locomotives as it upgraded to larger, more advanced steam engines. And so the company’s creative passenger agent for Texas, William Crush, pitched an idea that would address both problems in one spectacular fell swoop.

With atom bombs and Justin Bieber still far off on the horizon in the late 19th century, an explosive train collision was perhaps the most eye-catching manmade disaster imaginable. And Crush knew he had the trains, the space and the public appetite to attempt such a spectacle. His plan was simple: ferry paying spectators to an isolated locale where two obsolete locomotives would be positioned face-to-face on the tracks. After gunning the trains to full speed, the engineers would jump to safety, and the masses would enjoy the fiery demolition from a safe distance. “Oh,” the exuberant Crush effused to The Galveston Daily News, “but it’s going to be a smash-up”…

In the event, over 40,000 people gathered at in the temporary town of “Crush, Texas” (for the day, the second largest city in the State).  And what a “smash-up” they saw.  As planned, the engineers stoked their locomotives, got them steaming toward each other, and jumped clear…  But though Crush had been assured by the railroad’s technicians that the engines’ boilers were strong enough to hold together on impact, both exploded.  As The Dallas Morning News put it: “The rumble of the two trains was like the gathering force of a cyclone… [then, a huge explosion, and] the air was filled with flying missiles of iron and steel varying in size from a postage stamp to half of a driving wheel… black clouds of death-dealing iron hail.”  Three spectators were killed, six others seriously injured; and countless onlookers were scorched by the hot shrapnel — many long after the explosion, when they picked through the flaming locomotive carcasses in a hunt for souvenirs.

Crush was immediately fired from the railroad. But given a lack of negative publicity, he was rehired the next day.

Read more at “Staging a Texas-size train disaster for fun and profit,” and check out the photos from the event here (one of which is used above).

* Charles Barkley

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As we ruminate on the rails, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to the extraordinary Jules Verne, imaginative writer non pareil; he was born in Nantes on this date in 1828.

Best known for his novels A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869–1870), Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) and The Mysterious Island (1875), Verne is the second most translated (individual) author of all time (behind Agatha Christie).  He is considered, with H.G. Wells, the founder of science fiction.

Verne was startlingly prescient: Paris in the 20th Century, for example, describes air conditioning, automobiles, the Internet, television, even electricity, and other modern conveniences very similar to their real world counterparts, all developed years– in many cases, decades– later.   From the Earth to the Moon, apart from using a space gun instead of a rocket, is uncannily similar to the real Apollo Program: three astronauts are launched from the Florida peninsula– from “Tampa Town” ( only 130 miles from NASA’s Cape Canaveral)– and recovered through a splash landing.  And in other works, he predicted helicopters, submarines, projectors, jukeboxes, and the existence of underwater hydrothermal vents that were not invented/discovered until long after he wrote about them.

Jules Verne

Written by LW

February 8, 2016 at 1:01 am

“I’ll reshoot a corridor 13 different ways, and you’ll never recognize them”*…

 

… one of hundreds of stills of dark passages available at the Sci-Fi Corridor Archive.

* Ridley Scott (from whose Alien [1979] the above example is taken)

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As we watch our steps, we might recall that it was on this date in 1958 that Kurt Neumann‘s cinematic tale of technologically-enabled metamorphosis, The Fly, premiered. With a screenplay by James Clavell (his first), it spawned two sequels and a remake (by David Cronenberg).  The original has a “95% fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Written by LW

August 29, 2015 at 1:01 am

“I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans”*…

 

It patrols your grounds continuously, no need for sitting down or going outside to smoke. It’s a “physically commanding presence,” warding off intruders and no-gooders. And, most importantly, it’s relatively cheap. At $6.25 an hour, it costs about one quarter of what mall-owners might normally pay for a human patrol.

That, at least, is the pitch from Stacy Stephens, VP of marketing for Knightscope, the California startup behind the machine. He says there are now two dozen K5s in operation in the Silicon Valley area, including on corporate campuses, shopping malls, and data centers. He also, apparently, doesn’t think human workers are very good at their jobs. “We’re the opposite of the mall cop,” he says. “They sit around for 45 minutes to an hour, then they get up and walk around five minutes. The robot is going to patrol for 45 minutes to an hour, then it’s going to seek out its charge-pad for five minutes.”…

Capable of object- and pattern-recognition, pathogen-detection, and “audio event detection,” it is not (yet) armed.

Readers– who will be forgiven for observing an eerie similarity to the Daleks— can learn more at “Meet The Scary Little Security Robot That’s Patrolling Silicon Valley.”

Claude Shannon (the “Father of Information Theory”)

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As we hope that resistance is not, in fact, futile, 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

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Written by LW

August 16, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them”*…

 

Marcus Rosentrater, filmmaker and animator of FX’s amazingly-amusing Archer, has done us the service of combining all six Star Wars films into a single viewing experience:

email readers click here for video

* Obi-Wan Kenobi

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As we hope that the Force is with us, we might recall that it was on this date in 1985 that Universal Pictures released the keystone of another– though very different– sci-fi franchise: Back to the Future.

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Written by LW

July 3, 2015 at 1:01 am

“A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam”*…

 

Ward Shelley‘s map of “The History of Science Fiction”– click here for a zoomable version.

This map plots the science fiction literary genre from its nascent roots in mythology and fantastic stories to the somewhat calcified post-Star Wars space opera epics of today. Rather than a narrative emerging out of the data, here the narrative structure precedes and organizes the data: the movement of years is from left to right across the grid that represents time, distorted and reconfigured into the form of a bug-eyed monster whose tentacles are like trace roots to pre-historical sources and whose body is the corpus of sci-fi literature. Science fiction is seen as the offspring of the collision of the Enlightenment (providing science) and Romanticism, which birthed gothic fiction, source not only of sci-fi, but also of crime novels, horror, westerns, and fantasy (all of which can be seen exiting through wormholes to their own diagrams, elsewhere). Science fiction progressed through a number of distinct periods, which are charted, citing hundreds of the most important works and authors, and which includes film and television as well…

More at Places and Spaces‘ “History of Science Fiction.”

* Frederik Pohl

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As we reach for our ray guns, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that the first U.S. Transcontinental Railway was ceremonially completed with the driving of the “Golden Spike.”  Known as the “Pacific Railroad” when it opened, it served as a vital channel for trade, commerce, and travel– for the first time, shipping and commerce could thrive away from navigable waterways– and it opened vast regions of the North American heartland for settlement.

(In fact, while not “transcontinental” in the same sense, the first railroad to connect two oceans directly, the Panama Rail Road, opened in 1855, when a locomotive made the first trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific.)

At the ceremony for the driving of the “Golden Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869

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“It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen”*…

 

 

The 70s began with a wave of dystopian sci-fi and culminated with Star Wars and the birth of the modern blockbuster. The British Film Institute has collected some of the decade’s most stunning posters; see them at “The Best 70s Sci-Fi Film Posters.”

(Then move into the 80s here…)

* “Alex” (Malcolm McDowell), A Clockwork Orange

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As we prop our eyes open, we might spare a thought for Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon– or, as he was better known, Val Lewton; he died on this date in 1951.  Having washed out as a journalist as a young man, Lewton wrote a best-selling pulp novel No Bed of Her Own (later used for the film No Man of Her Own, with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.  He parlayed that success into a job at MGM, where he got close to David O. Selznick, working as Selznick’s assistant (and as an uncredited writer on Gone With the Wind).

But it at his next job, as head of RKO’s horror department (from 1942-46), that Lewton made his mark.  The job was well-paid, but came with three conditions: each film had to come in under a $150,000 in cost, each was to run under 75 minutes, and his supervisors would supply the film titles.  His first feature was Cat People, released in 1942 (and rooted in Lewton’s own gatophobia).  Directed by Jacques Tourneur, who subsequently also directed I Walked With a Zombie (loosely based on Jane Eyre!) and The Leopard Man for Lewton, Cat People cost $134,000, but earned nearly $4 million– the top moneymaker for RKO that year.

Lewton’s early horror films were artistic as well as commercial successes; they are now widely-admired classics– almost Jacobean in their skillful cultivation of tension and powerful use of off-screen menace and violence.  But he was a victim of his own success.  Pushed to move on to A films, Lewton floundered, never recovering the artistic (nor the box office) success that he achieved in the looser world of B movies.

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Happy Pi Day!… 

 

 

Written by LW

March 14, 2015 at 1:01 am

“When I die, I’m leaving my body to science fiction”*…

 

When it comes to cover design, the science fiction genre is often accused, along with romance novels, of having the most godawful cover design going. With their typical brilliance in style, Penguin embraces all the good, the bad and the comically ugly in traditional sci-fi design with their science fiction series. From the campy cartoon-style creatures and ridiculous, buxom alien babes of space opera, to the darkly stylized futuristic cities in dystopian futures Penguin covered it all with story selection and cover illustration…

Confidently judge books by their covers at “Penguin’s Science Fiction.”

[TotH to @MartyKrasney]

 

* Stephen Wright

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As we travel through space and time, we might recall that it was on this date in 1963 that Arthur K. “Spud” Melin patented the Hula Hoop.  In fact, both Melin’s company, Wham-O, and others had been selling millions of Martex (plastic) hoops since the late 50s.  Melin’s innovation was an improved version- which, by virtue of the intellectual property protection, was available only from Wham-O.

No sensation has ever swept the country like the Hula Hoop.  It remains the standard against which all national crazes are measured.

– Richard A. Johnson, American Fads

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Spud Melin (left) and his Wham-O co-founder Richard Knerr

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Written by LW

March 5, 2015 at 1:01 am

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