Posts Tagged ‘Blade Runner’

Yesterday’s Science Fiction as Today’s Reality: Bruce Sterling’s ‘Heavy Weather’

September 13, 2017

Bruce Sterling was, with William Gibson, one of the leading members of the ‘Mirrorshades’ group of SF writers, who launched cyberpunk in the 1980s. This is the SF genre set in dystopian, corporate futures, whose streetwise picaresque heroes entire a VR cyberspace through jacking into the Web. If you want an idea what the genre’s like, see the film Blade Runner, although the film actually came out while Gibson was writing his groundbreaking novel, Neuromancer.

This week the news has been dominated by hurricane Harvey and the other storms that are wreaking such havoc in Florida, Bermuda and other parts of the Caribbean. In a previous article I put up this evening about Trump’s appointment of Jim Bridenstine, a scientific illiterate, who doesn’t believe in climate change as head of NASA, I discussed how Jimmy Dore and his co-host Steffi Zamorano and Ron Placone had said that these storms bear out the continuing decline of the Earth’s climate. Way back in the early part of this century, after several heatwaves, climate scientists warned that climate change meant that the weather would become more extreme.

And Bruce Sterling wrote an entire book about the superstorms that would arise due to climate change in his 1994 SF novel, Heavy Weather (London: Millennium).

This was set in the devastated Texas of the early 21st century, where the aquifers have dried up. It’s a state wracked by violent storms, where thousands have been left homeless and forced into refugee camps by the unstable climate. The blurb for the book reads

2031 – the atmosphere’s wrecked. The Storm Troupers – media unit, scientists, techno-freaks – get their kicks from weather. Hooked up to drones through virtual-reality rigs, they can plunge like maddened darts into the eye of a storm and surf a ride from hell.

Their Holy Grail: the F6, a tornado so intense it’s off the scale. Dangerous in the extreme. Also dangerous: certain people’s sick dreams, full of tornado trails, shining insane paths of endless howling destruction.

The high-tech wonders of a decaying world … and a bunch of wild nomads longing to be blown away.

I think the book was a response by literary SF to the film Twister, about a group of meteorologists chasing tornadoes across the southern US, starring Piers Brosnan. I don’t think we’ve quite reached the level where masses of Americans are being left homeless in refugee camps, nor are their groups quite like the Storm Troupers. But these violent storms are becoming a reality, and will become ever worse as the climate deteriorates.

As Max Headroom used to say in his trailers for Channel 4: ‘The future…is now’.

And it’s disgusting that Trump’s trying to close down climate research, and put in charge of NASA someone who knows precious little about science, and doesn’t believe in climate change.

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Blade Runner 2049: ‘Time to Live’

September 1, 2017

This is another trailer for the forthcoming sequel to Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049. Described as a ‘featurette’, it’s a short film mixing scenes from the film with soundbites from the stars Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, the director Denis Villeneuve, and various members of the production crew, including its art director, and the director of the original classic himself, Ridley Scott.

It begins with Ford describing the immense impact of the scope and look of the original movie, and says it’s great to be back in his character’s, Deckard’s, old clothes. He’s glad they fit. Ridley Scott says he had no idea at the time the first movie came out that it would be so iconic. Later he says that it was meant to be a stand-alone movie, but there’s always more than you can tell in a two hour film. The production team tell how they wanted to preserve the look of the original, while also doing something that was ‘divergent’. And Villeneuve says that he never felt anxious while making it that Scott was watching over his shoulder.

I put up a previous trailer for Blade Runner 2049, the short prequel, Nexus Dawn, yesterday, and said that, while I’m looking forward to the film’s release in October, I also have mixed feelings about it. The film is now rightly regarded as one of the classics of science fiction cinema. It was a dark, dystopian vision of the future, that also mixed in French film noir, to create a dismal but stylish ‘Future Noir’. I’m afraid that the original is such a classic, and has set the standards so high for its sequel, that it will be simply impossible for the film to fulfill them, no matter how good it is. I think part of the problem many people were disappointed with the Star Wars prequels, and Scott’s prequels to the original Alien film, Prometheus and Covenant, is partly because these films are also cinematic classics.

There’s also the problem that part of what made these films classics was that at the time, they had a unique quality or vision that set them far apart from other films of the same type. In the case of Star Wars, it was Lucas’ creation of an entire galactic society, complete with its own form of mystical religion in the force, as well as the superb special effects. The spaceships and robots looked good. The film also broke with previous SF movies in that the technology looked used. I can remember reading in Starburst that it was the first SF movie to ‘dirty up’ the spacecraft. Rather than everything appearing antiseptically clean, the ships in Star Wars looked like people actually flew and maintained them in real conditions, in working hangers full of grease and whatever people in A Galaxy Far, Far Away use for enjoy oil.

In Alien, you also had the dirty, worn look of the spaceship Nostromo. It was dark, and dingy, stacked with equipment, and looked like what it was supposed to be: a functioning industrial complex, built for work, not beauty. And then there was the weird, biological design of the alien spacecraft the Nostromo’s crew encounters and explores, with the space jockey and the Alien itself, all designed by the Austrian surrealist, H.R. Giger.

The imagery and designs of these films have been so influential that they’ve become part of the stock visual language of much of the science fiction that followed them, to the point where it might be difficult for some younger film enthusiasts to understand just how exciting and revolutionary they were when they first came out.

As for Ridley Scott’s comment that he had no idea that Blade Runner would become the classic it is, this is very true. It flopped in the cinemas. This was partly because the studio didn’t think audiences were intelligent enough to work out what was going on, or understand some of the future slang, so they insisted that Ford also did a voiceover during certain scenes. There’s a rumour that Ford thought it was such a bad idea, that he deliberately made his voice as flat and monotone as possible in the hope the result would be so terrible the studio wouldn’t use it. But they did. And unfortunately it did affect the way audience received it. Put bluntly, it made the film a laughing stock. A friend of mine went to see it – he was a few years older than me – and he said that people in the cinema were laughing at the voiceover.

What saved the movie were the fans, who discovered it on video, who turned it into a cult movie, so that its audience and reputation increased. This reached the point where it allowed Scott to do something that had never been done before: he released a director’s cut of the film. Which critically removed that stupid voiceover.

And the result of that long process of rediscovery and growing appreciation is that the original movie is a cinematic classic. Blade Runner 2049 has a lot to live up to, but I’m really looking forward to it.

Blade Runner 2049 Short Film: 2036: Nexus Dawn

August 31, 2017

The sequel to Ridley Scott’s SF classic, Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 is another film I want to see when it comes out in October. It isn’t directed by Scott himself, but the French Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve. In this short piece, Villeneuve talks about how amazed he was by the original film, and introduces this very short film. It’s a kind of prequel to the coming full length cinematic feature. Set 13 years before the Blade Runner: 2049 in 2036, the manufacturer Niander Wallace introduces his new generation of replicants, utterly obedient to humanity, even at the cost of their own lives.

Although I’m really looking forward to seeing the film, I’ve also got some reservations about it. Blade Runner is rightly regarded as one of the very best SF movies, and so the bar for its sequel has been set very high. I’m afraid that the film’s going to be a disappointment because of this, in the same way many people hated the Star Wars sequels, and were also disappointed by Scott’s prequels to the Alien franchise, Prometheus and Covenant. As it stands, from what I’ve seen from the trailers, Blade Runner: 2049 looks very good, expanding Scott’s vision of a dystopian Los Angeles, and using a diffuse, golden light similar to the colour palate Scott used in the original movie. But we’ll only know if it is as good as it looks when it’s finally released in British cinemas on October 6.

New SF Series Coming to Channel 4: Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

August 28, 2017

Last Sunday I caught this trailer on Channel 4 for a new science fiction series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.

The title is obviously an homage to Dick’s most famous work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became one of the great, classic SF films of all time, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

The series will consist of ten, self-contained episodes, each based on a different Dick short story, starring some of film and TV’s top actors. These include Timothy Spall, Steve Buscemi, Jack Raynor, Benedict Wong, Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis, Greg Kinnear, Anna Paquin, Richard Madden, Holliday Grainger, Anneika Rose, Mel Rodriguez, Vera Formiga, Annalisa Basso, Maura Tierney, Juno Temple and Janelle Monae.

One of the executive producers is Ronald D. Moore, who worked on the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space 9 and Voyage, as well as Battlestar Galactica and Outlander.

More information, including plot summaries, can be found on Channel 4’s website at http://www.channel4.com/info/press/news/philip-k-dicks-electric-dreams And Den of Geek, http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/tv/philip-k-dick-s-electric-dreams/50380/philip-k-dicks-electric-dreams-7-reasons-to-get-excited.

This looks really promising. Den of Geek say in their article that the anthology format already recalls Channel 4’s Black Mirror, and The Twilight Zone. I have to say I wasn’t drawn to watch Black Mirror. It was created by Charlie Brooker, and was an intelligent, dark examination of the dystopian elements of our media-saturated modern culture and its increasing reliance on information technology. However, it just wasn’t weird enough for me. Near future SF is great, but I also like spacecraft, aliens, ray guns and robots. And this promises to have some of them, at least.

Channel 4 have also produced another intelligent, critically SF series, Humans, based on the Swedish series, Real Humans. With Black Mirror, it seems Channel 4 is one of the leading broadcasters for creating intelligent, mature Science Fiction.

The Influence of Metal Hurlant on Science Fiction Cinema

April 25, 2017

Yesterday I put up a piece I found on YouTube about the influence French Science Fiction comics had on Star Wars. This short video by the same poster, Abstract Looper, explores the profound influence the artists of the French adult SF comic, Metal Hurlant, known to the Anglophone world as Heavy Metal, has had on modern Science Fiction cinema. Metal Hurlant was founded in 1974 by Les Humanoides Associees Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, Dionnet and Philippe Druillet. The video shows the striking visual similarities between scenes and designs in the comic’s various strips, and the films Mad Max, Alien, Blade Runner, Nausicaa – Valley of the Wind, Avatar, the original 70s Battlestar Galactica TV series, Hellboy, Prometheus and the Matrix. There’s a clip of Ridley Scott saying that when he made Alien, he was influenced by the visual material produced by Moebius and the French magazine. Guillermo del Toro also confessed that he was influenced by Richard Corben, another of the magazine’s artists. Terry Gilliam also states that the magazine was an influence on him. As does James Cameron. Rutgar Hauer, who played Roy Batty in Blade Runner also appears, telling how the producers visualised the future as already old. In fact, the producers of Blade Runner based their vision of Los Angeles on the towering cityscapes of Philippe Druillet. As well as Druillet, Dionnet, Corben and Moebius, another of the comic’s creators, the Franco-Yugoslavian artist Enki Bilal, was also influential. Also making the point are the similarities between the comics’ art and the concept drawings produced for the Alien and Matrix movies.

You could also add the Judge Dredd movies to this list as well. 2000 AD’s creator, Pat Mills, hates superhero comics. When he launched the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic way back in the 1970s, he was influenced by the French SF comics. Which naturally includes Metal Hurlant. Judge Dredd’s look was created by Carlos Ezquerra, a Spanish artist living in London, who has an artistic style very similar to Moebius.

As an aside, I was also pleased that the interview with Ridley Scott also had Russian subtitles. This shows how much the world has changed since I was at school. This was the years of the new Cold War, created by Thatcher and Reagan, when there were real fears of nuclear Armageddon. I felt profoundly optimistic when the Berlin Wall fell, along with Communism. There seemed at last a real possibility of a genuine, lasting peace between eastern and western Europe. I believe very strongly that it has been a massive improvement in world affairs that the peoples of the former eastern bloc can come to Britain to live, work and raise families.

And I am appalled and angry that Trump and the Democrats are pushing a new Cold War with Putin, and thus endangering the world all over again.

Warning: Heavy Metal was an ‘adult’ comic, which means that there’s some cartoon nudity. This was the magazine that was filmed as The Heavy Metal Movie, and which became notorious for the female nudity of the ‘Taarna’ sequence, which in turn inspired the episode ‘Major B***age’ in South Park. This may have changed, however. In an interview in the comics press a few years ago, its British editor stated that the magazine was dropping the nudity, because it was irrelevant given the amount of real nudity on the Web. He promised that the magazine would still be sexy, however.

The Influence of French Science Fiction Comics on Star Wars

April 24, 2017

This is another fascinating video about French SF comics and the influence they may have had on George Lucas’ Star Wars. In his description for the video, the post, Abstract Loop, writes

Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, French comics artists revolutionized their medium and created groundbreaking works of science fiction. Artists like Jean-Claude Mézières, Philippe Druillet, and Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, had a significant, if rarely recognized, influence on many Hollywood films. Star Wars is one of the most prominent examples.

“There are quite a few illustrators in the science-fiction and science-fantasy modes I like very much. I like them because their designs and imaginations are so vivid […] Druillet and Moebius are quite sophisticated in their style.”
– George Lucas, 1979

Unless noted otherwise, all art in this video is taken from the following comics and comics series:
Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin: „Valérian and Laureline“ („Valérian et Laureline“)
Jean-Claude Mézières: „Les baroudeurs de l’espace“
Moebius & Dan O‘Bannon: „The Long Tomorrow“
Moebius & Alejandro Jodorowsky: „The Incal“ („L’Incal“)
Moebius: „Le Bandard fou“
Moebius: „The Airtight Garage“ („Le Garage hermétique“)
Philippe Druillet & Jacques Lob: „Delirius“
Philippe Druillet: „The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane“ („Les 6 Voyages de Lone Sloane“)
Philippe Druillet: „Salammbô“
Philippe Druillet: „La Nuit“

Film stills: „The Empire Strikes Back“, „The Return of the Jedi“ & „Star Wars: Droids“
Concept art and storyboard panel by Joe Johnston

Music: Tycho „Awake“

For further reading:
“Valérian and Laureline”
: http://kitbashed.com/blog/valerian-an…
“The Moebius Probe”: http://kitbashed.com/blog/moebius
“Als die Zukunft wieder cool wurde” (in German): http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/com…

Certainly the artists mentioned have had an impact on Science Fiction cinema. Scott used Philippe Druillet’s depictions of soaring futuristic sky-scraper cities as the basis for the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, and Moebius certainly was a profound influence on the style of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. From this video I’m not sure how much influence French comics had on Star Wars. Some of the pieces shown are very similar, others less so, and some of the similarity between Star Wars and the comics could simply be due to coincidence between two similar scenes that were produced entirely independently. Nevertheless, the video does how the power and individuality of the vision of the future produced by the great French SF artists in their comics.

Counterpunch on the Threat of Military Policing in America by 2030

February 19, 2017

Last week there was a chilling piece in Counterpunch by John Whitehead. The left-wing American magazine, the Intercept, had obtained a five minute promotional video by the Pentagon. This forecast that by 2030 conditions in American cities will have decayed to the point where the army is being sent in as a police force.
He writes

The U.S. military plans to take over America by 2030.

No, this is not another conspiracy theory. Although it easily could be.

Nor is it a Hollywood political thriller in the vein of John Frankenheimer’s 1964 political thriller Seven Days in May about a military coup d’etat.

Although it certainly has all the makings of a good thriller.

No, this is the real deal, coming at us straight from the horse’s mouth.

According to “Megacities: Urban Future, the Emerging Complexity,” a Pentagon training video created by the Army for U.S. Special Operations Command, the U.S. military plans to use armed forces to solve future domestic political and social problems.

What they’re really talking about is martial law, packaged as a well-meaning and overriding concern for the nation’s security.

The chilling five-minute training video, obtained by The Intercept through a FOIA request and made available online, paints an ominous picture of the future—a future the military is preparing for—bedeviled by “criminal networks,” “substandard infrastructure,” “religious and ethnic tensions,” “impoverishment, slums,” “open landfills, over-burdened sewers,” a “growing mass of unemployed,” and an urban landscape in which the prosperous economic elite must be protected from the impoverishment of the have nots.

He then makes connections between the demands by the commentary in the Pentagon’s video to ‘drain the swamp’, with the same slogan used by Donald Trump. He also points out that Americans have become used to the all-powerful surveillance state, which can pinpoint your location and gain information through mobile phones and personal computers.

For further information, see: http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/02/16/coming-soon-to-a-city-near-you-military-policing/

Whitehead states that it’s like the ’60s political thriller, ‘Seven Days in May’. It’s actually far closer to the urban dystopias of Cyberpunk and similar SF, like Blade Runner, Elysium, James Cameron’s Strange Days and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and its sequel, Escape from LA. This is the America the Pentagon believes will arise within the next fifteen years. Back in the 1990s there was a programme on one of the Beeb’s documentary slots arguing that the cyberpunk future that had been forecast would arise from Thatcherism hadn’t emerged, and that thanks to free market economics, countries all round the world were actually prospering. This is just right-wing biased reporting and wishful thinking. It’s becoming painfully evident that neoliberalism is destroying countries around the world, and immiserating their citizens in even more grinding poverty. But it makes massive profits for big business, so they and their shills in the media will keep that very carefully covered up. The predictions were true. They just go their timing wrong.

There’s another point to be made here as well about the brutal methods America has used around the world to enforce its domination. These have included organising Fascist coups and right-wing military dictators. Critics of this policy that have argued that in addition to the harm done to the countries that have been the victims of these policies, there is the added danger that inevitably the repressive measures empires use to oppress the indigenous peoples of their colonies return to be used on the people of the imperial homeland itself. And this will be the case in America.

Unless neoliberalism is comprehensively scrapped, wealth is redistributed and the widening gap between the poor and the rich is closed.

Here’s the opening titles from Escape from New York, to show the kind of America such SF depicts, and which may arise in the next decades unless we do something to stop it.

Blade Runner Sequel Teaser Trailer

December 20, 2016

I found the teaser trailer for the sequel to Ridley Scott’s SF classic, Blade Runner, on YouTube yesterday. The film’s entitled Blade Runner 2049, and is set 30 years after the events of the original movie. It stars Harrison Ford, who is reprising his role as Rick Deckard, and Ryan Gosling. It won’t be directed by Scott, but Denis Villeneuve. Scott was going to be the director, but I think he’s too busy with other projects. While I’m disappointed that he won’t be sitting in the director’s chair, from what little I’ve seen and heard of it, Villeneuve is an excellent choice. The movie is due to open in cinemas in June next year (2017).

As you can see, the trailer’s very short and doesn’t give very much away. It begins with Deckard’s line from the original film about Replicants being like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a problem. And if they’re a benefit, then they’re not his problem. It also seems to have the same run-down, towering cityscape of the first movie, but also adds what looks like a desert. The film’s score also seems to follow the original movie’s brilliant soundtrack, composed by Vangelis, in being played on synthesiser, though it has a rougher, grittier tone. And also there’s the same vehicles carrying adverts for people to move off world. Also the desert scenes have the same diffuse, golden light Scott used to create such a moody tone in the scenes Tyrell’s apartment in the original movie, but this time far brighter and more intense.

I’m really looking forward to this flick, but I do have some reservations about it. Blade Runner is now rightly recognised as one of the great SF movies of 20th century. William Gibson, one of the inventors of the Cyberpunk SF genre, said that he felt distinctly unnerved when he saw it. He was writing Neuromancer at the time, and was somewhat dismayed to find that the film had beaten him to portraying the same kind of future he was writing about. Grant and Naylor, the creators of Red Dwarf, have also admitted that it was Blade Runner that inspired them to create their own SF show. That was very obvious in the episode aired several years ago on satellite/ cable, where the crew of the Red Dwarf go in search of their creators on Earth, one of whom is a genetic engineer. ‘Noses’, the scientist says in answer to their questions, ‘I only do noses’. Which is, as fans of Blade Runner will recognise, a parody of the line the Chinese genetic engineer gives Batty and Leon when they pay him a visit: ‘Eyes. I only do eyes.’

My fear is that Blade Runner is such a classic, and the movie so perfect in itself, that the sequel will be unable to add anything new or match the original. Part of the reason many people will terribly disappointed with George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, apart from its many flaws, was that the original films had set the bar so high, and the fans had waited so long for it, that when it came out it was almost bound to fail expectations. I hope the same isn’t true of this attempt to revisit one of the greatest SF movies.

Poppy: 3D Printed Open Source Robot

October 27, 2016

I’ve put up several posts this week about robots and robotics, discussing the ultimate origins of H.B.O.’s WestWorld in Karel Capek’s 1920 play about a robot revolt, R.U.R. This has been performed using real, lego robots, and a short speech about the play given by a British robot, Robothespian, by Café Neu Romance at the National Technical Library in Prague. Robothespian also appeared on the BBC’s Breakfast TV show a couple of years ago in 2014.

The humanoids in WestWorld are less like today’s industrial machines and far more like the Replicants in Blade Runner or Capek’s original robots. They’re a kind of artificial biology created through synthetic chemistry, and produced through something like 3D printing, rather than today’s mechanical devices. Scientists are, however, exploring various synthetic materials, which would expand and contract similar to the way animal muscles move, which gives WestWorld’s humanoids a grounding in scientific fact, even if we are still a very, very long way away from such complex, truly intelligent and self-aware artificial beings.

Looking through some of the videos on robots on YouTube, I found the short video below for a small, humanoid robot, Poppy, created by a group of French scientists and engineers. This is interesting, as it shows how far robot technology has come, including their manufacturing methods, and how close we are to a true age of popular robotics. The machine is bipedal, and designed to be used as a research tool by scientists. It’s also open source and can be made at home using a 3D printer. It’s creators state that it’s a robot for everyone, and so while it can be used for serious research – the video shows the machine walking along a treadmill, for example – it is not solely for professional robotics scientists, but aimed at a popular market.

This brings the world of R.U.R. and other, similar works of SF, where everyone owns a robot, just that bit closer. Along with Star Trek’s universe, in which anything can be produced using a replicator, an idea which the late Arthur C. Clarke explored in his book, Profiles of the Future, some decades ago. Robots pose serious problems in the mass redundancies that have occurred and are threatening to become worse through their adoption in industry, as well as the possibility that they will overthrow and replace humanity as the dominant beings when their intelligence eventually exceeds ours. 3D printing also has its drawbacks and problems for the economy. One of these is how people will be able to make a living from manufacturing, when nearly anything at all can be made cheaply by anyone at home with a printer. We haven’t reached that stage yet, and possibly never will. Nevertheless, it’s a serious issue that needs careful consideration and debate.

Poppy isn’t the only open source robot available that can be created through 3D printing. A glance through some of the other videos available on this subject on YouTube shows that there are a number of them. No doubt this will grow as the technology improves and costs drop so that the technology becomes more affordable. Assuming that everyone isn’t put out of work by then as more firms decide its cheaper to employ machines than people.

Here’s the video for the Poppy robot:

West World and the Original Robots of R.U.R.

October 23, 2016

A few weeks ago H.B.O. launched the latest SF blockbuster show, West World. It’s a TV series based on the 1970s film of the same name, written by Michael Crichton. Like Crichton’s Jurassic Park nearly twenty years or so later, West World is about a fantasy amusement, presided over by a sinister inventor played by Anthony Hopkins, the man who scared audiences witless as the cannibalistic murderer Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs and its sequel, Hannibal. While Jurassic Park was about scientific attempts to recreate the dinosaurs for popular amusement, in West World the amusement park was a resort which attempted to recreate past eras for fun. This included the Middle Ages, and a section devoted to the old West. Like Jurassic Park, things go disastrously wrong. A computer malfunction makes the robots break the inbuilt restrictions on their behaviour, so that they gain autonomy and independence. In the medieval part of the resort, a man, who is used to getting his way with the female androids has his advances rebuffed with the curt answer, ‘Methinks Sir forgets himself’. But the real action of the story is the attempts by the movie’s hero over in the West World part of the resort to overcome the black-garbed, robot gunfighter, played by Yul Brynner. Like Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films, the gunslinger is an implacable, unstoppable killing machine, and the hero has to destroy it before it kills him, just like it gunned down his friend.

The TV series has adapted and altered the story. The gunman is now human, rather than robotic, and the focus seems to have shifted more to the robots than the humans. They are the victims of the humans enjoying the resort, who come to act out terrible fantasies of rape and killing that they would never dare consider doing in the real world to other human beings. The robot hosts they use – and abuse – are repaired and have their memories wiped ready for the next set of visitors to do the same, all over again. But attempts to give the machines consciousness have had an effect. The machines are beginning to remember. The press releases to the series state that its premise is not about machines developing consciousness and intelligence, but what they will make of us when they do.

The artificial humans in West World are less robots in the sense of mechanical people, than artificial humans. The titles show artificial tendons and muscles being placed on synthetic skeletons by robotic arms in a more developed version of 3D printing.

This conception of artificial humans shows the influence of Blade Runner. Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film changed Dick’s androids to ‘replicants’, artificial men and women created through sophisticated genetic engineering for use as slave soldiers and sex workers. Produced by the Tyrell Corporation under the slogan ‘More Human Than Human’, these genetic constructs have a desire for freedom and longevity. In order to stop them overthrowing humanity, they only have a lifespan of six years or so. They are also becoming increasingly sophisticated psychologically and emotionally. In the book and film, they can only be distinguished from natural people through the Voight-Comp Test. This is a complex psychological test in which the subjects have to answer a series of questions. Part of this is to measure their capacity for empathy. Replicants generally are unable to sympathise or understand others’ suffering. The test asks those undergoing its questions to imagine their in a desert. They see a tortoise lying on its back, dying in the hot sun. The animal is clearly in pain and dying, but they don’t help it. Why not? At the end of the movie, Deckard, the film’s hero, a Blade Runner – the special policemen charged with catching and ‘retiring’ replicants that have made it down to Earth, is in serious danger. In his battle with Roy Batty, the replicants’ leader and now their only survivor after he has tracked them all down, Deckard has failed to make a jump across two of the buried skyscrapers underneath the sprawling future LA. He is hanging from a girder, about to fall to his death. Until Batty, before his own programmed obsolescence kills him, pulls him to safety. Batty has developed genuine sympathy for another stricken creature. He has triumphantly passed the Voight-Comp test, and shown more humanity than the humans who made him and who enslave his kind.

It’s a very old theme, which goes all the way back to one of the very first Science Fiction plays, if not the very first SF play, to deal with a robot revolt, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Written by the Czech playwright Karel Capek, this was the play that introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. The word comes from the Czech for ‘serf’ or ‘slave’. It’s set in a company producing these artificial people, which are used for everything from factory workers to domestic servants. They have also been stripped of complex emotional responses to make them suitable servants. But as with the synthetic hosts of West World, this is breaking down. Instead of simply performing their tasks, the robots are increasingly stopping and refusing to work. They simply stand there, grinding their teeth. Eventually their growing dissatisfaction turns from simple recalcitrance to outright revolt. The machines rebel, exterminating humanity and leaving the company’s accountant, Alquist, as the only survivor.

Like Blade Runner’s replicants and the synthetic hosts of West World, Capek’s robots were not machine so much as creatures produced through a kind of artificial biology. In the first act, the company’s general manager, Domain, explains the origins of the robots in the biological researches of the biologist, Rossum, to Helena Glory, the daughter of an Oxbridge prof.

‘It was in the year 1922’, informs Domain, ‘that old Rossum the great physiologist, who was then quite a young scientist, betook himself to this distant island for the purpose of studying the ocean fauna, full stop. On this occasion he attempted by chemical synthesis to imitate the living matter known as protoplasm, until he suddenly discovered a substance which behaved exactly like living matter, although its chemical composition was different; that was in the year 1932, exactly four hundred years after the discovery of America, whew!’ (The Brothers Capek, R.U.R. and The Insect Play(Oxford: OUP 1961) p. 5). Later Domain tells Helena a little about the industrial processes in which the robots are manufactured:

Domain: … Midday. The Robots don’t know when to stop work. In two hours I’ll show you the kneading-trough.

Helena: What kneading-trough?

Domain. [Dryly] The pestles and mortar as it were for beating up the paste. In each one we mix the ingredients for a thousand Robots at one operation. Then there are the vats for the preparation of liver, brains, and so on. They you’ll see the bone factory. After that I’ll show you the spinning-mill.

Helena: What spinning-mill?

Domain: For weaving nerves and veins. Miles and miles of digestive tubes pass through it at a stretch. Then there’s the fitting shed, where all the parts are put together, like motor-cars. Next comes the drying-kiln and the warehouse in which the new products work. (p. 15).

Like Blade Runner, the robots of R.U.R. end by becoming human emotionally. Just as the replicants in Blade Runner have a severely limited lifetime, so Capek’s Robots, as beings created purely for work, are sterile. After their victory, they approach Alquist requesting that more of them be created as their numbers of falling. Despite their entreaties, Alquist can’t. He is not a scientist, and the last of the company’s management destroyed the manuscript describing how they were made before they themselves were killed. Radius, the leader of the robots, requests Alquist to find out by dissecting living robots. When Primus, one of the male robots, and Helena, a female robot, each defend the other, refusing to let Alquist take them for experimentation, the old accountant realises that the mystery of their reproduction has been solved. The play ends with him reciting the text of Genesis describing God’s creation of Man. The last lines are him reciting the Nunc Dimissit : ‘Now, Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy will, for mine eye have seen Thy salvation.’

This last marks the major difference between R.U.R. and modern treatments of the rise of robots and their possible replacement of humanity: R.U.R. is explicitly Christian in its underlying tone. It’s stated very clearly that Rossum was a militant atheist, who wanted to play God in order to show that God is unnecessary for the emergence of life. The ending, however, is ambiguous. Rossum was an anti-theist, but his artificial creations, which are based on a chemistry not found in nature, clearly work, and in turn become genuine, self-perpetuating, authentic men and women with intelligence, emotions and morality.

Some critics have said that R.U.R. really isn’t SF so much as a technological parable about the threat of Communism. It was written in 1920, a few years after the Russian Revolution and similar outbreaks of working class militancy across Europe, including Germany, Austria and Hungary. But other works, that are undoubtedly considered Science Fiction, are also veiled comments on events and issues of the time. Much of the SF of the former Soviet Union, like that of the Strugatsky brothers, who wrote the classic Stalker, was written in the ‘Aesopian Mode’. They were intended as parables to say in veiled form truths and comments that could not be overtly made under Soviet censorship.

And the conception of robots as a form of genuine artificial life does seem to be based on some of the scientific speculation of the time. Russian scientists, such as Oparin, were acutely interested in the emergence of life on the prehistoric Earth, and devised several experiments to suggest how the chemicals necessary for life may have been formed. And the Communists, as militant atheists, were keen supporters of Darwinian evolution, though I think they viewed it as proceeding through a form of dialectal materialism, and so bearing that theory out, rather than some of the more sophisticated, non-Marxist conceptions that have occurred later. Russian Cosmists, like the Transhumanists today, wished to develop scientific methods of resurrecting the dead and then colonising space as a suitable habitat for the new, perfected humanity.

Furthermore, some experiments and speculation in robotics has moved away from simple, mechanical processes. Human muscles operate biochemically. Messages from nerves changes the shape of the molecules composing muscles, which in turn makes those same muscles contract or expand, moving the organism’s limbs. Some scientists have therefore worked on trying to mimic this process of movement using artificial substances, rather than existing electrical or petrol-driven motors. This brings the construction of robots very close the type of 3D printing shown in West World’s titles.

My own feeling is that it will be a very long time, if ever, before humanity produces anything like the sentient robots of SF. As I mentioned in my previous article, one of the scientists interviewed by the science magazine, Frontiers, in 1998 stated that he didn’t think we’d see genuinely conscious, intelligent robots in his lifetime. Anthony Hopkins in an interview in this week’s Radio Times makes the same point, stating that we haven’t created anything as simply as a single cell. This does not mean that humanity won’t, or detract from stories about robots as entertainment, or as the means by which philosophical issues about creation, the nature of life and humanity, consciousness and intelligence, can be explored. West World in this sense is part of a trend in recent screen SF attempting to explore these issues intelligently, such as Automata and The Machine. These new treatments are far more secular, but as philosophical treatments of the underlying issues, rather than simple stories about warfare between humanity and its creations, like the Terminator, they also follow in a long line that goes all the way back to Capek.