Posts Tagged ‘Brian Aldiss’

Examining Jeanette Winterson’s Ideas on AI and Literature

June 4, 2019

Last Saturday’s I for 1-2 June 2019 carried an interview in its ‘Culture’ section with the literary novelist, Jeanette Winterson, about her latest work, Frankissstein. This is another take on Frankenstein, with one strand of the book set in the contemporary world and exploring AI, the downloading of the human mind into computers and literature. Winterson’s the second literary novelist, following Ian McEwan, to turn to the world of robotics for their subject matter. I’ve critiqued both of them, based on reviews in the papers, because this comes across to me very much of another instance of ‘literary’ novelists appropriating Science Fiction subjects and issues, while disdaining and ignoring the genre itself.

Winterson’s interview with Max Liu was also very interesting in other respects, and worth reading. While I am not remotely inclined to read her book, and have real objections to some of her statements on philosophical grounds, I also found that there was much that she said, which I agreed with. Particularly about the exploitation of British communities under Brexit.

The Interview

The article, on page 49, was prefaced with the statement Jeanette Winterson talks to Max Liu about AI and why the novel could die if it doesn’t reinvent itself’. It ran

Jeanette Winterson would like to upload her brain to a computer. “It were possibl, I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to find out what it’s like to live without a body,” she says when we meet to discuss Frankissstein, her new novel about artificial intelligence. “I had a very religious upbringing, so to me, the idea that the body is just a house is normal.”

The 59-year-old wrote about her Pentecostal childhood in her semi-autobiographical debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). For the past couple of years, she has been reading about AI and robotics at the same time as thinking about Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic, Frankenstein. In her latest novel, the young Shelley appears as a character.

“I started writing about Mary in Italy at the beginning of the 19th century then worked my way to the present,” says Winterson. “There was no point setting a novel about AI in the future, because I wanted readers to realise the future is here. We don’t know how far big money has gone in developing AI, but I suspect it’s much further than we think.”

Winterson believes “we’re living in an ahistorical world where people don’t know how we got here”, the pace of change since the Industrial Revolution leaving us bewildered. “By its nature, reading slows us down,” she says,”so I’m pushing against the acceleration of modern life, creating imaginative space for readers to inhabit. Anybody who can imagine something is in control.”

Her new novel’s present-day characters include Ry, a transgender doctor, and Winterson says: “One of my godchildren identifies as transgender and I’ve been reading a lot about that because I thought I needed to understand. The idea of identity being provisional fed into this novel. Much Western thought rests upon the idea that there is a core self that we can know and perfect, but probably there isn’t.

Ray falls in love with Ron, who is trying to make his fortune by designing sex dolls. Ron plans to exploit post-Brexit tax breaks by opening a factory in Wales. “I hate to see how my class has been manipulated by people who have no thought and no care for them,” says Winterson. “I’m ashamed of my country for turning its back on a European project and choosing nationalism.”

Were she to live for another 100 years, Winterson says she would retrain as a scientist. Does this mean she doesn’t see a future for the novel?

“The novel is only on its way out if it doesn’t change,” she says. “In the 80s, it was too middle-class and too male. Then Angela Carter came along and was so fresh, but she had a terrible time initially. The example of English literature’s conservatism that kills me is when Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac won the Booker in 1984 and Carter’s Nights at the Circus wasn’t even shortlisted. It was the year before I published Oranges and I just thought: “This is so dull.”

In Frankissstein, one character says the urge to write comes from vanity, but Mary counters that it’s about hope. Which is it from Winterson? “My writing is a message in a bottle. I won’t be here long enough to get my brain uploaded, so I’m chucking this message overboard in the hope it will move the conversation on.”

Moravec, Transhumanism and Max Headroom

It would be interesting to find out what Winterson had been reading as her research for her book. My guess it would almost certainly include Hans Moravec and the downloaders and transhumanists. They aim to upload their minds into machines. A little while ago they held a party at which they avowed their intention to meet each other on the other side of the Galaxy in a million years’ time. Which is some ambition. I think Moravec himself believes that by this middle of this century the technology should have been perfected that will allow a human brain to be read in such minute detail that its functions can be reproduced on computer. This was the premise behind the Max Headroom pilot, 20 Minutes into the Future. In this tale, broadcast on Channel 4 in the 1980s, Headroom, a computer-generated TV personality, is created when his human original, an investigative journalist in a dystopian future London, knocks himself unconscious going through a crash barrier to escape the villains. The journo’s body is retrieved, and used by a teenage computer whizzkid, Brice, who seems to spend his whole life in the bath, to create Headroom as an experiment. The character takes his name from the last thing his original sees before he goes through the barrier: a sign saying ‘Max Headroom’.

Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect

I also wonder if she read any of the SF literature about downloading and cyberspace, including one of the first novels to tackle the subject, John Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect, published in 1970. This is about Bob Shairp, a man reduced to date and stored on computer tape. I haven’t read it, but according to Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree,

it is a deeply satirical book, homing in on the US Army, evangelism, newspapers and the like for its target, with an overall sense of fun reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Sheckley. (p. 307).

Future Shock and the Global Rate of Change

Winterson’s comment that it was useless to set the book in the future, as the future is already here, is very similar to the remarks I heard about two decades ago by William Gibson, one of the founders of the Cyberpunk SF genre. Speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of literature, Gibson said that the future was already here, it was just wasn’t spread out the same everywhere, so there were parts of the world, such as the developing countries, where it wasn’t present to the same extent as the more advanced West. As for her comments about living in an ahistorical age, where people don’t know how we got here, and the pace of change is accelerating, this sounds very close to Alvin Toffler and his idea of future shock, where societal change is now so advanced and rapid that it is profoundly disorienting. But it is possible to exaggerate the speed of such changes. I can remember reading an article a few years ago, that argued that the impact of modern technology is vastly overestimated. The internet, for example, it was claimed, isn’t half as revolutionary as it is made out as it is only a development of earlier technologies, like the telegram. It’s a contentious claim, but in many ways the most rapid technological, social and economic changes were in the century following Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1937. That was when Britain was transformed from an agricultural, almost feudal country into a modern, industrial society. Britain’s empire expanded massively, communications improved allowed the rapid movement of information, goods and people across the globe. It was the period when new transport technologies like the railway, the automobile, the electric tram, dirigible balloons, aeroplanes and the rocket were created, along with inventions like the X-Ray, electric light, the telegram, telephone, radio and the first experiments in television, and, of course, sound recording and the cinema. Contemporary technological advances can be seen as refinements or improvements on these, rather than completely new inventions.

Transgender People and the Question of Core Personality

I also have objections to her comments about whether or not there is a core, human personality. I’ve no doubt that one argument against it is that many people would be very different if they had had a different upbringing. If they’d been born into a different class, or allowed to study a particular subject at school or university, or if they’d decided to pursue a different career. And, obviously, if they’d been born a different gender. But twin studies suggest that people do have some aspects of their character determined by their biology rather than their upbringing. And I don’t think she makes her argument by pointing to transpeople. As I understand it, many transpeople believe very strongly that they have a core personality or nature. It’s just that this is at opposition to their biological gender. Hence their desire to change. It isn’t simply that they simply decide at some point that they want to change their sex, which would be the case if it was simply the case that they had no core personality. But perhaps Winterson’s godchild is different.

Computers and the Existence of Self 

I’m also suspicious of the idea, as it sounds rather close to the ideas of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmoore that consciousness is an illusion and that the brain is simply a meat machine for running memes, discrete units of culture like genes are discrete units of biological information. On the other hand, when she says that existing as a disembodied entity on a computer doesn’t seem strange to her because of her religious background, she’s in agreement with Paul Davies. In his book, God and the New Physics, he stated that he’s prepared to accept that life can exist outside the body because of the way computers could be used to simulate human personalities. I can remember reading that the wife of one of the leading downloaders was a Methodist minister. He commented about this apparent contradiction between their two disciplines by saying that they were both trying to do the same thing, but by different methods.

The Manipulation of the Working Class

I do agree wholeheartedly, however, with Winterson’s comments about how her class is being manipulated by people, who give them no thought and no care for them. The idea that the creation of tax breaks for businesses after Brexit would allow an amoral entrepreneur to build a factor for sex robots in Wales is all too credible. Just as I agree with her about Britain turning it’s back on the EU, though I also have strong criticisms of the European Union. But Brexit has been and is being used by the Tory extreme right and its related movements, like UKIP and Farage’s noxious Brexit people, to manipulate the working class and exploit them. If you look at what Boris Johnson and Farage want, the privatisation of the NHS to American private healthcare firms is very much on the table.

Conservatism, Sexism, Literature and Literary Snobbishness

She was also right about the conservatism and sexism of the literary world in the 1980s. Private Eye’s literary column attacked Hotel du Lac for its snobbishness at the time. And the Orange Prize for literature was set up because it was felt that women were being unfairly excluded from the main literary prizes. However, the remarkable success of women writers in winning the mainstream awards has also, in the view of Private Eye a few years ago, also called into question the reason for Orange Prize. Why have a separate prize for women when that year the lists were dominated by female writers? And as for Angela Carter, I wonder if some of the problems she had didn’t just come from her writing feminist magic realist tales and fairy stories, but also because the genre SF/Fantasy crowd liked her. Flicking through an old SF anthology I found in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham yesterday, I found a piece by her about literary theory along with pieces by other, firmly genre figures. A few years ago Terry Pratchett commented that the organisers of the Cheltenham Festival looked at him as if he was going to talk to his fans about motorcycle maintenance, and he was certainly subject to appalling snobbery by the literary critics when he started out. I think it’s therefore quite possible that Carter was disdained by those who considered themselves the guardians of serious literature because she was too genre. But I also wonder if Winterson herself, despite her deep love of Carter’s work, doesn’t also have the same attitude that sees genre fiction as somehow not proper literature, as she, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and the others write.

I have to say that I don’t see the death of novel being anywhere near imminent. Not from looking along the shelves at Waterstone’s, and particularly not in the genre fiction, crime, horror, and SF. But it says something about the apparent lack of inspiration in literary fiction that it is turning to SF for its subjects. Winterson said some fascinating things in her interview, but to me, genre SF still did AI, robots and downloading first and better than the mainstream novelists now writing about it.

 

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Jeanette Winterson’s Cyberfeminist New Tale of Frankenstein, AI and Sex Robots

May 26, 2019

A week or so ago I put up several articles criticising Ian McEwan’s latest book as another example of mainstream, literary writers’ appropriation of Science Fictional subjects. As I said in these articles, what annoys me about this is the higher respect given to these works, even though genre authors have frequently tackled the subjects much better. Private Eye in its piece describing how the literary set were turning to robots and AI said that after McEwan’s book would come one by Jeanette Winterson. This is Frankissstein: A Love Story, which was reviewed in Friday’s issue of the I, for 24th May 2019 by Lucy Scholes, on page 44 of the paper.

I realise that it’s dangerous to comment on a book you’ve never read, and that reviews can be notoriously inaccurate guides to what a book or other work is actually like. I can remember the Oxford poet, Tom Paulin on the Late Review about two decades or more ago really attacking the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, as a piece of Nazi cinema in precisely so many words. He had a point in that some groups had felt that the film was somehow racist and discriminatory, particularly in the portrayal of Jar Jar Binks. Binks, it was held, was a caricature of Blacks, Hispanics or gays. But many others didn’t find anything racist or homophobic in the movie, and Paulin’s attack was itself a grotesque misrepresentation of the movie itself.

But Scholes’ brief description of the book and its themes raise issues that deserve comment and criticism.

The Plot

The book is split between two periods. The first is that night in 1816 in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva when Byron, his lover, Claire Clairmont, the Shelleys and their doctor, John Polidori, all met to write a ghost story, the evening which saw the birth of Mary Shelley’s tale of the monstrous creation of artificial, human life, Frankenstein. The second is a contemporary tale about a romance between a young transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who meets and falls in love with the charismatic Victor Stein at a cryonics facility in the Arizona desert. Stein is a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence, who, according to the review, ‘envisions a bodyless utopia in which race, faith gender and sexuality no longer exist.’

Caught up in this tale is Ron Lord, a millionaire, who has made his fortune from advance sex robots, and his partner, the evangelical Claire, who has designed a version for Christians, and an investigating journalist, Polly D. Ron Lord’s empire of sex robots its misogynistic. His deluxe model offers three orifices and interesting conversation, in which they tell the user he’s very clever and asks him if he knows anything about Real Madrid. Looking at their names, it seems very clear to me that they’re supposed to be the modern counterparts of Byron’s party 200 years ago. But it’s a moot point how accurate this portrayal is about what they would be like if they lived now. As for Claire’s invention of the ‘Christian Companion’, this seems to be a gibe by Winterson at Christian hypocrisy. Winterson’s a lesbian, who had a miserable childhood growing up in an extreme Christian sect. This formed the basis for his book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was adapted as a TV drama by the Beeb. This seems to have established the 9.00 Sunday night slot as the venue for intense dramas about gay women. It was followed a few years later by Fingersmith, a lesbian drama set in the Victorian underworld. And now there’s Gentleman Jack, now playing on BBC 1, based on a real Victorian aristocratic lady, who married her gay lover. I’m very much aware that many Christians do hate gays, and that in response many gay men and women have turned away from Christianity and religion. But this isn’t necessarily the case. I know one woman, who was brought up by her mother and her lesbian partner, who grew up perfectly well adjusted. She was deeply religious herself, and went on to marry a vicar. She also loves her mother, and respects her for the excellent way she feels her mother brought her up.

Cyberspace as Disembodied Platonic Realm

Some of the ideas in Winterson’s book also seems strangely dated. Like the idea of AI as offering a utopia in which people are disembodied entities without race, gender, sexuality or religion. This sounds like it’s based on the views of some of the cyberfeminists back in the 1990s. They hailed the internet as forum in which women would be free to participate as individuals without gender. Now there is a real issue here with misogyny on the internet. There are some sites and forums which are very hostile to women, so much so that a few years ago there were comments that there no women on the internet, as those who were seemed few and far between. But the solution to that problem is to create a culture in which women are free to participate and interact without their gender being issue, rather than forced to disguise or deny it.

It’s also vulnerable to the opposite criticism from feminist academics like Margaret Wertheimer. In her The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Wertheimer criticised cyberspace for being too masculine. It was a disembodied, Platonic realm of mind like the heaven of religious belief. Women weren’t interested in such ideal states, and so were put off it. This idea was influential. One of the museums and art galleries held an exhibition of Virtual worlds created by artists experimenting with the medium. One of the women artists, whose work was featured, included as part of her world the sound of the viewer breathing as they entered her artificial reality. She had done so, she told New Scientist, because the absence of any kind of physical interaction in these Virtual worlds was the product of male scientists and engineers, who made the passage through them like that of a disembodied being. As a woman, she wanted to rectify this through the inclusion of details that made it appear that the viewer was physically there.

It’s over 20 years since these arguments were made, and much has changed since then. There are now very many women on the internet, with female sites like Mum’s Net and the feminist Jezebel. And some of the online games and worlds, like Second Life, do allow their users to interact as physical entities as the games’ characters or citizens.

Robot-Human Romance and Sex

As for her view of sex robots, it’s true that the creation of an artificial woman purely as a sex slave is misogynist. At the moment such machines aren’t really much more than sophisticate sex dolls, and some of those, who use them do seem to be very misogynist. One of the denizens of the Manosphere, the Happy Humble Hermit, who really does despise women and feminism, apparently has a link on his web page to a firm making them. But despite dire warning that these machines are a threat to women’s status and real, genuine, loving or respectful sexual relationship, the existing sex robots aren’t popular. A Spanish brothel which specialised in them has had to get rid of them because of lack of custom. Women don’t have to fear being replaced by compliant, subservient female robots, as in Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives, just yet.

But science fiction also shows that there is an interest, at least among some people, for genuine romantic relationships between robots, and humans and robots. One of the Star Wars spin-off books published in the 1980s was Hardware Honeymoon, whose cover showed C-3PIO holding hands with a female robot. The robot seems to have become the subject of some women’s fantasies. One of the independent comics from California was Wet Satin, whose female creator based her stories on women’s sexual fantasies. One of these was about a robot, which looked remarkably similar to the Star Wars robot. Rather less luridly, Tanith Lee wrote a book in the 1980s about a woman having a romance with a robot in The Silver Metal Lover. You could go on. There is a desire for sex with robots, but this seems in most cases to be within the framework of a romantic relationship with a genuinely sentient being, not a mechanical sex slave.

Stein’s Disembodied Utopia Horrific

As for Stein’s idea of a post-human utopia of disembodied minds, this is profoundly unattractive, as Scholes herself says in her review, saying ‘As with all brave new worlds, though, the reality is rarely perfect’. It seems to be based on the Transhumanists hope that in the near future technology will have advanced so far that that humans will be able to download their minds into computers, so that they can exist as pure disembodied entities in cyberspace, or move into robot bodies, like the hero at the end of the South African SF film, Chappie. But Winterson’s, or Stein’s cybernetic dream of posthuman, post-flesh utopia is horrifically sterile. Part of what makes diversity and multiculturalism such powerful ideologies is that people are naturally drawn, fascinated with and treasure difference. It’s why western tourists travel around the world, to Asia, Africa and South America, to enjoy the experience of different cultures and meeting people of different races and religions. There is friction and hostility between different peoples, all too often exploding into horrific violence. But the reduction of humanity to disembodied minds doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t genuinely promote tolerance, equality and the feeling of common humanity so much as negates the problem by destroying the physical and spiritual differences that form the basis of human identity. It’s certainly not an idea that’s popular in SF. In just about all the Science Fiction I’ve read, people retain their gender and other aspects of their identity even after they cross over into cyberspace. When they appear, either in cyberspace itself, or conjured up in computer displays for characters in the real world, they appear as they did in life, complete with their gender and race. And I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of people would find that far more preferable to the strange disembodied existence Stein offers in Winterson’s book.

LGBTQ and Transgender Issues With Winterson’s/ Stein’s Utopia

Which also raises the question about its handling of LGBTQ issues. The inclusion of a transgender character seems to be a deliberate attempt to make the book very relevant to contemporary issues, now that transgender rights have overtaken gays as the issue of the moment. Some transgender people seem to look forward to a future without physical gender. I can remember reading an interview with the first, or one of the first, people to undergo the operation, April Ashley, in an interview in one of the Daily Mail’s Sunday supplements years ago. She looked forward to a time when humanity would have moved beyond gender, and pregnancy would become a matter of simply taking a pill. But I think such people are a very small minority. Back in the 1990s there was a demand from gay Science Fiction fans for Star Trek to tackle homosexuality and include gay characters or stories. This was several years before the new, revived Dr. Who did so, and so would have been extremely controversial. Star Trek – The Next Generation tried to make an effort in that direction with a story in which Lieutenant Riker formed a relationship with a member of an alien species, the J’Nai, who had evolved past gender. However, from time to time there were throwbacks, who were persecuted. They would be hunted down and then treated so that they were proper neuter members of their society. The alien with whom Riker has fallen in love is one such throwback, a female. She is caught by the authorities. Riker tries to free her, but it is too late. She is now neuter, and so has no interest in any sexual or romantic relationship with him. The story’s a metaphorical attempt to deal with the underlying issues around homosexuality, gender identity and forbidden sexuality, but was bitterly criticised by gay SF fans because it didn’t tackle the issue of homosexuality overtly. The Federation was, remember, an organisation in which humanity had moved beyond racial and cultural prejudice and sexism, and gay Trekkers and their supporters felt that the prejudice against homosexuality would also have no place in such a future. But they were also highly critical about how the story presented gays. They felt that it showed them unfairly as wanting to abolish gender. And Winterson’s book does seem to do the same with its depiction of a romance between the transgender character, Ry Shelley, and Stein, with his dream of an asexual disembodied world.

Conclusion

I may well be doing Winterson’s book a great disservice, but it does seem peculiarly dated for a book which is trying so desperately to be acutely relevant. And I do feel that readers would probably get a better idea of the issues about cyberspace and AI by going elsewhere. I think there’s probably a better fictional treatment of these subjects waiting to be written. And as for human-robot romance and sex, this has also been very extensively explored in genre SF. And some of this almost certainly represents what people really want from such relationships than simple sex robots.

As for the book’s inclusion of Mary Shelley, Byron, Claire Clairmont and Polidori, Brian Aldiss also did it, or something like it, in his 1970’s SF story Frankenstein Unbound. This was filmed by B-movie maven Roger Corman. It’s not supposed to be a good film, but even so, it seems far more to my taste than Winterson’s book.

 

 

 

Yay! David R. Bunch’s ‘Moderan’ Now Back in Print

May 7, 2019

Bit of good news for fans of classic SF. Looking through the Cheltenham branch of Waterstone’s last week, I found that David R. Bunch’s Moderan was now in print. This was published in 1971, and is really a series of vignettes originally published in small magazines, as well as the big SF mags Amazing and Fantastic. These are set in a future in which organic humanity has decided that its reached the end of its natural evolution, and to evolve further it must transform itself into machines. This process is described as it affects the hero, Stronghold 10. The style is superficially sympathetic to heighten what the reality of what this new, cyborg humanity has become: immortal, but paranoid with each stronghold at war with their neighbours.

Brian Aldiss gives as sample paragraph of Bunch’s prose style, which explains the background to the novel, in his and David Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion Year Spree:

Now, to turn tedious for a time, this is what happened. Flesh-man had developed to that place on his random Earth-ball home where it was to be the quick slide down to oblivion. All the signs were up, the flags were out for change for man and GO was DOWN. To ENDING. Flesh-man was at the top, far as he could climb as flesh-man, and from there he was certain to tumble. But he had the luck to have these brave good white-maned men in the white smocks, the lab giants, the shoulders, and great-bulged thighs of our progress (what matter if they were weazened, probe-eyed, choleric scheming, little men sometimes – more often than not, REALLY?) authors of so much of man’s development and climb to that place where he was just due to die, expire, destroy himself and his home at this grand stage of development to make new-metal man and set him in the Strongholds upon the plasto-coated Earth that had been man’s random and inefficient home. New-metal replaced flesh (down to the few flesh-strips and those, we hope, may soon be gone) the bones were taken out and new metal rods, hinges and sheets put in (it was easy!) and the organs all became engines and marvellous tanks for scientifically controlled functional efficiency forever. YAY! Don’t you see?! Our Scientists made of life-man (the VERY-STRANGE-accident man) essentially a dead-elements man, one who could now cope with eternity, but he certainly was not a dead man. AH! Heavens no! He was alive! with all the wonderful scienc3e of the Earth ages, and just as functional as anyone could wish. YAY! science, take your plaudits now! You’ve shown what was meant from the beginning for the VERY-STRANGE-accident man. (p.324).

Aldiss states that it’s a technophobic piece in the SF tradition of questioning technological progress that began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Moderan was out of print for a long time, so I’m looking forward to reading it some time. Bunch also wrote poetry in an avant-garde style very much like his prose, though in verse. A collection of his pieces, of which only one or two were SF, The Heartacher and the Warehouseman, was published in the 1990s. The title poem is set in the Moderan world, and is about one of these cyborgs coming to a warehouse carrying his pump in his heart. He complains that he – and all the other cyborgs – have no heart. The cyborg warehouseman, suspicious, retreats behind his armoury of weapons, informing him of all the cyborg bits and pieces they have, like hearts and mechanical fingers. But he fails to understand the man’s real complaint – that their civilisation has no heart in the metaphorical sense. The warehouseman drives the Heartacher away, but wonders what will happen to him as he retreats back into his cubby-hole.

It’s one of those pieces that was acutely relevant in the 1990s, when there was much talk among the chattering classes of transhumanism and cyborgisation. It was the decade when Radio 3 broadcast the series Grave New Worlds examining these possibilities through interviews with writers, artists and scientists, including Paul J. McAuley, J.G. Ballard and the Australian performance artist, Stelarc, who really has tried to turn himself into a cyborg in performances in which he wired himself up to the net, so that images found online would work his body automatically through galvanic stimulators some Borg organic puppet, and by giving himself a third, cybernetic arm. It’s still relevant as prosthetic limbs continue to improve. While these are an immense benefit to those, who have lost their real limbs through accident or disease, it does raise the question of how far this process can go and humans become the cyborgs of SF. This was the central question David Whittaker was pondering when he created Dr. Who’s cybermen. Bunch’s novel also seems to have influenced one of the writers of Dr. Who Magazine way back in the ’70s. One of the comic strips, Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman, was about a cyberman, who had some how retained his emotions and compassion. The story was set on the planet ‘Moderan’. And in the 1980s the British space scientist, Duncan Lunan, expressed concerns that people, who were heavily reliant on medical machines suffered a loss of creativity when he explored the possibility of similar mergers between humans and machines in his class Man and the Planets.

I’m glad that this lost classic is back in print. But still more than a little annoyed that it, and other SF works like it, are overlooked by the literary crowd in favour of those by ‘literary’ authors like Ian McEwan. Sorry to ride this old hobby-horse again, but a few weeks ago there was an interview with McEwan in the I. The newspaper mentioned to him that Science Fiction fans were upset about him denying that his book was part of the genre. McEwan repeated his sentiment, saying it wasn’t SF, but was based on him considering real world issues. Well, so is much Science Fiction, all the way back to Frankenstein. Aldiss has praised it as the first real work of Science Fiction as it was based on science as it was known at the time. This was Galvani’s experiments making the severed legs of frogs twitch and move through electricity. McEwan’s attitude shows the basic contempt of many literary authors and critics for the genre. They’re keen to borrow its tropes, but sneer at it as essentially trivial fantasy, unlike the serious stuff they’re writing. Much SF is, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But there is a very large amount which isn’t, and which deserves to be taken as seriously as so-called ‘serious’ literary works like McEwan’s.

 

Private Eye: Literary Authors Now Turning to SF’s Robots for Subject Matter

April 17, 2019

According to this fortnight’s Private Eye, the British literary authors Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro are turning to the world of robots and AI for their next books. A brief snippet on page 34 of the issue for 19th April – 2nd May 2019 runs

For middle-aged authors looking for a reboot, the trendiness of artificial intelligence and robots is proving a godsend.

In Ian McEwan’s just-out Machines Like Me, a couple acquire a male synthetic human and a love triangle duly develops ( a set-up quite similar to the main storyline of Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans, with the robot’s gender switched).

In her forthcoming Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson – unfazed by having missed last year’s Frankenstein anniversary – reworks Mary Shelley’s novel in a story featuring not only Victor Stein, a professor “leading the debate around AI”, but also a character who sells sex bots. Kazuo Ishiguro told the Oxford literary festival his next book will be about AI too… Who else? Rushdie? Amis? Jeffrey Archer? 

One of the complaints of the SF world back in the 1990s was that literary fiction, and writers like McEwan, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson and the rest of them were lifting ideas from Science Fiction to great critical acclaim, while the genre itself remained despised by literary critics and prizes. This seems to be yet another example.

Not all serious literary critics are dismissive of Science Fiction. The late J.G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guine managed to achieve mainstream critical appreciation, and some of the newspapers do give good review to SF books, like the Guardian and the I. And the years have passed since I heard the late Terry Pratchett speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Literary, telling the crowd that the Festival’s organisers seemed to look at him as if they expected him to give a talk on mending motorbikes. Brian Aldiss in his and Peter Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion  Year Spree, states that in the 1950s even pornography had a higher reputation among critics than Science Fiction. More recent critics and historians of the genre have pointed out that there never was quite the severe break between proper literature and Science Fiction in Britain as there was in America. Serious literary writers like Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess also wrote Science Fiction, as did C.S. Lewis and Conan Doyle. Nevertheless, I still get the impression that there is in certain literary quarters more than a little of the old literary disdain still remaining. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian Science Fiction, but she has still sneered at the genre as ‘talking squids in space’ apparently.

And looking at the plots of some of the books mentioned in the Eye article, I wondered how many of the literary types reading these pieces would be aware of similar works by some of the great genre SF writers. If you’re talking about romances between humans and robots, there’s Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, about a girl who has an affair with a robot, which is destroyed by jealous human males.  The robot scientist, Geoff Simons, mentions a series of SF tales about romances between people and robots, or the construction of sex robots, in his book Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992) including Satisfaction Guaranteed (1951), by Isaac Asimov; Maria Bujanska’s Krwawa Maria (Bloody Mary), 1977, R. Forsyth’s ‘Silicon Valley of the Dolls’, 1979; The Pleasure Machines (1969); Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1974) and such as Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and Sins of the Fleshapoids.

As for Frankenstein, Brian Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley’s classic should be regarded as the first real work of Science Fiction, as it was based on genuine science, as it was understood in the early 19th century. He also wrote a book inspired by Shelley, Frankenstein Unbound, which is split between Shelley’s time and a technological future. It was later filmed by the old producer of low-budget SF, Roger Corman.

Winterson has previous in taking themes from science/ science fiction. Way back in the 1990s, when everyone was getting very excited at discovering a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or ‘theory of everything’, she wrote a book, GUT Symmetries, about it and parallel world. She’s also written novels of feminist Magic Realism, following the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter. But the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky, also wrote a series of tales about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines, set in a fairy tale universe in which robots were the dominant life form. Another of Lem’s books is a series of philosophical explorations of machine and human intelligence and nature from the point of view of a vast computer that has far surpassed the intellects of its human makers. Lem was a high-brow author, who, after winning various awards from the Science Fiction community, then went on to decry Science Fiction, so he personally shared the sneering view of some mainstream literary critics. However, his books are still well worth reading.

And any literary exploration of robots, AI and the human condition inevitably involves Asimov’s robots of the books I, Robot and the Caves of Steel, and his Three Laws of Robotics, as well as William Gibson and Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk’s a form of SF set in dystopian near futures, where humans are able to ‘jack into’ cyberspace, a Virtual Reality inside the Web, and where AIs have consciousness and some rights. The classics of this genre include Gibson’s Neuromancer, Count Zero, Burning Chrome and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  One of his novels, relevant to any literary discussion of humans and AI, was Idoru, about a man, who has an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Gibson was very hip with his worlds of urban decay and high-tech criminality mixed with the glamour of the super-rich and celebrities. Shortly after Idoru was published, one of the Japanese tech firms declared they had created the first, computer-generated rock star. There was a powerful impression, shared by Gibson himself, that the computer industry looked to his books for ideas without accepting that his books were also part of SF’s tradition of ‘literature as warning’. His futures had great AIs and cool Virtual Reality and hackers, but they also featured poverty, despair and a massive gap between rich and poor.

And then there’s the film Bladerunner, one of the great SF classics, and the problems it poses about humanity and human capacity for compassion within the narrative of the detective thriller. It’s another dystopian future, where animals are all but extinct and humanity has created a class of artificial slaves, replicants. These are indistinguishable from real humans, except through psychological testing. The final speech by the replicant leader, Roy Batty, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Set ships on fire off the shores of Orion’, written by actor Rutger Hauer, has itself become one of the classic speeches of cinema, and quoted and parodied by other SF writers.

In my opinion, whatever McEwan, Winterson and Ishiguro write about robots, genre writers will have got their first and done it better. And I wonder if the literary critics and award judges will recognise that when these books inevitably get put in for the Booker and other literary awards. And I also feel that when they are, these awards should be open to self-conscious genre writers. Because if the literary crowd can write about robots and win literary prizes for them, it’s only going to be snobbishness that keeps the genre SF writers from winning them too.  

Stephen Hawking to Play The Book in New Series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

February 18, 2018

The I newspaper yesterday reported that the physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, is set to play the Book in a new radio series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Entitled ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Edition’ the series will commemorate the original show on Radio 4 back in 1978, featuring the original cast.

I loved the original series of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the first two books based on the show, the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. However, I lost interest in it after the third book. I tried reading the fourth, only to give up. I think by that time Douglas Adams himself was growing tired of writing them. I’ve heard someone say on an interview that he was only lured back to write his last Hitch-Hiker book by the publisher’s promise that in it he could destroy every possible Earth in every possible universe. So I’m not sure I’ll listen to it, especially as the series is being carried on by other writers.

I also wasn’t impressed by Adams’ expressed contempt for the genre he wrote in. Back in the 1990s he was interviewed on the radio by Paxo, who said his book was Science Fiction, but different. It was good. Adams replied by saying that he didn’t write Science Fiction. Which is odd, because that’s what Hitch-Hiker is. But I guess Adams wanted to avoid being pigeonholed as a genre writer.

At that time the prejudice of the literary establishment towards Science Fiction and Fantasy was much stronger than it is now. I can remember seeing Terry Pratchett speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, saying how the organisers looked on him as if he was going to talk to people about fixing motorcycles. There’s a clip of the BBC arts programme, The Late Review, in which the Oxford lecturer and poet, Tom Paulin, and a female litterateur are asked to review one of Pratchett’s books, where they both make very disparaging remarks. The woman states that she felt like writing across it in big lines ‘I cannot read any more’. Paulin compared it to lifting up a stone to find all these weird people doing weird things underneath it. And going further back to the 1950s Brian Aldiss commented in The Trillion Year Spree that at that time, despite being championed by Kingsley Amis, pornography had a better reputation than Science Fiction amongst the literary elite.

Pratchett had to fight against that literary snobbishness throughout his life, but is now being taken very seriously by critics. I think Adams avoided it. Back in the ’90s he and Hitch-Hiker were the subjects of one edition of the South Bank Show with Melvin Bragg. But perhaps the price of that critical acclaim was his denial that he wrote Science Fiction at all.

But other people are different, and so I’ve no doubt that there are millions of Hitch-Hiker fans out there, who will be delighted to hear the news. They know who they are. They’re the people, who bought merchandising, like the Hitch-Hiker bath towels. This was a large, white bath towel with the text from the HHGG talking about how every Hitch-Hiker really needed to know where their towel was on it. I found one of those in Forever People, the comics/ SF shop in Bristol. The show’s fans are also the people, who organised conventions with dubious names like ‘Slartibartday’, after one of the creators of the Earth, Slartibartfast.

Hawking is in many ways an ideal choice for The Book after the death of Peter Jones, who was its original voice on Radio 4 and then in the BBC 2 TV series. He already has an electronic voice to fit the character of an electronic book, and is a world famous space scientist and advocate of space colonisation. But you wonder how massive his ego will be after playing a publication, which the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes as, amongst some people, having displaced the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom.

Harlan Ellison’s ‘Dangerous Visions’ Published as SF Classics

January 7, 2017

Also looking through Waterstone’s SF shelves last week, I found that Gollancz has published the groundbreaking short story anthology, Dangerous Visions as part of their range of classic works of Science Fiction. The book, edited by Harlan Ellison, who wrote the classic Star Trek episode ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’, caused uproar when the stories were published in the early ’70s. Several of the stories had appeared in Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, and constituted the American equivalent of the British ‘New Wave’. The controversial subjects of some the stories and their sexual explicitness resulted in a questions in parliament about the magazines’ perceived obscenity. This came after the arts council had renewed its grant to Moorcock’s magazine for the following year, which is more than a little ironic. Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree, quote Ellison as saying of the ‘New Wave’ writers ‘these guys is blasphemous’. However, in their opinion the American writers were far more traditional and less radical and iconoclastic than their British counterparts. But if you’re interested, you can now read it again and judge for yourself.

Simon Pegg and SF and Comic Book Infantilism

May 23, 2015

I was on holiday last week, which was why I haven’t put anything up for a few days. Never mind – I’m back now, and ready to pour more scorn, criticism and bile on the Tory government and the establishment sycophants and global corporate exploiters that support it.

But before I do, I’d like to tackle one issue that’s been bothering me, ever since I read about it in the papers and Radio Times last week. Simon Pegg got in the news for claiming that contemporary culture was being infantilised through Science Fiction, comic books, and the movies that were based on them.

As Pegg himself admitted, this is deeply ironic comic from him. He’s made his name as an SF and comic book nerd. In Spaced, the comedy he co-wrote, he played a struggling comic book artist/writer, who worked behind the counter at his local SF and comic shop. As well as the zombie rom-com, Shaun of the Dead, he also wrote Paul, his homage to science fiction geekdom, in which he and Nick Frost play a pair of SF geeks, who stumble upon the real alien that the US government has kept secret ever since the Roswell crash. The interview in the Radio Times, in which he made the comments, begins with a discussion of his role as Scotty and one of the writers on the new Star Trek movie.

Pegg made his comments about the infantilising effects of comics and SF when talking about how he was trying to smarten up and not be a ‘slobby husband’ for his wife, Maureen. As part of which, he had stopped drinking, turned to living a healthier life style, and stopped dressing as a teenager. The Radio Times then went to state how this new, adult perspective had changed his view of Science Fiction and comics. It said

This new grown-up perspective chimes with Pegg’s views on the culture in which he made his name and plies his trade. As Mark Gatiss said in Radio Times last month, “The geeks have indeed inherited the Earth.” On the other hand, this empowers the fanboy who wrote an autobiography called Nerd Do Well.

But on the other… “Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed.

Now, I don’t know if that is a good thing. Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things comic books, superheroes … Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

It is a kind of dumbing down in a way, “he continues. “Because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

Now Pegg hasn’t said anything that a multitude of other, SF writers haven’t said before. Ray Bradbury, the author of The Martian Chronicles, famously said that the ‘Golden Age’ of Science Fiction was thirteen. Brian Aldiss, who amongst his various works wrote the short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long, on which the Kubrick/ Spielberg film A.I. was based, was highly unimpressed by Star Wars. In his history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree, he made the sneering observation of its massive fan popularity that ‘a thousand throats thirsting for escapism must be slaked (if not cut)’. Many SF authors moved away from writing SF over their careers, such as Christopher Priest. Priest denies that he was ever an SF writer, but does not despise the genre or its fans. He’s said that he still has affection for the genre. Michael Moorcock, the editor of the SF magazine, New Worlds, leader of the SF ‘New Wave’, and author of the cult Elric novels, in the edition of the 1979 series on SF writers, Time Out of Mind, also stated that Science Fiction was essentially an immature form of literature. Moorcock then considered that the reason why so many SF writers had stopped and gone on to other forms of literature was simply that they’d grown up.

The great Polish writer, Stanislaus Lem, made pretty much the same point from his own personal experience in his book on Science Fiction, Microworlds. Lem’s an extremely highbrow Polish writer, who amongst his various works wrote Solaris, which was later filmed by the Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. Lem has been very strongly influenced by the South American ‘magic realist’ writer, Borges, and was deeply impressed by Philip K. Dick. In Microworlds, he talks about the ‘transformation of trash’, in which the shop-worn props of Science Fiction – robots, aliens, mutants and spaceships – were transformed into a new kind of serious literature by Dick. He hoped, through his own writing and literary criticism, to make a similar contribution and raise the literary standards of the genre so that it could take its place as serious literature. He abandoned this, and the genre itself, as impossible.

Moorcock also began his career keen to raise the literary standard of Science Fiction. He was keen to import the experimental styles explored by William S. Burroughs and other, contemporary, literary writers. Again, in Time Out Of Mind, he talks about how he find his attempts to do so rejected and condemned by the SF old guard, particularly Frederick Pohl.

Now it’s fair to say that much Science Fiction is escapist fantasy, as is much literature generally. Nevertheless, much Science Fiction literature and cinema has tried to tackle serious issues. SF at times has been the ‘literature of warning’, exploring the terrible consequences that could arise if a particular political, social or technological course is pursued now. It’s also been used to critique and criticise existing society. This was particularly true of SF in the former Soviet Union, where writers like the Strugatsky brothers wrote in the ‘Aesopian mode’, to present Science Fictional fables to say obliquely observations about the true state of Soviet society, that could not be said openly.

It’s possible to draw up a list of Science Fiction novels, films and short stories, that have made serious points about human existence and the state of society. Most fans of the genre undoubtedly have their own favourites, or can think of others, that also do this. This is just happens to be the list I’ve drawn up at the moment.

1. War of the Worlds.

H.G. Wells’ novel of the devastation of Earth by Martian invaders had its origins in a discussion between Wells and his brother about the destruction of indigenous, primitive societies, by European colonialism. Wells wondered what it would be like, if a similarly technologically superior invader came and did the same to Great Britain, the leading imperialist power of the late 19th century.

The book remains relevant to contemporary society even today, more than a century after its publication. Stanislas Lem has praised the book for its depiction of the nature of total war, and what it feels like to be the victim of an invader determined to wipe you out utterly. Lem lived through the Nazi invasion and occupation of his home country. Apart from their aim of exterminating the Jews in the Holocaust, the Nazis also saw Poles, along with Russians, Ukrainians and the other Slavic peoples as ‘subhuman’, who were to be worked to death as slave labour. Their treatment of the Poles was similarly brutal. Lem felt that Wells’ novel of alien invasion gave a far better depiction of what the Nazi occupation was actually like, than many purely factual accounts of this dark period in his country’s history, to the point where he got annoyed with them and discarded them.

2. Brave New World.

Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel of the dehumanising effects of biotechnology, in which humans are artificially gestated in hatcheries. In this technocratic, hedonistic society, real culture has withered away and society itself grown static because of the concentration on the purely sensual.

3. Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Karel Capek’s stage play introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. It was one of the very first to explore the possibility that humans could one day be overthrown by their mechanical creations. The robots in the play aren’t mechanical so much as artificially created humans, very much like the Replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Capek was writing at the time working class, radical Socialist and Communist revolutions had broken out in central and eastern Europe, and the play can also be read as a parable about their threat to the bourgeois European order.

If anything, the book has become even more relevant today, as scientists and social activists have become increasingly alarmed at the threat that robots might shortly do exactly as described in the book. Kevin Warwick, the Reader in Cybernetics at Reading University and former cyborg, begins his pop-science book on robots, March of the Machines, with a chilling depiction of the world of 2050. In this world, the machines have very definitely taken over. The mass of humanity have been exterminated, with those few remaining either living wild, if lucky, or enslaved as domesticated animals by their mechanical masters.

Some international agencies share this alarm. There is a pressure group actively campaigning against the construction of killer robots. A few years ago the international authorities were so alarmed that they actively forbade the use of such robots on the battlefield after one country made the suggestion that such machines should be used today, based on existing technology.

4. Silent Running

After working on 2001, Doug Trumbull wanted to produce a less coldly-intellectual, more emotional SF film than Stanley Kubrick’s epic. This was film is one of the first with a ‘green’ message, about humanity’s destruction of the environment. It’s about one astronaut’s quest to save the last green spaces from Earth, now preserved on spaceships, from destruction. He disobeys the command to scupper his ship and return to Earth, and takes them to safety in the rings of Saturn.

Other films exploring similar themses include Zero Population Growth and Soylent Green. In Zero Population Growth, the world is massively overpopulated to the point where most animal and plant species, including domestic pets, have become extinct. The government therefore mandates a total cessation of reproduction for a generation. The film tells the story of a couple’s attempts to preserve the life of their child after the wife finds out she’s pregnant. The husband and father is played by Oliver Reed, who was a brilliant actor as well as notorious drunk.

Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston, and based on Harry Harrison’s book, Make Room! Make Room!, was the first SF book to explore the possible consequences of the global population explosion and mass starvation.

5. Solaris

Based on Lem’s novel of the same name, Tarkovsky’s novel explores the problem of communicating with a genuinely alien intelligence, and what this would say in turn about human nature. The story follows the attempt of an astronaut to find out just what is happening aboard a space station orbiting the eponymous world. The planet itself is one vast organism, which creates replicas drawn from the human explorers’ own minds to try and work out what they are. One of these replicas takes the form of the hero’s ex-lover, with whom he begins a second, doomed romance.

Among its comments on space and humanity’s place in the universe are the lines ‘There are only a few billion of us. A mere handful. We don’t need spaceships. What man needs is man.’

The film was remade about a decade or so ago by Steven Soderbergh. His version is shorter, but apart from adding a sex scene and making Snow, the physicist, a Black woman rather than White man, there really isn’t much difference between the two, to the point where in some places they’re shot for shot the same. I prefer Tarkovsky’s original version, but you may feel differently.

6. Stalker

This is another movie by Tarkovsky, based on the novel by the Strugatsky brothers. The stalker of the title is an outlaw, who makes his money taking people into, and retrieving objects from, a mysterious, forbidden zone. In the book, the normal laws of nature do not apply within the zone, and its hinted that it is due to the crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. In Tarkovsky’s version, the zone is result of some kind of disaster. Tarkovsky’s film explores the nature of guilty and responsibility as the various characters attempt to venture further into the zone. The highly polluted, dangerous environment has a destructive effect on the biology of those entering into it. The Stalker himself has a disabled daughter, Monkey. Some hope for humanity is indicated by the fact that, although she cannot walk, Monkey nevertheless has developed psychokinesis.

Although this is another classic of Soviet, and indeed SF cinema generally, I think it’s seriously flawed. Tarkovsky cut out most of the special effects sequences from the books on which Stalker and Solaris were based, in order to concentrate on the human characters. As a result, the film suffers from a lack of genuine, shown menace, and instead is verbose and actually rather boring. Also, the central character in the book is far nastier. In the final scene in the novel, he wilfully sacrifices his accomplice to one of the Zone’s traps, so that he can retrieve the central, alien object coveted by everyone venturing into the zone – a golden ball that grants wishes. This is a film, which in my view does need to be remade by a director like Ridley Scott.

7. Blade Runner.

Apart from its sheer immense style, and the beauty of some of the scenes, this is another film that attempts to explore human nature through the mirror of its artificial, bio-mechanical opposite. Although it’s told from Deckard’s perspective, in many ways he’s actually the villain. The Replicants he hunts are bio-engineered slaves, who have escaped their bondage and come to Earth in the hope of extending their extremely short, artificial lifespans. They can’t, but in the process grow and develop in psychological depth and as moral beings. To the point where they are morally superior to their human creators. The penultimate scene where Batty saves Deckard from falling shows that he has passed the Voight-Comp test, which judges a subject’s a humanity according to their empathy and desire to save a trapped, struggling animal. It also has one of the most quoted poems in SF cinema – I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe, ships on fire off the shores of Orion…’

8. They Live.

This alien invasion drama is also a sharp satire on modern, global capitalism. A homeless construction worker discovers that the world is secretly dominated and exploited by skeletal aliens, who are at the heart of global capitalism. While it’s a low-budget action piece, Carpenter has said in interviews that he intended to give it an extra element by using it to criticise contemporary politics and economics. In the film, humanity’s exploitation by the interplanetary corporate business elite and their human shills and partners is responsibility for mass poverty, unemployment and homelessness – all to boost profits. If you cut out the aliens, this is pretty much what the bankers and global corporate elite have done and are still doing today. And it’s got the classic line, ‘I’ve come to do two things: kick ass and chew gum. And I’m all out of gum.’

9. V For Vendetta

This is another film, which has been denounced by the author of the work on which it’s based, in this case the SF strip of the same name by Alan Moore, which first appeared in the British anthology comic, Warrior before being published by DC in their Vertigo imprint. The strip was very much a product of its time – Thatcher’s Britain, and the new Cold War with the former Soviet Union. The strip envisaged the emergence of a Fascist Britain following a nuclear war between the US and the Eastern bloc. Moore has said in interviews that the strip attempted to explore the moral ambiguities of violence, whether it can be justified against innocents as part of a wider campaign against an unjust system. He also wanted to make the point that many of the supporters of the Fascist regime could be considered otherwise good people, just as many otherwise decent Germans supported the horrific Nazi regime.

It’s a superhero movie, which does nevertheless accurately show the realities of life in a Fascist dictatorship – the mass internment of political prisoners, arbitrary censorship, and experimentation on those considered subhuman or ‘dysgenic’ – in the language of eugenics – by the authorities. It lacks the contemporary relevance of the original strip, as Margaret Thatcher and the Tories did have strong links to the far right. Thatcher was an admirer of Pinochet, for example. The strip explored many of the issues thrown up by contemporary stories of corruption in the political, social and religious establishment, like paedophile clergy. Despite Moore’s rejection of the movie, it’s still a piece of genre, comic book cinema that does try to make an extremely serious point about Fascism and intolerance by placing it in modern, 21st century Britain.

10. Children of Men

Based on the book by P.D. James, and starring Clive Owen and Thandie Newton, this is another dystopian yarn. This time it takes a completely different view of the future and its perils from Soylent Green and Z.P.G. In this future, humanity has been afflicted with mass sterility. No children have been born for 18 years. Owen plays a policeman, charged with protecting an immigrant woman – Newton – who carries the only child to be conceived for over a decade. As a consequence of the sterility, society in volatile and unstable. Only Britain has a relatively stable system thanks to the establishment of a Fascist-style dictatorship.

Although fiction, James’ book nevertheless explores a genuine social issue. Globally, populations are falling, to the extent that some demographers have predicted a population crash sometime in the middle of this century. In Britain and much of Europe, they’re below population replacement level. This is particularly acute in Japan, and is one of the causes of that country’s massive investment in the development of robot workers. Much of the fall in birth rates is due simply to people limiting the number of children they have in order raise their quality of life. There is, however, the additional problem in that the sperm counts of western men is falling, to the point that during this century a significant number will be considered medically sterile. Children of Men is another dystopian work that is chillingly plausible.

It’s possible to go on, and add further works of serious SF cinema, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and The Zero Theorem and Gattaca, with its depiction of a stratified society ruled by the genetically enhanced. Now I have to say that I agree with Pegg that an awful lot of SF films since Star Wars has been escapist fantasy, and can see his point about some of it having an infantilising effect. This is by no means true of all of it, as I’ve attempted to show.

Even films like Star Wars that are pure, or mostly spectacle can be worth serious discussion and consideration, if they’re done well. For all its escapism, Star Wars was astonishing because it showed a detailed, convincingly realised series of alien worlds, machines and space craft. Moreover, the second movie – The Empire Strikes Back – did present Luke Skywalker with a genuine moral dilemma. His friends Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids have been captured and are being tortured by Vader and the imperials. Skywalker is faced with the choice of trying to help them, and in so doing losing his soul, or preserving his moral integrity by letting them suffer and die. His confrontation with Vader present him further with another, particularly acute moral dilemma. Vader reveals himself to be his father, and so if he kills him, he commits parricide, a particularly abhorrent crime. This also has literary antecedents. In one of the medieval Romances, the hero is faced with the revelation that the leader of the foreign army devastating his lord’s realm is his father, and so he is confronted with the terrible dilemma of having to kill him.

Now I don’t think that the potential of Science Fiction to explore mature issues and genuinely relevant problems has been fully explored in the cinema. One of the solutions to the problem is for fans of genre cinema to try and support the more intelligent SF movies that are released, such as Moon, which came out a few years ago. This would show producers and directors that there’s a ready audience for genuine, thought-provoking, intelligent SF as well as the gung-ho, action escapism.

John Brunner on the 1979 SF Book Show, Time Out Of Mind

May 4, 2015

‘I have seen the future, and it doesn’t work!’

I found this edition of the BBC series, Time Out of Mind, over on Youtube. Broadcast in 1979, the series looked at four SF authors, who were either British, in the case of Ann McCaffrey, an American based in Ireland. Apart from John Brunner and McCaffrey, the other authors featured were Arthur C. Clarke, and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison. The fifth and final programme in the series was on that year’s SF convention in Brighton.

I vaguely remembered the series from the trailers running earlier in the evening, though I never watched it myself as I was probably too young. I’ve got a feeling it was broadcast long after my bed time.

Stand On Zanzibar

Brunner’s particularly interesting, as he’s known for writing very dystopian, near-future SF, such as his books The Shockwave Rider, The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar. All of these are rightly classics of the genre, and I think Stand On Zanzibar has been republished under the Gollancz colophon as an ‘SF Masterwork’. It is indeed, though I think it’s also one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It’s very much a product of its time, which was the late 1960s-’70s concern about the ‘population bomb’ and the massive problems faced by an overpopulated world. It’s set in a near future, c. 2020, if I remember properly, in a massively overcrowded world, where living space is in short supply. The result is endemic domestic terrorist violence, and ‘muckers’ – frenzied spree killers. These are ordinary citizens, who’ve finally snapped under the strain of such oppressive conditions. They’ve taken their name from quite literally ‘running amok’.

In order to curb the population explosion, the government has passed eugenic legislation preventing those with genetic defects or inheritable diseases, like haemophilia, from having children. Recreational cannabis, on the other hand, is legal, but still vulnerable to the interest of organised crime.

Far more sinisterly are the attempts by the various government to find ways to control the population using genetic engineering. This includes the research of an Indonesian scientist, who the Americans send a special agent to extract.

Brunner, CND and Environmentalism

Brunner was politically active for a time in his life. He was a member of CND and attended their meetings and marches. The programme shows how he even took part in an exhibition of the horrors created by the bomb, and how this influenced him. He states on the programme that when he turned to writing near future SF, he didn’t have to do much research. While it was harder to write than stories set in the far future, where the imagination could run freely, he found that much of the nightmarish conditions he describes in his works have already happened. This includes the dangers of chemical pollution on the environment and agriculture in The Sheep Look Up.

The ‘New Wave’ and Literary Modernism

Brunner’s like Moorcock and the other members of the British ‘New Wave’, in incorporating the techniques of literary modernism into his work. Moorcock in the programme dedicated to him said he wanted to use the techniques of such avant-garde literary authors as James Joyce. He was bitterly disappointed when his literary aspirations were rejected by the rest of the SF milieu, who considered these models to be pseudo-intellectuals.

Brunner acknowledges that in creating the background for the world on Stand On Zanzibar, he took John Dos Passos as his model, and included clippings from newspapers, even poetry. These clippings also show how rooted the book was in present-day reality. Several of the clippings explaining the ‘muckers’, for example, are taking from 1960s reports of real spree killers. As for the ‘partisans’ and their terrorist campaigns in America, this looks like it was based very much on the urban terrorists that emerged in the late 1960s and ’70s, like the various paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, the Baader-Meinhof gang, the various French Maoist rebels and the Weathermen, Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Front in America.

America as Dystopia

The show also makes the point that although Brunner’s British, he’s popular in America, partly because he speaks with a mid-Atlantic voice. Brunner is shown talking to friends and his publisher in the US. But Brunner was also very critical of the US. He says that he took America as his model for the dystopias he created, as much of what he describes in his books has already happened there. He follows this with the statement I’ve quoted at the top of this piece ‘I have seen the future, and it doesn’t work’.

Folk Music and Dancing

I also found the episode interesting, as Brunner was a folkie, who lived in the small town of South Petherton in Somerset. He and his wife were the organisers of the town’s folk festival. I found it rather incongruous that an author, who was concerned with the future and the problems that it would throw up, should also be a fan of, among other things, such very traditionally English pastimes as, um, Morris dancing. Brunner and his wife are shown opening the festival, and watching a group of Morris men dancing with the white flannels, handkerchiefs and bells.

Here’s the video:

Population Explosion or Population Crash?

While Stand On Zanzibar is a classic, it’s also somewhat dated. Europe and America don’t have the teeming, claustrophobically overcrowded cities of books like Stand On Zanzibar, or Harry Harrison’s depiction of similarly terribly overpopulated world, Make Room! Make Room!, filmed as Soylent Green. Indeed, birth rates around the world are falling, and in some parts of the West, China and Japan they’re actually below replacement level. Some demographers are talking of a ‘population crash’, and the problems this will cause. This in its turn has created its dystopian prophetic fiction in the film Children of Men, with Clive Owen and Thandie Newton. This imagines a world where humanity has become sterile. No children have been born for 18 years. The result is political instability, violence and ruthless control by a Fascist state. The only hope in this dystopia is presented by an immigrant woman, who has become pregnant.

Spree Killers and Religious Violence

We also don’t have intelligent, supercomputers cooled in liquid helium, like Shalmaneser. Other predictions are so accurate, as to be actually prosaic, such as influence of the media and the emergence of the pop video. Unfortunately, so are the ‘muckers’ – such as the maniacs, who walk into schools, restaurants or cinemas with guns and begin shooting. The book’s also accurate in that some of the crazed killers are religious fanatics. In the book the religious violence is carried out by Christians. This is true of part of the American extreme Right, as shown in the Militia movement and their fears of an atheist government, which will begin sending Christians to death camps run by FEMA as part of the establishment of a one-world global dictatorship.

The Pieds-Noirs and the Legacy of Algeria

Other predictions look dated, but contain a kernel of truth that has been subsequently hidden, but still remains a powerful influence in contemporary politics. Two of the characters, for example, are a brother and sister, Pieds-Noirs – former French-Algerian settlers, who have been forced out of the colony after independence. Despite the decades that have passed since France lost its war against its former colony, Pieds-Noirs still suffer from considerable stigmatisation because of the atrocities the former colonial overlord committed. Now, nearly five decades or so later, there is little special shame attached to the Algerian War. Nevertheless, it has influenced French politics in that many of the Arab, Muslim population of France are the descendants of Algerians, who chose to emigrate to the former colonial power. These have formed an immigrant underclass, who have suffered racism and discrimination. Much of the political disaffection French Muslims come from this background of emigration, dislocation and resentment by the host society.

The Corporate Take-Over of the Nation State

One of the most extreme of the novels predictions, and one which mercifully hasn’t occurred yet, it the literal corporate takeover of entire states. Another of the characters is the president of a small, west African nation. Unable to improve conditions for his people through normal politics and democracy, he literally signs it away to an American corporation. In return, that company promises to invest in his nation, develop it economically, and provide jobs and training for its people. It also, as Brunner makes clear, condemns them to corporate slavery.

This hasn’t quite happened like that yet, but there are some close parallels. The Socialist government of Alfredo Benz in Guatemala in the 1950s was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup, after Benz nationalised the banana plantations of the United Fruit company, an American corporation. Similarly, Mahmud Mossadeq, the Prime Minister of Iran, was overthrown by the Americans in the 1950s after his government nationalised the oil industry, including British-Persian Oil, which then became BP.

And the TTIP, if launched, will allow multinationals to sue national governments if they dare to pass legislation, which threatens to harm their business. Veolia has used similar legislation to sue the Egyptian government, after it raised the minimum wage for Egyptian workers.

The Psychological Legacy of Slavery and the Experience of Black Politicians

Another part of Brunner’s novel, that still retains its contemporary relevance, is that one of his characters is a Black American politician. This isn’t quite so novel as it was when the book was written, coming when Blacks in America were still very much fighting for their civil rights. America now has its first Black president in Obama. Nevertheless, the issues of racism, Black alienation from what they see as White power structures, and the psychological legacy of slavery, still remain a powerful presence. Although physically fit and able-bodied, the Black politician suffers from a psychological weakness in one of his arms, due to being told about how one of his slave ancestors had his amputated as a punishment by his owners. The organiser of a recent campaign against an exhibition on the White exhibition of Africans as subhuman others, staged a year or so ago by one of the Museums, stated that amongst her reasons for opposing it was a concern for the psychological health of Black people. She pointed to studies of young western Blacks, who have suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder through material showing or discussing the sufferings of their slave ancestors.

Ambiguous Endings and Political Message

Brian Aldiss, discussing Brunner’s work in his study of the history of SF, The Trillion Year Spree, criticises him for failing to take an explicit stance. Despite being a very political novel, Brunner doesn’t take a party-political stance. There’s one incident, for example, in which an elderly lady is forcibly moved out of the home she has lived in for most of her life by the local authorities. This can be read in two ways. It can be seen as council busybodies, enforcing bureaucratic red tape and over-regulation, regardless of the harmful effect this has on the lives of ordinary people. Or it can be read in the opposite view, as local authorities blindly committed to corporate interests and commercial redevelopment.

Brunner also leaves the final results of his characters’ actions on the wider society ambiguous. One of the last sections of Stand On Zanzibar is entitled ‘And See Which Seed Will Grow’, taken from the line in MacBeth which about peering into the sands of time. He hints at their being two possibilities for the world and its millions: either pacification through specially engineered food introduced into its peoples’ diet. Or the possibility of genetically engineering humans themselves, as presented by the Indonesian biologist.

At the end of The Shockwave Rider, the authorities organise a plebiscite, which will hopefully liberate humanity from tyranny. This asks them to vote between two statements. These seem to offer strikingly different alternatives, but when read closely, don’t actually mean very much, and actually say pretty much the same thing. The book then concludes ‘Which way did you vote?’

Again, as in Stand On Zanzibar, the final result, the choice made by humanity, is never shown. There’s the possibility of hope, or a little more hope. But it doesn’t end with a total solution that will automatically improve everything, and the outcome is decidedly mixed.

Warning: 70’s Fashions on Display

I think Brunner died a little while ago. This documentary gives provides an insight into the life and views of one of Britain’s great writers of dystopian SF. As I said, his book’s don’t make an explicit party-political statement, but in his anti-nuclear activism, environmentalism and critiques of corporate power, Brunner does share many of the concerns of the Left.

You should be warned, however, that as the documentary was made in 1979, it shows it in some truly horrendous ’70s fashions.

Resign, Tyrant, Said the Type-Type Man

September 23, 2014

Harlan Ellison on being spied on by Big Brother in Reagan’s 1984 America

Okay, so I’ve been away from blogging for a few months now. I’ve been working on a book. It’s my doctoral thesis on the origins and growth of the town of Bridgwater in Somerset from prehistory to 1700. It’s now with the publishers, and hopefully it shouldn’t be too long before it comes out. I’ve also been taken up and somewhat distracted by a few other projects. Nevertheless, I hope to get back to blogging regularly.

Edward Snowden’s revelations of the sheer size and scale of the American intelligence agencies’ surveillance of their citizens, and British complicity with it, has raised questions about the gradual diminution of personal freedom and the transformation of our societies into Orwellian surveillance states. This is just part of process that has been going on for a very long time, since the 1980s. Alan Moore, the veteran comics writer and co-creator of the V for Vendetta comic strip with the artist David Lloyd, stated has stated in interviews how amazed he is by the complete acceptance of CCTV cameras on Britain’s streets. When he included them in the strip as a visible sign of the totalitarian Fascist state in which the strip was set, he was absolutely sure it would terrify everyone to the point where they simply wouldn’t accept them. Now, as he remarked, they’re everywhere. Niall Ferguson, the right-wing historian and columnist, has also made the same point. He remarked in an interview on how he first noticed them after he came back from a visit to China. He too felt that they were a threat to individual liberty, and could not understand why no-one else was alarmed by them or saw them this way.

This concerns have become more acute with the Tory and Lib Dem decision to establish secret courts, functioning as a Kafkaesque travesty of justice. In these courts, people will be able to be tried without knowing the evidence against them, nor who their accuser is. All for reasons of ‘national security’. It’s frighteningly like the corrupt and murderous judicial system of the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein’s legal code. In addition to the laws, which were made known to the Iraqi public, there were also six pieces of legislation which were kept secret. Very secret. They were so secret that even knowledge of these laws was a crime that could land you in prison or worse. For all their claims to be the defenders of personal freedom, with the establishment of these secret courts the Coalition is laying the foundations of the kind of totalitarian state described by Kafka and Moore, only in 21st century Britain. And the surveillance of citizens by the Western intelligence agencies, for merely having political views the authorities considered dangerous or subversive, goes back even further.

Looking through Youtube, I found this interview with Harlan Ellison, the veteran SF author and screenwriter, from 1984. It’s part of a discussion about the relevance of Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name in contemporary America. When asked about this, Ellison states that he thinks it’s extremely relevant, because he’s lived through it in Reagan’s America. He described how, shortly after Reagan became governor of California, he began to hear clicks and noises on his telephone, suggesting that it was being tapped. He dismissed the idea, until he went out to empty his wastepaper basket in the trash one morning, and discovered an engineer for the telephone company outside, connected to the wire leading into his house. Checking with people he knew, who were in a position to know, he found out that it was indeed true, and his phone was indeed being tapped.

Ellison made sure, however, he had his revenge. Knowing that whatever he said on the phone would be written down and filed, he made sure that his phone conversations included some interesting and highly derogatory comments about the then leader of the free world and star of Bedtime for Bonzo, whose title character was a chimpanzee, and arguably the better actor. For example, the great author would remark that Reagan beat his mother and did not confine his romantic interests to those with the two legs, but also those with four, a wagging tail and wet nose. Here’s the interview:

It’s not hard to see why Reagan and his cohorts should view Ellison as a potential subversive. He’s an outspoken atheist and a card-carrying liberal. This was in sharp contrast to Reagan’s administration, which was strongly based on the American religious Right. Ellison had been a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement. On one of his own videos on Youtube, he discusses his participation on the Civil Rights March on Selma with Martin Luther King. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was hostile and deeply suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement, which they suspected was a Communist initiative. So Ellison’s participation in that would have been enough to arouse the authorities’ interest and suspicions in him. In addition to writing some of the most outstanding episodes of the original Star Trek series, such as ‘City on the Edge of Forever’, Ellison was one of the major figures in the SF New Wave, whose other leading writers included Norman Spinrad, Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds in Britain. This was markedly countercultural, and attacked contemporary literary and social conventions. In one of Ellison’s best known short stories, Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tick-Tock Man, for example, the hero is a lone, vigilante prankster. The story is set in a dystopian society in which time is rigidly controlled, the Tick-Tock Men of the title making sure that everyone perform their allotted tasks rigorously according to the time table. The hero, Harlequin, tries to subvert this by performing practical jokes deliberately intended to upset the time table, and the rigid social order that it supports. These include releasing a torrent of jelly beans all over people as they go to work in the morning. Ellison himself declared of the SF writers in the New Wave that ‘these guys is blasphemous!’ In Britain too the movement caused outcry, and questions were raised in the Houses of Parliament about Moorcock’s New Worlds. There was concern about the allegedly obscene nature of Norman Spinrad’s story, ‘Riders of the Purple Wage’, which was then being serialised in the magazine.

Eventually, Ellison says, the clicking noises simply faded away and the authorities presumably lost interest. This was probably when they realised that, no matter how objectionable they found his politics, one of SF’s greatest writers was not actually planning to overthrow the government of the US, invade Guatemala, or even deluge the sidewalk with a tide of jelly beans. They may even have agreed with his comments about Ronald Reagan. It does, however, show that under Reagan, prominent intellectuals that didn’t share the president’s highly reactionary and paranoid views could be spied upon, simply for having those views, regardless of whether they were innocent of any crime. And as Snowden’s revelations showed, the surveillance state has expanded massively since then.

We do need the security and intelligence services. According to today’s I, Isis, the Islamist terrorist organisation Iraq and Syria, has called on its supporters to attack and kill citizens of the US, Britain, France and the other coalition countries. The work of the various intelligence agencies and their surveillance is necessary to stop ISIS and other terrorist organisations from carrying out their threats. But individual freedom – freedom of conscience, speech and publication also needs to be preserved. These are also under threat from the Right, though legislation like the Coalition’s secret courts. They need to be strongly rejected, and proper safeguards against further encroachment on our civil liberties put in place. The answer to the old question ‘Who watches the watchers’ has always been: ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.