Posts Tagged ‘Cyberpunk’

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.


Hyper Evolution – The Rise of the Robots Part 2

August 5, 2017

Wednesday evening I sat down to watch the second part of the BBC 4 documentary, Hyperevolution: the Rise of the Robots, in which the evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod and the electronics engineer Prof. Danielle George trace the development of robots from the beginning of the 20th century to today. I blogged about the first part of the show on Tuesday in a post about another forthcoming programme on the negative consequences of IT and automation, Secrets of Silicon Valley. The tone of Hyperevolution is optimistic and enthusiastic, with one or two qualms from Garrod, who fears that robots may pose a threat to humanity. The programme states that robots are an evolving species, and that we are well on the way to developing true Artificial Intelligence.

Last week, Garrod went off to meet a Japanese robotics engineer, whose creation had been sent up to keep a Japanese astronaut company of the International Space Station. Rocket launches are notoriously expensive, and space is a very, very expensive premium. So it was no surprise that the robot was only about four inches tall. It’s been designed as a device to keep people company, which the programme explained was a growing problem in Japan. Japan has a falling birthrate and thus an aging population. The robot is programmed to ask and respond to questions, and to look at the person, who’s speaking to it. It doesn’t really understand what is being said, but simply gives an answer according to its programming. Nevertheless, it gives the impression of being able to follow and respond intelligently to conversation. It also has the very ‘cute’ look that characterizes much Japanese technology, and which I think comes from the conventions of Manga art. Garrod noted how it was like baby animals in having a large head and eyes, which made the parents love them.

It’s extremely clever, but it struck me as being a development of the Tamagotchi, the robotic ‘pet’ which was all over the place a few years ago. As for companionship, I could help thinking of a line from Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic Solaris, based on the novel by the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem. The film follow the cosmonaut, Kris, on his mission to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The planet’s vast ocean is alive, and has attempted to establish contact with the station’s crew by dredging their memories, and sending them replicas of people they know. The planet does this to Kris, creating a replica of a former girlfriend. At one point, pondering the human condition in a vast, incomprehensible cosmos, Kris states ‘There are only four billion of us…a mere handful. We don’t need spaceships, aliens…What man needs is man.’ Or words to that effect. I forget the exact quote. I dare say robots will have their uses caring for and providing mental stimulation for the elderly, but this can’t replace real, human contact.

George went to America to NASA, where the space agency is building Valkyrie to help with the future exploration of Mars in 2030. Valkyrie is certainly not small and cute. She’s six foot, and built very much like the police machines in Andrew Blomkamp’s Chappie. George stated that they were trying to teach the robot how to walk through a door using trial and error. But each time the machine stumbled. The computer scientists then went through the robot’s programming trying to find and correct the error. After they thought they had solved it, they tried again. And again the machine stumbled.

George, however, remained optimistic. She told ‘those of you, who think this experiment is a failure’, that this was precisely what the learning process entailed, as the machine was meant to learn from its mistakes, just like her own toddler now learning to walk. She’s right, and I don’t doubt that the robot will eventually learn to walk upright, like the humanoid robots devised by their competitors over at DARPA. However, there’s no guarantee that this will be the case. People do learn from their mistakes, but if mistakes keep being made and can’t be correctly, then it’s fair to say that a person has failed to learn from them. And if a robot fails to learn from its mistakes, then it would also be fair to say that the experiment has failed.

Holy Joe Smith! I was also a reminded of another piece of classic SF in this segment. Not film, but 2000 AD’s ‘Robohunter’ strip. In its debut story, the aged robohunter, Sam Slade – ‘that’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’ – his robometer, Kewtie and pilot, Kidd, are sent to Verdus to investigate what has happened to the human colonists. Verdus is so far away, that robots have been despatched to prepare it for human colonization, and a special hyperdrive has to be used to get Slade there. This rejuvenates him from an old man in his seventies to an energetic guy in his thirties. Kidd, his foul mouthed, obnoxious pilot, who is in his 30s, is transformed into a foul-mouthed, obnoxious, gun-toting baby.

The robot pioneers have indeed prepared Verdus for human habitation. They’ve built vast, sophisticated cities, with shops and apartments just waiting to be occupied, along with a plethora of entertainment channels, all of whose hosts and performers are robotic. However, their evolution has outpaced that of humanity, so that they are now superior, both physically and mentally. They continue to expect humans to be the superiors, and so when humans have come to Verdus, they’ve imprisoned, killed and experimented on them as ‘Sims’ – simulated humans, not realizing that these are the very beings they were created to serve. In which case, Martian colonists should beware. And carry a good blaster, just in case.

Garrod and George then went to another lab, where the robot unnerved Garrod by looking at him, and following him around with its eye. George really couldn’t understand why this should upset him. Talking about it afterwards, Garrod said that he was worried about the threat robots pose to humanity. George replied by stating her belief that they also promise to bring immense benefits, and that this was worth any possible danger. And that was the end of that conversation before they went on to the next adventure.

George’s reply isn’t entirely convincing. This is what opponents of nuclear power were told back in the ’50s and ’60s, however. Through nuclear energy we were going to have ships and planes that could span the globe in a couple of minutes, and electricity was going to be so plentiful and cheap that it would barely be metered. This failed, because the scientists and politicians advocating nuclear energy hadn’t really worked out what would need to be done to isolate and protect against the toxic waste products. Hence nearly six decades later, nuclear power and the real health and environmental problems it poses are still very much controversial issues. And there’s also that quote from Bertrand Russell. Russell was a very staunch member of CND. When he was asked why he opposed nuclear weapons, he stated that it was because they threatened to destroy humanity. ‘And some of us think that would be a very great pity’.

Back in America, George went to a bar to meet Alpha, a robot created by a British inventor/showman in 1932. Alpha was claimed to be an autonomous robot, answering questions by choosing appropriate answers from recordings on wax cylinders. George noted that this was extremely advanced for the time, if true. Finding the machine resting in a display case, filled with other bizarre items like bongo drums, she took an access plate off the machine to examine its innards. She was disappointed. Although there were wires to work the machine’s limbs, there were no wax cylinders or any other similar devices. She concluded that the robot was probably worked by a human operator hiding behind a curtain.

Then it was off to Japan again, to see another robot, which, like Valkyrie, was learning for itself. This was to be a robot shop assistant. In order to teach it to be shop assistant, its creators had built an entire replica camera shop, and employed real shop workers to play out their roles, surrounded by various cameras recording the proceedings. So Garrod also entered the scenario, where he pretended to be interested in buying a camera, asking questions about shutter speeds and such like. The robot duly answered his questions, and moved about the shop showing him various cameras at different prices. Like the robotic companion, the machine didn’t really know or understand what it was saying or doing. It was just following the motions it had learned from its human counterparts.

I was left wondering how realistic the role-playing had actually been. The way it was presented on camera, everything was very polite and straightforward, with the customer politely asking the price, thanking the assistant and moving on to ask to see the next of their wares. I wondered if they had ever played at being a difficult customer in front of it. Someone who came in and, when asked what they were looking for, sucked their teeth and said, ‘I dunno really,’ or who got angry at the prices being asked, or otherwise got irate at not being able to find something suitable.

Through the programme, Japanese society is held up as being admirably progressive and accepting of robots. Earlier in that edition, Garrod finished a piece on one Japanese robot by asking why it was that a car manufacturer was turning to robotics. The answer’s simple. The market for Japanese cars and motorcycles is more or less glutted, and they’re facing competition from other countries, like Indonesia and Tokyo. So the manufacturers are turning to electronics.

The positive attitude the Japanese have to computers and robots is also questionable. The Japanese are very interested in developing these machines, but actually don’t like using them themselves. The number of robots in Japan can easily be exaggerated, as they include any machine tool as a robot. And while many British shops and businesses will use a computer, the Japanese prefer to do things the old way by hand. For example, if you go to a post office in Japan, the assistant, rather than look something up on computer, will pull out a ledger. Way back in the 1990s someone worked out that if the Japanese were to mechanise their industry to the same extent as the West, they’d throw half their population out of work.

As for using robots, there’s a racist and sexist dimension to this. The Japanese birthrate it falling, and so there is real fear of a labour shortage. Robots are being developed to fill it. But Japanese society is also extremely nationalistic and xenophobic. Only people, whose parents are both Japanese, are properly Japanese citizens with full civil rights. There are third-generation Koreans, constituting an underclass, who, despite having lived there for three generations, are still a discriminated against underclass. The Japanese are developing robots, so they don’t have to import foreign workers, and so face the problems and strains of a multicultural society.

Japanese society also has some very conservative attitudes towards women. So much so, in fact, that the chapter on the subject in a book I read two decades ago on Japan, written by a Times journalist, was entitled ‘A Woman’s Place Is In the Wrong’. Married women are expected to stay at home to raise the kids, and the removal of a large number of women from the workplace was one cause of the low unemployment rate in Japan. There’s clearly a conflict between opening up the workplace to allow more married women to have a career, and employing more robots.

Garrod also went off to Bristol University, where he met the ‘turtles’ created by the neuroscientist, Grey Walter. Walter was interested in using robots to explore how the brain functioned. The turtles were simple robots, consisting of a light-detecting diode. The machine was constructed to follow and move towards light sources. As Garrod himself pointed out, this was like the very primitive organisms he’d studied, which also only had a light-sensitive spot.

However, the view that the human brain is really a form of computer have also been discredited by recent research. Hubert L. Dreyfus in his book, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, describes how, after the failure of Good Old Fashioned A.I. (GOFAI), computer engineers then hoped to create it through exploring the connections between different computing elements, modelled on the way individual brain cells are connected to each by a complex web of neurons. Way back in 1966, Walter Rosenblith of MIT, one of the pioneers in the use of computers in neuropsychology, wrote

We no longer hold the earlier widespread belief that the so-called all-or-none law from nerve impulses makes it legitimate to think of relays as adequate models for neurons. In addition, we have become increasingly impressed with the interactions that take place among neurons: in some instances a sequence of nerve impulses may reflect the activities of literally thousands of neurons in a finely graded manner. In a system whose numerous elements interact so strongly with each other, the functioning of the system is not necessarily best understood by proceeding on a neuron-by-neuron basis as if each had an independent personality…Detailed comparisons of the organization of computer systems and brains would prove equally frustrating and inconclusive. (Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do, p. 162).

Put simply, brain’s don’t work like computers. This was written fifty years ago, but it’s fair to ask if the problem still exists today, despite some of the highly optimistic statements to the contrary.

Almost inevitably, driverless cars made their appearance. The Germans have been developing them, and Garrod went for a spin in one, surrounded by two or three engineers. He laughed with delight when the car told him he could take his hands off the wheel and let the vehicle continue on its own. However, the car only works in the comparatively simply environment of the autobahn. When it came off the junction, back into the normal road system, the machine told him to start driving himself. So, not quite the victory for A.I. it at first appears.

Garrod did raise the question of the legal issues. Who would be responsible if the car crashed while working automatically – the car, or the driver? The engineers told him it would be the car. Garrod nevertheless concluded that segment by noting that there were still knotty legal issues around it. But I don’t know anyone who wants one, or necessarily would trust one to operate on its own. A recent Counterpunch article I blogged about stated that driverless cars are largely being pushed by a car industry, trying to expand a market that is already saturated, and the insurance companies. The latter see it as a golden opportunity to charge people, who don’t want one, higher premiums on the grounds that driverless cars are safer.

Garrod also went to meet researchers in A.I. at Plymouth University, who were also developing a robot which as part of their research into the future creation of genuine consciousness in machines. Talking to one of the scientists afterwards, Garrod heard that there could indeed be a disruptive aspect to this research. Human society was based on conscious decision making. But if the creation of consciousness was comparatively easy, so that it could be done in an afternoon, it could have a ‘disruptive’ effect. It may indeed be the case that machines will one day arise which will be conscious, sentient entities, but this does not mean that the development of consciousness is easy. You think of the vast ages of geologic time it took evolution to go from simple, single-celled organisms to complex creatures like worms, fish, insects and so on, right up to the emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens within the last 200,000 years.

Nevertheless, the programme ended with Garrod and George talking the matter over on the banks of the Thames in London. George concluded that the rise of robots would bring immense benefits and the development of A.I. was ‘inevitable’.

This is very optimistic, to the point where I think you could be justified by calling it hype. I’ve said in a previous article how Dreyfus’ book describes how robotics scientists and engineers have made endless predictions since Norbert Wiener and Alan Turing, predicting the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and each time they’ve been wrong. He’s also described the sheer rage with which many of those same researchers respond to criticism and doubt. In one passage he discusses a secret meeting of scientists at MIT to discuss A.I., in which a previous edition of his book came up. The scientists present howled at it with derision and abuse. He comments that why scientists should persist in responding so hostilely to criticism, and to persist in their optimistic belief that they will eventually solve the problem of A.I., is a question for psychology and the sociology of knowledge.

But there are also very strong issues about human rights, which would have to be confronted if genuine A.I. was ever created. Back in the 1970s or early ’80s, the British SF magazine, New Voyager, reviewed Roderick Random. Subtitled, ‘The Education of a Young Machine’, this is all about the creation of a robot child. The reviewer stated that the development of truly sentient machines would constitute the return of slavery. A similar point was made in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode where another ship’s captain wished to take Data apart, so that he could be properly investigated and more like him built. Data refused, and so the captain sued to gain custody of him, arguing that he wasn’t really sentient, and so should be legally considered property. And in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the book that launched the Cyberpunk SF genre, the hero, Case, finds out that the vast computer for which he’s working, Wintermute, has Swiss citizenship, but its programming are the property of the company that built it. This, he considers, is like humans having their thoughts and memories made the property of a corporation.

Back to 2000 AD, the Robusters strip portrayed exactly what such slavery would mean for genuinely intelligent machines. Hammerstein, an old war droid, and his crude sidekick, the sewer droid Rojaws and their fellows live with the constant threat of outliving their usefulness, and taking a trip down to be torn apart by the thick and sadistic Mek-Quake. Such a situation should, if it ever became a reality, be utterly intolerable to anyone who believes in the dignity of sentient beings.

I think we’re a long way off that point just yet. And despite Prof. George’s statements to the contrary, I’m not sure we will ever get there. Hyperevolution is a fascinating programme, but like many of the depictions of cutting edge research, it’s probably wise to take some of its optimistic pronouncements with a pinch of salt.

Real Steampunk Inventions from the Pages of ‘The Engineer’

May 29, 2017

I’ve posted up several pieces this weekend about some of the real inventions of the Victorians, and how they have inspired and resemble the science and machines of steampunk Science Fiction. This is a branch of SF, which imagines what would have happened had the Victorians invented space travel, computers, time machines and were able to journey to parallel worlds. One of the founding works of the genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which was set in an alternative Victorian Britain, which had entered a steam-driven computer age after building Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title.

Some of the most amazing examples of Victorian and Edwardian engineering and technology can be found in the pages of The Engineer. This was the industry’s trade magazine, founded in 1856 by Charles Healey. In 1976 the magazine issued a glossy book celebrating the history of the magazine and the legacy of its founder. The book said of him

Healey has been described as a man of great strength of mind and character who always had ‘a smile, a question, and a penetrating look’. He had financial interests in railways in the Bourdon gauge, and among his many friends were leading men in railway engineering including Robert Stephenson, Isambard Brunel, and Sir William Fairbairn. But there is no evidence Healey used his editorial pages to promote his financial interests.

The magazine’s purpose, as it confessed in January 1916

was to spread the gospel of engineering. ‘Whilst engineering knowledge was the possession of but few men great progress was impossible, and it is the object of the paper to expand and distribute technical and scientific information. In so doing so it may fairly claim to have been a factor of no little importance in the great developments that have taken place during the late 60 years.’

And the magazine celebrated the practical work and achievements of engineers over the more abstract theorising of scientists. The book states

The Engineer pointed out that men of abstract science had done something, ‘but not much for us’. While applied science ‘has done for the physical world everything which science so far provide capable of accomplishing at all – railroads, manufactories, mines, the electric telegraph, chemical factories. And by who is it applied? Why the civil engineer, the mechanical engineer, the mining engineer and the shipbuilder who himself represents an important branch of engineering.

‘The wide earth over, we find the engineer working on principles, dealing with physical truths, using the investigations of those who have preceded him as stepping stones to knowledge, and leaving behind him through each generation mementoes of his labours. Mementoes, the result of a perfect acquaintance with such physical truths as men of the most exalted intellects have discovered-mementoes which will endure when the existence of the “leading journal” has become a matter of history’.

The ’70s were a period of economic depression, and part of the purpose behind the centennial volume was to counteract the mood of the times and inspire a new, fresh generation. The magazine declared

Today, when the economy is depressed, is an opportune moment to produce a book which will remind industry of its glorious past and act as a spur to project it into the future. It will also remind engineers and manufacturers of the power, grace and majesty of engineering.

Very much the same could be said today. Later this week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 will be discussing Britain’s critical lack of engineers, and asking how more young people can be persuaded to enter the profession. I’ve said in my previous blog posts that one way could be to link it to the interest people have in restoring and repairing motor vehicles, and the cyberpunk milieu of Science Fiction enthusiasts, who design fashions and exotic machines for this Victorian technological age that never was.

Much of the material in the book is about industrial machines and processes, which to most lay people, myself included, probably isn’t that interesting. Such as various types of manufacturing machines, industrial smelters, metal and chemical refining processes, pumping engines and so on. There’s also a chapter on railway engines, which is clearly of interest to steam enthusiasts and the people, who played with Hornby Railway sets when they were children.

But the machines and buildings I find the most interesting, are where the Victorians’ ideas prefigure those of modern technology, both real and in the imagined worlds of SF.

In architecture, the magazines shows two designs for a colossal tower for London, that was intended to rival the Eiffel tower in Paris. One of these shows very clearly the influence of the French structure.

Another was more straightforwardly British in design. Except for its size. It was going to be 1,240 feet.

We’re almost looking here at the soaring tower blocks of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or indeed, Judge Dredd’s Megacity 1.

Instead of a channel tunnel, a massive bridge was proposed to span La Manche, and link Britain to France.

And to warn ships of dangerous rocks and water, they also designed a floating lighthouse.

As well as normal railways, they also designed an overhead railway and rainwater collector.

The book also showed contemporary illustrations for the steam carriages and buses that were being developed in this period as the first precursors to modern vehicles driven by the internal combustion engine.

This included the Randolph Steam Coach of 1872.

Other vehicles included Goodman’s velocipede of 1868, which could reach the amazing speed of 12 mph, and the Liquid Fuel Company’s steam van of 1985, which was entered in a competition the magazine ran for road carriages.

There was also an illustration of a one horse power road steamer, which could carry two people.

It also included the schematics for another vehicle, the Serpollet Steam Phaeton of 1891.

From this, it looks like a budding car enthusiast could possibly build one of these machines, in the same way people also build their own custom cars, and cyberpunk inspired machines like the one I posted up yesterday.

A Mr Nairn, an engineer from Leith in Scotland, also published his design in 1870 for a three-wheeled steam omnibus.

There was also this illustration of an early motorcycle, Duncan and Superbie’s bike of 1894.

and an early car, Panhard and Lavassor’s two-seater from 1894.

And to show that waiting at traffic lights were also a blight that afflicted the Victorians, there’s an illustration of the traffic signals at Bridge Street in Westminster in 1868.

The Victorians and Edwardians were also experimenting with new ways to move vehicles across ground, such as caterpillar tracks. These included traction engines, such as Ingleton’s Automatic track of 1868. This was engineered to allow the tracks to be raised when the engine reached the end of the field, and needed to make a tight turn.

Even after petrol began to supersede steam in the early 20th century, some firms were still experimenting with caterpillar tracks on the new petrol-driven tractors. The photo below shows the caterpillar tractor and train produced by the Holt Manufacturing Company of Peoria in America.

In some cases, the search for alternative means of locomotion went so far as reinventing the wheel. In 1909 Diplock patented a design for putting ‘walking feet’ on a wheel.

This is interesting, as H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads was about warfare conducted using machines some have seen as predicting the tank. The land ironclads of the title, however, are much more like contemporary naval vessels. They are long, contain rows of snipers along their sides. And unlike tanks, they walk across the ground on mechanical legs like vast, mechanical millipedes, somewhat like the Walkers in Star Wars, but with more legs.

The Victorians were also keen to solve the problems of ships navigating shallow waters. Bourne’s Steam Train, proposed in 1858, attempted to solve this problem through using the paddle wheels as terrestrial wheels, allowing the vessel to climb over sandbanks, and the engine could be geared down to provide more power.

It struck me looking at this that if it had been developed further, you’d have had amphibious landing craft like the DUK of World War II.

This was also the age in which people were making their first attempts at flight. One of the bizarre vehicles featured in the book was Carlingford’s aerial chariot of 1854. This was launched from a pole ranging from 6 to 9 feet in height, carried forward by a falling weight. This was like the Wright Brother’s early planes. Unlike the Wrights’, the aerial chariot didn’t have an engine and the pilot tried to crank the propeller by hand.

The magazine also published illustrations of the British military’s experiments with balloons in 1874.

As well as wings, engineers were considering more exotic methods of flight. In 1916 there were a series of designs for planes held aloft by spinning discs. Looking at them, it is hard not to see them as the first predecessors of the helicopter.

As for balloons, this led to the development of dirigibles like the Zeppelin, a 1923 design for which was also published in the magazine’s pages.

Petrol driven cars and motorbikes are now ubiquitous, though there is still great affection and interest in vintage, veteran and historic road vehicles. One businessman in Leckhampton, one of the suburbs of Cheltenham, proudly displayed his early motorcycle from about the time of the First World War in his shop window.

The steam vehicles weren’t as efficient as modern petrol and diesel vehicles. They also faced stiff political opposition from traditional, horse drawn vehicles. Nevertheless, you do wonder what Britain would have been like if these machines had caught on to the point where they were the preferred method of transport, rather than horse-drawn carriages.

And these carriages, and the other machines and designs shown above, still have the potential to fire the imaginations of fans of historic technology, steam enthusiasts, and Cyberpunks. And perhaps, if more people saw some of these machines and their designs, some of them might try to make some of them. This would not only bring them to life, but also possibly inspire more people to take an interest in engineering and the great heritage of invention.

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:

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.

Pro-NHS Political Comment in Paul McAuley’s ‘Something Coming Through’

December 27, 2016


One of the books I’ve been reading this Christmas is Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through (London: Gollancz 2015). McAuley’s a former scientist as well as an SF writer. Apart from novels, he also reviewed books and contributed short stories to the veteran British SF magazine, Interzone. He was one of the writers who created the gene punk genre, sometimes also called ‘ribofunk’. This was the genetic engineering counterpart to Cyberpunk, where, instead of using computers, individuals, criminals and corporations used genetic engineering to redesign new forms of life, or spread invasive memes throughout the population to control the way people thought. Back in the 1990s he was one of the guests on the BBC Radio 3 series, Grave New Worlds, in which computer scientists, writers and artists talked about the transhuman condition. This was back when everyone was talking about cyborgisation, and the potential of contemporary technology to produce new varieties of humanity. Apart from McAuley, the guests also included J.G. Ballard and the performance artist Stelarc, who has personally explored the implications of cybernetics for the human body in a series of performances. In one of these he had a mechanical third arm, operated through electrical signals picked up through the stomach muscles. He also gave a modern music performance, in which he was wired up to the internet via galvanic stimulators. A search engine then went about finding images of body parts on the Net. When it found one, that part of the body was electronically stimulated so that it moved. There were also booths in three cities around the world, where participants could also press buttons to move Stelarc via electric impulses. Apart from Kevin Warwick, the professor of robotics at Warwick university, is the person who’s come the closest to being Star Trek’s Borg.

McAuley’s Something Coming Through and its sequel, Into Everywhere, follow the fictional universe he created in a series of magazine short stories about the alien Jackaroo and their impact on humanity. Following a short period of warfare, including the destruction of part of London with a nuclear bomb by terrorists, the Jackaroo turned up and declared that they wish to help. These aliens bring with them 15 artificial wormholes, which act as gateways to 15 worlds, which the Jackaroo give to humanity. Humanity isn’t the only race that the aliens have helped, and the worlds they give to humanity are covered with the ruins and artefacts of previous alien civilisations, now vanished. The Jackaroo themselves are never seen. They interact with humanity through avatars, artificial beings that look like human men. These have golden skin and features modelled on a number of contemporary celebrities. They’re also bald, wear shades, and dress in black track suits. Their motives for helping humanity are unclear. They claim they just want to help, and that it is up to humanity themselves how they use the worlds they have given them. But they are widely suspected of having their own agenda, and despite the protestations of non-interference they are suspected of subtly manipulating humanity.

Accompanying the Jackaroo are the !cho, another alien race, who are equally mysterious. They move about the world in opaque tanks supported on three skeletal legs. Nobody has ever managed to open one up, or scan the tanks using X-rays or ultrasound. It is, however, widely believed that the !cho are sentient colonies of shrimp. Their motives, and their relationship with the Jackaroo, are also unknown.

Something Coming Through follows the adventures of Chloe Millar, a researcher for a company, Disruption Theory, in London, and Vic Gayle, a cop on Mangala, one of the Jackaroo gift worlds. The objects and ruins left from the Jackaroo’s previous client civilisations can be highly dangerous. Some of them are still active, despite the many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of years of abandonment and decay. These can infect humans with memes, algorithms that alter psychology and behaviour. The strongest, most intact of these become eidolons, artificial entities that can take possession of their human hosts. Disruption Theory is a company specialising in researching the effects of these memes as they break out to infect people in Britain. This often takes the form of small sects, whose leaders speak in tongues, uttering nonsense as they try to put in human terms the alien concepts running their consciousness. Millar, the heroine, is investigating a couple of orphaned Pakistani children, who have apparently been infected by an eidolon from one of the gift worlds. Out on Mangala, Vic Gayle is also investigating the murder of a man, who has recently arrived aboard one of the Jackaroo’s shuttles.

Unlike much SF, the book doesn’t indicate how far in the future the story’s set. This is, however, very much a world not too far from the early 21st century of the present. The political structures are much the same, with the exception that the gift worlds are under the control of the UN. People still work in recognisable jobs, and shop and purchase the same brands of clothing. Complicating relations with the Jackaroo is a British politician, Robin Mountjoy and the Human Decency League. The League objects to contact with the Jackaroo as a danger to the dignity of the human race. Their leader, Robin Mountjoy, is described as being ‘in his mid-fifties, a burly man with thinning blond hair and a florid complexion, dressed in an off-the-peg suit. Although he was a multimillionaire, having made his fortune constructing and servicing displaced-persons camps, his PR painted him as a bluff, no-nonsense man of the people whose common sense cut through the incestuous old boys’ networks of the Westminster village’. (p. 51). The League isn’t strong enough to form a government of its own, and so has gone into a coalition with the Conservatives. While Mountjoy is clearly fictional, he does seem to be inspired by Nigel Farage and UKIP, with Britain attempting to gain independence from smooth talking mysterious aliens rather than the EU.

One of the other characters is Adam Nevers, a cop with the Technology Control Unit. This is the branch of the British police tasked with protecting the country from dangerous alien technology. Nevers is described as coming from the entitled upper ranks of society, who go straight from university into high ranking jobs. Which looks to me very much like a comment on the privileged upbringing and expectations of absolute deference and entitlement from certain members of the British upper classes.

Apart from the social and psychological disruption caused by alien contact, this is also a world wear the NHS has finally been privatised. McAuley shows the practical impact this has people’s lives. Without the safety net of state healthcare, people are dependent on their employers to help pay their medical bills, or borrowing money from friends. In his acknowledgements, as well as the many other people who helped him with the book, McAuley also thanks ‘the NHS for life support’. (p. 375). Which suggests that he’s also suffered a period of illness, and is very much aware how much he and everyone else in the country needs the NHS.

I liked the book for its convincing portrayal of the world after sort-of personal contact with an alien civilisation, and the frontier societies that have emerged as Mangala and the other gift worlds have been settled and colonised. I was also fascinated by McAuley’s description of the alien life-forms, and the archaeological exploration of the remains of the planets’ previous civilisations for the technological advances these artifacts offer. I was also drawn to it as it offered a different take on the old SF trope of alien contact. The appearance of the Jackaroo is described as an ‘invasion’, but it’s not really that. The aliens have a ‘hands off’ approach. They haven’t conquered the Earth militarily, and political power is still exercised through traditional human institutions and parties, like the UN and the Tories. Nor are they more or less at our technological level, like many of the alien races in Star Trek, for example. We don’t form an interplanetary federation with them, as they are clearly extremely far in advance of humanity, which is very much the junior partner in this relationship.

It’s not really a political book, and really doesn’t make any overt party political statements. With the exception that rightwing xenophobes would probably form a party like UKIP to join the Conservatives against pernicious alien influence, just like the Kippers under Farage came very much from the right wing, Eurosceptic section of the Tories. But its comments on the class nature of British society does bring a wry smile, and its advocacy of the NHS is very welcome. It doesn’t preach, but simply shows the fear the characters have of sickness or injury in its absence.

And with all too real terrestrial morons like Daniel Hannan, Jeremy Hunt, Dave Cameron, Theresa May, Tony Blair, Alan Milburn and the rest of the right-wing politicos, who have done and still are doing their best to undermine the health service, such comments are badly needed throughout the British media.

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.

Steampunk Airplanes from the 19th Century

November 18, 2015

A few days ago I put up a post about 19th century attempts to produce steam-driven carriages and cars, which were very much like the kind of vehicles imagined by 20th century Cyberpunk writers. Cyberpunk is the type of science fiction, which takes as its starting point the fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and imagines what the world would have been like, if the Victorians had had spacecraft, flying machines, cars and so on.

As well as inventing steam cars, carriages and buses, the century also saw a series of inventors put their minds towards flight. Balloons had been known about and used since they were invented in the 18th century. While some scientists and engineers, like Cugnot in France, attempted to create dirigible balloons – the ancestors of the Zeppelins and other airships of the 20th century, others tried to create heavier-than-air craft using wings, partly based on observing the way birds fly. These were the precursors and ancestors of the Wright brothers’ plane flown at Kittyhawk.

Such flying machines appear in the Science Fiction of the period. There are flying ships in Bulwer-Lytton’s early SF novel, The Coming Race. These frequently had fantastic designs, that would have been completely impossible to fly, such as the flying machine invented by one Mr Broughton in the short story, The Fate of the Firefly, by the Rev. J.M. Bacon. This is described as like

the skeleton of some antediluvian monster bird or flying fish. There were huge lateral wings, in texture like a bat’s, there was a pointed beak and a neck whose vertebrae were jointed pully blocks, but the body was too complex for comprehension, though it clearly contained an engine of some sort, with a tank which also did duty as a table. The story was accompanied by the following illustration of the ‘plane’.

Steampunk Aircraft 6

See Hilary and Dik Evans, Beyond the Gaslight: Science in Popular Fiction 1895-1905 (London: Frederick Muller Ltd 1976) 81-5 (pp. 81, 82).

Other, more serious attempts to create a flying machine, can be seen in the book Images of Aviation: A Century of Flight, by John W.R. Taylor (Brimscombe Port: Tempus 1999). This includes Leonardo da Vinci’s attempts to produce the airplane, as well as various early balloons. It also has a photo of a model of the glider invented by George Cayley in 1849, which successfully lifted a ten year old boy off the ground. This was succeeded in 1853 by a vehicle, which successfully carried one of Cayley’s servants. The vehicle crash landed, however, and although the man mercifully survived, he and Cayley were so shocked by the crash that Cayley turned his back on flight. He is, however, now recognised as one of the founders of the airplane and the science of aeronautics.

Steampunk Aircraft 1

Another British inventor, William Henson, produced a design in 1842 for an ‘aerial steam carriage’. Henson built the machine, but it failed to fly when it was tested in 1847. The steam carriage was launched from a ramp, but the small steam engine driving its two propellers lacked the power to keep it in the air. It is, nevertheless, a very good piece of engineering, as all the components are exactly where they should be in a working aircraft.

Steampunk Aircraft 2

After experimenting with clockwork models in the 1850s, the French naval officer, Felix du Temple, successfully launched a monoplane carrying a sailor in 1874. The device was powered by a steam engine, and took off from a ramp. It wasn’t very successful, staying aloft only for a few moments. Still, this was another important milestone on the way to powered flight.

Steampunk Aircraft 3

Twenty years later, the pioneering Russian aviator, Golubov, managed a flight of between 65 to 100 feet in monoplane – a plane with only one set of wings – designed by Alexander Fedorovich Mozhaisky. like du Temple’s plane, this was also launched from a ramp.

Steampunk Aircraft 4

Another French inventor, Clement Ader, made what French historians still claim was the first recognised flight in a powered airplane in the Eole. Powered by a 20 hp steam engine, this flew eight inches off the ground for 165 feet at Armainvilliers in October 1890. The flight was uncontrolled, however, and the design of the machine itself was basically impractical with its bizarre bat wings.

Sir Hiram Maxim also tried his hand at flight, creating an immense steam-powered biplane, which he attempted to fly at Baldwyn’s Park in Kent in 1894. This briefly cleared its guide rails before it hit a guard rail and crashed, after which Maxim called an end to his experiments in flight.

Steampunk Aircraft 5

The end of the 19th century saw further developments in flight from Otto Lilienthal in Germany, who constructed a series of man-carrying gliders, as well as other aviators in the very first years of the 20th century, such as Richard Pearse in New Zealand and Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Their machines are much more like those of the Wright brothers, which came after them.

I find the Victorian machines interesting, however, as they show not only the immense imagination and invention of the engineers and scientists of the period, but they are so much like some of the machines of Cyberpunk SF that you really do wonder what they world would have been like, if they had been more successful and flight had been successfully invented fifty years or so before the Wright brothers.

Steampunk Visions: 19th Century Designs for Steam-Driven Carriages and Cars

November 15, 2015

One of the most fascinating SF subgenres is Steampunk. Based on the massive expansion of science and technology in the 19th century, and the early, pioneering works of Science Fiction that was inspired by these, and in particular the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Steampunk is based on what might have been, if the Victorians had developed aircraft, cars, tanks and spacecraft. One of the genre’s classic, founding works is Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine. Gibson and Sterling were two of the inventors of Cyberpunk, the type of SF centred around Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and computer hacking. The Difference Engine was set in an alternative 19th century, where Charles Babbage’s early computer, the Difference Engine of the title, had been built.

Today’s cars are powered by the internal combustion engine, fuelled by petrol and diesel. They were developed in the late 19th century, and really became the dominant form of road transport in the 20th. But as far back as the late 18th century European inventors were trying to develop road vehicles driven by steam engines. In 1771 the French inventor, Nicholas Cugnot, created a steam carriage intended to pull heavy cannon. It was unsuccessful, but during the 19th century a series of engineers and inventors continued to try and develop one that worked.

There’s a chapter on this part of the history of the age of steam in the book, 250 Years of Steam, by Allan Bloom (Tadworth: World’s Work Lt 1981), complete with contemporary illustrations of what they were intended to look like.

These include Richard Trevithick’s steam carriage of 1803.

Steam Carriage 1

This was unsuccessful. The frame became twisted during trials. The carriage section was sold off, and the engine re-used in a rolling-mill for hoop iron.

W.H. James’ design, which would travel at speeds of 8 to 12 miles an hour, have 15-20 horsepower, and carry 18 passengers, six inside and twelve outside.

Steam Carriage 2

The machine developed by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, demonstrated on 12th August 1829, carrying the Duke of Wellington.

Steam Carriage

Walter Hancock’s machines, who built his first steam carriage in 1824. He wanted to use them to provide a passenger service in London. These had a crew of three – the driver on the steering wheel at the front, and engineer at the back, and a boy to stoke the engine.

Steam Carriage 3

There was also Rickett’s experimental steam carriage, which had its boiler behind the driver and passengers. It was so successful that the Earl of Caithness order a similar vehicle.

Steam Carriage 5

These first attempts to create steam-driven cars were unsuccessful. They couldn’t compete against the stage coaches and railways. The experimental nature of many of these machines made them dangerous. For example, the Glasgow Court of Session ruled that the steam carriages used by James Naismyth and John Scott Russell to run a passenger service between Glasgow and Paisley were unsafe and could not be used on the roads after the vehicle overturned crossing a covering of loose stones deliberately put there to block the route by the town’s Road Trustees. Bloom considers that what really made them uneconomical was the high costs of the tolls charged on the turnpike roads.

There was considerable public opposition to the vehicles as well, as Bloom’s book has a contemporary satirical drawing of what one 19th century cartoonist feared the roads would be like, if the new machine was taken up. Looked at now, it seems very much like Albert Robida’s ideas of what the 20th century would be like from his point of view in the 19th. Here’s the satirical depiction of steam-driven automobile mayhem.

Steam Carriage 4

In the 1880s, Amadee Bollee Senior, le Compte de Dion, constructed a series of successful steam cars in France. These look very much like the early cars of the period, using the internal combustion engine, and eventually de Dion switched over to using petrol and paraffin as fuels, rather than coke, before finally abandoning steam altogether and concentrating on the internal combustion engine.

Steam Car

Above: De Dion’s single-seater 1887 steam tricycle.

The book also covers the early 20th century steam cars, like the Stanley Steamer. These look very much like the motor cars of the period, as indeed does de Dion’s 1887 steam tricycle. The technology is obsolete, though Bloom suggests it may yet make a come-back. The invention and development of these engines in the 19th century, and the drawing made of them, do make you wonder what the world would have been like, had they taken off.

And they also show just how close to reality some parts of Steampunk are. It’s a pity they never actually got around to inventing space and time travel, however. That’s very much confined to fictions of Wells, Verne and their fellows.

And finally, here’s this footage from Youtube of a recreation of Cugnot’s steam carriage, displayed at the 2011 car exhibition in Dearborn, Michigan. Enjoy!

From the Director of 47 Ronin: The Gift Short SF Film

January 15, 2014

With the samurai fantasy epic, 47 Ronin about to hit the big screens here in Britain, I found this fascinating short film by its director, Carl Erik Rinsch. The Gift is set in a future Russia, inhabited by animal and humanoid robots, and patrolled by sinister and murderous robotic cops. A mysterious man travels through Moscow with a gift-wrapped package, containing something so precious people are willing to kill and die for it.

I found it on Youtube at

Rinsch himself is American, and the film itself was shown about four years ago in 2010 as part of the Philiips Parallel Lines film festival. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating little film, which certainly makes me wish for a few more, full-length SF films set in Russia. Russia has a long tradition of excellent SF literature, of which the best known in the West is probably the work of the Strugatski brothers. Their novel, Stalker, was turned into a film of the same name by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky had earlier produced Solaris, based on the classic SF novel of the same name by the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem. Tarkovsky, however, cut out most of the books special effects sequences, leaving the film as a long discussion on evil and human responsibilities by the characters as they roam a devastated, post-industrial landscape in search of something.

It’s very different from the book, where the weird, devastated environment of the Zone is given a rather fuller description. In the book the area has been cordoned off following a mysterious incident, the crash of an alien spacecraft. The area is now a death-trap in which normal, physical laws no longer apply. There can be sudden, massive increases in gravity, which can crush the unwitting traveller. The Zone is also populated by hostile dummies, the zombie remnants of humans caught, killed, and twisted into something not quite dead by the power of the strange forces that created and pervade the Zone.

The book’s hero is rather different too. In both the book and the film he’s an outlaw, venturing into the forbidden environment of the Zone in order to bring back valuable alien artefacts for money in order to support himself and his family. His journeys into the Zone have worked a terrible effect on him. Over time the Stalkers suffer genetic damage due to their exposure to the Zone and its bizarre forces. The Stalker of the novel in his career makes too many journeys into the Zone, with the result that his daughter is mutated. The film, however, makes the character much less morally ambiguous. In the book the character is at times quite ruthless, fully prepared to sacrifice his unwitting fellow travellers to the Zone and its deadly forces in order to get what he wants. Instead of the film’s elevated questioning of the nature of morality in the face of catastrophe, the book has a much darker tone, more Western cyberpunk with its similar amoral, outlaw heroes and noir-ish visions of a decaying or wrecked future.

Steven Soderbergh remade Solaris a few years ago, with George Clooney in the lead role. It was shorter than the Tarkovsky version, but made a few minor changes. There were sex scenes, which certainly weren’t present in Tarkovsky’s presence, one of the characters, the physicist Snow, was changed from a White man to a Black woman. In most other respects, however, the film was almost exactly the same, with some scenes almost shot-for-shot identical to the original. I’d like to see someone remake Stalker, but keeping closer to the source novel and showing some of the terrible wonders and dangers of the Zone.

The Strugatski brothers are only two of the many brilliant SF writers from Russia and eastern Europe. One or two of their other works were also filmed under Soviet rule, including In The Dust of their Stars, in which heroic Russian space travellers try to lead a rebellion against the oppressive rule of a planet’s feudal tyrant. Another Soviet SF film, though one which wasn’t written by them, is Planet of Storms, about a expedition to Venus. More recent Russian SF/ Fantasy films have been Daywatch and Nightwatch, about a secret society protecting humanity from supernatural evil. Seeing The Gift and with its setting in Russia reminded me just how great Russian, and eastern Science Fiction generally could be. It’s at times markedly different from Western SF. Under Communism, it was often written as a parable, in which the authors made coded comments and observations about the state of Soviet society, which they couldn’t express directly in realist fiction.

Stalker, with its depiction of wrecked landscape rendered deadly through a technological accident, became particularly relevant after the Chernobyl disaster. A few years ago a computer game was released, whose creators were Russian, and which mixed elements of Stalker with that of Chernobyl and its similar, horrifically polluted zone. Although it was entertainment, it also had a more serious purpose as it was partly intended to promote ecological awareness about the dangers of the devastating effects of such human activities on the natural world. The Russian film industry suffered catastrophically after the collapse of Communism, as it couldn’t compete with the big budget films from Hollywood, like The Terminator. The success of the Day- and Nightwatch films has proved that Russian film-makers can still produce great SF/ Fantasy films in a global market, so hopefully there will be a few more SF and Fantasy films coming from Russia and eastern Europe. And that will be no bad thing at all.

This is the trailer of Tarkovsky’s 1979 film of Stalker from Youtube:

Here’s an extract from Planet of Storms, also from Youtube :

Readings for the Cyber Age

October 15, 2013

Neil Spiller, ed., Cyber_Reader: Critical Writings for the Digital Era (London: Phaidon 2002)

Cyber Reader

Information technology is one of the most powerful scientific development of the past century. It, and the related fields of cybernetics and robotics, have profound implications for the nature of the brain, consciousness, sex, gender, humanity, life and even reality itself through the ways scientists, engineers and games designers have managed to simulate, model or recreate these aspects of our existence in the virtual worlds of cyberspace. This book is a collection of texts by scientists, engineers, philosophers and Science Fiction novelists exploring the theoretical and scientific underpinnings of information technology and cybernetics, and exploring the technologies’ philosophical implications and their impact on our lives in the future. The texts include extracts from

Babbage Engine

A Model of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine of 1871

Charles Babbage, ‘Of the Analytical Engine, 1864’, discussing his manufacture of his famous ‘Difference Engine’;

E.M. Forster’s pioneering SF story, The Machine Stops, of 1909, in which a future society that has become absolutely reliant for every aspect of its citizen’s existence on a vast machine has to come to terms with its end when that machine finally breaks down.

Vannevar Bush’s ‘As We May Think’, from 1945. Bush was the originator of the concept of hypertext in his idea of the memex machine. This was to be library reading desk that would call up microfilms and project their contents onto a screen. The user could, however, create trails between texts using various levers on the device. In this article, published in the Atlantic Monthly, Bush predicted the kind of devices he felt were just around the corner.

Turning's Man Cover

J. David Bolter’s ‘Essays of Operation’ from 1989, which provides a short description of Alan Turing’s Turing Machine and Johnny Von Neumann’s Design for Computers.

Norbert Wiener’s Organisation of the Message of 1950. Wiener was the father of cybernetics through his book, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine of 1948. In the extract from the Organisation of the Message included in this collection Wiener’s expresses his opinion that there is no difference between the transmission of information and the transmission of material, and looks forward to what we would now call teleportation.

JCR Licklider’s ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ of 1960, which analyses humans’ relationship to computers as analogous to the symbiotic relationship between bees and flowering plants.

Douglas Engelbart’s ‘Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework’ of 1962, which laid the basis for modern interactive hypermedia. It was Engelbart’s research, which created the foundations for the computer mouse, teleconferencing, e-mail and distributed client-server networks and the internet.

Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’ of 1964. McLuhan was the Canadian media guru, who coined the phrases ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’. In his exploration of the myth of Narcissus, McLuhan considered that the artificial, mechanical extension of the human self through technology created a sense of numbness. He believed that the media had created a state where everybody was somehow nearby. This allowed people in a sense to leave their physical bodies. For some this could be liberating, as it left the physical realm, and gender and disability behind. On the negative side, it meant that people no longer had the terrible fear of war.

Gordon Pask’s ‘The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics’ of 1969. Pask was an architect and the inventor of ‘Conversation Theory’. This explores ideas of the ‘observer’ and ‘users’ and their influence on the complex outcomes of cybernetic systems. The extract contained in the book is his account of Cedric Price’s and Joan Littlewood’s attempts to create the Fun Palace, constructed from huge steel columns and beams, which could be radical reconfigured.

Cedric Price’s ‘Generator Project’ of 1976. This was an attempt by Price to create an ‘intelligent’ building that ‘knew itself’ and ‘dreamt’ cybernetically. The various components of the building were fitted with a logic circuit linked to a central computer, in order to assist in the building’s reconfiguration. Price’s team were afraid that the human users would not fully utilise the building’s potential for radically altering its own structure. They therefore programmed the system so that it would register its own boredom, and make suggestions for possible alterations.

Paul Virilio, ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’ of 1980. Virilio is a French architect and one of the leading Postmodern critical theorists. In his Aesthetics of Disappearance, Virilio used the figure of the aircraft engineer and obsessive recluse, Howard Hughes, to express his own views on the disappearance of technology as it becomes faster, smaller and increasingly invisible. He stated that due to technology, the world was speeding up, and time was being ‘jump-cut’. He also believed that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity had destroyed static relationships, and that things now existed only in relationship to something else.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaux: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980. Deleuze was professor of philosophy at Paris University at Vincennes, and Guattari was a psychoanalyst and political activist, who practiced at the experiment psychiatric clinic, La Borde. In A Thousand Plateaux, Deleuze and Guattari analysed the ‘spacescape’ created by computer technology. They saw reality in terms of the rhizome and Riemannian manifold, metaphors for the complex interrelationships between things that changed over time. These ideas strongly influenced the annual ‘Virtual Futures’ conferences held at Warwick University in the 1990 by scholars exploring the philosophical implications of cybernetic research.

Neuromancer Cover

It also includes a chapter from William Gibson’s pioneering 1984, SF novel, Neuromancer. Gibson is one of the founders of Cyberpunk. His outlaw heroes have been altered so that they can access the vast, virtual information world of Cyberspace. Spiller included the extract because it had been so massively influential, that it was now difficult to know whether it had predicted modern Virtual reality, or merely described what was already happening.

Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, of 1985. Haraway is a socialist feminist, who sees cyberculture as a way of removing the old dualisms of male/female, white/black, animal/machine and heterosexual/homosexual. She believes the modern feminists, in championing the underdog, have actually reinforced these dualism and the existing system of exploitation. She believed that the cyborg was ‘committed to partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence’, and with no conception of the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden with its gender divides and division of labour.

Drexler Cover

K. Eric Drexler’s ‘Engines of Abundance’, from his 1990 book, Engines of Creation. This laid the foundations of nanotechnology, and looked forward to the development of atomic and molecular machines that could build anything out of anything, so that rocket engines could be built in vats.

Carbon Nanotubes

Computer Visualisation of Carbon Nanotubes, developed under the direction of Deepak Srivastava at NASA’s advance Supercomputing Division

Greg Bear’s 1990 novel, Queen of Angels. A cyberpunk novel set in 2047, this follows Public Defender Mary Choy as she goes to a Caribbean island to bring back to Los Angeles an insane mass-murderer. On the island, she secretly uses nanotechnology to build a gun on her hotel dressing table.

Difference Engine Cover

William Gibson’s and Bruce Stirling’s ‘Steampunk’ SF novel, The Difference Engine, of 1991. this explores what the world would have been like, if Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine had been built, and Victorian Britain and France become steam-driven computer societies.

Wearable Computer 1

A Wearable Computer System developed by MIT

Howard Rheingold’s ‘The Origins of Drama and the Future of Fun’ in his Virtual Reality of 1991. Rheingold was the editor of the Whole Earth Review, the successor to the 1960’s counterculture Whole Earth Catalog. His book, Virtual Reality, was one of the first popular books on the new, Virtual worlds now possible through computers, head-mounted displays and data gloves. Rheingold optimistically believed that this technology would allow us to recreate any experience we wished, a view that was attacked by Benjamin Woolley a year later in Woolley’s own Virtual Worlds.

Manuel De Landa’s ‘Policing the Spectrum’, from his War in the Age of Intelligent Machines of 1991. This was a history of weaponry from the machines of the Renaissance to the computerised technology used in the first Gulf War. He analysed their development in the terms of nonlinear emergent dynamics, and the apparent spontaneous emergence of order out of chaos. This results in curiously life-like behaviour in inorganic matter. De Landa has therefore developed the notion of the machine phylum, in which matter and energy in states in vastly disorganised states result in the self-assembly of machines. He sees the process by which machines are built by humans as similar to industrious insects pollinating and independent species of machine flower that does not possess its own reproductive organs.

Marcos Novak’s ‘Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace’, from the 1991 book Cyberspace: First Steps, edited by Michael Benedikt. Cyberspace: First Steps was a collection of essays by a variety of scholars and writers, including cultural commentators, artists, anthropologists, systems engineers, architects and software designers. Novak at the time was an assistant professor at the University of Texas. Novak has been credited as one of the first architects to show how his discipline could use cyberspace and its technologies to create new forms of architectural space. In ‘Liquid Architectures’ Novak argued that architecture that could and was built is only a small part of what architects actually produce. Through history there has always been architectural designs that could not be, and were never intended to be built. The ‘liquid architecture in cyberspace’ was Novak’s idea of the deliberately impossible structures architects could now design and build in Virtual reality.

Daniel C. Dennett’s ‘An Empirical theory of the Mind: The Evolution of Consciousness’ from Consciousness Explained, 1992. Dennett considered that consciousness was an emergent property of the brain, a feature that spontaneously arose from the brain’s structure and operation, but which could not be predicted. he drew an analogy between it and the way geese fly in ‘V’ formation, another emergent property that cannot be predicted from an examination of individual geese. In the chapter ‘An Empirical Theory of Consciousness’, Dennett argued that the brain and its components are analogous to parallel computer networks, all of which were capable of pretending to be other machines. It was an attempt to explain the emergence of consciousness, and humans’ ability to move from one mode of thought to another.

Neal Stephen’s 1992 SF novel, Snow Crash. This is set in the Virtual world of the Metaverse, and the Street, the Virtual space at the heart of it. Attached to the Street are various spaces where gravity and linear time do not exist. The novel is about the attempts of the central character, the appropriately named Hiro Protagonist, to combat the Snow Crash virus infecting this Virtual world. Although the book is set in Cyberspace, the book also has overtones of Augmented Reality, in which it is possible, using goggles, to see both real and Virtual space simultaneously.

Stephen Levy, ‘The Strong Claim’ in Artificial Life: The Quest for a New Creation, 1992. Artificial Life was a book tracing the development of the concept and the personalities and minds behind it. It combined science writing with biography. The concept of artificial life is based on the idea that as biological life is the manipulation of information, it should similarly be possible to replicate this in computers, which also manipulate information. Levy began his account of the idea’s development with the ‘finite automata’ of John Von Neumann before going on to John Horton Conway’s Game of Life. This is a version of cellular automata, and has been used to create Virtual creatures, which interact with each other and develop. These Virtual creatures are the Strong Claim, which this extract from Levy’s book explores.

Roger Lewin, ‘Life in a Computer’ in Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos, 1993. Lewin’s book, Complexity, discussed the changing patterns and order that can emerge from complex systems, such as the weather or colonies of animals. Genetic algorithms, invented by the American computer scientist John Holland, are algorithms designed to achieve optimum criteria. These are constructed according to genetic principles to achieve optimum performance by negotiating ‘fitness landscapes’ in the same way living organisms have done in their evolutionary development. In the extract reproduced here, Lewin discussed the use of genetic algorithms to construct the automata, or Virtual creatures with the capacity to evolve by Tom Ray in a simulated ecology of artificial life.

Pixel Juice Cover

The chapter, ‘Stash Rider’s, from Jeff Noon’s Vurt, 1993. Noon is a former pop musician, painter, and playwright. During his career he was playwright-in-residence at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Vurt was a cyberpunk novel set in a future Manchester, in which people use an all-purpose nanotechnological smart lubricant, Vaz, to mend their bodies, physiologies and machines. The Vurt of the book’s title is a psychedelic drug taken by using a feather to tickle the back of the throat. As well as ordinary humans, Mancester also has a population of half-human dogmen, shadowcops and robocrusties, second-class citizens who are the products of a previous fecundity affecting humans, animals and objects in a bio-technological disaster. The book is based on Norbert Wiener’s idea that the brain is similar to the computer. This was developed by some cognitive psychologists into the suggestion that the brain could similarly be programmed and dissected as a series of programmes.

PK Dick Religion

A Page from Robert Crumb’s The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick, depicting the strange Gnostic experiences that occurred to Dick in March 1974, and which formed the basis of his book, Valis.

Techgnosis Cover

Erik Davis, Techgnosis: magic, memory, and the Angels of Information, 1993. Davis here argued that underlying modern information and image-rich culture was the ancient, human urge to create mythologies placing events and objects within a cosmological hierarchy, imbuing them with order and meaning. The book is therefore an exploration of the connections and similarities between the new technologies of cyberspace and ancient, arcane and scientifically discredited concepts.


The evil robot from Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis, which mixed Science Fiction with religious imagery. The inverted pentagram behind the robot links her and her creator to world of black magic.

Scott Bukatman, ‘Terminal Resistance/ Cyborg Acceptance’, in Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, 1993. Bukatman is Assistant Professor in the Media Arts Program at the University of New Mexico, and the consulting editor for the academic journal, Science Fiction Studies.In Terminal Identity he examines the way space and technology in SF. He considers that modern society is in crisis, as the established relationships between humanity, space, machines, and gender and sexuality and the way they are represented have been broken down. He argues that in the past there was a dichotomy between the external, rational world and the internal world of the mind, which was full of ghosts, fantasies and Virtual beings. Digital technology has reversed this relationship, so that it is now the external world that is full of the strange, fantastic and unreal. Modern information technology offers a kind of transcendence, at the cost of the violation of the purity of the flesh, as the body is invaded by the products of technology.

Anne Balsamo, ‘Feminism for the Incurably Informed’ in South Atlantic Quarterly’, 1993. Anne Balsamo is Professor of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and the author of the 1996 book, Technologies of the Gendered Body. ‘Feminism for the Incurably Informed’ is a feminist reading of Pat Cadigan’s SF novel, Synners. The Synners of the title are people, who take images from the brains of performers and rearticulate them for mass consumption, in a shifting, Virtual world, that is also always being reconfigured, repackaged and resold. Balsamo identifies Cadigan’s recurring motif of ‘change for the machines’, as encapsulating the issues that surround digital technology and its effect on the gendered body. She believes that humans have now become used to using machines as part of their identity, and wonders what this actually means and whether we can avoid being excessively reliant on them.

Sherry Turkle, ‘Constructions and Reconstructions of the Self in Virtual Reality’, 1994. Turkle is a clinical psychologist and the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Sociology of Science in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT. Turkle uses Allucquere Rosanne Stone’s concept of the ‘consensual locus’ to explore the formation of identities in Multi-User Dungeons in Role-Playing Games such as Dungeons and Dragons. The ‘consensual locus’ is a person’s online persona, and their real-world personal interactions. She considers the consensual locus and the different realities it creates constitute a means for therapeutic interactions in the Virtual worlds of online Role-Playing Games. In an argument that should delight many fans of the RPG, she contradicts the image of them as lonely, socially retarded, rather sad individuals. she instead shows that the Virtual scenarios encountered in the games allow them to negotiate similar social situations in reality.

Kevin Kelly, ‘An Open Universe’, from Out of Control, 1994. Kelly is the former editor and publisher of the Hippie Whole Earth Review, and is the executive editor of Wired magazine. In Out of Control Kelly speculated on the vast possibilities that would arise through the hybridization of the biological with digital technology to form what Kelly calls ‘the neo-biological’. Kelly feels that this would result in the appearance of biological machines that would use emergent behaviour to evolve in relation to each other, rather than according to the strict parameters laid down by their programmers. The chapter included in the book examined the similarities between genes and their potential to create a massive ‘gene space’ of infinite possibilities through their capacity for recombination, and parallel computing, in which programs also evolve rather than proceed linearly. Kelly discusses the definition of artificial life by one of its pioneers, Chris Langton, and the way the genetic model can therefore be used to create forms of it, which evolve according to a changing ‘fitness landscape’.

Johnny Mnemonic

Keanu Reeves enters Cyberspace in this scene from Johnny Mnemonic, scripted by William Gibson.

Greg Egan, Permutation City, 1994. Egan is a Science Fiction writer and computer programmer. In his novel, Permutation City, Egan examines the concept of Strong AI: the claim that computers may be able to develop true artificial intelligence similar to that of humans, and what it would be like to exist as a disembodied intelligence, downloaded onto a computer. One of the book’s main characters, Paul Derham, creates a computer copy of himself as part of his research into Strong AI. The book describes the differences between the relative speeds and virtual capabilities of Virtual and real space, as well as the possibility of creating copies of one’s personality to form ‘conscious’ avatars in Cyberspace, as Derham does in the book.

William Mitchell, ‘Soft Cities’, from City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn, 1995. Mitchell is another architect, who has investigated the potential impact of cyberspace on their discipline. He is Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. In City of Bits Mitchell was one of the first researchers to consider the impact cyberspace and e-commerce would have on the structure and morphology of cities. The new cities formed by the impact of digital technology would be more than their visible, built environment. They would be connected to Virtual reality via the information superhighways.

Wearable Computer 2

Members of MIT’s Wearable Computing Project, modelling some of their inventions.

Karen A. Franck, ‘When I Enter Virtual Reality, What body Will I Leave Behind?, in Architectural Design, 1995. Franck is a professor in the School of Architecture and also the Department of Social Science and Policy Studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Franck is interested in the body and gender, and in the essay collected in this book examined the extent to which people left them when they entered cyberspace. She considered that rather than losing them when they entered cyberspace, people split their bodies, with parts of them coming with us and allowing us to experience the Virtual realm. She believes cyberspace offers the opportunity to construct an area free of the gender stereotypes and ideas of beauty of normal space. Virtual reality offers a new kind of protection for the body, when people enter cyberspace, that allows them to experience more of, and understand, the other.

John Frazer, ‘A Natural Model for Architecture/ The Nature of the Evolutionary Model’, from An Evolutionary Architecture, 1995. Frazer was a unit master at the Architectural Association in London, Director of Computer-Aided Design at the University of Ulster, at which he received a personal Chair in 1984, as well as lecturing at Cambridge University. He was one of the founders of Autographics Software Ltd in 1983, which pioneered microprocessor graphics. Impressed by information ecologies and the spaces between objects, Frazer and his colleagues have developed computer architectural experiments using genetic algorithms, cellular automata, emergent behaviour, complexity and feedback loops to create a dynamic architecture, whose forms are beyond the total control of architect that programmes them. He models his approach to the built environment to the multi-celled structures found in nature. His own evolutionary architecture uses a ‘genetic code script’, with rules for the code’s development, the code’s mapping to a Virtual model, the characteristics of the environment for the model’s development, and the selection criteria. Spiller in his introduction to Frazer’s chapter notes that ‘he goes beyond the usual notions of architectural beauty and aesthetics’, although his work is not without them. Frazer was also pioneering in recognising the potential computers have for allowing architects design buildings, and create varied spaces in both the real, and Virtual worlds.

Nicholas Negroponte, ‘Iconographics’, from Being Digital, 1995. Negroponte is director of the Media lab at MIT, and the founder of Wired magazine, for which he also writes. Being Digital was Negroponte’s account of the revolution in digital technology. He stated he wanted to write the book, as it was aimed at parents, politicians and executives, who at that time did not have access to the digital media in which it could otherwise be published. He also wanted to revisit some of the old ideas in his Wired column, and see whether they were still true due to the very rapid changes in the technology and its application that can occur in a short space of time. Surprisingly, and heartening for the defenders of hardcopy books now under attack from their digital competitors like Kindle, Negroponte was of the opinion that the printed page still had the greater capacity to stimulate the imagination than the computer screen.

Stelarc Arm

Performance Artist and Cyborg Stelarc with his artificial third arm.

Stelarc, ‘Towards the Post-Human: From Psycho-body to Cyber-system’, Architectural Design, 1995. Stelarc is an Australian performance artist, several of whose performances involved him being suspended in public spaces on meat hooks. He believes that the body has now been rendered obsolete by technology, and that it must be hollowed, hardened, dehydrated and often anaesthetised. He has also used medical, cybernetic and Virtual reality technology and procedures to explore and enhance the body’s own capabilities. He has amplified his brainwaves, heartbeat, blood flow and muscle signals during his performances, as well as filming the interior of his lungs, stomach and colon. He has a prosthetic ‘third arm’ attached to his stomach, which operates through the movements of the muscles there. In another performance, he attached galvanic stimulators to his body and wired himself up to the internet. A search programme looked through the net for images of body parts. When it found them, those parts were stimulated electronically. viewers of the performance about the globe in three different cities could also stimulate his body remotely. He has also had a third ear grafted, with a proximity sensor that makes it make a loud screech if any comes close. He was one of the researchers into the Transhuman condition, who was interviewed, along with that master of transgressive literature, J.G. Ballard, in BBC 3’s excellent and stimulating series, Grave New Worlds.

John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, 1996. Barlow is a former rancher, and lyricist for the LSD-influenced hippy band, the Grateful Dead. He has written for a number of publications, including Communications of the ACM, Mondo 2000, the New York Times, Time, and been on the editorial board of Wired. He was one of the co-founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990. He wrote the ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ in response to the passage of the Telecom Reform Act in America in 1996. This made it illegal to use any of the seven dirty words forbidden in broadcast media on-line, to discuss abortion or to talk about any bodily function except in the most clinical terms.

Lawnmower Man

The sex scene from the 1992 SF film, Lawnmower Man.

Mark Dery, ‘Robocopulation: Sex Times Technology Equals the Future’, from Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, 1996. Dery is a cultural critic, who has written on the numerous subcultures that have arisen through computer technology in a number of magazines, including Wired, Rolling Stone, Mondo 2000, The Village Voice and New York Times, and edited the book Flame Wars. Escape Velocity explored these new technological subcultures of cyberpunks, net hippies, techno-pagans and others. In the chapter ‘Robocopulation’, he explored the way artists in the past, as well as people in the present, have tried to use and explore the sensual and sexual possibilities of the machine. These have included the French painter, Francis Picabia, who tried to depict in his art a ‘mechanomorphic’ sensuality. Dery also described the new digital technology of ‘teledildonics’, where the participants are separate from and remote from each other, but experience the sensations of sex through special electronic suits fitted with sensors and stimulators. He also discussed the way the internet has been extensively used to broadcast pornographic images and the sexual conversations of Cybersex.


Everyone’s favourite menacing cyborg: Arnie as the Terminator.

Hans Moravec, ‘The Senses Have No Future’, 1998. Moravec is the director of the Carnegie Mellon University Mobile Robot Laboratory. He is supposed to have built his first robot when he was ten years old. His work attempts to give robots three-dimensional spatial awareness through a variety of sensors. He was made famous, or infamous, for his 1988 book, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. In this book, Moravec predicted that by the middle of this century, if not sooner, it would be possible to download human consciousness, either into cyberspace or into a robotic body. Moravec himself believes this will be necessary if humans are to keep pace with the rapid evolution of machine intelligence. The book points out that Moravec views have been challenged at two points. First, Moravec believes that during the downloading process the brain would be destroyed as it is gradually scanned and copied, layer by layer, until the brain case is empty. If current technological trends continue, however, Greg Egan’s view of the copying process in Permutation City may be more accurate, and the process may not involve the destruction of the original human. Furthermore, Erik Davis in Techgnosis notes that psycho-neuro-immunologists argue that consciousness arises from the entire body. Meditators and mystics across the world also consider that there are many different states of consciousness that cannot be identified with the conceptual activity examined by cognitive science and which Moravec wishes to simulate.

Michael Heim, ‘The Virtual Reality of the Tea Ceremony’, The Virtual Dimension, 1998. Heim teaches internet and new media design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where he also directs at Tai Chi group. Heim views the computer as introducing a new technologized space of thought that it contemplatively ordered, erotic and poetic. He has stated that cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory for examining our sense of the real. He believes that as western science has progressed, it has become increasingly similar to eastern mysticism. He cites as examples of this the liquid metaphors used to describe the transmission of information, and fractal computer interfaces that are curiously similar to Zen gardens. He is afraid that the navigators and builders of cyberspaces are in danger of performing unsymbolic and thoughtless work work, to which a similar philosophy exists in the tea ceremony. He therefore argues that the tea ceremony may give cyberspace more of a sense of place and move it away from being blandly ubiquitous.

Anthony Dunne, ‘Hertzian Space’, Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design, 1999. Anthony is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal College of Art in London. He and his design partner, Fiona Raby, create designs for products and architectural elements that respond to the electromagnetic spectrum. They deliberately reject the ‘form-porn’ aesthetic in which the skin of a product is designed to conceal a set of very ordinary components, and to become as obsolete as swiftly as possible. They are in favour of a design philosophy in which nothing is overwrought, accentuated or just there for its own sake. They note that many objects react to and respond to the electromagnetic impulses all around us, such as the ring of the telephone when it receives its signal, or a computer mouse that can quack like a duck, tweet, or laugh like a baby if so designed. In Hertzian Tales Dunne describes his aspirations, the people he admires and who have influenced him, and his concepts of the ‘post-optimal object’, ‘para-functionality’ and ‘infra-ordinary space’. The book’s introduction is by Gillian Crampton Smith, the former Professor of Computer Related Design at the RCA. She notes that objects are rarely purely functional, but also have ritual or symbolic meanings. This fact has largely been ignored in the design of computer technology. She views Dunne’s work as introducing an ‘aesthetics of use’ into electronic objects, through the interactivity made possible by computers. This in turn seeks to produce a more nuanced cooperation with the object, which may in turn enhance social contact and everyday experience. Dunne, Raby and Smith therefore hope that such computerised products will encourage the user to enter a new space of communal interaction, rather than the lonely and self-obsessed spaces they see as often produced by the technology.

Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, 1999. Wertheim is a science journalist specialising in the relationship between physics and religion. Wertheim considers that the internet and Virtual reality are portals into a new, religious space – a ‘soul space’. This is in contrast to the way the industrial revolution and the secular spaces of modernism collapsed the old, medieval dualist concept of space, divided between heaven and Earth. Wertheim goes on to show the parallels between the conceptions of space in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the renaissance ‘theatres of memory’ mnemonic devices explored by Frances Yates in her book, the Art of Memory. Dante’s Cornices acted as mnemonic device for memorising the place of things and ideas in the cosmic hierarchy, while his trilogy is also full of less elevated references to contemporary politics and gossip. Contemporary cyberspace also possesses a ‘low code’ content, which, along with its elusive phenomenological character, makes it a ‘new soul space’. Cyberspace is only partly located in real, physical space, and so lies outside the multitude of dimensions and hyperspace posited by physicists and scientists. It is a realm beyond physical law. Her conception is the complete opposite of Stelarc’s, which far from viewing Cyberspace as the modern version of an ancient concept, sees it as a completely modern innovation that has rendered the old ideas about the body obsolete.

The last extract in the anthology is Spiller’s own article, ‘Vacillating Objects’, from Architectural Design, 1999. Spiller was the guest editor of the ‘Architects in Cyberspace’ edition of Architectural Design in 1995 through his interest in invigorating architecture through Cyberspace and the blurred boundary between the real and the Virtual. His own research has included the changing status of architectural drawings, smart materials, computer-aided manufacturing, emergent systems, responsive environments, the architectural design of Cyberspace, interactivity, cybernetics, evolving systems and algorithmic design, as well as cellular automata and complexity. Spiller was interested in using algorithms as a way creating responsive, non-prescriptive architectural designs. Algorithms offered a way to describe fluctuating conditions in responsive environments. That edition of Architectural Review was the architectural publication to describe the immense potential information technology offered architects since the 1960s. It included articles by philosophers, architects, performance artists, theorists of digital art and psychologists. It was followed by Digital Dreams and ‘Architects in Cyberspace 2’. He predicts that the architecture of the future ‘will be an architecture of ecological wefts, technological distortions and digital necromancy’. He believes it will mix objects not often connected with each other for aesthetic or practical reasons, or for exploration. Objects, some of which will be invisible, will simultaneously flit across a variety of terrain and so demolish the idea of the privileged site plan as the objects become ubiquitous and doppelgangered.

Cyberspace, Architecture and Post-Modernism

Phaidon are publishers of books on art, and so, as you’d expect from such a publisher, the book contains a profuse number of beautiful illustrations. Spiller’s job as an architect, and the various other contributors to the anthology, who are also members of the profession -Gordon Pask, Cedric Price, Paul Virilio, Marcos Novak, William Mitchell, Karen A. Franck John Frazer and Anthony Dunne – explains why Phaidon, rather than a science publisher, should publish it. Several of the contributors – Deleuze, Guattari, and Virilio, for example, are also key figures in Post-Modern philosophy. They and their ideas have recently come under attack. Spiller notes that Deleuze and Guattari are extremely difficult to understand. In fact the American mathematician, Alan Sokal, and his Belgian colleague Bricmont, have demonstrated in their book, Intellectual Impostures, that much Post-Modern philosophy is actually nonsensical. They took a number of leading Post-Modern philosophers and showed that they misunderstood the scientific concepts they included in their writings. These did not add anything to their arguments, but were simply there to make their confused, often incoherent prose seem far more intellectually profound than it really was. It has been widely known for some time that Post-Modernism originally arose in architecture, where it was defined by the inclusion, or quotation, of historic architectural features in modern buildings, before it moved into philosophy. What is new, which this book demonstrates, is how the founders of Post-Modernism were influenced by the new information technology, and, in Virilio’s case, cyberspace.

The selected texts include some of the classic works on information technology, cyberspace and its effect on humanity, such as those of Babbage, Forster, Bush, Bolter, Wiener, Licklider, Engelbart, McLuhan, Moravec, Stelarc and, most famously, Gibson’s Neuromancer. Before Reading University’s professor of Cybernetics, Kevin Warwick, experimented with being a cyborg, Stelarc was very nearly the real thing, wiring himself up to the Net, and giving himself another, prosthetic arm and ear. When he announced his intention to have this last added to his anatomy on Radio 3’s Grave New Worlds, it made the poor continuity announcer feel quite ill. She was heard after the programme saying something along the lines of, ‘And if that hasn’t made you feel too bad, you can recover by listening to one of the great pieces of classical music on next’. Others have talked the talk about cyborgs, but Stelarc really did walk the walk.

Stelarc Body

Graphic from Stelarc’s performance, ‘Involuntary Body/ Third Hand’.

Philosophical Objections to Downloading

Many, perhaps most, of the pieces, are highly controversial. The possibility of downloading one’s intelligence into a computer rests on the identification of mind with brain, and this is open to strong criticism on philosophical and neurological grounds. Many philosophers, such as the former neurologist Raymond Tallis, have pointed out that the brain is not a computer. This is just the latest metaphor used to describe the most complex organised structure in the universe. Previous centuries have described it in terms of a telephone exchange, or a series of fountains. Daniel C. Dennett’s attempts to explain consciousness in terms of brain function and evolutionary history has also been criticised. Despite the book’s title, it does not actually explain how consciousness arises, only how various parts of the brain perform particular cognitive or mental functions.

Genderless Societies Unpopular, Shown in Criticism of Star Trek Episode by Gay Fans

Some of the feminist ideas about Cyberspace and cyborgisation are also probably too radical to be acceptable for most people. Feminism is about raising the status of women and promoting greater equality between the sexes, particularly with the intention of giving women greater freedom to pursue careers and occupations previously only open to men. Although this naturally involves the redefinition of the gender roles, I doubt very many would want humanity to move beyond gender altogether. The controversy surrounding one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which acted as a metaphor for homosexuality and related gender issues is an illustration of this. In the episode, ‘The Outcast’ the crew of the Enterprise encounter the J’naii, a race that has evolved out of gender. Occasionally, however, a throwback occurs, which is either male or female. These individuals are persecuted by the state. If found, they are captured and forcibly given therapy and medical intervention to make them a normal member of their sexless race. One of the J’naii, who has been on the Enterprise assisting with its latest task on the planet, is just such a throwback. It is a female, and in love with Riker. She is arrested, and taken away. Riker attempts to free her in a raid, but it is too late. The person has already been treated and so can have no romantic interest in him as a member of a race with gender.

Jnali Trek

Riker pursues a forbidden romance with a genderless alien in the Star Trek:TNG episode ‘The Outcast’.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was lampooned when it first appeared for being ‘politically correct’. It was firmly anti-racist and anti-sexist. The phrase ‘Where no man has gone before’ in the opening dedication had been altered to ‘Where no-one has gone before’. The ship’s security officer, Tasha Yar, was a woman, and the Federation stood for inter-planetary multiculturalism, rather than simply the multi-racial tolerance, mixed with 1960s American values of the Classic Trek series. There was pressure at the time for the series to promote a pro-gay stance. The gay members of the SF milieu, such as the organisation of gay SF fans, the Gaylaxians, wanted the producers to introduce gay characters and stories. They hoped, for example, for an episode in which Picard would perform a ship’s marriage for a same-sex couple. David Gerrold, one of the script editors and writers on the original series, who went on to become the script editor for the 1980s Buck Rogers show, was supportive. This was, however, too radical a step for the producers and the TV networks. The episode with Riker and his paramour from a genderless society was therefore seen as a compromise, an attempt to present a pro-gay message, albeit metaphorically.This episode angered rather than satisfied the show’s gay fans. They were particularly upset by the suggestion that somehow gays were opposed to gender, and wished to create a genderless society.

Some of the ideas about the creation of alternative bodies and identities in Cyberspace is also morally dubious. One of the examples of this cited by Truckle is of an individual, who came on-line claiming to be severely disabled woman. This person could only communicate using the keyboard through a probe mounted on their head. This person became popular and attracted many friends. One of these tried to track her down and meet her in person. When they did so, this disabled woman turned about to be a fit and well man. ‘Her’ friends, especially the women, were understandably upset and felt betrayed. Even more seriously, there is the problem of paedophiles grooming their young victims on-line, by pretending to be other youngsters.

Virtual Personas Little Different from Conventional Strategies for Real-Life Anonymity

It’s also true that the creation of different, Virtual personas on-line isn’t radically different to the strategies people have adopted throughout history in real life. Conmen are once example of this, but far more benign examples have been the way authors have adopted pseudonyms to get their work published. The great German satirist, Kurt Tucholsky, wrote under a series of pseudonyms and personas, some of which argued with each other in the Weimar press. If you do it on-line, it called using sock-puppets. Many of those, who adopted pseudonyms and fake personas were women authors, who would otherwise not have been published if their true gender and identity had been known, such as George Eliot. Another example from Science Fiction literary history is James Tiptree junior. Tiptree was the author of a number of prize winning short stories between 1967 and 1977, and was lauded as the equal of Robert Silverberg and Ursula Le Guin. He was the author of such great stories as ‘Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death’. Outside of his writing career, he had a high-power job in Washington. He was finally unmasked in 1977 by a fan, Jeffrey D. Smith, as Alice Sheldon. Sheldon had travelled widely in Africa as a child, been a professional painter, and the first woman to go through the US Air Force Intelligence School. With her husband she helped form the CIA. She had used the techniques taught to her as a spy to construct the false persona of Tiptree.

In the world of the Role-Playing Game, whether real or on computer, it’s also the case that changes of identity and gender are taken as fun, rather than anything more profound or serious. I’ve known a number of RPGers, who’ve played on board and computer games as members of the opposite sex without any deeper interest in issues of gender and identity. They were just interested in playing a particular character, that happened to be of the opposite sex, in an adventure game.

Robocop 2

The Cybernetic hero of the film, Robocop.The story of a policeman, Murphy, who is transformed into a cyborg policeman after being brutally gunned down and his attempts to bring the criminals and the corrupt businessmen behind them and his transformation to justice. Murphy as the Robocop is initially very much a machine, until he rediscovers his own humanity during a dream. It represents the terrible dehumanisation that could result from such radical mechanisation of the human body.

Danger of Dehumanisation in Cyborg Enhancement

As for cyborgisation, while this does offer immense opportunities for personal enhancement and augmentation, it also presents serious ethical dangers. I doubt many people would object to the idea of immortality or longevity offered by the prospect of nanomachines repairing the damage to their cells caused by the aging process, such as has been suggested by that great Transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil. On the other hand, there is the terrible danger of complete depersonalisation as advanced technology replaces everything we most value and cherish about humanity. The end result of this process is the emotionless, depersonalised machine creatures of Science Fiction, the Daleks and Cybermen of Doctor Who, and the Borg with their collective hive mind in Star Trek. The Cybermen were the result of a conversation between their creator and his mother. They had been talking about spare part surgery, and the monsters’ creator found himself wondering if this would result in a creature that didn’t know whether it was a man or machine. He depicted them without emotion, because he believed that they would not need them through living in a completely technological environment. Few people would want to join them in their machine hell.

Much Modern Architecture Ugly

Modern architecture is also contentious. While the chapters on computer-aided design and Cyberspace and computer design philosophies are fascinating, it’s unfortunately true that much of modern architecture actually isn’t very attractive. One only has to read the ‘Nooks and Corners’ column in Private Eye to read what their writer, ‘Piloti’, thinks of many of the great contemporary architects, such as Richard Rogers, and their attempts to deconstruct architecture. The results of this have been some truly unattractive buildings of the type Prince Charles once memorably and notoriously described as ‘monstrous carbuncles’.

Despite these criticisms, the pieces presented here are thought-provoking, stimulating and present powerful insights into way computers and digital age have revolutionised modern culture and society, and their immense potential for radically changing not just society, but humanity and its conception of self and reality, as well as the alternative world that would have resulted had Babbage’s great machine actually been built.