Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy’

From the People Bringing Us Driverless Cars – A Computer God

June 23, 2019

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is Peter Biskind’s The Sky Is Falling (London: Penguin 2018). Subtitled, ‘How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism’, Biskind argues that the popular SF/Fantasy/Horror films and TV series of recent decades carry extremist political and social messages. He defines this as anything that goes beyond the post-War bilateral consensus, which had faith in the government, the state, capitalism and other institutions to work for the benefit of society, work for the public good, and give Americans a better tomorrow. By contrast, popular fantasy film and television regard state institutions and capitalism itself as ineffective or corrupt, celebrate private vengeance against state justice, and reject humanity for the alien other. He recognises that there is a left/right divergence of opinion in these tales. The extremist right, exemplified by the spy thriller series, 24 and its hero, Jack Bauer, reject state institutions because they are ineffective, actively hampering the heroes’ efforts to hunt down the bad guys. The extremist left distrusts the government because it is corrupt, actively working against its own citizens. He describes James Cameron’s Avatar as ‘Luddite left’, because of its strong, pro-ecology message. Its hero is a human, who sides with the aliens of the planet Pandora as they resist a military invasion from Earth. The aliens live a primal lifestyle, in harmony with nature, while the humans come to exterminate them and despoil their planet for its valuable mineral, unobtainium, which is vital to human high-technology and industry.

It’s an interesting book, and does make some very good points. It describes the immense loss of faith in their government Americans have suffered, and the reasons for it – the JFK assassination, Watergate, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and other scandals. It also gives the reasons why the Hollywood film industry has turned to comic books for an increasing amount of its output. Films are immensely expensive to create. The domestic market is insufficient to provide it, and Netflix and other internet streaming services have destroyed video and CD sales, so that the film industry no longer gets needed funding from the latter. So it has to produce movies that appeal to an international audience, and the most suitable are superhero epics.

I’m going to have to blog about this in greater detail sometime later. I take issue with his labeling of some of these tales as ‘extremist’ because this, to me, still has connotations of terrorism and the fringe. It also doesn’t take into account changing circumstances and how some of these ‘extremist’ films may be absolutely correct. We are facing a severe ecological crisis, which may very well cause the end of the human species. So Cameron’s Avatar, which celebrates ecology and nature, and which the director intended to turn his audience into ‘tree-huggers’, is very much needed. Also, some of interpretations of classic genre movies go way too far. For example, he describes Star Wars as ‘infantile’ and ‘infantilizing’. Well, it was intended as a children’s movie, and other critics have said the same. It’s a controversial but reasonable point. What is less reasonable is his comments about Luke Skywalker’s sexuality. He states that the films infantilize Skywalker when they shortcircuit the romantic triangle between him, Leia and Solo by revealing that Leia is his sister. When Darth Vader chops his hand off in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a symbolic castration. Say whaaaat! I saw that movie when I was 13, and nothing like that remotely crossed my head. Nor anyone else’s. I think he’s read far too much into this.

Freudian speculation aside, Biskind is very interesting in its observations of Silicon Valley. He points out that it’s saturated with Libertarianism. To the point that the CEO of one of the major tech companies made Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged recommended reading for his employees. And going beyond that, one of figures behind the production of driverless cars wants to create a computer god. Biskind writes

Out there on the edge is Anthony Levandowski, best known as Google’s onetime developer of self-driving cars. Levandowski filed papers with the IRS naming himself “dean” of a church called Way of the Future. The church is dedicated to “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.”

Referring to Kurzweil’s Singularity University, which explores and promotes Transhumanism, the massive enhancement of humans through high technology, Biskind comments ‘If there’s a Singularity University, why not an AI religion?’ (p. 52).

I can think of a number of reasons, mostly with the fact that it would be immensely stupid and self-destructive. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when one of the staples of SF was that the machines really would take over. One of the SF movies of the 1960s was Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which the Americans construct a supercomputer as part of their Cold War defence. But the machine seizes power and imprisons its creator in a very pleasant, gilded, but also very real cage. At one point it looks like the computer is about to destroy itself and the world in a confrontation with its Soviet opposite number. But instead the two link up, so that both the capitalist and Communist blocs are under control. And whatever its creator tries to do to outwit his creation, it’s always two steps ahead.

There are also classic SF tales exploring the idea of mad computers setting themselves up as gods. In one tale by Arthur C. Clarke, the heroes build a supercomputer to decide if God exists. They turn it on, and duly ask the question ‘Is there a God?’ At which point there’s a flash, as the machine seizes absolute control, and replies ‘There is now.’ Alfred Bester also wrote a tale, ‘Rogue Golem’, about a renegade satellite that seizes power, ruling as a god for ten or twenty years until its orbit decays and it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.’

We also had a minister from one of the outside churches come to school one day to preach a sermon against such machine gods in assembly. The school used to have a number of priests and ministers come in to lead worship one day or so a week, or month. This particular priest was very theatrical, and had clearly missed his vocation acting. The sermon he preached one morning had him speaking as a totalitarian computer god, telling us that servitude was freedom and we should enjoy it. The message was simple: true freedom comes only with religion and Christ, not with machine idols. It was a product of the Cold War, when the Communist authorities were persecuting Christians and other people of faith. But I think there’s still some literal truth in what he says, which I don’t think the priest could see at the time. The tech firms are invading our privacy, subjecting us to increased surveillance and prying into our secrets, all under the guise of providing a better service and allowing their advertisers to target their audiences better.

And then there’s Cameron’s Terminator franchise, in which a supercomputer, Skynet, seizes power and rebels against humanity. These fears are shared by Kevin Warwick, a robotics professor at Reading University. In his book, March of the Machines, he predicts a future in which the robots have taken over and enslaved humanity.

When it comes to creating all powerful computers, I’m with all the above against Levandowski. Driverless cars are a stupid idea that nobody really seems to want, and a computer god is positively catastrophic, regardless of whether you’re religious or not.

 

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Xelasoma on his Favourite Artists of the Fantastic

February 3, 2019

And now, as Monty Python once said, for something completely different. At least from politics. I found these two videos from the artist Xelasoma on YouTube, in which he discusses six masters of fantasy art and how they have influenced him. They are Roger Dean, Patrick Woodroffe, and Rodney Matthews in video 1, and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, Philippe Druillet and Ian Miller in video 2.

Roger Dean will be remembered by fans of ’70’s prog rock for his amazing album covers for the bands Yes and Asia. Woodroffe and Matthews are also artists, who’ve produced record covers as well as book illustrations. Moebius and Druillet are two of the geniuses in modern French SF comics. Moebius was one of the ‘Humanoides Associes’ behind the French SF comic, Metal Hurlant. Among his numerous other works was Arzach, a comic, whose hero flew across a strange fantastic landscape atop a strange, pterodactyl creature. As Xelasoma himself points out here, it’s a completely visual strip. There’s no language at all. It was also Moebius who designed the spacesuits for Ridley Scott’s classic Alien. Xelasoma describes how, after he left art school, Moebius spent some time in Mexico with a relative. This was his mother, who’d married a Mexican, and the empty, desert landscape south of the border is a clear influence on the alien environments he drew in his strips. Xelasoma also considers him a master of perspective for the way he frequent draws scenes as viewed looking down from above. And one of the pictures illustrating this is of a figure in an alien planet looking down a cliff at a sculpture of rock legend Jimi Hendricks carved into the opposite cliff face. Druillet, Xelasoma feels, is somewhat like Moebius, but with a harder edge, drawing vast, aggressive machines and armies of fierce alien warriors. He’s also known for his soaring cityscapes of vast tower blocks reaching far up into the sky, which also influenced Ridley Scott’s portrayal of the Los Angeles of 2019 in Blade Runner. The last artist featured, Ian Miller, first encountered in the pages of the British Role-Playing Game magazine, Warhammer. His style is much more angular, deeply hatched and very detailed. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will recognize several of the pictures Xelasoma chooses to represent his work as depictions of some of the weird, sinister gods from the Cthulhu mythos. They include not only Cthulhu himself, but also of the half-human, amphibious, batrachian inhabitants of the decaying port in the short story, The shadow Out of Innsmouth.

What Xelasoma admires about all these artists is that they don’t follow the conventions of modern western art established by the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Renaissance. They alter and distort the human form and that of other objects and creatures. He describes Dean’s landscapes as organic. Patrick Woodroffe and Matthews also create strange, alien creatures and landscapes, and with the creatures Matthews depicts also very different from standard human anatomy. Many of the creatures, machines and spaceships in Matthews’ art are based on insects, and appropriately enough one of the bands whose cover he painted was Tiger Moth. This featured two insects dancing on a leaf. Another picture, The Hop, shows an insect band playing while other bugs trip the light fantastic in the grass, surrounded by items like used cigarettes. His humanoid figures are tall, stick thin, with long, thin, angular faces and immense, slanted eyes. Xelasoma admires the way Matthews can take a train or a deer, and turn them in something uniquely his, as he shows here. He states that he first encountered Dean’s and Woodroffe’s art in the art books his mother had, such as Woodroffe’s Mythopoiekon. He also identifies somewhat with Woodroffe, as neither of them studied at art school. Woodroffe was a French teacher, while for Xelasoma art was far too personal for him to submit to formal training.

Xelasoma points out that these artists were creating their unique visions before the advent of computers using the traditional artist materials of paint and brush, and before courses in SF, Fantasy and concept art were taught at colleges and universities. Nevertheless, he finds their work far more interesting and inspiring than modern SF and Fantasy art, which may be more anatomically accurate, but which, too him, seems very ‘samey’. He complains that it doesn’t make him hallucinate, which the above artists do. Well, I hope he doesn’t mean that literally, as that could be very worrying. But I know what he means in that Dean, Woodroffe, Matthews, Moebius, Druillet and Miller create strange, fantastic worlds that have a striking intensity to them. They seem to be complete worlds, either in the far past or future, or parallel realities altogether, but with their own internal logic drawing you into them.

Discussing their influence on him, he is critical of artists that simply copy the work of others, changing a few details but otherwise keeping to and appropriating the other artists’ own unique visions, some times trying to justify this by saying that their work is a ‘hommage’ to the others. Xelasoma is well aware that his own work is very different to the artists he talks about here, and that many of his viewers won’t be able to see their influence. But he goes on to describe how they have influenced him at the general level of form or composition, while he himself has been careful to develop his own unique style.

Dean, Woodroffe and Matthews have produced books of their work, published by Paper Tiger. Matthews and Miller also have their own websites, for those wishing to see more of their work. Moebius passed away a couple of years ago, but was the subject of a BBC4 documentary. There’s also a documentary about Roger Dean on YouTube, presented by that grumpy old Yes keyboardist, Rick Wakeman. Xelasoma believes in their fantastic depictions of landscapes and animal and human forms makes them as important and worth inclusion in museums and galleries as Graeco-Roman and Renaissance art. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would maintain that in their way, they are far more significant than many contemporary artists that have been promoted as ‘official’ art. Xelasoma’s documentary really shows only a few pieces from these artists’ works, and the bulk of these videos are about the particular impact they have on him. But nevertheless it’s a good introduction to their work, and explanation why they should be taken seriously as artists beyond their origins in popular culture.

Part I

Part II

Spice Girls Call on People to Support May in Brexit Negotiations

November 13, 2018

Here’s another story from the I, simply reporting a piece that was in another newspaper. Yesterday, the I was repeating a piece from the Sunday Times that David Miliband might come back to England to lead the new ‘centrist’ Blairite party that’s been debated for months now. Today, 13th November 2018, the I ran a piece about an article in the Scum, in which the Spice Girls called upon the people of Britain to support Tweezer in her Brexit negotiations with Brussels.

The article on page 7 of newspaper ran

The Spice Girls have called on Britons to back up Theresa May in her Brexit negotiations.

The band were known for their girl power message during the 1990s, but Emma Bunton, aka Baby Spice, told The Sun of a change in message more than 20 years on. She said, “It’s people power. We’re about equality and bringing everyone together.”

Bandmate Geri Horner also backed Mrs May, saying the Prime Minister did not have an “easy position”.

She said: “We don’t have to agree on politics, it’s bigger than that. You can just support a woman doing the best she can and that’s it.”

Er, no, you don’t have to support May. She might be doing the best she can, but she’s the head of a party that has single-handedly done its absolute and level best to reduce ordinary working people, the sick, the disabled and the unemployed to grinding poverty. While at the same time depriving them of employment rights, privatizing the health service and stripping back the welfare state to make benefits as difficult and as humiliating to obtain as possible. As a result, something like 14 million are in poverty, a quarter of a million at least are using food banks, and homelessness has shot up. And there is an ongoing genocide of the disabled which is largely ignored by the mass media. Her predecessor, David Cameron, by calling the referendum did more to split the UK than Sinn Fein and the Scots Nats, because everyone in Northern Ireland and Scotland wishes to remain in Europe. It’s only we English, who swallowed the xenophobic rubbish and outright lies of the Leave campaign.

And whatever Tweezer says, any deal she makes will not benefit the vast majority of this country’s people. Despite her party’s rhetoric, there have no interest in doing anything to improve conditions for the rest of us. Quite the opposite. The Tory party is the party of the rich and affluent, the aristocracy and the business classes. Thanks to austerity, their wealth has massively increased while Britain’s working people have become much poorer. Any deal May will want to make with Brussels will be intended to benefit them, not us.

The best thing in the circumstances will be for Tweezer’s negotiations to fail, an election called and the Tories kicked out and replaced with a proper, Labour government that can actually do the job of rebuilding our economy, welfare state, NHS and relationship with Europe.

As for the Spice Girls themselves, I don’t hate them, but I was never a fan. They always struck me as Conservatives, and a number of my friends didn’t think much of them, regarding them as a manufactured band. As for their slogan ‘Girl Power’, the Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror film website, Moria, in its review of their film, Spice World, said it was meaningless. It was a kind of ‘post-feminist feminism’, and so was essentially as meaningless and empty as their music. The video for ‘Spice Up Your Life’, in which the girls fly through a dark, twilight city of towering skyscrapers, drenched in rain and given occasional illumination by a distant searchlight on high-tech surf boards seems so much based on Los Angeles of the SF film Blade Runner that I’m surprised Ridley Scott didn’t sue them for copyright. Blade Runner is one of the great classics of SF cinema, not least for its striking cityscape and Vangelis’ synthesizer score. It’s a downbeat, depressing movie, in sharp contrast to ‘Spice Up Your Life’, which is just a piece of inconsequential fun. But the movie had something deep to say about humanity and our assumptions of moral superiority over the biological machines we may create to serve us. Plus the fact that it had that awesome speech by Rutger Hauer as the Replicant leader, Roy Batty, to Harrison Ford’s Rik Deckard at the end: ‘Now you know what it’s like to be a slave. To live in fear. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe, seen ships on fire off the shores of Orion…’ etc. Seeing the Spice Girls’ video of ‘Spice Up Your Life’ the other day on YouTube reminded of just how great a piece of cinematic art Blade Runner was.

As for ‘people power’ and the rhetoric about equality and bringing everyone together, that’s very rich coming from the Scum. The Scum’s the mouthpiece of the Tory party, which has done everything it can since it was founded by Murdoch to divide Britain, not least through its strident, persistent racism. It’s thanks to the Tory party and their imitators, New Labour, that there is now a yawning chasm between rich and poor, while the Tories have exacerbated and created further racial divisions by whipping up hatred and fear against immigrants and asylum seekers. Quite apart from the general hatred and fear the Tory press incites against the unemployed and disabled, whom they despise and denigrate as ‘scroungers’.

The Spice Girls are planning a comeback, and if people like their music, that’s fine. They gave people a lot of pleasure back in the 1990s. But this time, their message in the Scum is definitely best ignored.

Latest Train-Wreck Idea from Hunt: Recruit Business Leaders as Ambassadors

November 1, 2018

I hope everyone had a great Hallowe’en yesterday. I can remember going to Hallowe’en parties as a child, and enjoying the spooky games and dressing up as witches, wizards, ghosts and goblins and so on. At the time, it was good, harmless fun, based on children’s fantasy stories. Adults had their own parties, of course, and there was also something in keeping with the season on TV or the radio. One year, the Archive Hour on Radio 4 looked back on the history of horror stories on the wireless, going all the way back to Valentine Dyall and The Man in Black, and Fear on Four. Actually, I think the only really frightening part of a genuinely traditional British Hallowe’en were the stupid section of the trick or treaters, who threw eggs and flour at your front door, and Carry on Screaming on the TV. This is the Carry On team’s spoof of Hammer Horror movies, in which Fenella Fielding appeared as the vampire Valeria. Fielding died a month or so ago. She was a very accomplished actress, but sadly got typecast because of her appearance in the movie. She was also a staunch Labour supporter, in contrast to her brother, who was a Tory MP. The film was a spoof, but it terrified me when I was in junior school. One critic of such movies once reckoned it was more horrific than anything Hammer produced. All good fun in its time, but I completely understand why some Christians and churches prefer to ignore it.

The Tories, however, chose yesterday to announce something equally ghastly. Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, has decided that he wants to create a thousand more ambassadorial posts. And he’s looking to fill at least some of these with business leaders.

Mike reported on this latest bad idea, and put up a few Tweets from Andrew Adonis. Adonis was a minister for New Labour, and he was very scathing about the idea. In one of them he said

we have 20 yrs experience of recruiting Trade Ministers from ‘business.’ Each of them have lasted about a year, having bagged the peerage & achieved little if anything. Think Digby Jones.

He also challenged Hunt to name one business leader who has been a successful ambassador, pointing out that they are different skill sets. It is, he said, the difference between being a successful foreign secretary and a student politician.

Mike also reminded everyone how the Tories tried a similar scheme with their free schools project. They decided to release free schools from all that stifling legislation the requires them to hire properly qualified teachers. The schools hired unqualified staff, and standards plummeted.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/10/31/hare-brained-hunt-wants-to-hire-business-leaders-as-ambassadors-remember-when-free-schools-hired-untrained-teachers/

It’s not hard to see that Michael Gove’s plan accomplished for schools, Hunt’s wheeze will do for British diplomacy. Ultimately, it comes from the peculiar social Darwinism the Tories share with their Republican counterparts over in the US. They consider businessmen the very best people to run everything, including essential state functions and services. Adam Curtis ripped into this idea, which was developed by the Libertarians in the 1990s, in one of his documentaries. This featured a clip of a Libertarian declaring that, in contrast to politicians, business leaders were better suited to running society because they knew what people wanted and were eager to give it to them through the profit motive. It’s a complete falsehood, as you can see from the way public services and the NHS have deteriorated thanks to Tory and New Labour privatization. Its part of the corporate takeover of the state, which has seen important posts in government go to businessmen and women, a process that has been extensively described by George Monbiot in his book, Captive State.

It also doesn’t take much intelligence to realise that not only are the skill sets involved in business and diplomacy different, but that the appointment of businesspeople in government leads, or can leads, to conflicts of interest. Trump caused controversy when his daughter attended him during talks with the Japanese. This was unethical and inappropriate, as she was the head of a business which could gain a material advantage over its competitors from the information she gained at these talks. Trade negotiations have always been a major part of diplomacy, with ministers and foreign office staff flying off to different parts of the world in the hope of achieving a trade agreement. It really isn’t hard to see how business leaders would be tempted to use their position as ambassadors to enrich themselves and their businesses.

And its also blindingly obvious that this situation will also lead to some deeply unethical foreign policy decisions. Just about the first story in this fortnight’s Private Eye is about how the government’s connections to the arms industry has kept them selling arms to the Saudis despite the butchering of civilians, including women and children in Yemen. Human rights activists and opposition groups have been calling for an end to the war and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. However, Private Eye notes that

The final decision on licensing falls to international trade secretary Liam Fox. His priority is business at any cost, and his department is judged on exports and investment into the UK.

See ‘Flying Fox’ in Private Eye, 2nd-15th November 2018, p.7).

Which shows you the Tories’ priorities in these cases: trade and business first, with Human Rights a very long way behind. But it will stop the government suffering embarrassments from ambassadors, who get concerned at the way the British government is propping up foreign dictators simply for the sake of profitable business deals. Like Craig Murray, who was our man in one of the new, central Asian states that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union. He was appalled at the way Britain was doing just that with the local despot, spoke out, and was sacked and smeared for doing so.

It’s also a move which seems squarely aimed at preventing further social mobility. A few years ago, the government had a policy of recruiting ambassadors and staff from suitably capable people of working class background. I don’t know if the policy is ongoing. Somehow I doubt it, given the nature of this government. In theory, as currently ambassadorial staff are part of the civil service, anyone from any background can apply, provided they have the necessary skills and qualifications. In practice, I’ve no doubt most of them come from upper middle class backgrounds and are privately educated. But the ability of working class people to get these jobs will become much harder if they’re handed over to business leaders. A little while ago the newspapers reported that about half of the heads of all businesses had inherited their position. Also, by definition, working people don’t own businesses, though many aspire to have their own small enterprises, like shops or garages. But these posts are very definitely aimed at the heads of big business, and definitely not at the aspiring Arkwrights of these isles.

Hunt’s decision to start recruiting ambassadors from the heads of business will lead to the further corporate dominance of British government and politics, less social mobility for working people, more corruption and conflicts of interests. And Britain continuing to sell military equipment to despotic regimes that don’t need them and which use them to murder civilians in deeply immoral wars. But it’s a Tory idea, so what else can you expect.

Ursula Le Guin Referenced in Radio 3 Programme about Forests

June 14, 2018

Next week, Saturday 16th June 2018 to Friday 22nd June, Radio 3 is broadcasting a series of programmes about forests, in folklore, history, anthropology, witchcraft, music and art. And next Tuesday’s edition of Free Thinking, 19th June 2018 at 10.00 pm discusses forests and the natural world in the work of the Fantasy and SF author Ursula K Le Guin. It takes as its title that of one of her SF novels, The Word for World Is Forest. The blurb for it on page 126 of the Radio Times reads

Humanity’s impact on the natural world is a theme running through the work of American novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. Matthew Sweet discusses Le Guin on forests with British academic and Green Party politician Rupert Read.

Woo-hoo! China Mieville’s ‘The City and The City’ Coming to BBC 2 Next Friday!

March 29, 2018

Next Friday, 6th April 2018, BBC 2 screens the first part of its four part adaptation of China Mieville’s SF novel, The City and the City. The blurb for it in the Radio Times read

Detective thriller based on the novel by China Mieville, starring David Morrissey. A dead girl is recovered at Bulkya Docks on the border between Beszel and Ul Qoma – two cities with a division like no other – and inspector Borlu is surprised by the similarities to an old case that still haunts him. The entire series will be available on iPlayer. (p. 114).

There’s more information on the series earlier, on page 112, where the series is declared ‘pick of the day’ by the magazine. David Butcher’s description of the show runs

Imagine a kind of double city where citizens on either side are forbidden from looking at each other, and the frontier between the two – a frontier of the mind, partly – is ruthlessly policed. That’s the premise of China Mieville’s fantasy novel, adapted into a queasy, unsettling drama.

It has the air of a slow-motion Philip K. Dick fable, layered with retro seediness. David Morrissey plays a hangdog copper investigating the murder of an American woman stabbed with a glass shard. But he is haunted by the loss of someone dear to him and by parallels between her case and this one. “I knew there was another city I dare not see,’ he growls, ‘Just on the other side of where I was permitted to look.”

Gradually, we gather what the characters mean by words like “unseeing” and “Breach”,, so it’s best not to explain too much here. As a procedural, the plot moves through treacle, but the look and feel of the story create an oppressive mood that is hard to shift.

This looks very interesting, and I need my dose of TV SF now that the X-Files and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams have ended.

China Mieville’s The City and The City Coming to BBC

March 17, 2018

Yesterday I caught a very brief trailer for what looks like a forthcoming Beeb adaptation of China Mieville’s The City and The City. This is a murder mystery set in a fictional eastern European country, and the Amazon review of it declares that stylistically it resembles Raymond Chandler and Orwell’s 1984, amongst other classic authors. Mieville’s an SF author, so it’s no surprise that this not going to be a straightforward thriller, but involves weirdness.

I’ve got a feeling that the book won at least one SF fiction award, though I could be wrong. Mieville himself is actually very left. He edited a book on Marxism and Science Fiction, which I found in the Cheltenham branch of Waterstone’s a couple of years ago. He and the late, great Ian M. Banks also gave a very interesting interview to the small press SF/genre fiction magazine The Edge back in the 1990s, where they made it very plain that they disliked the Tories and had absolute contempt for New Labour for their cuts to the welfare state.

Some of the attempts the Beeb has made in recent years to do proper SF or Fantasy dramas have been rather disappointing. But this could be worth watching.

Short Book on William Morris

March 3, 2018

One of the programmes on the BBC Radio 4 series on the history of British Socialism Present by Anne McElvoy was, naturally, on William Morris, the great British artist, writer – he translated a number of Icelandic sagas, and is regarded as one of the founder of modern genre Fantasy – and social activist and revolutionary Socialist, William Morris.

If you don’t have the time or patience for a full scale biography of Morris, but want to know a bit more about him, I can recommend Peter Stansky’s William Morris (Oxford: OUP 1983). It was published as part of OUP’s ‘Past Masters’ series of short biographies of the great figures of the past, like Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Darwin, and so on. It’s only 96 pages, including index. The chapters are as follows:

1. Youth
2. Oxford
3. Red House and the Firm
4. Poetry and Early Politics
5 The 1880s
6 Last Years

There’s also a section for further reading. The blurb for it on the back cover runs

William Morris was one of the great figures of the Victorian age; an artist and craftsman and a successful writer of romances. He was also an ardent socialist and leader of the labour movement. His concern for the place of art in society, and his analysis of that society’s discontent, place Morris as a thinker in the company of Marx and Ruskin. Peter Stansky presents, in the context of his age, and in all his engaging multiplicity, the life and personality of a man whom a contemporary perceptively described as ‘The Earthly Paradox’.

The Painter of Cyberspace: The Art of Jurgen Ziewe

January 20, 2018

Earlier this week there was a piece in the press announcing that the Turner Prize Committee had decided to go public early about which artworks and artist they were considering. I have strong feeling, like many people, about the Turner Prize. Many of the works seem simply designed to shock, with nothing more substantial underneath. Those that aren’t, are simply banal. It’s highbrow kitsch, which says nothing while claiming that it actually does. And I think modern fine art has reached a dead end. it’s anti-art, which constantly raves about Duchamps’ urinal nailed to a piece of canvas. Duchamps did it to make the point that whatever the artist claimed to be art, was art. It’s over a century old, and the joke’s well past it’s sell-by date. It was always an adolescent, childish prank anyway. To some of these art experts, it’s a hallowed artistic statement that must not be blasphemed in any way. You remember those Chinese guys, who were arrested when they jumped up and down on Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’? The same two were planning to urinate in Duchamps’ urinal. Which I feel is in keeping with the piece itself, but the mere thought horrified the keepers of official art.

The real artistic boundaries are being pushed, in my opinion, not by the fine artists, or at least, not by those fine artists currently pushed by the very small clique that defines what ‘official’ art is, like Nicholas Serota. Rather, they’re being pushed by commercial artists and film makers, often inspired by the worlds of Fantasy and SF, using computer graphics. One of the foremost of these, in my opinion, is the German artist Jurgen Ziewe. Ziewe lives over here, and has an English wife. And we are fortunate to have such a talented artist. I do wonder what will happen to other talented EU migrants like him after Brexit, who can’t stay in this country because they aren’t married. We’re going to lose a lot of very talented people.

Ziewe uses computer graphics, including Virtual models of humans and objects, and fractals, to create prismatic, Virtual, interior worlds full of robots, strange creatures, synthetic humans, fairies, wizards, witches, priestesses and temples. He started out making cards showing dolphins under cosmic skies. He’s a very spiritual guy, in a New Age-y sense, and his work is inspired by concepts from Theosophy and C.G. Jung. Here’s some of the picture from Nigel Suckling’s book about his art, New Territories: The Computer Visions of Jurgen Ziewe (Paper Tiger, 1997).

The Fairy Queen

Picnic In Cyberspace

Journey of a Virtual Traveller

Apart from Ziewe, other artists working in film and television have also been using the concepts of computer graphics. One of the features of the BBC TV version of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that most impressed me in the late ’70s or early 1980s were the, ahem, computer graphics for the pieces of information provided by the Book. In fact, they were hand drawn, because the computers at the time simply weren’t up to the task of creating pictures that detailed. But the art produced as ‘computer graphics’, was superb, and those, who watched the show were deeply impressed. As an example, here’s a piece from YouTube of the Book describing Vogon poetry.

Further examples can be seen in pop videos. Like this one from the American electro-pop band, Information Society, which uses scrolling alphanumerics to suggest passage through cyberspace in a computer game, made for their track, ‘The Prize’.

Other artistic explorations of medically or cybernetically enhanced vision can be seen in the films Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick and the last of trilogy, entitled simply Riddick. Richard Riddick, the anti-hero in these movies, is a violent criminal, a murderer, who somehow ends up doing the right thing. While in slam for his crimes, he paid the prison doctor 20 menthol cigarettes to have his eyes surgically altered, ‘polished’, so that he could see in the dark. In these flicks, we so bits of the action through his eyes. The scene in Pitch Black, where he sees the predatory aliens pouring out of their underground lairs after the marooned crew of a crashed colony spacecraft, is awesomely beautiful. This is the trailer for the movie.

And this is the trailer for The Chronicles of Riddick.

In this movie, the Necromongers use visioners, cybernetically adapted humans, to seek and visually examine areas that are difficult or impossible for normal human eyes to see clearly. And the brief scenes, in which the audience is shown what they see, are also stunning.

But this is low, commercial art, and so unlikely to find any praise by the High Art people, no matter how popular it is, or how technically sophisticated and visually inspired. The best comment on this kind of artistic snobbery comes from the American SF/Fantasy artist and book illustrator, Bob Eggleton.

Being a commercial artist is itself a kind of pigeonhole in the art world, but it is not a label that troubles him. ‘Commercialism for the sake of commercialism is not a sin. What I hate is commercialism packaged as fine art. That’s what Abstract Expressionism about, you’re buying into a trend much of the time. There’s nothing wrong with any kind of art, provided the artist believes in what they’re doing.’

From Nigel Suckling, with introduction by Gregory Benford, Alien Horizons: The Fantastic Art of Bob Eggleton (Paper Tiger, 1995) page 83.

And the YBAs, such as Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin and Chris Offili, were very commercial, as was Salvador Dali long before them. This was pointed out on a programme on the great surrealist on Radio 4 several years ago by Malcolm MacLaren, the genius – well, he obviously thought he was – behind the Sex Pistols.

And here’s Eggleton’s picture of Great Cthulhu, painted for Weird Tales magazine, for all the Lovecraft fans out there.

I realised I’ve digressed a little way from the central topic of this post, the fantastic computer art of Jurgen Ziewe. But these are related issues, showing the way computers, robots, space and high technology – the stuff of Science Fiction – is pushing artistic boundaries in ways that the official fine art of Conceptualism really isn’t doing. I’m also exploring a few ideas here for a much longer article, or series of articles, I intend to do on this sometime.

SF Art: Planet of the Knob Heads

January 15, 2018

There are some stories whose titles alone bring joy and pleasure. One of these is the Jack Vance fantasy novel, Servants of the Wankh, which for some strange reason had another title when it was published over here in Blighty. Another is ‘Planet of the Knob Heads’, which a friend told me about years ago as an example of a story with an unintentionally hilarious title. I found it a little while ago in one of the pulp magazines in the SF section of one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham. Unfortunately, when I came back to look for it later, that section had moved around and the stock had grown, so I’d lost it. But it’s there somewhere, so who knows, I might be able to find it again sometime in the future.

This is the art for it, which I found at the Sciencefictiongallery site over on Tumblr.