Posts Tagged ‘‘Gut Symmetries’’

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

April 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

SF Author Bob Shaw and Comics Artist Bryan Talbot on Granada TV 1981

May 11, 2015

I found these two videos featuring the great Science Fiction author Bob Shaw and the comics artist and creator, Bryan Talbot. They’re actually two halves of Granada’s literature programme, Celebrations, broadcast in 1981. The show consists of interviews with Shaw and Talbot discussing their career and work, and then a very short play specially written for the programme By Shaw, and illustrated by Talbot. In between sequences of the play, the actors discuss it and the issues it raises.

The producers clearly didn’t have any money for any special effects whatsoever, only for the costumes and period props used by the actors. Hence the illustrations by Talbot, which stand in for live action effects sequences.

Shaw was an Ulsterman with a background in aeronautical engineering. He describes how his studying at school to go to university was ruined by his discovery of Science Fiction in the form of the American pulp magazines. He states it was as mind-blowing as an LSD trip, with the exception that LSD wears off. And so instead of studying properly at school and paying attention, he was at the back of the class writing his own SF fanzine on carbon paper.

For those too young to know what that is, it’s the mucky stuff we had to use before the invention of computer printers and widespread access to photocopiers. It’s a form of the process you can make transfers and copies by rubbing a pencil over one side of a sheet of paper, pressing it down on another and then drawing on the other side of the first sheet so that the design comes out on the second. It was messy, and if you didn’t watch out, your hands, clothes and anything else in contact with the stuff was left black.

Shaw states that Science Fiction is only the genre that still isn’t accepted as proper literature. It’s sneered at, and when literary writers use it, somehow their work isn’t Science Fiction, but ‘literature’. He gives Orwell’s 1984 as an example. It’s clearly Science Fiction, but not considered as such because of its status as a work of proper literature.

This dates the programme, as the attitude has changed somewhat. The SF author Simon D. Ings had his own column in New Scientist back in the 1990s. I read one of the latest books by M. John Harrison, the author of the Viriconium novels, now regarded as SF/ Fantasy classics, after it was given a good review in the I. Nevertheless, Shaw’s comments on the low status of Science Fiction as literature do retain some truth. Again, back in the 1990s I remember when the literary novel, GUT Symmetries, came out to high literary acclaim. It took its name from the Grand Unified Theory physicists and cosmologists like Stephen Hawking are seeking, which will unify Quantum physics with the normal, relativistic physics of the ‘macro’ world. The plot involved parallel universes. Looking at the brief descriptions in the literary columns, I was struck by how much it resembled other works of genre Science Fiction, particularly that of Lisa Tuttle. Yet Tuttle and the other SF authors exploring similar themes weren’t mentioned.

There was much discussion in the SF fanzines at the time about the way non-genre, respectable literary authors were appropriating themes from Science Fiction. They were applauded by the literary crowd for their ground-breaking new work, while SF was still despised and confined in a kind of literary ghetto. The late Terry Pratchett, speaking one year at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, described how the organisers of the Festival looked at him as if we he was going to give a lecture about mending motorcycles. Despite the eminence, popularity and literary skill shown by Pratchett, he and the genre he wrote in still weren’t quite acceptable in respectable literary company. As well as a very funny writer, Pratchett was a funny and witty speaker, and the fans crowding the room loved it.

Shaw also speaks about how he attempts to ground his SF in scientific reality, but states that nothing dates faster than today’s science. The example he gives is of an episode of the old Flash Gordon film serial, then being shown on British TV. There’s one episode where Flash and Dale Arden have to abandon a stricken spaceship falling out of the sky. As they are about to bail out, Flash shouts out that they must check that they’ve got their anti-gravity belts and ray guns. They do so, and these look suitably futuristic. Then Dale remembers that they’ve forgotten the portable radio. Radios at the time were things the size of small tables, and so when she returns, she’s got something of that size strapped to her back. The writer knew what size portable radios were, but couldn’t imagine them being any smaller. And so his failure of the imagination, his inability to see that one day radios would shrink to a more manageable size, dates the whole show.

As for Bryan Talbot, the show mentions that he began his career as a comics illustrator in the underground commix of the drug counterculture. It shows some of the work he did for the Luther Arkwright comics series. This was set in a multiverse of parallel worlds, and was strongly influenced by the novels of Michael Moorcock.

The play itself, ‘Encounter with a Madman’, is about a time traveller from a sterile and dying Britain, poisoned by chemical and nuclear waste, travelling back to the early 19th century to meet Dalton, the discoverer of the atom. She explains to Dalton that, through his discovery, he will ultimately be responsible for the ‘ecodeath’ that has destroyed Britain and is slowly leading its last survivors to extinction. Dalton himself is torn, unable to decide whether the visitor is a madman, uttering blasphemous nonsense, or just might be telling the truth, no matter how bizarre that is. The gamekeeper, however, shoots her in the belief that she’s a French spy. She arrives back in the poisoned wasteland of nearly two centuries into the future, and dies, clutching a single flower.

Shaw and Talbot aren’t the only famous faces on the programme, as the traveller herself is played by a very young Jenny Éclair, now one of Britain’s top comediennes.

Unfortunately, as the programme was shown on ITV, the videos also contain some of the adverts. They’re mostly instantly forgettable, though they do contain one of the Cinzano Bianco adverts with Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins. They’re now held as comedy classics in their own right. They weren’t much good as adverts, however, as everyone remembered how funny Rossiter and Collins were, and completely forgot what the product was.

Here’s part 1:

And part 2:

I’ve got an idea I read in an interview somewhere that Shaw left Northern Ireland for Britain. He said he did so because in Ireland, you got everything, including books, from the local corner shop. He was just about one of the very few readers of Science Fiction in Ireland at the time, and was sick of people looking at him and asking, ‘What are you reading that rubbish for?’ when he went to pick up the latest SF paperback or mag.