Posts Tagged ‘Harlan Ellison’

Radio 4 Serialising Ian McEwan’s Robot Book Next Week

April 23, 2019

I don’t belieeeve it! As the great Victor Meldrew used to say. Next week, according to the Radio Times for 27th April – 3rd May 2019, Radio 4 is serialising Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, Machines Like Me, about a love triangle between a man, his wife and the android he has bought. It’s in ten parts, Monday to Fridays at 12.04 pm, and read by Anton Lesser.

I’ve already put up two posts about the book, which has only just been published. McEwan’s novel is one of a long-line of SF stories about humans falling in love, or pursuing sexual relationships with the humanoid robots they have built, such as Asimov’s ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’. Genre science fiction writers have explored the issues of machine consciousness and its philosophical and ethical issues, from highbrow authors like Poland’s Stanislaw Lem, to comic book writers like Pat Mills in 2000AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’. The issue I have with McEwan’s book, and other literary authors that are planning similar works of fiction, is that while genre science fiction is still looked down on somewhat by the literary elite, McEwan’s book is going to receive immediate acclaim as proper literature.

Now Radio 4 has serialised a number of great works of SF, including Robert Silverberg’s masterwork Dying Inside, and has, like some of the other channels, Radio 3 and Radio 4 Extra, put on SF plays. Not so long ago there was a series of these, with the title Dangerous Visions. SF buffs will recognise this as the title of the groundbreaking SF anthology edited by Harlan Ellison, that ushered in the SF New Wave over in America. But despite the achievements of genre SF authors, there is still this feeling that it hasn’t quite won critical respectability in the elevated literary circles that support McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro and the other regular literary award winners, who are writing or preparing to write books about robots and AI.

As I’ve said, I feel very strongly that if McEwan and co. win literary awards for their SF works, like Machines Like Me, then those awards should have the decency to drop some of the snobbishness and include genre SF authors. Whose latest works I hope the Beeb will also serialise the moment they come out.

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Jai Singh’s Observatory in India: A Great Location for Dr. Who

November 18, 2018

Maharaja Jai Singh’s observatory in Jaipur, as photographed by the Archaeological Survey of India

Last week on Dr. Who, the Doctor and her friends traveled back seventy years to the partition of India to uncover the secret of Yas’ grandmother’s marriage. Yas is surprised to find that the man her gran, a Muslim married, was a Hindu. And as nationalism and ethnic tensions surged on both sides, her groom was murdered by his own brother as a traitor. Yas’ gran survived, and held on to the watch her husband of only a few hours had given her as a treasured token of their doomed love.

It was a story of family history, doomed romance set against the bloodshed of the Partition, which resulted in 4 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs being slaughtered in bloody massacres. And its central theme was the inevitability of history, as Yas could do nothing to save her gran’s first husband. It was similar in this respect to the Classic Star Trek episode, ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’. Written by Harlan Ellison, this had Spock, Kirk and McCoy travel back to Depression-era America. There Kirk falls in love with a woman running a soup kitchen. But she’s an opponent of America entering the war in Europe, who dies in car accident. If she lives, America will not enter World War II, and humanity will never go to the stars. Kirk is thus faced with the terrible necessity of letting the woman he loves die in order to preserve history.

It’s a good story, though I would have preferred one with a bit more science in it. The two aliens that appear, who the Doctor first believes are assassins and responsible for the murder of the Hindu holy man, who was to marry the happy couple, turn out instead to have reformed. Returning to find their homeworld had been destroyed, the two now travel through the universe to witness the deaths of those who pass unnoticed. They reminded me of the Soul Hunters in Babylon 5, an alien race, who travel through the universe to extract and preserve the souls of the dying at the moment of death. They are interested in ‘dreamers, poets, thinkers, blessed lunatics’, creative visionaries whose genius they want to preserve against dissolution.

Dr. Who has a tradition of the Doctor going back in time to meet important figures of the past. One such influential figure in India was Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur, who constructed great observatories in Jaipur and Delhi. As you can see from the piccy at the top, the measuring instruments used in astronomy at the time were built out of stone there. To my eyes, the observatories thus have the shape of the weird, alien architecture portrayed by SF artists like Chris Foss, as if they were monuments left by some strange future extraterrestrial civilization.

B.V. Subbarayappa, in his ‘Indian Astronomy: an historical perspective’, in S.K. Biswas, D.C.V. Mallik and C.V. Viveshwara, eds., Cosmic Perspectives: Essays dedicated to the memory of M.K.V. Bappu pp.41-50, writes of the Maharaja

In this respect, special mention needs to be made of Majaraja Sawai Jai Sing II (1688-1743) of Jaipur, who was not only an able king but also a skilled astronomer and patron of learning. He built five observatories in different locations in Northern India. The observatories now standing majestic and serene in Jaipur and Delhi bear testimony to his abiding interest in astronomy and to his efforts for augmenting the astronomical tradition with an open-mindedness. The observatory at Jaipur has a large number of instruments – huge sun-dials, hemispherical dial, meridian circle, a graduated meridianal arc, sextants, zodiacal complex, a circular protractor (which are masonry instruments), as well as huge astrolabes. Sawai Jai Singh II meticulously studied the Hindu, Arabic and the European systems of astronomy. He was well aware of Ptolemy’s Almagest (in its Arabic version), as also the works of Central Asian astronomers – Nasir al-Din at-Tusi, Al-Gurgani, Jamshid Kashi and, more importantly, of Ulugh Bek – the builder of the Samarqand observatory. In fact, it was the Samarqand school of astronomy that appears to have been a great source of inspiration to Jai Singh in his astronomical endeavours.

No less was his interest in European astronomy. In his court was a French Jesuit missionary who was an able astronomer and whom Jai Singh sent to Europe to procure for him some of the important contemporary European works on astronomy. He studied Flansteed’s Historia Coelestis Britannica, La Hire’s Tabula Astronomicae and other works. He was well aware ot he use of telescope in Europe and he spared no efforts in having small telescopes constructed in his own city. In the introduction to his manum opus, Zij Muhammad Shahi, which is preserved both in Persian and Sanskrit, he has recorded that telescopes were being constructed during his lifetime and that he did make use of a telescope for observing the sun-spots, the four moons of Jupiter, phases of Mercury and Venus, etc. However, in the absence of a critical evaluation of his treatise, it is rather difficult to opine whether Jai Singh was able to determine the planetary positions or movements with the help of a telescope and whether he recorded them. No positive evidence has yet been unearthed.

The principal court astronomer of Jai Singh II was Jagganatha who was not only well versed in Arabic and Persian but also a profound scholar of Hindu astronomy. He translated Ptolemy’s Almagest and Euclid’s Elements from their Arabic versions into Sanskrit. The Samrat Siddhanta, the Sanskrit title of the Almagest, is indeed a glorious example of the open-mindedness and generous scientific attitude of Indian astronomers. (pp. 36-8).

It would be brilliant if there was a Dr. Who story using this fascinating, historic location, but as it’s almost certainly a prized national monument, I doubt very much the Beeb would be allowed to film there. Still, perhaps something could be done using CGI and a lot of imagination.

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

January 7, 2017

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

Resign, Tyrant, Said the Type-Type Man

September 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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