Posts Tagged ‘Robots’

Star Trek: Was Gene Roddenberry Influenced by Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ Novels

March 20, 2020

This is just a bit of SF fan speculation before I start writing about the really serious stuff. I’ve just finished reading Isaac Asimov’s Pirates of the Asteroids. First published in 1952, this is the second of five novels about David ‘Lucky’ Starr, Space Ranger. In  it, Starr goes after the Space Pirates, who killed his parents and left him to die when he was four. He tries to infiltrate their organisation by stowing away aboard a remote-controlled ship that’s deliberately sent into the asteroids to be attacked and boarded by the pirates. He’s captured, forced to fight for his life in a duel fought with the compressed air push guns NASA developed to help astronauts maneuver during spacewalks. After fighting off an attempt on his life by his opponent, Starr is taken by the pirates to the asteroid lair of a reclusive, elderly man, one of a number who have bought their own asteroids as retirement homes. The elderly man, Hansen, helps him to escape, and the pair fly back to Ceres to meet Starr’s old friends and mentors from the Science Academy. Starr and his diminutive Martian friend, Bigman, decide to return to the old hermit’s asteroid, despite it having disappeared from its predicted position according to Starr’s orbital calculations in the meantime. Searching for it, they find a pirate base. Starr is captured, his radio disabled, and literally catapulted into space to die and the pirates plan to attack his spaceship, left in the capable hands of Bigman. Starr and Bigman escape, travel back to Ceres, which they find has been attacked by the pirates in the meantime, and the hermit, Hansen, captured. Meanwhile Earth’s enemies, the Sirians, have taken over Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede. Starr reasons that the pirates are operating in cahoots with them to conquer the solar system, and that the pirates are taking Hansen there. He heads off in hot pursuit, seeking not just to stop the pirates and their leader before they reach Ganymede, but thereby also prevent a devastating war between Earth and Sirius.

In many ways, it’s typical of the kind of SF written at the time. It’s simple fun, aimed at a juvenile and adolescent readership. Instead of using real profanity, the characters swear ‘By space’ and shout ‘Galloping Galaxies’ when surprised or shocked. It also seems typical of some SF of its time in that it’s anti-war. The same attitude is in the SF fiction written by Captain W.E. Johns, the author of the classic ‘Biggles’ books. Johns wrote a series of novels, such as Kings of Space, Now to the Stars, about a lad, Rex, and his friends, including a scientist mentor, who make contact with the civilisation behind the UFOs. These are a race of friendly, humanoid aliens from Mars and the asteroid belt, who befriend our heroes. Nevertheless, there is also an evil villain, who has to be defeated by the heroes. It’s a very long time since I read them, but one thing a I do remember very clearly is the anti-war message expressed by one the characters. The scientist and the other Earthmen are discussing war and the urge for conquest. The scientist mentions how Alexander the Great cried when he reached the borders of India, because there were no more countries left to conquer. The characters agree that such megalomaniac warriors are responsible for all the needless carnage in human history, and we’d be better off without them. This is the voice of a generation that lived through and fought two World Wars and had seen the horror of real conflict. They weren’t pacifists by any means, but they hated war. It’s been said that the people least likely to start a war are those who’ve actually fought in one. I don’t know if Asimov ever did, but he had the same attitude of many of those, who had. It’s in marked contrast with the aggressive militarism of Heinlein and Starship Troopers, and the ‘chickenhawks’ in George W. Bush’s administration way back at the beginning of this century. Bush and his neocon advisers were very keen to start wars in the Middle East, despite having done everything they could to make sure they were well out of it. Bush famously dodged national service in Vietnam. As has the latest incumbent of the White House, Donald Trump.

But what I found interesting was the similarity of some the elements in the book with Star Trek. Roddenberry, Trek’s creator, was influenced by another SF book, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, as well as the ‘Hornblower’ novels. The latter is shown very clearly in Kirk’s character. But I suspect he was also influenced by Asimov as well in details like the Vulcan Science Council, subspace radio and the energy shields protecting Star Trek’s space ships. The Science Council seems to be the chief organ of government on Spock’s homeworld of Vulcan. Which makes sense, as Vulcans are coldly logical and rational, specialising in science, maths and philosophy. But in Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ books, Earth’s Science Council is also a vital organ of government, exercising police powers across the Terrestrial Empire somewhat parallel to the admiralty.

Communications across space are through sub-etheric radio. This recalls the sub-etha radio in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and shows that Adams probably read Asimov as well. In Star Trek, space communications are through ‘sub-space radio’. The idea of FTL communications isn’t unique to Asimov. In Blish’s Cities in Flight novels, the spacefaring cities communicate through normal radio and the Dirac telephone. The ansible, another FTL communication device, appears in Ursula K. Le Guine’s 1970s novel, The Dispossessed. What is striking here is the similarity of terms: ‘sub-etheric’ and ‘sub-space’. These are similar names to describe a very similar concept.

Star Trek’s space ships were also protected by force fields, termed shields, from micrometeorites and the ray weapons and torpedoes of attacking aliens, like Klingons, Romulans, Orion pirates and other riff-raff. The spacecraft in Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ books are protected by histeresis shields. Histeresis is a scientific term to describe the lag in materials of the effects of an electromagnetic field, if I recall my ‘O’ level Physics correctly. Roddenberry seems to have taken over this concept and imported it into Trek, dropping the ‘histeresis’ bit. And from Trek it entered Star Wars and Science Fiction generally. The idea is absent in the recent SF series, The Expanse. This is set in the 23rd century, when humanity has expanded into space. The Solar System is divided into three political powers/ groups: the Earth, now a united planet under the government of the United Nations, the Mars Congressional Republic, and the Belt, which is a UN protectorate. The Martians have gained their independence from Earth only after a war, while the Belt is seething with disaffection against UN/Martian control and exploitation. The political situation is thus teetering on the brink of system-wide war, breaking out into instances of active conflict. The ships don’t possess shields, so that bullets and projectiles launched by rail guns smash straight through them, and the crews have to dodge them and hope that when they are hit, it doesn’t strike anything vital. The Expanse is very much hard SF, and I suspect the absence of shields is not just the result of a desire to produce proper, scientifically plausible SF, but also a reaction to force fields, which have become something of an SF cliche.

But returning to Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ novels, it does seem to me that Roddenberry was influenced by them when creating Star Trek’s universe alongside other SF novels,  just as Adams may have been when he wrote Hitch-Hiker. Asimov’s best known for his ‘Robot’ and ‘Foundation’ novels, which have also been highly influential. But it looks like these other books also exercised a much less obvious, though equally pervasive influence through Roddenberry’s Trek.

A Tale of Piracy, Murder and Revenge in the Far Future

March 15, 2020

Alastair Reynolds, Revenger (London: Orion 2016).

And now for a bit of good Science Fiction. Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, asked me to write a review of Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger a couple of months ago. Well, it’s taken me a little bit of time to get round to it, but here it is.

Reynolds has a doctorate in astronomer and was a scientist for the European Space Agency before becoming a full-time writer. He specialises in hard SF, the type of Science Fiction written by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. This is based, more or less, in known science, although obviously this can be stretched to a greater or lesser degree. Hard SF tends of avoid Faster Than Light Travel and concentrates on creating worlds and futures that are scientifically plausible, given the present state of knowledge.

Revenger, however, is set in the very far future when the Earth and the other planets have long been broken up to create a plethora of habitable, artificial space environments like the space colonies advocated by the late Dr. Gerald O’Neill’s L5 Society and other space colonisation groups. There are about 20,000 such worlds, collectively referred to as ‘the congregation’. The Earth is no longer even a memory, and the Solar System has been subject to successive waves of colonisation, known as occupations. The present period in which the book is set is the twelfth. These occupations have spanned lasted thousands of years, with vast periods in between, so that the Solar System is very ancient indeed. And not all the colonising civilisations that have risen and fallen have been human.

Some of these lost civilisations were extremely advanced, far more so than the present state of humanity. They have vanished, but stashed pieces of their technology in the baubles, tiny artificial worlds sealed off from the rest of the universe. Although tiny, these have their own artificial gravity provided by swallowers located in their centres. Chemical rockets and ion engines are known and used, but the chief method of flight between the worlds of the congregation is the Solar Sail. This is limited to sublight speed and the inhabitants of the Solar System are themselves unable to reach the other cultures of the ‘Swirly’, as the Galaxy is called. Nevertheless, there is evidence that some of the ancient ships with which the Congregation was settled came from outside the Solar System, and there are a number of alien species from outside doing business there. Chief among these are the Clackers, who act as humanity’s bankers, and who have a mysterious, intense interest in the ancient discs used as currency. There is also a trade in the lost technologies contained in the baubles with ships, whose crews specialise in raiding them for their wonders.

The book’s the story of Arafura ‘Fura’ Ness, a rich young woman, and her quest to rescue her sister, Adrana, and avenge her murdered crewmates after the ship she and her sister join is attacked by the pirate queen, Bosa Sennen. The sisters come from a rich family that has fallen on hard times. Determined to restore the fortunes of their widowed father, they sign on as bone readers with one such ship plundering the baubles, Monetta’s Mourn under Captain Rackamore. The bones are a strange communication device, ancient alien skulls containing mysterious circuitry, or fragments of them, into which an especially sensitive human can jack to send and pick up messages from other vessels. There are also more conventional forms of communication like 20th century radio and television. After their ship has successfully plundered one bauble, it is attacked by Sennen. Ness is hidden from Sennen by the previous bone reader, a young woman driven mad by the bones. This woman and Adrana are taken by Sennen, who needs new bonereaders. She ruthlessly tortures and kills the other crewmembers, before departing the wrecked ship.

Ness and another woman, Prozor, manage to survive and make their way back to civilisation. Ness is ambushed by an agent for her father in a bar, and taken back to her home on Mazarile, where she is drugged and kept as a virtual prisoner. With the aid of her robot, Paladin, she escapes, rejoins Prozor, and the two make plans to join a suitable ship they can use to rescue Adrana and destroy Sennen and her evil crew.

Although set in the far future, the congregation and its worlds are nevertheless based on real scientific speculation. They’re a Dyson cloud/ swarm – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the precise term. It’s a form of Dyson sphere. The physicist Freeman Dyson suggested that advanced, space-travelling civilisations would break up the planets of their solar systems and use the material to build solid spheres around their suns in order to harness all the stars’ light and energy, with the civilisations then living on the inside of the spheres. However, there are problems with such a concept. For example, the gravity generated by centrifugal force would be stronger at the Sphere’s equator, and disappear at the poles, making these areas difficult for civilisations to occupy. Larry Niven dealt with this problem by suggesting that they would only build an inhabited ring around the star, hence his masterpiece, Ringworld. Dyson, however, believed that such spheres would not be solid, and would in fact be composed of a cloud of tiny worldlets arranged in suitable orbits. This is the idea that Reynolds has used as the basis for this book.

As advanced as technology is in Revenger – limbs can be removed, replaced and traded quickly and painlessly in shops like items in a pawnbrokers – the society of the congregation is very much like that of 19th century Europe. Their doesn’t appear to be any system of public, state education, so that many people are unable to read, and the sisters are initially somewhat resented because of their moneyed background. The sexes are equal in this future, with women and men performing the same jobs. But the Ness sisters’ father is a recognisable Victorian patriarch determined to do whatever he can to hold on to his daughters. The technology has changed so that the ships are driven by the light from the Sun rather than the terrestrial wind, but they’re still sailing ships. And the baubles with their treasures locked away are the interplanetary equivalents of desert islands and their buried treasure. The book therefore reads almost like something Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, would have written after an evening drinking with Jules Verne and the two knew about quantum physics, solar sails and Dyson Spheres. Reynolds is good at creating credible future worlds, and the Congregation and its worldlets are very convincingly depicted as places where people live and work. 

While not everyone likes or reads SF, and this may not be to every SF fan’s taste, it is a good, rattling yarn which successfully marries far future Science Fiction with 19th century pirate fiction. So avast, ye planet-lubbers, and hoist the mainsail to catch the wind from the Sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr H Reviews Praising New Lovecraft Movie ‘The Colour Out Of Space’

January 26, 2020

Something different from politics this time, which I hope will pique the interest of fans of the 20th century SF/Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Richard Stanley has directed a film version of Lovecraft’s short story, ‘The Colour Out Of Space’. Starring Nicholas Cage, Joely Richardson, Tommy Chong and others, the film’s due to be released in Britain on the 28th February.

Mr H Reviews is a film news and reviews channel on YouTube, largely specialising in SF, Horror and superhero flicks. The titular presenter is a massive fan of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote tales of cosmic horror and madness for pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. The film is largely the work of Richard Stanley, who is best known for his SF movie Hardware. This was about a sculptress in a decay future city, whose partner finds the remains of an unknown robot in a radiation-poisoned desert. He brings it back to her so she can turn it into art. When she reassembles it, it is a lethally efficient military robot that then goes on a killing spree to fulfill its programming. The film was extremely similar to a short tale illustrated by the mighty Kevin O’Neill in 2000AD, and Stanley lost the case when the comic sued for plagiarism. Stanley doesn’t seem to have a directed a motion picture since the debacle of The Island of Dr Moreau back in the 1990s. This fell apart, and Stanley was sacked as director, largely because of the casting in the title role of Marlon Brando. Brando behaved extremely bizarrely, making odd demands and requests and seems to have been determined to have the movie shut down. With costs mounting and shooting overrunning, Stanley was sacked and the film completed by another director. The script was also written by Amaris and has superb cinematography by Stephen Annis, who has also made videos for Florence and the Machine.

Stanley is, however, a superb director and Hardware is highly praised. In this review Mr H gives fulsome praise to the movie without giving too much away. Based on the short story of the same title, this is about a surveyor in Arkham telling the story of the strange events in order to try and make sense of it. Something strange falls out of the sky and begins to change the people and environment. The humans suffer bouts of madness, but in contrast to this the environment grows ever more beautiful. The visitor from space is an alien creature, and Mr H praises the work that has gone into it. He says that the film is like Annihilation, which is also about something from space falling to Earth and changing the environment, making it bizarrely beautiful. However, H believes that the Lovecraft film is better. He also states that the creature in it is similar to The Thing, John Carpenter’s classic ’80s adaptation of John W. Campbell’s short story, ‘Who Goes There’. The creature work is excellent and it is more of a homage to the earlier film, rather than a rip-off.

There are a number of Easter eggs in the movie referring to earlier adaptations of Lovecraft’s work. One of these is the name of one of the daughters, Lavinia. I also noted scrawled on the wall in one of the video clips played in this review is the slogan ‘No flesh shall be spared.’ It’s a line from Mark’s Gospel which was used as the slogan for Stanley’s Hardware.

The film’s intended to be the first of a series set in Lovecraft’s universe. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have wide distribution over here and is only showing in Showcase cinemas. But he highly recommends seeing it, even if you have to drive several hours to the nearest cinema.

I’m a fan of Lovecraft’s fiction, which unfortunately has had a very uneven history when it comes to film adaptations. This one looks extremely promising however.

It’s on in the Showcase cinema in Cabot Circus in Bristol, and I shall hope to see it. If you’re interested, then Google to see if its playing anywhere near you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collection of Science Fiction Stories Tackling Racism

January 18, 2020

Allen De Graeff, ed., Human And Other Beings (New York: Collier Books 1963).

Science Fiction, it has been observed, is more often about the times in which it was written than about the future. Quite often it’s been the ‘literature of warning’, in which the author has extrapolated what they feel to be an ominous trend in the present to show its possibilities for the future if left unchecked. Thus H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine presented a nightmarish far future in which capitalist elites and the working class had diverged into two separate species. The Eloi – descendants of the elite – were small, dreamy creatures, with no industry of their own. They were the food animals instead of the Morlocks, descendants of the working class, who had been forced into lives of underground toil by the late Victorian and Edwardian class system. Other SF stories have tackled the problems of overpopulation – John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, the catastrophic over-reliance on mechanisation for, well, just about everything – E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, or the horrifying potential of genetic engineering and mass psychological conditioning, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and so on. I borrowed this colllection of SF stories from a friend. It’s interesting because it uses the theme of contact with alien and other non-human intelligences to criticise and denounce the very real, present issue of racism. The book’s blurb begins with the quotation ‘”Everything that diminishes human dignity is evil,”‘, and continues

With this timeless truth as his theme, Editor Allen DeGraeff has collected a group of superbly told science fiction tales that support it with horror or humor. Other planets, other centuries, living beings of shapes and colors other than “human” are the imaginative ingredients. Shock, surprise, and sympathy are the emotions they act upon.

  • Would you join the Anti-Martian League? Or, like Sam Rosen, would you fight it?
  • Would the gentle Adaptoman – four arms, two brains, three eyes-arouse your hostility if he worked in your office?
  • Could you live as a Professional in a world of Categoried Classes if there were also people known as Wipers, Greasers, and Figgers?
  • Would you marry an Android, a person physically just like you, but artificially “Made in the U.S.A.”?
  • Would you mock or make a friend of Narli, the charming fur-bearing exchange professor from Mars?
  • Could you serve with a soldier Surrogate, a human being reclaimed from the dead with biological techniques of the future?

In settings ranging from the Second Battle of Saturn to Earth 2003 and shining blue-green globe Shaksembender, these authors portray the ideas of human dignity.

The authors, whose work is collected in the volume include some of SF great masters – Ray Bradbury, William Tenn, Leigh Brackett, Frederick Pohl, both alone and with his frequent collaborator, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley and Eric Frank Russell.

The stories were written at a time when the Civil Rights movement was gaining power, although still bitterly opposed by a viciously racist, conservative state apparatus and politicians. A number of other SF writers were also using the genre to denounce racism. Sometimes that was through metaphor, such as in Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’. This tale’s titular heroine is a young woman genetically engineered from cats. She is a member of an oppressed servile class of similarly genetically engineered animals. These creatures are denied all rights by their human masters, and humanely killed by euthanasia is they are unable to perform their functions. Through telepathic contact with another such creature, a dove of immense intelligence and wisdom, C’Mell is able to persuade a human board of inquiry to grant her people human rights. Other SF writers tackled racism directly, such as Harry Harrison in his 1963 story, ‘Mute Milton’. This was his angry reaction to a comment by a redneck southern sheriff’s response to the news that Martin Luther King was highly respected in Sweden and Scandinavia, and had been awarded the Nobel prize. The sheriff responded that King might be popular in Norway, but back in his town he would be ‘just one more n***er’. Harrison’s story is about a Black American college professor, who comes to a southern town on his way to another university to present his invention: a radio that runs on gravity. A stranger to the racial repression of the Deep South, he falls into conversation in a bar with a wanted civil rights activist while waiting for his bus out of town. The Black activist tells him what it’s really like to be Black in the South. The sheriff and his goons burst into the bar looking for the activist. He escapes out the back. The sheriff and his men shoot, but miss him and shoot the professor instead. When one of the goons tells the sheriff that they’ve killed an innocent man, he just shrugs it off as ‘another n***er’.

Racism has since gone on to be a major topic of much SF. It’s been explored, for example, in Star Trek, both recently and in the original 60’s series. It also inspired Brian Aldiss 1970s short story, ‘Working in the Spaceship Yards’, published in Punch. This was about a man with a Black friend having to come to terms with his own feelings about androids as they started working alongside them in the spaceship yards of the title, and going out with human women. It’s a satire on the racial politics of the day, when many White Brits were, as now, concerned about Black and Asian immigrants taking their jobs. And specifically anti-Black racism was tackled in an episode of Dr. Who written by award-winning Black children’s writer, Mallory Blackman. In this tale the Doctor and her friends travel back to the American Deep South to make sure Rosa Parks makes her epochal bus journey against the machinations of White racist from the future determined to stop Blacks ever gaining their freedom.

Not everyone is satisfied with the metaphorical treatment of racism pursued by some SF. I can remember arguing with a friend at college about Star Trek, and how the series explored racial tension and prejudice through Mr Spock. Despite being half-human, Spock was still an outsider, distrusted by many of his human crewmates. My friend believed instead that the series should have been more explicit and specifically explored anti-Black racism. More recently there has been the rise of Black SF writers, who use their work to address issues of race and the Black experience. An anthology of their work was published back in the 1990s as Dark Matters, a pun on the dark matter of astronomy, that is supposed to give the universe its missing mass.

Even if not explicit, the metaphorical approach allows writers to say what otherwise may not be said, as in the former Soviet Union. There, writers such as the Strugatsky brothers used the ‘Aesopian’ mode – SF as fable – to attack conditions in the Communist state, which would have been subject to censorship and severe punishment if said openly. Over in the capitalist world, the political situation was much freer, but there were still limits to what could be portrayed. Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss, between Kirk and Lt. Uhuru in the episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, but the network faced deep opposition from broadcasters in the Deep South. An indirect treatment also allows people to think about or accept ideas, which they would have rejected through a more straightforward treatment of the subject. Some readers may have been more receptive to anti-racist ideas if presented in the form of aliens than through an explicit treatment of colour prejudice against Blacks and other races.

This anthology, then, promises to be very interesting reading both through the tales themselves, and what they have to say about the times in which they were written. Times in which Science Fiction was joining the other voices denouncing racism and demanding equality and freedom for all, human and non-human. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mock Spaghetti Western Trailer for ‘The Mandalorian’

January 15, 2020

The Mandalorian is an American SF series. It’s a spin-off from Star Wars about a bounty hunter from Boba Fett’s people, who roams the Galaxy rounding up fugitives from justice. As far as I can make out, his companions include a war droid and an infant clone of Yoda.

I found this highly entertaining video on Kingkida’s channel on YouTube. This is mock cinema trailer for the show in the style of those for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood, For a Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s a really well put together spoof. It has the grainy quality of the film used in them days for low budget movies, the text is in Italian with English subtitles, as in the spaghetti westerns, and it uses the iconic music. Oh yes, and it also nods to the third film in Leone’s trilogy with the captions ‘The Good’, ‘the Bad’, and ‘the Ughnaut’ – one of the aliens from the Star Wars universe.

Chinese Companies Creating Robot Cats

January 8, 2020

Yesterday’s I for 7th January 2020 carried this article, ‘Chinese companies unveil robotic cats’ by Rhiannon Williams, which ran

Dogs may be man’s best friends but cats are stealing a march on them at the world’s largest technology fair, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Elephant Robotics, a Chinese firm, is showcasing MarsCat, a robot feline with artificial intelligence that recognises objects and responds to being stroked. It has created six different characters for the robot: enthusiastic, aloof, energetic, lazy, social and shy. Its personality develops according to how it is treated: ignoring MarsCat will make it ignore you, while paying it attention makes it more likely to respond to humans. Elephant Robotics is crowdfunding to develop the project, with the aim of selling MarsCat as both a toy-like robot and programmable device for education institutions.

Another Chinese firm, PuduTech, has created a robotic cat designed to deliver plates of food in a restaurant to diners.

Okay, humans have had automatons replicating animals since one of the Greek philosophers or engineers designed a singing bird operated by steam. The pressure of the steam caused its wings to stretch and operated a whistle in its throat. The Chinese had a mechanical waitress in the 9th Century, which trundled along bringing the assembled aristos their tea at banquets. During the Middle Ages, some nobles decorated their estates with a whole menagerie of mechanical animals, often clad in real fur or feathers to make them even closer in appearance to the real animals. These machines have become increasingly sophisticated with the march of computer technology. There was the Tamagotchi and Furbies robotic pets in the 1990s. But this comes close to the world of Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner, in which real animals are so rare and endangered after World War Terminus that humans own robotic simulations instead. Which leads us to the question posed by the title of the book on which the film was based. As AI advances and people dream of creating humanoid robots, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’

Corridor Crew’s Video of War Robot Tested – And How They Faked It

November 10, 2019

Okay, mea culpa! A few days ago I put up a video from Prof Simon Holland’s channel, in which the good prof talked about some of the technology in Ridley Scott’s SF classic, Blade Runner, was now real. This video featured clips showing a war robot being put through its paces on a target range out in the desert. That clip was part of this longer video from the Corridor Crew, which ends with the robot taking a smaller, four-legged creature and escaping down a road.

I found it really convincing, right up to the point I found all the other videos showing how they did it. Like this one. This shows the same footage before the addition of the CGI effects, which turn the actor/stuntman into the robot.

There are a number of other videos from the Crew revealing how they did in much more detail. So, kudos to the Corridor Crew for their convincing film, at least to me. As you can read in the comments column for both videos, other people were well aware this was fake. The footage was convincing, because there are robots that look like this, which have been developed by Boston Dynamics, an America defence contractor.

There are two things we can learn from this.

  1. War robots are not yet ready to go full Terminator and take over the world in a war against humanity just yet. And
  2. Be careful about believing what you see online. 

 

Trailer for Movie of HP Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space’

November 8, 2019

I found this trailer for a forthcoming movie version of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, The Colour out of Space, over on YouTube. It stars Nicholas Cage and is directed by Richard Stanley.

Lovecraft was a master of cosmic horror, and the creator of the Cthulu mythos about malign, alien gods that seeped down from the stars untold aeons ago. Although they were banished from Earth by the ancient Elder Races, they are constantly seeking ways back. And when the stars are right, and the sunken city of R’lyeh rises from the deep, Cthulhu, the bat-winged, octopus-headed god will rule over a mankind reveling and killing. And in untold aeons even death may die.

The trailer says it marks the return of Stanley to directing. This is welcome news. He made an excellent film about a berserk robot going on the rampage in a decaying future, Hardware, back in 1989.  2000AD sued and won for plagiarism, as the film’s plot appeared to be stolen from a short story from comic, ‘Shocc!’, drawn by the master of macabre art, Kevin O’Neill. This was about an explorer, who finds a war robot and gives it to his girlfriend. It then comes back to life, and goes on the rampage. The film has cameos with Lemmy, a member of the Goth band The Mission, and Iggy Pop as the DJ, Angry Bob, and the soundtrack includes Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’, The Mission’s ‘Power’ and Pil’s ‘Order of Death’. There’s a reference to the earlier film in the trailer. A shot of the family’s kitchen shows a framed Biblical quotation, ‘No flesh shall be spared’. This was also used in Hardware to explain the B.A.A.L. robot’s genocidal mission to exterminate all humanity.

Stanley disappeared from directing movies, although he continued to make documentaries and pop videos, after the debacle of a version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Stanley originally intended it to be a relatively low budget film, but the studio wanted a big star. Stanley chose Marlon Brando. Big mistake. Once in the movie, Brando proceeded to do his best to wreck it through bizarre demands and massively arrogant behaviour. There was a documentary made about this whole shambles a few years ago. One of the actresses provided an example of Brando’s weird, cavalier attitude to the film. She went to him to ask the great Hollywood star for acting tips. He told her to carry on doing whatever she liked, because it didn’t matter as the film would be shut down in three weeks anyway. He also asked a member of the production crew if they should ‘f**k with’ one of the producers. When the man asked why, as the producer was a good guy, Brando made a very lame excuse. It’s pretty clear from this that Brando didn’t have any respect for the film. With costs and time overrunning, Stanley was sacked, and a veteran Hollywood director brought in instead to salvage something from the mess. The result apparently is a competent film, but it’s not the really amazing movie that would have appeared if Stanley had been able to complete it according to his vision.

It’s a pity that there was that plagiarism case between 2000AD and Stanley over Hardware. 2000AD want to produce films based on their characters. Two films have been made of ‘Judge Dredd’, but both have performed less than expected at the box office. The most recent, 2012’s Dredd, starring Karl Urban, was a critical success. There’s too much enmity there, but I’d say that if anyone could direct a great movie based on 2000AD’s cast of heroes, Stanley is the man for the job.

Looking at the trailer for the movie, it seems to have rejected Lovecraft’s original plot for the Hollywood cliche of a happy American family that moves into a rural area, only to find something sinister and threatening. It’s a long time since I read the original story, but I don’t think it’s the one Lovecraft wrote. Still, it looks like it could be a really good film, even if it is somewhat less than faithful to Lovecraft.

And to show everyone what Stanley’s Hardware was like, here’s a video for Pil’s ‘Order of Death’ using clips from the film from Hert Zollner’s channel on YouTube.

Enjoy!

Prof Simon on the Technology of Blade Runner that Exists Today

November 7, 2019

This is another fascinating video from Professor Simon Holland. As I said in an earlier blog piece, November 2019 is the date Ridley Scott’s SF classic Blade Runner is set, based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Prof Simon here examines some of the technology that has now been developed, which is similar to that of the movie. This includes robots, flying cars and ‘a polaroid which allows you to see round corners’.

He begins with robots, stating that most of them have been developed by the pornography industry. These are the Real Dolls, androids which have been designed to look like real women. There’s a few photographs of these, shown with their owners or manufacturers. Mercifully, both have their clothes on. But some have also been developed by the military, and these, Prof Simon says, comparing them to Blade Runner’s replicants, are scarier. The robots shown at this point are the humanoid – roughly – and quadrupedal machines developed by the American firm, Boston Dynamics. A gun-toting humanoid robot shows its shooting skills in a range out in the deserts. Despite being repeatedly struck and pushed over by a man with a hockey stick, the robot manages to hit its target. When the pistol it’s using runs out of ammo, they throw it a rifle, which it catches with both hands and then proceeds to use. Another humanoid robot is shown carefully walking along a stony path simulating rough terrain, while one is also shown trying to pick up a box while another man with a hockey stick knocks the box away and tries to knock the robot over.  The quadrupedal robots include the Big Dog machine and related robots, which got their name because they look somewhat like headless mechanical dogs. Big Dog was designed for carrying equipment, and one is shown with four saddlebags walking around trying not to be forced over. Two lines of similar machines are shown pulling a truck.

The ‘polaroid that sees round corners’ is also shown, and it appears to be a mobile app. He also shows photographs of a number of flying cars that have been developed. As for the taxis on demand that appear in the movie, he quips that he’ll just call Uber.

But he also raises the important point about why our expectations of the future are inaccurate. He argues that it’s because we’ve forgotten how very different the world was back in the 1960s when the book was written. This is shown through another set of photographs of the fashion of the period, though I think they come more from the 1970s. Certain the pic of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John from Saturday Night Fever does. He goes on to point out how we have technology that was unknown when he was growing up – computers are everywhere and cursive handwriting a thing of the past. We evolve into the future, rather than making quantum leaps into it. He also cheerfully observes that he shares a Blade Runner obsession with his younger, near-lookalike, Adam Savage.

At the end of the video he examines an interesting photo he’s been sent by a viewer. This is a photo of the Earth from space, with a mark that looks like a UFO. But it isn’t. Unlike today’s digital cameras, those used by the astronauts used photosensitive film, which could get marked and spoiled by dust. This is what’s happened to the photo here.

Prof Simon is a genial, entertaining host, and it’s fascinating that some of the technology featured in Blade Runner is being developed. Scientists and engineers have been working on the flying cars since the 1990s, and one of the tech firms has said that they intend to put them into service as flying taxis next year. This seems unlikely. Critics have pointed out that the noise generated by their engines would be colossal, making their use very unpopular. Living in a city in which they were in general operation would be like living in an airport. The SF artist and book illustrator, Jim Burns, also comments on one of his paintings, which show such cars in use, that there are prohibitive safety aspects. What about accidents? Nobody would like to be around when it starts raining bits of aircar and body parts.

The robots we’ve developed are different from Blade Runner’s replicants, which are artificial, genetically engineered creatures, and therefore biological rather than simply technological. We’re nowhere near creating anything that complex. The military robots instead remind me of the machines from Robocop and the ABC Warrior from the ’90s movie, Judge Dredd, in which Megacity 1’s toughest lawman was played by Sylvester Stallone, as well as the robots in Chappie, which came out a few years ago. Despite the very impressive sophistication of these machines, however, they mercifully aren’t as intelligent as humans. This means we don’t have to worry about the world of 2000 AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’ or the Terminator movies becoming reality quite yet. But even so, watching these machines walk, move and shoot is disturbing, demonstrating their lethal potential and efficiency as fighting machines. Looking at them, I think the fears many scientists and members of the lay public have about them as a potential threat to the human race are justified.

Radio 3 Programme Monday to Friday Next Week on Blade Runner

November 2, 2019

It’s November 2019, the time when Ridley Scott’s SF classic, Blade Runner, is set. Radio 3’s programme, The Essay is running a series of programmes next week entitled The Essay: The Year of Blade Runner, looking at the film and the issues it raised. The programmes are all on at 10.45 pm. The first installment, ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’, is on Monday, 4th November. The blurb for this in the Radio Times runs

Ridley Scott’s 1982 Sci-fi classic film Blade Runner, based on Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is set in November 2019. Five writers reflect on the futuristic elements of the film and what it is to be human or a machine starting with Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London. He considers Ridley’s depiction of Los Angeles and its life beyond the screen as its influence bled into architecture and design.

There’s another little piece in a sidebar on the same page by Tom Goulding, that says

Like Kubrick’s vision of 2001, or 2015 as depicted in Back to the Future Part II, in November 2019 we have finally caught up with the future envisaged in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The classic sci-fi noir, an adaptation of of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is often touted as a benchmark of the genre. This week the Essay’s presenters offer their thoughts on the film’s grandiose themes, starting with how its dystopian versio of LA compares to cities of today. Let’s hope things have improved by the time we reach Blade Runner 2049.

Tuesday’s installment is entitled ‘The Year of Blade Runner 2: Sounds of the Future Past’. The Radio Times says

Frances Morgan, writer and researcher into electronic music, explores the sonic landscape of Blade Runner, with a Bafta-nominated score by Vangelis, and how the film shaped perceptions of how the future will sound.

Wednesday: ‘More Human than Human – Ken Hollings’

Writer Ken Hollings takes the film’s Voight Kampf test as he examines the ethical barriers between humans and machines.

Thursday: ‘Zhora and the Snake – Beth Singler’

Dr Beth Singler, junior research fellow in artificial intelligence at Homerton College, Cambridge, is inspired by Zhora the snake-charming replicant to ask what is real and fake when it comes to AI love.

Friday: ‘Fiery the Angels Fell – David Thomson’

Writer on Film David Thomas takes a look back at Ridley Scott’s rain-soaked mash-up of existential noir and artificial souls, released in 1982 and set in November 2019.

Blade Runner is definitely one of the classic, and most influential Science Fiction films, and it’ll be very interesting what they have to say about it.

And just to remind you how awesome the film was, here’s the opening titles from Guillermo St’s channel on YouTube.