Posts Tagged ‘Roger Corman’

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.  

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Trailer for Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant

December 26, 2016

Looking through YouTube on Christmas Day, I found a trailer for the next instalment in the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant. Directed by Ridley Scott, this follows on from his not-quite Alien prequel, Prometheus, which came out in four years ago in 2012. The blurb for this runs

Ridley Scott returns to the universe he created, with ALIEN: COVENANT, a new chapter in his groundbreaking ALIEN franchise. The crew of the colony ship Covenant, bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world. When they uncover a threat beyond their imagination, they must attempt a harrowing escape.

Directed by Ridley Scott

Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollet, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby.

The trailer shows the Covenant landing, and a scene with one of the David robots, played by Michael Fassbender. On landing, one of the crew steps on a bizarre set of bulbs, which releases some kind of spore. There is also a proper Alien egg hatching, ready to birth a facehugger. The sequence begins with one of the female characters refusing to let one of the other women out of room with a man, who is clearly in the agonies of some kind of transformation, or the eruption of an Alien from their body. It ends with two lovers in a shower having their tender moment interrupted by an Alien attack.

According to the YouTube page, it opens on May 19th.

This is another movie that I’m looking forward to, along with the sequel to another of Scott’s SF masterpieces, Blade Runner 2049.

The Alien has now become one of the classic Hollywood monsters, alongside the Predator, and older creatures like the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman. Several critics have pointed out that Alien was basically a ‘B’ movie, but treated like a Hollywood main feature. I’d say that this was a fair statement. The basic story – alien gets on board spaceship to run amok killing the crew – was the storyline of another, very definite ‘B’ movie of the 1950s or ’60s. The same critic remarked that it could have – and very nearly did – come from Roger Corman, the great director responsible for churning out any number of them. Fortunately, Dan O’Bannon, the script writer, objected and the studio found Ridley Scott instead. What elevated the movie far above it’s ‘B’ movie plot were its stylish direction by Scott, its superb special effects and the way its script broke a number of conventions and gender stereotypes. It was one of the first SF movies to have a strong female lead in Ripley. Another critic has pointed out that as well as breaking gender stereotypes, Ripley also broke another Hollywood convention in that she was basically a hard, by-the-book character. These types usually die before the end of the movie, but not before they perform some noble gesture that shows they’re OK really. Ripley goes by the book, and doesn’t want to let Kane in to infect the ship with whatever attacked him. She’s right, but it’s a hard attitude, and she’s overridden by Ash, who appears to be acting from simple compassion. The reality is otherwise, and, as everyone whose watched or heard of the film knows, carnage ensues. But Ripley survives to the end, and finally beats the monster.

And, of course, what really made the monster one of the classics was its unique quality and the dark beauty of its realization by Swiss Surrealist H.R. Giger. The Alien’s two-stage life cycle – facehugger and then the monster itself, is genuinely alien. It isn’t like anything on Earth. Its gestation inside humans is based on the ichneumon moth, which lays its eggs in captive caterpillars. These serve as living larders as the developing larvae hatch and eat their host from the inside. It plays on the fear of parasitism, and was intended by the writer and director to make the men in the audience afraid of rape and a malign pregnancy, rather than women.

And when it finally emerges and develops, the monster itself does not look like anything on Earth. The film was before CGI and a little before animatronics, so it really was another ‘man in a rubber suit’. However, it’s design was so unique that it didn’t look like one. It was both cadaverously thin, like a spindly, distorted human corpse, but with an insect carapace. It also had a tongue with its own mouth and set of teeth, and appeared to lack any kind of external sense organs. There are no eyes or ears that you can see. Finally, there are the strange tubes emerging from its back.

Stylistically, it was one of the biomechanical creatures that formed Giger’s oeuvre. These were a disturbing mixture of the biological and mechanical, so that organically derived shapes had the shapes of, and acted like, machines. The Alien was so uniquely strange and disturbing, that it’s influenced the design of other malignant beings from space since then. The aliens in Independence Day show Giger’s influence, as did the ‘Sleazoids’ in an X-Men storyline of about the same time, and the Cythrons and their armour in the Slaine strip in 2000 AD, for those comic fans of a certain age.

There’s also supposed to be an Alien 5 in production, which will apparently see the return of Ripley, Newt and the surviving Space Marine from James Cameron’s Aliens. I don’t know much about this, however.

The Alien franchise is now 3 1/2 decades old, and like Hammer Horror’s Dracula, or Star Wars, doesn’t seem to show any signs of stopping. From the trailer it looks like the latest instalment could be well worth going to, if you’re a fan of what Mark Kermode has called ‘gribbly monsters.’