Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars’

Sargon of Gasbag Smears Black Lives Matter as Anti-Semitic

July 3, 2020

Despite their recent popularity and the wave of sympathetic protests and demonstrations that have erupted all over the world in the past few weeks, Black Lives Matter is a very controversial organisation. They’re Marxists, who wish not only to get rid of capitalism, but also the police, the patriarchy and other structures that oppress Black people. They support trans rights, and, so I’ve heard, wish to get rid of the family. I doubt many people outside the extreme right would defend racism, but I’m not sure how many are aware of, let alone support, their extreme radical views.

A number of Black American Conservatives have posted pieces on YouTube criticising them. One, Young Rippa, objects to them because he has never experienced racism personally and has White friends. He’s angry because they’re telling him he is less than equal in his own country. It’s an interesting point of view, and while he’s fortunate in not experiencing racism himself, many other Black Americans have. Others have objected to the organisation on meritocratic grounds. Mr H Reviews, for example, who posts on YouTube about SF and Fantasy film, television, games and comics, is a believer in meritocracy and so objects to their demands for affirmative action. For him, if you are an employer, you should always hire the best. And if the best writers and directors are all Black, or women, or gay, their colour, gender and sexuality should make no difference. You should employ them. What you shouldn’t do in his opinion is employ people purely because they’re BAME, female or gay. That’s another form of racism, sexism and discrimination. It’s why, in his view and that of other YouTubers, Marvel and DC comics, and now Star Wars and Star Trek have declined in quality in recent years. They’re more interested in forced diversity than creating good, entertaining stories.

Now Carl Benjamin aka Sargon of Akkad, the man who broke UKIP, has also decided to weigh in on Black Lives Matter. Sargon’s a man of the far right, though I don’t think he is personally racist. Yesterday he put up a piece on YouTube asking if the tide was turning against Black Lives Matter ‘at least in the UK’. He begins the video with a discussion of Keir Starmer calling BLM a moment, rather than a movement, although he later apologised for this and retracted the description. Starmer also rejected their demand to defund the police. Benjamin went on to criticise a Wolverhampton Labour group, who tweeted their opposition to Starmer’s comment about BLM and supported defunding. Sargon also criticised the football players, who had taken the knee to show their support, and also Gary Lineker, who had tweeted his support for BLM but then apologized and made a partial retraction when it was explained to him what the organisation fully stood for. But much of Sargon’s video is devoted to attacking them because they’re anti-Semitic. Who says so? Why, it’s our old friends, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism. Who are once again lying as usual.

Tony Greenstein put up a piece about a week or so ago on his blog discussing how the Zionist organisations hate BLM and have tied themselves in knots trying to attack the organisation while not alienating the Black community. Black Lives Matter support the Palestinians, and according to all too many Zionist groups, including the British Jewish establishment – the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Chief Rabbinate, Jewish Leadership Council and the Jewish Chronicle and other papers, anyone who makes anything except the mildest, most toothless criticism of Israel is an anti-Semitic monster straight out of the Third Reich. This also includes Jews. Especially Jews, as the Israel lobby is doing its damnedest to make Israel synonymous with Jewishness, despite the fact that’s also anti-Semitic under the I.H.R.A. definition of anti-Semitism they are so keen to foist on everybody. As a result, Jewish critics in particular suffer insults, smears, threats and personal assault.

Yesterday BLM issued a statement condemning the planned annexation of one third of Palestinian territory by Netanyahu’s Israeli government. This resulted in the usual accusation of anti-Semitism by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism. The deliberately misnamed Campaign then hypocritically pontificated about how anti-Semitism, a form of racism, was incompatible with any genuine struggle against racism. Which is true, and a good reason why the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism should shut up and dissolve itself.

Israel is an apartheid state in which the Palestinians are foreigners, even though in law they are supposed to have equality. In the 72 years of its existence, Israel has been steadily forcing them out, beginning with the massacres of the Nakba at the very foundation of Israel as an independent state. The Israel lobby has been trying to silence criticism of its barbarous maltreatment of them by accusing those voicing it of anti-Semitism. The Campaign Against Anti-Semitism is a case in point. It was founded to counter the rising opposition to Israel amongst the British public following the blockade of Gaza. And Tony Greenstein has argued that Zionism is itself anti-Semitic. Theodor Herzl believed that Jews needed their own state because there would always be gentile hostility to Jews. He even at one point wrote that he had ‘forgiven’ it. It’s a surrender to anti-Semitism not an opponent, although obviously you would never hear that argument from the Israel lobby.

Sargon thus follows the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism in accusing BLM of being anti-Semitic. He puts up on his video a screen shot of the CAA’s twitter reply to BLM’s condemnation of the invasion of Palestine. But there’s a piece on BLM’s tweet that he either hasn’t seen or is deliberately ignoring.

Black Lives Matter issued their condemnation as a series of linked tweets. And the second begins by noting that over 40 Jewish organisations have objected to Netanyahu’s deliberate conflation of Israel with Jews.

That tweet can clearly be seen beneath the first and the CAA’s reply as Sargon waffles on about anti-Semitism.

It says

‘More than 40 Jewish groups around the world in 2018 opposed “cynical and false accusations that dangerously conflate anti-Jewish racism with opposition to Israel’s policies of occupation and apartheid.”‘

This section of their condemnation should demonstrate that BLM aren’t anti-Semites. They made the distinction, as demanded by the I.H.R.A.’s own definition of anti-Semitism, between Jews and the state of Israel. If Black Lives Matter was genuinely anti-Semitic, not only would they not make that distinction, I doubt that they would bother mentioning that Jewish organisations also condemned it.  It is also ironic that it’s up when the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and Sargon are doing precisely what these 40 Jewish organisations condemned.

Black Lives Matter as an organisation is controversial, and I don’t believe it or any other movement or ideology should be immune or exempt from reasonable criticism. But I don’t believe they can fairly be accused of anti-Semitism.

As for Sargon, the fact that he drones on accusing them of it while just behind him is the statement clearly showing that they aren’t tells you all you need to know about the level of his knowledge and the value of his views in this matter. But you probably guessed that already from his illustrious career destroying every organisation he’s ever joined.

I’m not going to put up Sargon’s video here, nor link to it. But if you want to see for yourself, it’s on his channel on YouTube, Akkad Daily, with the title Is The Tide Turning Against Black Lives Matter. The tweet quoting the Jewish groups denouncing the deliberate conflation of Israel and Jews to accuse critics of Israel of anti-Semitism can be seen at the bottom of the twitter stream at 5.26.

 

 

Trailer for AppleTV’s ‘Foundation’ Series

June 24, 2020

Here’s another video that has zilch to do with politics. Apparently, the computer giant Apple has, or is launching, their own TV channel. And one of the shows they’ve made for it is an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s epic Foundation series of books. This is one of the works for which Asimov is best remembered, along with his Robot books – I, Robot, The Caves of Steel and others. I, Robot was filmed a few years ago with Will Smith playing a human detective investigating the suicide of a robotics scientist. Together with the chief suspect, a unique robot with free will and a mind of its own, Smith uncovers a conspiracy to take over the city with a new generation of robots. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know how faithful the movie was to them. Something tells me that they took a few liberties, but I don’t know.

I haven’t read Foundation either, but I gather it’s an epic about an academic, Hari Seldon, who invents the science of psychohistory. Using its techniques, he predicts that the vast galactic empire that is so ancient, no-one actually knows where Earth is anymore, is about to fall into a new Dark Age. He prepares for this by setting up the eponymous Foundation on a barren planet with the intention of collecting all human knowledge in preparation for the restoration of civilization. It’s one of the major influences behind both Frank Herbert’s Dune and George Lucas’ Star Wars. The heart of the galactic empire is Trantor, a world that has become one vast, planet-wide city. This is the model for Coruscant, the city planet which is the capital of the Republic and then the Empire in Star Wars.

The video shows scenes from the new series along with clips of others as they were being shot. There’s also a comment from the director or one of the producers, who says that Asimov was keenly interested in technology, and so would have approved of Apple making the series. There have been attempts to adapt Foundation before, apparently, but they’ve all failed due to the complexity and immense time span covered by the books. I do remember way back in the ’70s there was an LP version, where it was read by William Shatner. Less reverently, back in the ’90s one of the Oxbridge theatre groups decided to stage a play which combined it and Dr. Strangelove, titled Fundament! This ended with a Nazi scientist shouting, ‘Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!’, just like the end of Kubrick’s movie.

Take a look at the trailer. It looks awesome, though unfortunately there have been movies where all the best bits were in the trailer, and the film itself actually dull. I hope this isn’t the case here. My problem with it at the moment is that it’s going to be on another streaming channel, which will mean having to subscribe to that, rather than getting it with a satellite/cable TV package.

Adam Savage Hitches Rickshaw to Four-Legged Spot Robot

June 21, 2020

This is another video which has absolutely nothing to do with politics, but I’m putting it up simply because it’s fun. In it, Adam Savage, the engineer and Science Fiction fan behind Mythbusters, builds a joint for Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot so he can hitch a rickshaw he built for himself to it. Boston Dynamics have developed a series of robots, some of which are humanoid and bipedal. They produced another quadrupedal robot, Big Dog, as a carrier for the American army. However, the programme was cancelled because the robot’s electric motors produced too much noise for it to be used in combat, as this would have alerted the enemy to the soldiers’ approach.

Savage says of the rickshaw he built, that it was originally going to be very brightly coloured after the Indian vehicles. When he came to build it, it became darker, and much more European so that it had a Steampunk look. Steampunk is the type of Science Fiction that imagines what would have happened if the Victorians had really developed the kind of technology in the early SF of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and had space and time travel and computers. One of the founding books of this genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which is set in a Britain where Lord Byron has led a revolution and is now the head of government and Charles Babbage’s pioneering early mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title, has been built.

The Spot robot itself is semi-autonomous. As Savage has shown in previous videos, it can be operated by remote control. However, it recognises and avoids obstacles, and so it’s impossible to steer it into a brick wall. It will just stop, or try to go round it. When Savage and two other engineers and technicians are testing how it performs with the rickshaw attached, the robot comes to a halt on a slope. This is because it doesn’t realise that it needs to put in more power to pull the rickshaw up it, and so the two technicians work on its software so that it can correctly assess the force it needs and perform accordingly.

The robot and rickshaw together really do look like something out of Steampunk SF, or the 19th century SF art of the French author, Jacques Robida. Or even a scene from the Star Wars’ galaxy, which similarly mixes high technology – spaceships, robots and landspeeders with very low-tech forms of transport like animals. The fact that this is reality in 2020 shows that we are living in an age of SF.

Radio 4 Programme on Saturday on the Making of the ‘Empire Strikes Back’

May 13, 2020

Radio 4’s Archive on 4 next Saturday is on the first of the Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strike’s Back. From the pieces about the programme in the Radio Times, its filming was bedeviled by a series of disaster, which nearly stopped it from being made at all. The blurb for the programme Archive on 4: The Empire Strikes Back, on page 115 of next week’s Radio Times for 16th – 22nd May 2020 runs

Mark Burman marks the 40th anniversary of Irvin Kershner’s Star Wars sequel with a look at its production, including rare archive interviews with producer George Lucas and others. He hears from studio whizzes at Industrial Light and Magic and travels to Norway to meet some of the veteran crew.

There’s an additional piece about it on the preceding page, 114, by Edward Crawford, which states

It’s amazing to think, as the Disney empire bombards us with an ever increasing number of Star Wars stories, that a sequel to the original 1977 film was by no means a foregone conclusion. The second film in George Lucas’ epic space saga was beset with problems, such as the death of its screenwriter, a snowstorm on location and a fire on the set. In this entertaining, not wholly reverential documentary Mark Burman gets the inside scoop, talking to some of the crew and plundering the archive for worlds from director Irvin Kershner, George Lucas, Mark Hamill and Yoda creator Stuart Freeborn.

The Empire Strikes Back is one of the great SF/Fantasy movies of the 20th century. Fans and critics have considered it the best of the Star Wars movies, although I was shocked to find in a video on YouTube that someone, somewhere, has decided that it’s the worst. Heresy! Blasphemy! The programme should be really interesting for those of us old enough to remember the excitement when it first appeared in the very early 1980s. I remember reading in Starburst at the time that a fire had broken out on its set at Pinewood, but I wasn’t aware that the scriptwriter had died or they’d had a snowstorm while filming in Norway.

The programme’s on Radio 4, on Saturday 16th May 2020 at 8.00 pm.

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.

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.

Modeller’s Magazine on Building Kits of Real Spacecraft

December 21, 2019

Like many children in the ’70s I was into plastic model kits. I was particularly into air- and spacecraft, and so spent some of my free time and pocket money gluing together and painting kits of the Apollo Lunar Module and the mighty Saturn V rocket that took men to the Moon, the Space Shuttle, and a spaceship from the Science Fiction film and TV series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I was therefore pleased to find looking through W.H. Smith’s magazine shelves that not only had the hobby not died out, but that manufacturers were producing models of contemporary spacecraft. You can find plastic model kits on sale at some hobby shops and in Waterstone’s, but these tend to be of military aircraft, usually, but not exclusively from the Second World War II, tanks, and high performance modern jet fighters. Spacecraft seem to be dominated by Star Wars. So it was a real surprise when I found Scale Modelling: Real Space.

The kits built and described are those of the International Space Station; the Retriever Rocket, designed in the 1950s by Werner von Braun as part of the original concept for the Moon Landings which was then abandoned; the early Redstone rocket which launched some of the first Mercury capsules; the American Skylab space station; the Chinese ‘Celestial Palace’ space station, formed from their Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 spacecraft; the French Ariane 5 rocket; the Russian Buran orbiter, their answer to the American Space Shuttle, which has been built but never flown; the Titan IIIC launcher; NASA’s Space Launch System heavy lifting rocket.

Interspersed with these are articles on some of the real spacecraft themselves, written by NASA scientist David Baker. These are on the history of the ISS, how the final Saturn V launch for Skylab was very nearly a disaster, and the station became a success, and the Space Launch System rocket and its Orion capsule.

The very last model kit of a real spacecraft I built was of the Jupiter C way back in the 1990s. This was one of the early rockets that launched one of America’s first satellites into orbit. I’m very glad that people are still enjoying the hobby and building models of the real spacecraft which are carrying men and women into orbit. I was very pleased indeed when James May in one of his programmes on boy’s hobbies of the past, tried to revive interest in plastic model kits for a new generation of boys and girls a few years ago. As part of it, he built a full-scale replica of a Spitfire as a plastic model kit, complete with a dummy pilot, whose face was his own. It was cast by the artist Esther Freud, using the same techniques used to create creature masks for SF/Fantasy/Horror movies.

This issue of the magazine celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings with these kits. As NASA, ESA, India, and China again discuss plans for a return to Earth’s airless companion world, I hope the magazine and the kits encourage and inspire more children to become interested in space and the great vehicles that take us there. 

 

 

Texas Man Invents Machine that Creates Drinking Water from Air

November 25, 2019

This is pure Dune technology. This short video of just over 2 minutes long from RepsUp 100 channel on YouTube is a news report about a former ranger, Moses West, from Texas, who has invented a device that creates drinking water from the air. He invented his Atmospheric Water Generator back in 2015. West says of his machine that they’re at the point where they can talk about creating 50,000 – 1,000,000 gallons of water. The energy consumption is incredibly low. According to West, it’s far cheaper than groundwater and desalination. He has so far made eight of these machines. They’re in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Flint, Michigan.

According to West, the machines are federally approved and the water quality is tested by the Colorado Water Authority. Most of West’s devices were manufactured in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The news broadcast says that the townspeople should be proud, as one unit provides the town with hundreds of gallons of clean water. It also appears that it doesn’t cost the residents anything, as West works with organisations like the Water Rescue Foundation to cover costs. He also says that people were very happy that somebody actually cared enough to jump over the bureaucracy and do this on a private piece of land. His concern now is to plant these in Flint, Michigan, to help the people there.

I don’t think West’s idea is particularly new. It seems to be a variant on the domestic dehumidifiers that are used to clean the moisture out of people’s homes. Some of these, like the one in the video below from Unbox Therapy on YouTube, manufactured by Ecoloblue, create drinking water from the moisture collected. West seems to have just created a larger, industrial scale version.

It’s a great device, and West is right when he says that there’s a water crisis coming. Back in the 1990s the Financial Times ran an article about how climate change and increasing demands for water are creating conflict. It predicted that in the 21st Century, most wars would be over water. When I was studying for my archaeology Ph.D., I also went to a seminar by a visiting professor, who had researched the effect climate change had through the human past on civilisation. He too was concerned about a coming water shortage. Machines like this could help solve some of those problems.

However, the use of these machines also demonstrates glaring iniquities in the American water supply system. Flint, Michigan, became notorious a few years ago because the local council had allowed companies to pollute the town’s drinking water to truly disgusting levels. People in a superpower like America, the world’s richest country, should not have to rely on charities for their drinking water.

It is, however, very much like something from Science Fiction. I’m reminded of the technology in books and films like Dune and Star Wars to bring water to the desert planets there. Like the system of underground cisterns and windcatchers in Dune to irrigate Arakis, and the moisture vaporators on Tattooine.

Now if only someone would invent something else from Dune – the stillsuit. A suit that collects water from the wearer’s own sweat and urine, and purifies it, turning it into drinking water so that they can survive weeks, even in the deepest desert. And in the 1980s David Lynch film, looked really cool too.

Here’s a brief video from Dune Codex on YouTube explaining how these fictional suits work.

 

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.

 

Jeanette Winterson’s Cyberfeminist New Tale of Frankenstein, AI and Sex Robots

May 26, 2019

A week or so ago I put up several articles criticising Ian McEwan’s latest book as another example of mainstream, literary writers’ appropriation of Science Fictional subjects. As I said in these articles, what annoys me about this is the higher respect given to these works, even though genre authors have frequently tackled the subjects much better. Private Eye in its piece describing how the literary set were turning to robots and AI said that after McEwan’s book would come one by Jeanette Winterson. This is Frankissstein: A Love Story, which was reviewed in Friday’s issue of the I, for 24th May 2019 by Lucy Scholes, on page 44 of the paper.

I realise that it’s dangerous to comment on a book you’ve never read, and that reviews can be notoriously inaccurate guides to what a book or other work is actually like. I can remember the Oxford poet, Tom Paulin on the Late Review about two decades or more ago really attacking the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, as a piece of Nazi cinema in precisely so many words. He had a point in that some groups had felt that the film was somehow racist and discriminatory, particularly in the portrayal of Jar Jar Binks. Binks, it was held, was a caricature of Blacks, Hispanics or gays. But many others didn’t find anything racist or homophobic in the movie, and Paulin’s attack was itself a grotesque misrepresentation of the movie itself.

But Scholes’ brief description of the book and its themes raise issues that deserve comment and criticism.

The Plot

The book is split between two periods. The first is that night in 1816 in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva when Byron, his lover, Claire Clairmont, the Shelleys and their doctor, John Polidori, all met to write a ghost story, the evening which saw the birth of Mary Shelley’s tale of the monstrous creation of artificial, human life, Frankenstein. The second is a contemporary tale about a romance between a young transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who meets and falls in love with the charismatic Victor Stein at a cryonics facility in the Arizona desert. Stein is a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence, who, according to the review, ‘envisions a bodyless utopia in which race, faith gender and sexuality no longer exist.’

Caught up in this tale is Ron Lord, a millionaire, who has made his fortune from advance sex robots, and his partner, the evangelical Claire, who has designed a version for Christians, and an investigating journalist, Polly D. Ron Lord’s empire of sex robots its misogynistic. His deluxe model offers three orifices and interesting conversation, in which they tell the user he’s very clever and asks him if he knows anything about Real Madrid. Looking at their names, it seems very clear to me that they’re supposed to be the modern counterparts of Byron’s party 200 years ago. But it’s a moot point how accurate this portrayal is about what they would be like if they lived now. As for Claire’s invention of the ‘Christian Companion’, this seems to be a gibe by Winterson at Christian hypocrisy. Winterson’s a lesbian, who had a miserable childhood growing up in an extreme Christian sect. This formed the basis for his book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was adapted as a TV drama by the Beeb. This seems to have established the 9.00 Sunday night slot as the venue for intense dramas about gay women. It was followed a few years later by Fingersmith, a lesbian drama set in the Victorian underworld. And now there’s Gentleman Jack, now playing on BBC 1, based on a real Victorian aristocratic lady, who married her gay lover. I’m very much aware that many Christians do hate gays, and that in response many gay men and women have turned away from Christianity and religion. But this isn’t necessarily the case. I know one woman, who was brought up by her mother and her lesbian partner, who grew up perfectly well adjusted. She was deeply religious herself, and went on to marry a vicar. She also loves her mother, and respects her for the excellent way she feels her mother brought her up.

Cyberspace as Disembodied Platonic Realm

Some of the ideas in Winterson’s book also seems strangely dated. Like the idea of AI as offering a utopia in which people are disembodied entities without race, gender, sexuality or religion. This sounds like it’s based on the views of some of the cyberfeminists back in the 1990s. They hailed the internet as forum in which women would be free to participate as individuals without gender. Now there is a real issue here with misogyny on the internet. There are some sites and forums which are very hostile to women, so much so that a few years ago there were comments that there no women on the internet, as those who were seemed few and far between. But the solution to that problem is to create a culture in which women are free to participate and interact without their gender being issue, rather than forced to disguise or deny it.

It’s also vulnerable to the opposite criticism from feminist academics like Margaret Wertheimer. In her The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Wertheimer criticised cyberspace for being too masculine. It was a disembodied, Platonic realm of mind like the heaven of religious belief. Women weren’t interested in such ideal states, and so were put off it. This idea was influential. One of the museums and art galleries held an exhibition of Virtual worlds created by artists experimenting with the medium. One of the women artists, whose work was featured, included as part of her world the sound of the viewer breathing as they entered her artificial reality. She had done so, she told New Scientist, because the absence of any kind of physical interaction in these Virtual worlds was the product of male scientists and engineers, who made the passage through them like that of a disembodied being. As a woman, she wanted to rectify this through the inclusion of details that made it appear that the viewer was physically there.

It’s over 20 years since these arguments were made, and much has changed since then. There are now very many women on the internet, with female sites like Mum’s Net and the feminist Jezebel. And some of the online games and worlds, like Second Life, do allow their users to interact as physical entities as the games’ characters or citizens.

Robot-Human Romance and Sex

As for her view of sex robots, it’s true that the creation of an artificial woman purely as a sex slave is misogynist. At the moment such machines aren’t really much more than sophisticate sex dolls, and some of those, who use them do seem to be very misogynist. One of the denizens of the Manosphere, the Happy Humble Hermit, who really does despise women and feminism, apparently has a link on his web page to a firm making them. But despite dire warning that these machines are a threat to women’s status and real, genuine, loving or respectful sexual relationship, the existing sex robots aren’t popular. A Spanish brothel which specialised in them has had to get rid of them because of lack of custom. Women don’t have to fear being replaced by compliant, subservient female robots, as in Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives, just yet.

But science fiction also shows that there is an interest, at least among some people, for genuine romantic relationships between robots, and humans and robots. One of the Star Wars spin-off books published in the 1980s was Hardware Honeymoon, whose cover showed C-3PIO holding hands with a female robot. The robot seems to have become the subject of some women’s fantasies. One of the independent comics from California was Wet Satin, whose female creator based her stories on women’s sexual fantasies. One of these was about a robot, which looked remarkably similar to the Star Wars robot. Rather less luridly, Tanith Lee wrote a book in the 1980s about a woman having a romance with a robot in The Silver Metal Lover. You could go on. There is a desire for sex with robots, but this seems in most cases to be within the framework of a romantic relationship with a genuinely sentient being, not a mechanical sex slave.

Stein’s Disembodied Utopia Horrific

As for Stein’s idea of a post-human utopia of disembodied minds, this is profoundly unattractive, as Scholes herself says in her review, saying ‘As with all brave new worlds, though, the reality is rarely perfect’. It seems to be based on the Transhumanists hope that in the near future technology will have advanced so far that that humans will be able to download their minds into computers, so that they can exist as pure disembodied entities in cyberspace, or move into robot bodies, like the hero at the end of the South African SF film, Chappie. But Winterson’s, or Stein’s cybernetic dream of posthuman, post-flesh utopia is horrifically sterile. Part of what makes diversity and multiculturalism such powerful ideologies is that people are naturally drawn, fascinated with and treasure difference. It’s why western tourists travel around the world, to Asia, Africa and South America, to enjoy the experience of different cultures and meeting people of different races and religions. There is friction and hostility between different peoples, all too often exploding into horrific violence. But the reduction of humanity to disembodied minds doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t genuinely promote tolerance, equality and the feeling of common humanity so much as negates the problem by destroying the physical and spiritual differences that form the basis of human identity. It’s certainly not an idea that’s popular in SF. In just about all the Science Fiction I’ve read, people retain their gender and other aspects of their identity even after they cross over into cyberspace. When they appear, either in cyberspace itself, or conjured up in computer displays for characters in the real world, they appear as they did in life, complete with their gender and race. And I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of people would find that far more preferable to the strange disembodied existence Stein offers in Winterson’s book.

LGBTQ and Transgender Issues With Winterson’s/ Stein’s Utopia

Which also raises the question about its handling of LGBTQ issues. The inclusion of a transgender character seems to be a deliberate attempt to make the book very relevant to contemporary issues, now that transgender rights have overtaken gays as the issue of the moment. Some transgender people seem to look forward to a future without physical gender. I can remember reading an interview with the first, or one of the first, people to undergo the operation, April Ashley, in an interview in one of the Daily Mail’s Sunday supplements years ago. She looked forward to a time when humanity would have moved beyond gender, and pregnancy would become a matter of simply taking a pill. But I think such people are a very small minority. Back in the 1990s there was a demand from gay Science Fiction fans for Star Trek to tackle homosexuality and include gay characters or stories. This was several years before the new, revived Dr. Who did so, and so would have been extremely controversial. Star Trek – The Next Generation tried to make an effort in that direction with a story in which Lieutenant Riker formed a relationship with a member of an alien species, the J’Nai, who had evolved past gender. However, from time to time there were throwbacks, who were persecuted. They would be hunted down and then treated so that they were proper neuter members of their society. The alien with whom Riker has fallen in love is one such throwback, a female. She is caught by the authorities. Riker tries to free her, but it is too late. She is now neuter, and so has no interest in any sexual or romantic relationship with him. The story’s a metaphorical attempt to deal with the underlying issues around homosexuality, gender identity and forbidden sexuality, but was bitterly criticised by gay SF fans because it didn’t tackle the issue of homosexuality overtly. The Federation was, remember, an organisation in which humanity had moved beyond racial and cultural prejudice and sexism, and gay Trekkers and their supporters felt that the prejudice against homosexuality would also have no place in such a future. But they were also highly critical about how the story presented gays. They felt that it showed them unfairly as wanting to abolish gender. And Winterson’s book does seem to do the same with its depiction of a romance between the transgender character, Ry Shelley, and Stein, with his dream of an asexual disembodied world.

Conclusion

I may well be doing Winterson’s book a great disservice, but it does seem peculiarly dated for a book which is trying so desperately to be acutely relevant. And I do feel that readers would probably get a better idea of the issues about cyberspace and AI by going elsewhere. I think there’s probably a better fictional treatment of these subjects waiting to be written. And as for human-robot romance and sex, this has also been very extensively explored in genre SF. And some of this almost certainly represents what people really want from such relationships than simple sex robots.

As for the book’s inclusion of Mary Shelley, Byron, Claire Clairmont and Polidori, Brian Aldiss also did it, or something like it, in his 1970’s SF story Frankenstein Unbound. This was filmed by B-movie maven Roger Corman. It’s not supposed to be a good film, but even so, it seems far more to my taste than Winterson’s book.