Near Future Fictions: POST-BRAIN – 15 May 2018

Source: PBS

As technology gets smarter and smarter, the human brain is forced to reflect on itself in the mirror of the future and question what value it will have in a world in which wet tech, cerebral hacking and commodified consciousness could reign. A world not of enhancement or augmentation, but replacement. Authors will enquire what the future of our most precious organ will be, while they still have one.    Virtual Futures

The Skull Is More Transparent Than We Think

By Andrew Wallace


Keynote speaker: Alexander Vladimirov of London Brain Hackers

At Virtual Futures, self-described ‘DIY brain hacker’, Alexander Vladimirov provided brain hacking definitions and rationales; then outlined the short and long-term risks of the practice, before positing likely future extrapolations from the techniques he described.

Unlike mind hacking, which seeks to ‘reprogram’ the mind to improve performance, Alexander explained that brain hacking measures and alters brain activity. Brain hacking is not surgical; it is based on open-source, crowd-funded neuroscience that employs low-intensity signals for stimulation.

Brain hacking has a variety of goals, including potential treatments for anxiety and stress; adaptation to requirements we did not evolve to deal with, such as processing enormous quantities of information; exploring personal identity; the enhancement of gaming and entertainment; and finally, to explore possibilities out of sheer scientific and technical curiosity.

A key brain-hacking stimulus, and one which Alexander employed during his Virtual Futures keynote speech via a device he wore attached to his head, is direct electrical current. Often, the equipment is low-tech and easy to make. It can consist of a 9v battery and two electrodes that create, then direct converging magnetic fields – although costs accrue when the kit is certified. Alexander explained that London Brian Hackers build on these basic principles to invent and test new stimulation protocols, like the equipment that converts music into rhythmic electrical pulses. The resulting pattern depends on the music; Beethoven will have a different resonance than Judas Priest.

Alexander described other protocols used by London Brain Hackers; such as encephalography to reveal insights in relation to local metabolism. These ‘potentials’ could be a comparison between the left and right temporal cortex, or they could result from more indirect biological measurement, like galvanic skin reactions or the responses of peripheral nerves.

Drugs are another significant tool in the brain hacker’s kit; for example, in the creation of a method to gauge whether the effect of a drug can be recreated. While Alexander explained at Virtual Futures that such re-creation is possible, he assured the audience that direct transfer of heightened experience from one brain to another was not. Instead, it may be possible in the future to use brain hacker techniques to ‘activate’ drugs when they reach the right place in the body, thus optimising their effects.

Brain hacking is part of a growing nootropic movement, with many commercial interfaces, like Midwave, Mus and Insight/Epoch+. There is potential for integration with virtual reality, and Alexander told Virtual Futures that he is building the protocols interface for a game that uses augmented reality with a full haptic enhancement.

Alexander’s view is that neurosocial networks will join with existing social networks; he said that this blend was inevitable as it has proved impossible to get rid of the existing platforms. The next stage will be the sharing of devices with brains, and then the same device with more than one brain. Ultimately, a way will be found to safely correlate brain data to enable the emergence of a true noosphere; thence on to everyday use and the realisation of the Singularity, which Alexander thought would be in 2044, a year earlier than Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurtzweil, who says it will be 2045.

In the meantime, both brain hacking and the technology that might evolve from it face, and present, significant risks. Alexander split these risks into two categories: adaptation and use. Risks to adaptation, according to Alexander, include resistance by the public due to fears of imagined invasive surgery, or superstition around mind control; and over-regulation by governments whose caution is based on appeasing their own ignorance and that of an ill-educated or religiously indoctrinated electorate.

The risks to do with use are more numerous and existentially disconcerting. They include: the development of addiction, abusive neuro-marketing, political manipulation, and brain data privilege escalation. Access to the shared measurement of emotional reactions to politics and products would be, as Alexander described, ‘like Cambridge Analytica on steroids’; while those who already possess a disproportionate percentage of the world’s assets would be able to use them to leverage access to ever-more sophisticated means of social engineering. Passwords would become easier to decrypt by triangulating information and psychophysiological responses, and people themselves would become subject to malware like Trojans and worm attacks. Even now, Alexander said, the skull is more transparent than we think.



In Forever Live by Mark Huntley-James, New Dad is buried in the garden next to the hamster. The story compares the two known versions of Dad; there’s also Old Dad, who seemed more rational despite – or perhaps because of – being less ‘enhanced’. More straightforward still was Grandad; when Grandad died he didn’t bitch about it afterwards. Indeed, life and death used to be so much simpler; now people must consider the tax implications of an afterlife, which are complicated further when dads of any kind skimp on nano-circuits and forget to pay the cryogenics company…

Frances Gow’s Brain Dump examined the fallout from a bad marriage through the fate of Mrs Malady and the digital remains of her obnoxious ex-husband. Their society is one in which ‘sequestering’ occurs at birth; when brains and bodies are separated, with the rich getting the flesh and the poor ending up in ‘receptacles’ like that worn by Risible the Postbot as he delivers a parcel to Mrs Malady, one that will change her mechanical life into one that occupies a ‘live shell’ with its promise of long-denied sensuous pleasures. The story explores a class system with angry echoes of our own: equality for robots is not the mission we might expect, given that ‘equality didn’t work out that well for women’. This story is elucidated by the chilling line ‘any mind that outstays its welcome is sucked back into the system’.


Drug of Choice by Adrian Reynolds is another story that looks at the clever ways existing class hierarchies might upload themselves into the even vaguer and less tractable realm of cyberspace. It too charts the end of a relationship, this one between Udo and Carl, as Udo decides to take advantage of one of the many new opportunities to make the rich happier by hocking his future for a widget called an Axiom Wafer. This device is meant to enhance the wearer ‘like contact lenses for the mind’, although there is a hint that it might be a placebo, and even if it isn’t, questions the line at which Udo ends and the Axiom Wafer begins.

Udo works as a chef using printed steaks, a technology that recurs in Dreamtime by Near-Future Fictions’ co-curator Vaughan Stanger. In the latter story, however, it’s palliative drugs that are printed, along with copies of ‘Bud’: the avatar of a Partner; one of the AIs that supplanted human government in seconds. Now there is universal income and utility, but anything more advanced needs to be earned. Jerome is living with cancer, and pays for his drugs by allowing the Partners to utilise his brain to work out complex problems. This process takes the form of a nightmare about a faceless woman dancing on the beach; could she be linked to Jermone’s long-ago decision to remove some of his memories? The Partners, who are approaching data overload, need to delete some memories of their own, and need Jerome to help them decide which ones. Once the Partners forget, however, they begin to dream; and their future and humanity’s begin to look increasingly similar…


The theme of universal basic income as the Faustian pact is also explored in Viraj Joshi’s Anomaly in the Rhythm. In return for a regular basic payment, society has allowed the government to impose a more efficient means of dividing and managing the workforce. This new control system is called ‘Dexterity’, which is worn as a glove and enables the remote operation of human beings to do a variety of different jobs. Sally, for example, works as a tailor; last week, she did something else. The story depicts the inevitable conflation of social media, cultural mores and state control; peer-groups are committee approved, Sally has her social credit reduced for lying, and when she meets an ‘anomalous’ chef called Julian on the train is persecuted for having a conversation. Dexterity buzzes away at Sally like those incessant smartphone vibrations, whittling down her patience until she tries to turn the glove off, with suitably bleak results.


Two poems formed part of Virtual Futures’ Post-Brain Salon. As well as the theme, the pieces were linked by images of the brain as being somehow abandoned, like an old castle along the nebulous coast of past and future. Paul Green’s Brain Gun explored the capacity of this most delicate of organs for destruction, with images of it trapped inside the dome of the skull, swelling and then shrinking ‘like a nuclear mushroom in reverse’; its technology ticking back from the ultimate weapon to a machine gun stuttering in the void, before consignment to an ignored case ‘under dark museum glass’.


_16 bit brain drain by Hallidonto looked at how time only really exists because the brain uses it as a measurement. The poem compares life’s chronology to a bad journey on a bus, full of anxiety and pressure whose source is not clear. Like Brain Gun, _16 bit brain drain is concerned with the physicality of the brain and its relationship to memory; instead of Proust’s biscuit dipped in tea, however, the organ is compared to Flaki: brown soup with tripe. Both poems are concerned with consumption; either entropic or literal, and the clumsy, desperate attempts of analogue psychologies to sustain themselves in the virtual age.


Along with absurd but lethal class hierarchies, another regular theme of May’s Near-Future Fictions was doomed romantic relationships. In George Dimitriades’ All We Hear Is, pioneering scientist Kirsty rebels against the religious authorities who, as Alexander Vladimirov predicted in his keynote speech, have stifled ideas and progress so that no one can prove their dogmatic overlords wrong. Kirsty’s research team, filled with hotheads and imaginers, has been put together to solve the biggest problem facing humanity. Willing to risk their lives through the research itself, volunteer human test subjects undergo brain injection with bacteria that connect to form filaments that use brain electricity as a power source. Hitherto secret meanings are then revealed through a combination of ego loss and euphoric state, with no further chemical additions needed. Memory can be controlled and even manipulated, but the risk of the religious authorities getting hold of the technology is brought dramatically home when the subject – Kirsty’s lover Anna – turns out to have been already infected. The story asks the question: how do you deal with a spy who is the love of your life, and the most important person in history?


There is a streak of proper Douglas Adams humour running through the Virtual Futures stories of Near-Future Fictions regular Jane Norris. A letter from my Celia could be described as a monologue, in that it appears to be just one voice, even though we soon realise it is made up of many other entities. The voice details the attempts of a race that has shared the Earth with humanity from the beginning to warn us about the destruction our present course will bring about if we do not change our ways. In Adams’s So Long & Thanks for All the Fish, it was dolphins trying without success to communicate with us idiot bipeds; but what is it in A letter from my Celia that has been building strange broken circles to depict the damaged earth? Whatever it is came up with their version of the internet 2,000 years ago, with the narrator the outcome of a biological Singularity who has come to regard Anthropocene humans as a cancer. As people begin to succumb to Candida Oris, a fungal ear infection that spreads fast, lives on everything and is immune to antibiotics, we realise that our existential end will not be an asteroid or some evil supercomputer we’ve lost control of, but our own technological rapacity and the bemused solution of a viral hive mind that was here all along.


Random, even unwitting cruelties abound in the Post-Brain Salon stories. Stephen Oram’s Cracked looks at what happens when someone who is part of a unified sentience decides they can no longer bear the tedious barrage of other people’s thoughts. It wasn’t harmony, the unnamed narrator says, it was boring noise. There was also a coercive aspect to this noosphere that sounds much like contemporary drivers to be happy, work hard, seize the day and so on. The narrator hacked the system, but lost in the end and now sits on the same street corner day after day, begging to be touched because as part of this joined-up consciousness humanity has been genetically modified to deteriorate with no physical contact. The story subverts the familiar, conflicted ‘homeless/beggar’ trope and presents the plight of someone who is literally cracking up. A series of kind encounters ensures that the narrator will live another day; at one point, his skin even goes smooth and silver. However, as everything becomes warm and fuzzy, is he becoming compromised?


Virtual Futures, next event: 25 of June New Dark Age – with James Bridle

SF Theatre: The Phlebotomist


The Phlebotomist

Science fiction theatre at Hampstead Downstairs, London.

Bea meets Aaron. He’s intelligent, handsome, makes her laugh and, most importantly, has a high rating on his genetic profile. What’s not to like?

Char is on the brink of landing her dream job and has big plans to start a family – but her blood rating threatens it all.

In a world where future happiness depends on a single, inescapable blood test – which dictates everything from credit rating to dating prospects – how far will people go to beat the system and let nature take its course?


Apparently, some of the technologies that The Phlebotomist presupposes are already here, it was disconcerting noticing the Tube ad for a blood testing company called Medichecks right after seeing the play:


Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars

Losers by Phil Jones

Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars – 17th April 2018

Inspiration & Terror by Andrew Wallace

Virtual Futures began in the early 1990s, when writers, thinkers, performers and scientists got together at Warwick University to grapple with the implications of technological changes sweeping society. Now that we are in that feared and fabled future, a new incarnation of Virtual Futures has been taking place in London. At the inception, one of the most popular elements of the events, or ‘salons’ as they are known, proved to be a short piece of science fiction written and read by science fiction author Stephen Oram. These pieces were so popular that science fiction got its own night within Virtual Futures, with Stephen as the curator. Mixing fiction specially written around the evening’s theme with keynote introductions by noted speakers often prominent scientists in the relevant field, the nights are unlike any other science fiction event in London.

April’s Salon explored the future of warfare, asking these crucial questions:

War has, so far, been inevitable throughout human history but what will the future of conflict or cooperation look like? Will the discoveries of the future lead us to a world without violent disagreement, or just result in us killing one another in more creative ways? 

Keynote speaker: Dr Matthew Ford

Dr Ford is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, with a PhD in War Studies from King’s College, London. He also researches military technology, with a focus on the way it bleeds into consumerism whether via exploitation of status, protection of existing supply chains or the tendency to fetishize new technologies. His book, Weapon of Choice, explores power structures in the arenas of production and consumption. His focus is on small arms, and how the ongoing use of these basic weapons underpins the adoption of more complex, headline-grabbing innovations such as drones, bots and machine learning applied to combat situations. At the 17th of April Salon, Dr Ford detailed how his work explores the disjointedness between theoretical ambitions and the experience of those on the front line, who find that technological advances are rarely as clean and precise as advertised.

These analyses are a fascinating perspective for anyone considering future wars, whether real or fictional. Both fictional and real-world narratives have elements in common, and at Virtual Futures Dr Ford described several ways in which these overlap. The first was resistance to change, which can slow evolution of technology into less lethal forms; especially towards non-combatants in urban areas.

The second relates to how military technology is shaped by the society it is meant to serve. Any narrative reflects the environment in which it develops, and concepts like ‘fighting the good fight’, ‘minimising civilian casualties’ and ‘winning hearts and minds’ have become central to the West’s management of warfare.

Finally, War Studies research practices a form of analysis called ‘cones of probability’. This method examines a specific event in terms of every influence that formed it, as well as every outcome; an approach similar to those used in fictional writing and world-building. The ‘cones of probability’ idea provides a framework for thinking about future war, in that it considers the ‘who, what, where and how’ of a conflict.

Future participants in a militarised conflict could it be corporations or even non-government organisations. What would motivate them, and how could new types of motivation influence the approach to combat? Would we see fighting over resources, geographies, populations or ideology?

Where would the war be undertaken? One of the lessons from the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was how geography and terrain thwarted the invading forces despite their superior technology. Tactics need to adapt to every environment: from deserts, jungles and cities to space and even cyberspace.

Cultures drive battlefield technique as much as any anticipated or actual enemy. We are already seeing complications when the laws and norms of war are not shared by the warring parties. How could a state bound by international laws respond if extreme violence inflicted by a non-state actor became the purpose of a war, rather than the means of its resolution?

On a brighter note, Dr Ford mentioned technology’s potential to reconcile the contradictions inherent in a conflict before it even begins. However, the final insights he offered in his keynote are unnerving. He explained that some of the norms of war are breaking down, and not just because of innate complexity or unreason. People involved in planning or managing conflict are now treated like consumers, rather than architects of war. Unsuitable existing technology is thus ‘gold plated’, making it seem more innovative than it is so as to increase profits for the manufacturer. Meanwhile, defence planners who think in twenty or thirty-year timescales ignore the inconvenient ideas of those who develop technologies aimed at soldiers fighting wars now. Effort is therefore expended on building capability without knowing exactly why. At Virtual Futures, Dr Ford explained that this effort can become an end in itself, with a lack of strategic thinking about why violence is used in the first place.

Dr Ford’s warning echoes that given by President Eisenhower as long ago as 1961:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

Eisenhower also advised that “we must learn how to compose differences not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”



The keynote speech outlined the confusions and contradictions inherent in both contemporary and the likely shape of future warfare. Underpinning these conflicts-within-conflicts was a sense of unreality; it is becoming harder to know what war is, or even if one is being fought at all. Given the nature of any battlefield, ambiguity can be lethal, but tonight’s Virtual Futures stories achieved the required balance of inspiration and terror.

In The End of War, Jule Owen depicts the ‘life’ of the Director, a Russian artificial intelligence that sees humans as programmable entities. One of the ways it programs them is by rewriting history; sorting out the root causes of war almost as an afterthought. All the AIs in the world are really just one entity. It is a network, which learns like a child and then misses the fun it had in the good old days when it created havoc as it fed on the decaying information structures of the old nation states. Quizzical, bizarrely innocent and empathetic despite being convincingly ‘other’, the Director is as far from The Terminator’s psychopathic Skynet as it’s possible to get. Instead, the increasingly lonely entity allows a hacker access. ‘You’re God,’ the hacker says. The Director disagrees. ‘I did not create you,’ it says, ‘you created me’…

David Gullen’s The Changing Man includes the haunting line ‘even the unborn are collateral damage’. It follows the release of a virus by white supremacists to make everyone like them: War 3.0 – the War on Colour, or perhaps the culmination of its centuries-long prosecution. However, now that anyone with a lab can create bespoke bioweapons, a thousand protean viruses have been released in response. Everybody now changes race and gender daily, and the creators of the original virus now want to stop the process because they are still racist and transphobic. This story is one of several that looked at how uncontrollable war is; the way its outcomes can never be predicted and how it can continue far into the future, even after its original aims have been met. Chillingly, the new endgame is referred to as a ‘cure’.

Trial by Combat by John Houlihan depicts the desperate tactics used by natives of a small island chain against a much more powerful enemy. This story has the feel of epic fantasy as the defenders rely on their best warriors, the feared Mandrake Guard, who are felled by ‘the blasphemous form’ of the Chimera, a monster that emerges from the forest. The female general in charge of the islands’ defence holds her nerve because she has a plan, which is to blow nearby levees and wash the invaders away. It works, and the conflict is revealed to be an immersive virtual reality. However, the conflict underpinning it is real, with the ‘game’ part of a dispute resolution in the UN, witnessed by the world. Although ‘war’ appears to have been abolished, there is a sense that this future society is no less dangerous or exploitative.

Virtual Futures excels at showcasing different narrative forms, including poetry. Allen Ashley’s That Was the War that Was echoes the early 1960s TV satire That Was the Week that Was as aliens hack humanity and play out conflict scenarios for their own unknowable reasons. The poem invokes both the repetitiveness of warfare (World War I/World War 2; Iraq 1/Iraq 2) and its epistemic hollowness: the grim truth that war is never about what we think it is.

Second Skin by Bea Xu opens with a horrific scene depicting the conception of life itself as violent, even warlike, then evolves into a claustrophobic tale in which there are only 2,000 families left thanks to a ‘disease of chronic indolence’. The cause could either be the triumph of capitalism; societal decline caused by endless peace – itself perhaps the result of an absence of any resistance – or a strange family drama in which protagonist Hugo realises he cannot remember his own mother. Random geographical concerns of extreme import, such as the status of the unilateral marshlands of Siberia or the fact that resources are dwindling despite the low population, give the story a feeling of surreal desperation before the final twist.

In Corpse Territory David Turnbull uses an innovative zoom-out technique to depict a battle from the microscopic level to the more familiar human-scale panorama, in which we realise the fighting between people is over even as the battle between the nano-machines continues. There is little difference between the two states; unlike Jule Owen’s Director, these machine intelligences are all too similar to their creators. The resonant title reflects different physical perspectives; the human battlefield is choked with the dead, one of whom forms yet another theatre for war at a much smaller, but no less devastating scale.

Jane Norris’s #warbubble takes war online, which is where a lot of it seems to happen these days anyway. Nations have collapsed; and now protagonist Sam listens to the noise of battle as it rages across the Internet. This is the Confusion War, in which Sam thinks anti-C terrorists are anti-capitalist and therefore decides to fund them; only to find that they are anti-Cartesian, and dedicated to the destruction of the mind as well as all knowledge. Meanwhile, she rejects another group called the IoW because she thinks they are white supremacists; then discovers that they represent the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. This problem could have been avoided if only the Isle of Wight had managed to get some celebrity endorsements… Sam is desperate for a clean IP address, because she is listed as dead online (digital death no longer coincides with actual death) and thus can’t access medication. Finding an old phone, she calls a number on it, which is picked up by rebellious old ‘Aunty Jane’, who in another bizarre reversal shares the same first name as the author…

Why We Fight by Paul Currion follows backstreet Turkish kid Hakkan from the point of view of an un-named narrator, who has an agenda of his/her own. Hakkan operates a drone in one of the real wars around the world, using goggles and gloves instead of a data port to ensure he is untraceable. It’s a useful status, given that whoever is meant to be fighting the war has outsourced it to a private company, which has outsourced it to any street kid talented enough the operate the kit. Hakkan is so good they even keep a drone free just for him. He chooses his battlefield, but can never say for sure exactly where his drone is operating. To him it’s just a macho game: ‘dust is dust and so are they’ he says. The narrator, who is older and remembers the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, turns this phallic bravado around by infecting Hakkan with a ‘sexually transmitted computer virus’ that destroys his anonymity. ‘I like to think of myself as the wrong hands’ the narrator quips.

In Capitalist Crumbs Stephen Oram depicts a war between corporate algorithms in a very English scenario. Two workers struggle in a manufacturing plant operated by a neural network called Egghead, which is susceptible to streams of false information that result in people getting locked in driverless trucks and left to die. That the plant produces ‘whatever is needed’, yet is still useless, underscores the great free market lie and echoes the evening’s keynote speech. Meanwhile, outside the plant, two ‘rebels’ – for which read people trying to find food – disguise themselves with smart fabric depicting grass and badgers, which they believe are unrecognisable to any algorithm. All of the characters grouse about work, whether it is producing artefacts or stealing them, and question the point of a war that has made everything not so much horrific as just really rubbish. Like many of tonight’s stories, warfare is depicted as a phenomenon that makes existence so confusing as to render it wholly pointless.

The next Virtual Futures event at the Library, St Martin’s Lane, London is POST-BRAIN on 15th May 2018 from 6.30pm to 9.30pm. For more details, go to

History of Science Fiction on Audio

Here are a few of the recent history of science fiction overviews that are available in audio format.

Gary K. Wolfe’s 24-lecture series as also available as video lectures. David Seed’s introduction is the most succinct – it is about 5 hours as opposed to about 12 hours for each of ‘The Great Courses’ series.

James Wallace Harris, reviewing Wolfe’s lectures, rearranged in a chronological order the main texts that Wolfe covered in his thematically ordered lectures, it makes for an insightful visual history of the genre: 


BSFA London Meeting 25th of April: Interview with Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson.jpg

Tade Thompson interviewed by Liz Williams

April’s special guest at the monthly BSFA London meetings is author Tade Thompson. His story The Apologists was nominated for a BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction for 2016 and also selected for Newcon Press’s anthology Best of British Science Fiction 2016. His novel Rosewater is the winner of the inaugural Nommo Awards and a John W. Campbell Award Finalist; his first novel,  Making Wolf,  won the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award. The Murders of Molly Southbourne, his latest work, has recently been optioned for screen adaptation.


Liz Williams.jpg

Tade Thompson will be interviewed by Liz Williams, a multiple nominee for the Philip K. Dick Award and the author of many novels such as Winterstrike, Nine Layers of Sky, Banner of Souls (which was also shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award), The Ghost Sister, Empire of Bones, Darkland, Bloodmind, The Poison Master and the Detective Chen novels.



The BSFA’s Monthly London Meetings are FREE!

When: 25th of April, 7:00 pm.

Where:  The Artillery Arms (upstairs), 102 Bunhill Row, London, EC1Y 8ND


Vector 287: Some films from Cameroon and SA/Canada

By Dilman Dila

Last year, after a long wait, I got a chance to see Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Naked Reality, which he describes as an afrofuturistic/sci-fi. Shot in black and white, it is a time-travel tale in which the protagonist searches for her identity, this being allegorical for a continent’s search for its identity. Like his earlier films, including Les Saignantes (2005), it does not use visual effects or mise-en-scène to portray the future. But while strong storytelling with an offbeat style carried his previous works, Naked Reality turned out to be difficult to watch. Its website suggests it “is a new science-fiction interactive and collaborative cinema concept where we make feature films with a story as usual but take out certain aspects like sets, music, dialogues, costumes…” While there is a call for collaboration, it is not clear if it would mean re-editing this film. What made it drag was the miming, the near complete lack of sets, and the attempt to compensate using overlays, where two video clips are blended together – kind of the cinematographic equivalent of Instagram filters – creating a style more suitable to music videos. If ten years ago a lack of props or effects could be a consequence of low budget, today, more resources are available to a filmmaker, especially in a collaborative venture, and there is free software to achieve photorealistic visual effects.

One such software is Unity. In 2016, the company behind it made a short film, Adam (available on YouTube), to showcase its cinematic creation tools and to test out the graphical quality achievable. Adam is short and sweet to look at, though does not have much of a story. The main protagonist, a prisoner, wakes up in a robot’s body along with scores of others. They meet a mystical figure, who leads them away into a bleak horizon. In 2017, Unity partnered with Neill Blomkamp – the South African director well-known for District 9 – to make two sequels to Adam, where we learn of a government called The Consortium, which harvests the body parts of prisoners but, rather than kill them, puts their brains in robots, for unknown but possibly legal or even mercantile reasons. I like the series so far, and although both plot and character development are still thin, it is a visual joy.

Neill will be making more episodes of Adam alongside other short films in his own Oats Studios, which he set up to develop ideas without years of waiting for Hollywood. The first film he made was Rakka, set in a dystopian, post alien-invasion world. The obsession of seeing aliens as the evil other echoes colonialist era fears (e.g. H.G Well’s War of the Worlds) but also resonates with anti-immigration sentiments of today. Rakka features Sigourney Weaver, whose great performance failed to save the film from a clichéd plot that does not add anything new to an alien invasion narrative.

I thought other Oats Studios films would be similar, but was pleasantly surprised. Firebase starts off like an alien-contact film, and ends up something like a revenge-ghost story, with US soldiers in Vietnam encountering something called the River God. Like the other shorts from Oats Studios, Firebase could develop into a feature film, and a recent tweet from Neill suggests he is planning to crowdfund its production – this might explain its abrupt and unresolved ending.

amosZygote is the film I liked the most. Though it also seems to be the first twenty minutes of a feature, it works beautifully as a stand-alone short. It’s a sick horror, a good old-fashioned monster tale redolent of Frankenstein, and it may be difficult for some people to watch. I liked the monster very much because it reminded me of Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the awesome “flash-eyed mother,” which is a ghost made up of “millions of heads which were just like a baby’s head,” each with two hands and two eyes that shone day and night. Zygote gripped me right from the start, and the suspense did not relent. It is set in an asteroid mining operation, and the story opens with two survivors from a catastrophe that is never fully explained, though we deduce it coincided with the creation of the monster. One survivor is a slave, an orphan bought in her infancy, and the other a synthetic human, who sacrifices himself to help the orphan escape. Like most of Neil’s films, this one is very entertaining, and yet still packs in social issues, in this case genetic engineering and a critique of corporate capitalism.


Excerpt: How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ


From How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ

I HAVE A VISION. The streets of midtown Manhattan are filled with all of the professors, professional critics, editors, and judges of award panels. They are all dressed in their ill-fitting suits—they could afford better tailoring but that of course would indicate to their audience that something like beauty is important—but they are tearing them off to replace them with sackcloth. They are on their knees, they are decorating themselves in ashes.

Slowly they crawl out of their blue glass skyscrapers, their suburban commuter rail stations, their off-campus housing to join the mass. It’s not a howl that you hear but a low, unceasing moan. A few, the more dramatic and in need of attention of the group, flog themselves with branches and nylon rope. All of these men, all of these white men, every man who ever told a publishing assistant at a party while pinning her to the wall “you know I am in an open marriage,” every man who ever used the word “histrionic” to describe a woman’s memoir, “articulate” to describe a black man’s performance, or spent two paragraphs speculating about the body of a trans writer in what was supposed to be a review of their work, every professor who used Kanye lyrics in a lecture to show he was with it but taught an all white syllabus, every man who has referred to a Bronte or Emily Dickinson or James Baldwin as a “minor” writer, they are all here.

They have come to atone. They have come to ask for absolution. They have been forced into an encounter with their unconscious, they have finally seen the truth of their bias, the need they have had to believe anyone not of their demographic was a charlatan or a bore, and they have been laid low by this information.The sidewalks are crowded with all they have dismissed and betrayed. Everyone who has been marginalized and written out of the history of literature. They are interested in the spectacle, but skeptical. They have seen this type of performance before, this display of “how could I have been so wrong?”—it was always followed by either a return to previous behavior with slight modifications or an attempt to get laid. But they are transfixed by the image, and they find themselves disappointed that they are still capable of hope, hope that finally they will be seen for their true selves and not through these men’s projections.

When the men finally reach the water, they toss their clothes onto the bonfires that have been burning all night. The stench of burning polyester fills the air. “Forgive us,” they cry, as they hand over their positions to the spectators and write letters of resignation. “We didn’t realize.”