Robotics, science fiction and the search for the perfect artificial woman

File 20171024 30565 p2y72k.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Ociacia/Shutterstock.com

Irena Hayter, University of Leeds

Three photographs have been shortlisted for 2017’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, hosted by the National Portrait Gallery in London. But there is something out of the ordinary about one of this year’s contenders for the prize. One of the portraits – by the Finnish artist Maija Tammi – is not of a human, but a female android.

The android in the photograph is Erica, described by her creator, Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, as “the most beautiful and intelligent” robot in the world. The hardware beneath her silicone skin helps her achieve facial and mouth movements, but these can be rather unnatural, out of sync with her synthesised voice. She is cognitively sophisticated, though still unable to work out answers to complex questions from first principles, and she cannot move her arms and legs.

If this seems like something out of science fiction, you’re not far off. One of Ishiguro’s first female robots was named Repliee Q1 and he himself has said that the name derives from the French for “replicate” and from the “replicants” in Blade Runner: science fiction and robotics have always been entwined. Indeed, in a documentary made by the Guardian about Erica, Ishiguro reveals that he wanted to be an oil painter and insists on the similarities between his work and artistic creation.

It is difficult not to see here a masculine Pygmalionesque desire to create the perfect artificial woman. “Ishiguro-sensei is my father and he understands me entirely,” Erica pronounces in the documentary. Her vaunted autonomy seems more like a projection on the part on the roboticists who programme her thoughts, but also occasionally anthropomorphise her: the scientist who introduces himself as Erica’s “architect” also thinks that she is “really excited to interact with people”.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project).
© Maija Tammi

Continue reading “Robotics, science fiction and the search for the perfect artificial woman”

2018 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism

Applications are now open for the 2018 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism. The 2018 Masterclass, the Eleventh, will take place from Friday 29 June to Sunday 1 July. This year we will be at Anglia Ruskin University.

The 2018 Class Leaders are:

Nick Hubble (Brunel University) – Nick is co-editor of the Science Fiction Handbook (2013) and London in Contemporary British Fiction (2016)

John J. Johnston (Egypt Exploration Society) – John is co-editor of the mummy anthology Unearthed, his introduction for which was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction.

Stephanie Saulter (author) – Stephanie is the author of Gemsigns and its sequels

Price: £225; £175 for registered postgraduate students.

To apply please send a short (no more than 3,000 words) piece of critical writing (a blog entry, review, essay, or other piece), and a one page curriculum vitae, to farah.sf@gmail.com.

Applications received by 1 March 2018 will be considered by an Applications Committee. Applications received after 30 March may be considered if places are still available, on a strictly first-come first served basis.

A deposit of £50 will be payable within a week of acceptance.  This deposit is only refundable in the event of another student taking your place

Past Masterclass students are encouraged to apply again (though we will prioritise applications from those who have not been previous students).

Information on past Masterclasses can be found at http://www.sf-foundation.org/masterclass. Please direct any enquiries to masterclass@sf-foundation.org.

Submissions for the 2013 Clarke Award

This year’s 2012 Clarke Award Submissions (for the 2013 Arthur C Clarke Award) are now available in all their numerous glory at SFX. How numerous? The valiant, hard-reading five jury members read through 82 submitted books in order to filter them down to a shortlist of six, which will be announced on Thursday, April 4th.

There’s no contest this year, but guessing which six books from that long list will make the short list is still an interesting proposition, and SFX is requesting them.

The winning book will be announced on May 1st at the Royal Society, hopefully after a day’s Clarke Award symposium, “Write the Future”, for which there’s currently a Kickstarter going for fundraising. The fundraiser is already 3/4 of the way to its goal, with 25 days remaining, so there’s a very good chance indeed of this “new micro-conference on science, technology, communication and fiction” happening, also at the Royal Society.

New Reflections

If you enjoyed the excerpt from the interview with Diana Wynne Jones which appeared in Vector #268, then you may be interested to know that the volume in which the full interview appears, Reflections, will be published in the next few weeks from David Fickling Books.

Early copies may be available this weekend at the celebration of DWJ’s life and works being held this Sunday, 22 April at 2pm, at St. George’s in Brandon Hill, Bristol. Details of how to get to the venue are available here.

John Martin: Apocalypse – Reviewed by Andrew M Butler

This review will appear in Vector 269. I encourage you, if you’re able, to go see the show before it closes in mid-January!

John Martin: Apocalypse

Tate Britain 21 September 2011  –  15 January 2012

Reviewed by Andrew M. Butler

The Deluge, engraving by William Miller after the painting by John Martin

There is a moment in a mid-1820s etching by John Martin when Biblical narrative collides with archaeology, and with market economics — in The Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Paradise the couple are running out of the Garden of Eden through a rocky landscape, a tongue of lightning in the background. Down to their right is some sort of prehistoric creature, almost certainly depicted with the latest theories of what dinosaurs would have looked like, at a time when such palaeontology was in its infancy — the word dinosaur being coined by Richard Owen in 1842. In Martin’s earlier oil painting of the same title, dated about 1813, the image is broadly similar, but lacks the creature. The addition would help him sell the print. This was no one-off — he illustrated for Gideon Mantell’s The Wonders of Geology (1838), in the form of The Country of the Iguanodon, and Thomas Hawkins’s The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons (1840) [PDF], as well producing other images of antediluvian fauna. Such depictions suggest that Martin is one of the first science-fiction artists, and his paintings of Biblical, historical and mythological scenes, often featuring disasters and tumultuous landscapes, reinforce this sense. His uneasy status as a provincial outsider having to earn a living from a metropolitan élite also anticipates the struggles for mainstream respect of genre writers.

Martin was born in 1789 in Haydon Bridge, Hexham, Northumbria, the youngest of four sons. Apprenticed to a coachmaker, he intended to learn heraldic painting, but after a dispute about terms his indenture was cancelled and instead he went to work with Italian artist Boniface Musso. Musso had already given him lessons in drawing and oil techniques in Newcastle; now Martin learnt to paint plates and glass as part of a commercial operation. In 1806, he moved to London, where he supplemented his income by producing watercolours and, in time, became a professional artist. The key place to be exhibited was the annual Royal Academy of Arts summer show, then held at Somerset House, although his first painting was rejected in 1810. The same painting, retitled, hung the following year; the breakthrough came when a member of the board of governors of the Bank of England, William Manning MP, offered fifty guineas to buy Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812). This painting had been inspired by James Ridley’s Oriental fantasy Tales of the Genii (1764), where the hero Sadak crawls across a mountainous landscape toward amnesia-causing waters. Further large canvases followed over the next forty years, with Martin in search of wealthy and influential patrons. But Martin also found popular acclaim, with the Biblical painting Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon (1816), and was to both show his work in London exhibitions and to tour them around the world — it is thought that two million people saw his Day of Judgement triptych (1849-53) in the UK, the USA and Australia.

Martin’s paintings typically invoked a sense of the sublime. Longinus, writing about rhetoric in the first century, argued that “the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy”, whereas the eighteenth-century Edmund Burke argued that “delightful horror […] is the truest test of the sublime”. In Martin’s case, the feeling is invoked by vast landscapes containing tiny figures in the fore- to midground to give a sense of scale — and his canvases tend to be portrait in orientation, allowing for the composition to tower above the viewer. The terrain is often bowl-shaped, with cliffs and trees taking up the left and right sides of the frame, and then, further back, rivers, lakes, seas and classical cities in the haze of the background. Sometimes the sky forms an answering semicircle, perhaps with clouds of fire, and in some canvases the patina of the painting is cracked in concentric circles. Frequently, the sky is scarred with lightning, scratches across the canvas. In The Deluge (1826), the sea curves around the bottom of the canvas, sweeping the boat clockwise, with storm clouds completing a circuit around the top of the composition, an oval of fairer weather and a glimpse of cities in the distance between them.

The Deluge is one of several paintings Martin made of the Biblical flood, alongside The Eve of the Deluge (1840) and The Assuaging of the Waters (1840); the painting of The Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Paradise, alongside The Garden of Eden (1821), The Fall of Babylon (1819), Belshazzer’s Feast (1820), Adam and Eve Entertaining the Angel Raphael (1823) and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), suggests an Old Testament theme running through his work, especially the sense of a powerful, destructive, vengeful God. The success of Belshazzer’s Feast, which was reproduced in several versions, clearly suggested that there was a market for such apocalyptic thrills, in a Britain which in the process of being changed forever by the industrial revolution and a network of railways threading its way between mines and factories and ports, and between London and the provinces. The aristocracy and the upper middle classes could go on Grand Tours across Europe, to the Matterhorn, the Alps, Venice, Sicily and beyond, but Martin had been on no such journey and locates such landscapes within England. It is tempting to see the valley of the Tyne with Newcastle perched above it as one inspiration for his topography.

It was apparently a journey through the industrialised Black Country which pointed him to the New Testament subject of The Great Day of His Wrath, a book of Revelation style destruction of Babylon in which volcanic powers rip open a landscape, and vast boulders — on which ruined cities can be glimpsed — are thrown through the air. A second painting, The Last Judgement (1849-53), has a landscape riven in two, beneath Christ and the Angels sitting in court at the top of the picture against a more heavenly sky. On the left of the canvas are the saved, including a range of politicians, poets and artists from antiquity to the present day, on the right, across a chasm filling with corpses, are the damned. Before the painting was damaged, there was a train being driven towards the abyss. The trilogy is completed by The Plains of Heaven (1851-3), a gentler pastoral of the era after the Second Coming, the green of grass and trees surrounding a rich azure of sky and sea. But Martin also looked to Pompeii and Herculaneum for his subjects, and its destruction by volcano (1822, 1822-6), and a classical story of Marcus Curtius being swallowed up by a chasm in a city street.

From the 1820s onwards he was developing plans for canals across London to provide a water supply for London and Westminster, for a sewage system to improve London’s hygiene (and to provide fertiliser for farms) and for a network of railways circling central London and along the banks of the Thames. In this work he anticipated Joseph Bazalgette’s improvements to the London drains and the Embankment and the piecemeal engineering of the London Underground network and overground lines, then in its infancy. Funds were never quite available to translate Martin’s plans into practice. He was also friends with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage and other scientists such as Georges Cuvier, a French palaeontologist. In the painting Arthur and Aegle in the Happy Valley (1841), inspired by a Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton poem, Martin insists that the background constellations are accurate in astronomical terms, even if the topic was fictional. He drew on the latest science and engineering.

Martin also knew Charles Barry, who won the competition to design the neo-gothic yet classical new Houses of Parliament, and it is likely this architecture also fed into his work. One could scale his painting of Balshazzer’s Feast to discover how many miles long his palace interior was — or so Martin argued — and contemporary archaeology was another source of inspiration and publicity. Pamphlets and handbills listed details of the people painted in crowd scenes and drew attention to details. All of this contributes to the showmanship which Martin clearly possessed in spades — but also, perhaps, to the sense of insecurity from being an outsider, a working-class artist with little training. Conspicuous testimony to his sense of pride is a piece of furniture, shown in Apocalypse: a bureau with drawers labelled for Martin’s various projects and honours. At the 1851 Great Exhibition, he presented himself as an engineer rather than as an artist.

Salespitches remained necessary, as the art market ebbed and flowed in the era of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, the former artist stopping at nothing to gain advantage and positioning in the Royal Academy summer exhibitions. Whilst it was possible to sell similar paintings in several sizes, this undercut their exclusiveness, so Martin made a virtue of copying through the comparatively mass medium of the mezzotint. But the mezzotints enabled Martin to revise his earlier compositions — hence the appearance of a prehistoric creature alongside Adam and Eve. Martin employed other engravers to make plates of his images, although he was not always happy with their work and would sometimes reject it. Other times he would do his own engraving, and for a period set up a state of the art press in his own home where he supervised the production of mezzotints by professional printers.

One series of mezzotints were commissioned in 1824 by Septimus Prowett as illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), returning to Old Testament scenes, but also paving the way for scenes from Revelation and the New Testament in general. The most striking of these depict Satan, especially Satan in Council, whose composition seems to anticipate the council chamber in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (and Lucas apparently was inspired by Martin’s work; the empty landscape of Solitude (1843) is echoed in the climax of THX 1138 (1971) or the deserts of Tatooine). Martin went on to work on illustrations of the Bible, a less successful project than he had hoped, as was his attempt to sell direct to customers, bypassing the established English network of print emporia. Worse, he undercut himself by designing cheaper plates to be printed by Edward Churton. Nevertheless Martin still made more money from his mezzotints than his paintings — Michael Campbell, a Martin collector and scholar, suggests up to £25,000 — although the market declined through the 1830s.

Perhaps such mentions of money are vulgar — but I see in Martin a kindred spirit of today’s science-fiction writers. He might not have quite been competing for the reader’s beer money, but he knew how to exploit a successful image in more than one format, and he knew how to bring showmanship to his exhibitions. In the lack of official recognition from membership of the Royal Academy nor was he knighted — although the Belgians honoured him — we might also think of the anxieties over the injustices of the Booker Prize or snootiness about the Granta Best of Young Novelists lists. But mostly it is in his fusion of science and art, his use of the sublime, and his creation of apocalyptic imagery that never quite feels reducible to allegory or political parable. (His painting The Last Man (1833) is inspired by an 1823 Thomas Campbell poem rather than Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, but his accommodation of Jane Loudon as a house guest might put him somewhere in the genesis of The Mummy! Or A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827).)

His work remains sublimely astounding. If you want to see the inspiration for a hundred ends of the world, or be inspired yourself, immerse yourself in Martin’s art, which is, in the words of curator Martin Myrone, “suspended or caught between mass production and the unique, the popular and the rarefied, the industrialised and the artistic, the sensationalist and the scholastic.” And that, after all, is the place where we often find sf.

Reading List

Adams, Max (2010) The Prometheans: John Martin and the Generation That Stole the Future, London: Quercus.

Aristotle/Horace/Longinus (1965) Classical Literary Criticism, trans. T.S. Dorsch, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Burke, Edmund (2008) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

Feaver, William (1975) The Art of John Martin. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Martin, John (2011) Sketches of My Life, ed. Martin Myrone, London: Tate.

Myrone, Martin (ed.) (2011) John Martin: Apocalypse, London: Tate.

Looking ahead

We’ve gotten a bit behind with plans here at Torque Control. I’ve had a busy end-of-semester, and Niall and Tony both ended up over-committed, which is why you haven’t seen the end (or in one case, beginning) of discussions of Farthing and The Carhullan Army. I can’t tell you when those posts will be along, but I can tell you the following…

I have a special preview of the next Vector for you tomorrow. The issue itself was as waylaid as this blog, but you should still have it before the end of January. In the meantime, tomorrow I’ll be posting an article which will appear in the print issue when it comes out, but which you really need to read much sooner than that: Andrew Butler’s writeup of the John Martin: Apocalypse show which is currently at the Tate in London, but closes January 15th.

Next week, I’ll be posting on Lavinia.

Then, two weeks later, in January, I’ll post about Gwyneth Jones’ Spirit. Shortly after which, you should be receiving the next BSFA mailing, about which much more anon.

Science Fiction Foundation SF Criticism Masterclass 2012

Class Leaders:
Edward James
M. John Harrison
Kari Sperring

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the sixth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2012.

Dates: June 22nd, 23rd, 24th 2012.

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon).
Delegate costs will be £190 per person, excluding accommodation.
Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is available from the administrator (farah.sf@gmail.com)

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at farah.sf@gmail.com. Applicants are asked to provide a CV and a writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Graham Sleight and Andy Sawyer. Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2012.

The Conflux Cookbook: First Encounter

At yesterday’s BSFA London meeting, Jo Fletcher used as her example of the difficulties of timing in buying books published in America the example of Jo Walton and Australia.  Jo Walton, author of Farthing, our Future Classic of the month, isn’t published in the UK because her agent waited a little too long before offering the rights; by which points, there was no chance at all that the UK edition would be available in time to sell in Australia, and Australia, although a tiny market by American standards, is really quite large by British ones. Without any hope of being able to sell the prospective UK edition in Australia, the plans was scuppered, and those of us now reading Farthing in the UK are reading imported copies.

In contrast (in so many ways), The Conflux Cookbook will almost entirely be sold to Australians, in Australia, at the Conflux convention this weekend. The edition is only 200 copies and is likely to sell out quickly. It’s the last book from the going-out-of-business Eneit Press, done in by the collapse of Borders in the US.

The cookbook commemorates the last five years’ worth of historical recreation banquets held at the country’s national sf convention. (It includes the menu development for this year’s banquet, for which it’s too late to buy tickets, a recreation of a meal in August 1929, aboard the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin) It features illustrations by Kathleen Jennings and an introduction by Garth Nix.

But it’s not just a cookbook. It’s a history of a series of much-loved meals. It’s a study in how to do meticulous recipe testing, and in valuable sources for researching the history of food, menus, and eating habits, it’s an examination of what Australian tastebuds are habituated to, the availability (or lack therefore) of all sorts of ingredients, and it’s a portrait of part of Australian fandom. It made me grateful that my local (Sainsbury) supermarket stocks walnut ketchup.

One aspect which I appreciated was the passing consideration of what kinds of historical periods are likely to appeal to sf convention-goers, the periods which cross both available recipes with something likely to spark the interest of a costume-maker. Costumes, I think, double as good physical reminders of expected behaviour, and many of these feasts came with etiquette guides, encouraging the attendees to behave as closely as possible as did those for whom the recipes were originally written. Give or take language, of course. And lower fat content. And with vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Inspired by the convention’s imminence, I finally made time to start looking at the ARC that Gillian Polack sent me the other week. Her labour of love may lack all the wonderful illustrations promised for the finished version, but I still was sucked right in. It helps that I know her (as, I’m sure, many of you do), and her voice was vivid in its pages. I was up to the third banquet, set in the fictional Hotel Gernsback on the eve of the coining of “scientifiction”, when I remembered that really, I was in the middle of the finishing touches on the overdue issue of Vector and should get back to that. (And I did, and the files are all sent off for layout now!)

I haven’t finished reading the cookbook yet as a result, and I haven’t tried out any of its recipes yet, but I have every intention of doing so.

If for some reason, you are a reader of this blog who was somehow unaware of The Conflux Cookbook and will be attending the Australian national convention this weekend – buy your copy while you’re able to. They’re going to sell out fairly quickly from all accounts. And the only copies in the UK will be, as with Farthing, imports.

P.S. It’s a cookbook with a trailer!

Support Strange Horizons

I’m particularly fond of Strange Horizons for a number of reasons. It has high-quality, regular, thought-provoking science fictional content. It offers a good range, from poetry to reviews to short stories to news. It’s free to read, but still pays professional rates for work it publishes. Lots of Vector contributors, past and present, work on the site, whether as volunteer editors or paid contributors. And I have a geographical bias in favor of it (funny, since it’s an online magazine) –  its mailing address is in the US state I grew up in.

Strange Horizons has two weeks left in its annual fundraising drive, and still has two-thirds of its target goal left to reach. As an added incentive for donating, donors have a chance at winning one of the many prizes available, from an anthology of Mexican science fiction and fantasy to paintings by poet Marge Simon to Stephanie Burgis’ young adult/regency/fantasy novel A Most Improper Magick.

If your finances permit it, I very much encourage you to consider donating to support Strange Horizons. Many of Vector‘s contributors would benefit from it, and so would you and the rest of the internet’s science fiction readers in having ongoing access to Strange Horizon‘s excellent content, both critical and fictional.

Out of this World Countdown

Here in London, it’s been a fantastic summer of science fictional events at the British Library, thanks to the show Out of this World: Science Fiction but Not as You Know It; but it’s not over yet.

After today, there are still six days left in which to go to the British Library and see the (free!) show.

There is still one more scheduled event remaining in conjunction with it, on J.G. Ballard, this Friday.

I’m planning on going back one more time. And just in case you’ve been thinking about it, haven’t gotten around to it, live vaguely in or around London or will be passing through in time…. I’m planning on posting something on science fiction history each day for the remaining six days of the show as a reminder that the show is still on.

Also, conveniently, this takes advantage of recent reading I did in preparation for the British Science Festival’s panel on “Science Fiction and Religion”.

The good news is that major shows in London on inspirations for science fiction and fantasy won’t be stopping when Out of this World closes, since John Martin: Apocalypse at the Tate opens on Wednesday.