Memory tells me that I started reading science fiction in the late 1940s in the form of Heinlein stories that had appeared in Boys Life, which I subscribed to as a boy scout. When I started college at Berkeley in 1952, I discovered the Elves, Gnomes, and Little Men’s Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society. By the time I’d spent four years in the Air Force and finished my graduate studies at Harvard, I had collected a large SF library, including an almost complete run of Astounding. The point of this narrative is that my deepest knowledge of SF was the so-called Golden Age. Though I’ve continued reading SF and fantasy, and have published over fifty reviews of SF and fantasy books in the last twenty years, the renowned Polish writer Stanisław Lem has remained on the borderline of my reading.
When Vector (the journal of the British Science Fiction Association) solicited reviewers for this book, I offered because I wanted to learn about Lem. For readers who share my previous ignorance, Lem was born in 1921 in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv in the Ukraine), and died in Krakaw in 2008. According to Swirski’s bibliography, Lem’s first published science fiction story appeared in 1946 (Man from Mars—translated title); his first collection of SF stories appeared in 1957 (translated in 1977 as The Star Dairies). Fiasco, his final SF publication, appeared in 1987, translated with the same title in 1988.
Peter Swirski himself was born in Canada in 1966 but has spent most of his professional life elsewhere; presently a distinguished visiting professor in China, he has also taught in Finland and Hong Kong. His preoccupation with Stanisław Lem began with a 1992 article in Science Fiction Studies; the monograph reviewed here is the latest of Swirski’s six book publications on Lem. His other publications are on aspects of American literature and culture.Continue reading “A review of Stanisław Lem: Philosopher of the Future”→
Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate HistoryFiction, edited by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel
Reviewed byNick Hubble
On Friday 19 February 2016, Boris Johnson, wrote two drafts of an article intended for publication in the following Monday’s Daily Telegraph. The first argued in favour of Britain leaving the European Union; the second argued in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union (see Shipman 2016: 170-3, 609-18). As we know, Johnson opted to publish a redrafted version of the original, went on to become the figurehead of the successful Leave campaign and, in 2019, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and then won a General Election by a landslide. But what if he’d published a polished version of the second article instead and decided to support Remain in the European referendum?
Mushrooms and fungi have a specific place in the imagination as strange and otherworldly, often associated with the fantastical or magical, but Gavin’s exhibition on the “future” of fungi posits them as significantly more science-fictional than fantastical. They are a technology – for use in the future of fashion, biotechnology or ecological industries, or an alien – an unexpected invader via decay or rot, part of the aesthetic that makes a landscape feel truly not of this world. The exhibition achieves this through the mix of mediums, beginning with some of Beatrix Potter’s botanical illustrations of mushrooms and fungi, and progressing through dance (in video form), textile arts, sculpture, collage, fashion, and an extensive display of books.
The effect is an exhibition that feels unfinished, if visually engrossing. Amanda Cobbett’s sculptures of mushrooms, perfectly rendered in thread and paper, are an illusion good enough to trick you, and Seana Gavin’s collages are alien worlds where mushrooms form otherworldly buildings, or fungi have unsettling human features. The small setting of the exhibit gives little room for in-depth exploration, and its high goal is undermined a little by the content. A display of mushroom-focused non-fiction literature amounts mostly to a display of book covers, which maybe spark thoughts but ultimately feel superficial. However, for a mushroom lover or for those interested in how the natural world can be positioned in a futurist mindset, it’s a fun way to explore how many different artists have used many different mediums to explore the world of mushrooms and fungi.
While the first two rooms of the exhibit largely explore mushrooms as an aesthetic or fascination, the final ‘Futures of Fungi’ room positions mushrooms as a future technology, one that humanity has not yet fully exploited, with potentials unexplored, with displays including experimental leather made from mushroom, and a typeface generated to ‘spore’ organically as mushrooms do. The strangeness of mushrooms, their in-betweenness between plant and animal, their interconnectedness, are all ways in which they challenge humanity to experiment with their potential. Not all science-fiction, after all, is an exploration of an alien world. Some are discoveries of the strange in our deep seas or our high peaks. Perhaps the next frontier is neither, but instead will be the forest floor.
As I’ve done in past years, this won’t be a comprehensive overview of genre films and television of 2019. Instead, this is a selection of titles which are worth your attention. All were commercially released or reissued in the UK last year.
If in Groundhog Day it was Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” which heralded its protagonist’s recurring day ahead, in Russian Doll (on Netflix, eight episodes of just under a half-hour each) it was Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”. It’s Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), again and again in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment while her own birthday party goes on. A cynical, New York thirtysomething, Nadia certainly has her share of damage, manifesting itself in casual drug use and equally casual sex. At the end of today, Nadia will die, she finds out … and then she’s back in that bathroom with Nilsson on the soundtrack. After several go-rounds she finds Alan (Charlie Barnett) in the same predicament.
Although she was one of three creators (along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler), Lyonne dominates the show. She wrote and directed the final episode and co-wrote another. Her chartacterisation inevitably brings resonances of her own personal history, including publicly-known issues with substance abuse. It’s a commanding performance in a miniseries which works out its premise in several interesting ways. The music works perfectly, from Nilsson at the outset to Love’s “Alone Again Or” in the final scene. A second season is on its way.Continue reading “2019 in TV and Cinema”→
There was a lot to try to keep up with in 2019. As usual my attention was split between what was new, what I’d missed and what I revisited. As this is the regular review of the new, I’ll keep my attention squarely there — though I’ll confess to missing key releases that will doubtless prove to be among the best of the year.
As 2019 was also the end of a decade, this is a moment to note that over the last ten years we’ve seen a number of new writers establish themselves as major names in the genre.
I went to see Terminator Dark Fate with my regular film going friend, Nik. Despite going to the cinema together since we were kids, we worked out that this was the first time we’d been to see a Terminator film together in the cinema. Given Dark Fate’s poor box office and the fact that Schwarzenegger is 72 years old, this felt like our last chance saloon.
I’ll state my positions now. Firstly, it’s impossible to discuss this film without spoilers, so don’t read further if you don’t want any. Second, I’m a big fan of the original film and have watched it many times. I had been disappointed in different ways by many of the films in the series and I had high hopes of Dark Fate. It came with a pedigree of James Cameron’s blessing, the strategic rejection of the dead ends of earlier films, and it was made by the director behind the popular film, Deadpool, Tim Miller.
Like most franchises that have survived decades, TheTerminator films are no longer about one single thing, they combine and rework themes and cultural and social issues. While a principal concern is time travel and the paradox of changing the present by altering the past, the films are also commentaries on machine intelligence, nuclear destruction and individuals striving against a faceless powerful enemy.
To be honest, the last ten years have been such a blur I’d barely registered the fact that we have arrived at the threshold of a new decade. But here we are (or not, depending how pedantic you’re feeling – I’m happy to be guided by common usage), and it’s a useful moment for thinking about what I’ve read in that time. Or not, because, along with time passing at a speed that seems indecent, it turns out that this last decade was one in which I either didn’t read much (being a recovering postgraduate will do that to a person) or else a lot of what I did read somehow didn’t find its way into my long-term memory.
Except that, once I looked at a few lists, I realised that, actually, I had read quite a lot during that period but the effort of moving forward had somehow subsumed it into an amorphous space called ‘the recent past’. Also, I am hopeless at remembering dates of publication: last week, last month, last year, some time ago, whenever.
But I can tell you that in 2010 I was very excited about Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. I was and am a huge admirer of McDonald’s work, and at that point also deeply preoccupied with Orhan Pamuk’s writing (still am), so the Turkish setting intrigued me, as did the presence (or indeed, mostly, absence) of a mellified man, reflecting my interest in the strange, the offbeat, the peculiar. But I also appreciated the novel’s densely layered portrayal of a near-future society with a very complex cultural identity. Looking back I can see now that The Dervish House has set the tone for a lot of my reading since then.
What a long strange decade it has been. Ten years ago it looked as if social democracy was in the ascendant around the world; today, populist, nationalist, right-wing governments are in power in Britain, the USA, Australia, Israel, India, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere. The world has become a scary, unwelcoming, unpleasant place to live. Politicians took the voters for granted, and voters became tired and disdainful of the politicians, so real life is coming more and more to resemble the dystopias we used to read. Which may be why there are no dystopias on my list of the ten books that I have chosen as representative of the last ten years in science fiction.
Which is not to suggest that politics is absent from the list. Far from it, in fact I begin with what is, I think, the most politically acute novel science fiction has produced this decade: Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson (2014). Published two years before the Brexit referendum, it captures with uncanny prescience the mood of fragmentation and disintegration that Brexit embodies. Startlingly, the three subsequent volumes, which I don’t think Hutchinson had even conceived at the time he wrote the first book, maintain the awareness and the quality of the first. And in the final volume, Europe at Dawn (2018), there is a passage set among refugees on a Greek island that perfectly encapsulates the damage that fear of the other has done to Europe.
Channel 4’s Humans was one of the big successes of the 2010s. It won many accolades across its three seasons, including a BAFTA. Based on a Swedish drama, Real Humans, it provided a timely reflection on the changes we are actually experiencing due to the rise of AI, but framed as a thriller set in a world of robots. In Humans, the robots look human but are machines with very Asimovian constraints on behaviours, constraints that sentience removes. Enter one group of robots who have moved beyond the programmed and are fully aware.
The essential story of season 1 is where I’d like to focus. The ingredients are a family strained by tensions, husband about to lose his job to a robot, a wife who is a busy, successful lawyer, and their three kids. Into their lives comes a robot with a buried sentience.
The first series inspires moral and legal questions. How fast does an artificial sentience grow relative to how we think of maturity in humans and when does it become responsible for its actions? Is there an equivalent period of ‘childhood’ for AI that should be reflected in the laws governing sexual consent? Who is developing a legal framework applicable to AI?
If this wasn’t ethically challenging enough, further themes explored in the series include whether it’s possible to love a robot (the conclusion being very much a ‘yes’) and an even deeper one: ‘is there a right to sentience?’.
Humans holds up a mirror to make us aware of how driven we are by appearances. The show is very deliberate with the blurring of boundaries when the robots look and behave as we think people do. While the cast went to synth school to learn how to not move like people, the plot depended on robots being able to pass for humans, sometimes in order to harm them.
The episode where Niska – one of the sentient robots – is on the run having murdered an abusive human, is a riff on the film Fight Club. She passes for human and is allowed to join in with a group (largely men) whose evening’s pleasure consists of beaten and destroying other robots. The robots look like people and are helpless. To all intents and purposes, the baying crowd were killing people they’d relabelled as objects. Sometimes it’s easy to despair of humanity.
It’s not clear we are anywhere close to answering any of the ethical questions raised by this show, while the rise of AI in the actual workplaces continues apace. Let’s hope we do a better job than Humans suggests we might.