Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars

Losers
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.”

 

STORIES

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 www.virtualfutures.co.uk

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: 

 

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.

DILMAN DILA IS THE AUTHOR OF A CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES, A KILLING IN THE SUN. HE HAS BEEN LISTED IN SEVERAL PRESTIGIOUS PRIZES, INCLUDING THE GERALD KRAAK AWARD (2016), BBC INTERNATIONAL RADIO PLAYWRITING COMPETITION (2014), AND THE COMMONWEALTH SHORT STORY PRIZE (2013). HIS FILMS INCLUDE WHAT HAPPENED IN ROOM 13 (2007), WHICH HAS ATTRACTED OVER SIX MILLION VIEWS ON YOUTUBE, AND THE FELISTAS FABLE (2013), NOMINATED FOR BEST FIRST FEATURE AT AFRICA MOVIE ACADEMY AWARDS (2014), AND WINNER OF FOUR MAJOR AWARDS AT UGANDA FILM FESTIVAL (2014). HIS SECOND FEATURE FILM IS HER BROKEN SHADOW (2017), A SCIFI SET IN A FUTURISTIC AFRICA. MORE OF HIS LIFE AND WORKS ARE AT DILMANDILA.COM

Near Future Fictions Salon: Virtual Persons

Extruded Bodies & Phantom Flesh by Andrew Wallace

Virtual Futures’ March 2018 Near Future Fictions Salon explored the theme of Virtual Persons

Virtual Futures grew out of a series of conferences in the mid-90s that sought to develop a new discipline that would confront the technologisation of culture. Its latest incarnation is a regular ‘Salon’, where philosophical, scientific and creative thinkers combine discussion, performance and fiction to explore current and potential technological extensions of the human condition.

The Near Future Fictions Salons place science fiction centre stage, with previous guest participants including Alan Moore, Pat Cadigan, Gwyneth Jones, Hari Kunzru and Geoff Ryman.

Monday’s event explored the theme of ‘Virtual Persons’:

The digital world is a personality playground that offers us an unprecedented ability to curate and create a public persona – but what does this ability mean for the future of personhood? [from http://www.virtualfutures.co.uk]

Opening keynote by performance artist Stelarc

Stelarc took part in the original Virtual Futures conferences at Warwick University in the 90s. His work explores alternative anatomical architectures, interrogating issues of agency, identity and the post-human. He has performed with a mechanical third hand, a stomach sculpture and a six-legged walking robot; while Fractal Flesh, Ping Body and Parasite are internet performances that explore remote and involuntary choreography. Most recently, he has harnessed surgery and stem-cell technology to grow an ear on his arm.

thumbnail_Andrew Wallace & Stelarc
Stelarc and Andrew Wallace

Continue reading “Near Future Fictions Salon: Virtual Persons”

Vector 287: Fashion and SF

zero history gibsonBy Ricardo Suazo

Given that 2017 saw the launch of various SF blockbusters, when looking for the best of fashion one would be forgiven for turning to these highly visual, big budget productions. Wonder Woman, Blade Runner, Star Trek and Star Wars all made a return to our screens. However, the year’s most significant SF-related fashion events are to be found elsewhere. This is because in most cases the fashion references from these productions rely on a retro-futuristic vision, one which emphasises a post-apocalyptic, hyper-sexualised, Amazonian aesthetic.

An alternative would be to look to the catwalk, to the work of designers like Iris Van Herpen, Rick Owens or Comme des Garçons, all of whom share a reputation for futuristic, SF-inspired fashion. Whilst interesting, these proposals are not new, and certainly not representative of the mood in the industry. If anything, the fashion industry seems to be falling out of love with digital technologies. For example Hussein Chalayan’s Spring-Summer 2018 collection (shown in September 2017) was a commentary on how digital technologies can veil individual identity. This was only a year after the London-based designer showed a collection – in collaboration with Intel – which included accessories that could ‘read’ the wearer’s emotions and transform them into visuals displayed on a large screen. Continue reading “Vector 287: Fashion and SF”

Interview with Larissa Sansour

IntheFuture2
‘In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain’ by Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind.

Larissa Sansour is an artist working across video, photography, sculpture and installation, often to create political artworks that explore life in Palestine. Our cover image for Vector No. 287 is taken from her recent film installation, ‘In the Future, they Ate from the Finest Porcelain’, a collaboration with the artist Søren Lind.

An interview with Larissa Sansour first appeared in the same issue, Spring 2018.

Vector: In an interview for “Reorient”, you talk about how your piece uses SF to address the ongoing trauma that is both national and personal. The film swerves away from a documentary approach, yet you leave room for it to be interpreted as a realistic narrative by using a framing device common to 19th and early 20th century SF. It is possible to imagine our world just off screen. On the soundtrack we hear a conversation between a woman and her therapist – they can be in the here‑and‑now; the visual narrative of the film can be interpreted to describe an imaginary world of the patient’s mind, her dreams, her hopes, fears and fantasies. Was this ambiguity intentional? Was there a decision not to commit fully to science fiction?

Larissa Sansour: Working with science fiction offers a lot of malleability in how I choose to comment on present day issues. There is a tendency when addressing heated or urgent political topics to fall into an already established and non-flexible discourse. One then generally has to accept the premise of the arguments that preceded your contribution. Science fiction helps me posit a new equation in which a new approach to can be formulated. So, the trauma, fear and fantasies are intended to occupy the blurry space between fantasy and reality and, like in most of my work, to question the basis of our understanding of what reality means. In In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain, this focus is very much on historical narratives, and how much of that is really based on truth value.

The anachronism in the film is also very intentional. It is hard to talk about the Palestinian trauma without addressing several tenses. The Palestinian psyche seems to be planted in the catastrophic events of 1948 and is tied to a constant projection of the future, yet the present is in a constant limbo. Continue reading “Interview with Larissa Sansour”

Exclusive Vector interview with Glasgow DJ Sofay

 

 

Glasgow-based DJ Sophie Reilly, aka ‘Sofay’, talks about her love of science fiction and the connections that exist between some of her favourite records and novels such as Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ and Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris’:

The video was produced by Vector editors and is hosted on the new Vector’s YouTube channel.

You can listen to Sophie’s set for NTS radio on Soundcloud:

SF and Art: ‘Is This Planet Earth?’

‘Is This Planet Earth?’ a sci-fi/eco exhibition by nine contemporary artists

By Angela Kingston

‘Is This Planet Earth?’ is an art exhibition that is intended not for humans but for aliens. They visit us in the future but arrive too late to see nature in reality. Life on earth – wiped out by global warming, mass-extinction and contamination – now exists only in the imaginations of artists.

Halina Dominska has created a large-scale silicone sculpture with hanging fronds or stamens. These ‘breathe’ as visitors approach, and ‘pant’ as we get closer. There’s a video by Helen Sear, of a hallucinatory pool of water, and at the same time a quivering, single-celled organism. It seems to want to pull you in…

Dominska
Halina Dominska
Bound To
2016

Katherine Reekie has painted pictures of laboratory specimens: seaweeds that eyeball us; birds with insect limbs; children’s toys mixed up with animal and vegetable DNA. The final, mangled life forms on earth? Seán Vicary has animated some limpet shells, to make them dance. But what if their patterns and shapes have always, unknown to us, been a form of cryptic communication? Patrick Coyle will conduct a tour of a futuristic water-bottling plant, the ‘Wrecksome Flottlesam Statiom’: radioactivity has seeped into the water supply and pure water is a luxury item.

Reekie.jpg
Katherine Reekie
Specimen Creatura
2013

Salvatore Arancio presents us with mossy growth and fungal flesh, all of it exaggerated in scale and made in lushly coloured ceramic. Alfie Strong provides a pile of soft sculptures with photos of rocks with red shadows, navy-coloured water and wrong-looking plants. A soundtrack by Jason Singh features bird-song, croaking frogs, a babbling brook and more. But all these noises were actually made by Jason, a beatbox artist.  Dan Hays has painted some dazzling, pixelated landscapes – they are highly technological and perhaps even cyborgian in feel.

The exhibition ‘Is This Planet Earth?’ is a work of science fiction. It pays homage to visionary sci-fi writers and filmmakers who conjured with apocalyptic landscapes and creatures (J.G. Ballard, John Wyndham, Douglas Trumbull, to name just a few). And it assumes, for a moment, sci-fi’s ecological mantel, challenging us to stop and think, as this planet’s supreme consumers and polluters.

Curator: Angela Kingston

 

Queer Muslim Futurism: Alif Para La Revolución

Imagining a Queer Muslim Futurism 

From the interview with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto [GARAGE]

What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a few new projects, including Queer Muslim Futurism, which is about creating future queer landscapes through a Muslim lens. The narrative is about my drag character who, as a rebel leader, talks about contemporary politics in a future that signals a different dimension. This is a world in which the marginalized fights back. I create future guerrilla Muslim drag warriors on the front of resistance and blur the line between a revolutionary and a terrorist. The gaze of the Muslim male subject is queered, not in a docile way but to challenge the Western perspective of Muslim maleness. I’m doing films and performances in which gender and sexuality are undefined and identities are left unclear.

via Queer Muslim Futurism: Alif Para La Revolución