My love/hate relationship with Science Fiction

Watching the latest installment of “The Matrix”, I was reminded of my love/hate relationship with Science Fiction. I wouldn’t count myself as a huge SF fan, but I dip my toe in from time to time, and occasionally find a sub-genre, eco-system or franchise that draws me in deeper, whether via television, film or literature. Unfortunately, while the original “Matrix” movie (and maybe the first sequel) managed to be original, entertaining and engaging, by the time of “The Matrix Revolutions” both the plot and the characterisation had run thin. When I saw the trailers and the pre-launch campaign for “The Matrix Resurrections”, I was sufficiently intrigued to want to see it, especially in light of recent geo-political events. Sadly, it was a huge waste of time: the plot was banal, and the story-line disjointed; there were awkward flashbacks to the previous films (in large part to remind us of the actors who originally played the current characters?); and there were far too many retrospective explanations to justify the present “narrative”. The whole thing felt like another Keanu Reeves character had stumbled into a dystopian Lewis Carroll landscape – “Wick in Wonderland” would have been a more suitable title.

“The Terminal Man” by Michael Crichton (image sourced from the author’s website)

Growing up in the UK in the 1960s, my school friends and I avidly watched a bunch of TV programmes that found a young and eager audience for SF. These productions also spawned multiple re-boots, spin-offs and imitators, as well as giving rise to the franchise phenomenon that dominates much of today’s cinema. Those early shows included “Star Trek”, “Lost in Space”, “Planet of the Apes” and “Land of the Giants”. All of these programmes were American, which I suppose made them seem even more exotic, and therefore more appealing, to our impressionable minds.

By contrast, British television had produced the “Quatermass” TV series back in the 1950s, and “Dr Who” (launched in 1963), both of which pre-dated their US counterparts by several years. But in my mind these domestic efforts were firmly rooted in Gothic horror – more H.G.Wells and Jules Verne than Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick? – and therefore they felt less futuristic, especially when we were witnessing the real-life events of the Space Race on the evening news. Which is probably why even Gerry Anderson’s puppet creations such as “Fireball XL5”, “Thunderbirds” and “Captain Scarlet” resonated with me more than Daleks and Cybermen. So to me, British television was more successful in producing psycho-dramas founded upon stories of espionage set against backdrop of the Cold War, with programmes such as “Danger Man”, “The Avengers”, “The Champions” and “The Prisoner” being far more evocative of contemporary themes and fashions, notwithstanding some creaky plot lines.

Later, I would watch classic SF films of the 1950s, such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “The Blob” and “Forbidden Planet” which, despite their technical limitations, are still key reference points for fans of the genre; they also convey elements of Cold War paranoia, and the perennial fear of “the other”. Then, as a young teenager, I found myself reading SF novels, including works by Asimov, John Wyndham, Aldous Huxley, Michael Crichton, Norman Spinrad, Brian Aldiss and J.G.Ballard. Ballard, of course, preferred to explore “inner space” rather than outer space, and this means his writing contains universal themes that are not constrained by contemporary accounts of futuristic technology. In fact, this theme of “inner space” probably underpins my preferences within the SF genre, as evidenced by 1960s movies I managed to see when I was older, such as “Seconds”, “Alphaville”, and “Fahrenheit 451”.

Despite an aversion for SF that is over-reliant upon technology as a plot technique, I have enjoyed some recent novels that engage with emerging technology such as AI and robotics – great examples would include William Gibson’s “Agency”, Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me”, and Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein”.

However, if I was to delineate my personal likes/dislikes of SF in film and on TV, I would probably list them as follows:

  • As a child, I loved the original “Star Trek”, but I’ve never seen a “Star Trek” film or any of the newer TV series
  • I’ve never seen a “Star Wars” film, and have no desire to
  • “Moon” was great, and “Source Code” wasn’t bad either
  • I really enjoyed “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, and I appreciated “Contact”, “Arrival”, “Interstellar” and “The Martian”
  • “Gravity” was somehow plausible, whereas “Elysium” was a stretch
  • “2001: A Space Odyssey” is in a class of its own
  • Same with “The Man Who Fell To Earth”
  • I loved the first four “Alien” movies, but I disliked the so-called prequels, and I’ve avoided the “Predator” cross-overs
  • The original “Terminator” film was great, but the sequels prove the law of diminishing returns
  • I really enjoyed “Looper” and in a somewhat similar vein, “Inception”
  • I couldn’t ever get into the “X-files” – but I was hooked on “Twin Peaks”
  • The original “Westworld” movie was fine, but I have no interest in the recent TV series
  • Similarly, I love the original film versions of “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”, but see no point in the later remakes
  • And while I used to watch re-runs of the original “Twilight Zone” series, I’ve not seen the later re-boot; however, “Black Mirror” got my attention
  • “Donnie Darko” yes, “Stranger Things” no
  • Overall, I tend to avoid SF that is more firmly rooted in the sub-genres of horror, fantasy, magic, super heroes (with super powers), space westerns, superstition, disaster themes and most tales of the supernatural (and anything with Kevin Costner….)

Finally, there is room for humour in SF, if done well – such as “Dark Star”, “Mars Attacks!”, and “Tremors”; even the first “Men in Black” effort is head and shoulders above “Wild Wild West”….

Next week: Smart Contracts… or Dumb Software

Literary legacies

As more classic works of literature come out of copyright protection, and enter the public domain, publishers and booksellers can look forward to sales of re-packaged titles, for which they won’t have to pay royalties. With the right combination of content and marketing, it’s as good as free money.

Under the Berne Convention, copyright in published works is the life of the author plus 50 years, although many territories have extend this to life plus 70 years (100 in Mexico!). These periods may be subject to extensions if the executors of literary estates are able to renew the existing copyright (under previous copyright regimes) or by issuing revised editions of existing works which are sufficiently different to the original so as to constitute an entirely separate publication – but these are exceptions.

By allowing copyright to lapse, this should mean key works will always be in print, and even more obscure titles can be revived with little to no production cost. For nearly 20 years, Google Books has been scanning works out of copyright and putting them online. But even this process can run into copyright limitations, and questions of provenance (as illustrated by the treatment of George Orwell’s “1984”). But this has also encouraged some enterprising individuals to sell “reprints” of facsimile copies of scanned titles, when the buyer thought they were purchasing an authentic copy, or a contemporary edition (i.e., newly typeset and printed).

Intellectual property law may be complex, and in need of reform to reflect modern technology and contemporary society. But as copyright works pass into the public domain, there remains the issue of moral rights. These give writers the right to be identified as the author of a work (“attribution”), and to protect their work against inappropriate use (“derogatory treatment”). Moral rights also protect writers against “false attribution” – i.e., a publisher can’t claim a work was written by an author who didn’t actually write it.

Moral rights vary from country to country (e.g., Germany, UK, USA, Australia), but generally do not survive when copyright expires. Which can mean that unscrupulous publishers may feel emboldened to “modify” original texts at will, given some recent examples of key 20th century novels. Surely not what authors and their legacies should be subject to?

Next week: Public Indifference?

Brexit Blues (Part II)

Brexit finally came into effect on January 31, 2020 with a transition period due to end on December 31, 2020. It’s still not clear whether key issues such as the post-Brexit trade agreement between the EU and the UK will be completed by then (a major talking point being imports of American chlorinated chicken….). Nor is it clear which other areas of EU laws and standards will survive post-transition. Both of which continue to cause uncertainty for British businesses and local governments that have to operate within and enforce many of these rules. Add to that the recent UK storms and floods, the post-Brexit air of racism and xenophobia, plus the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting drag on global markets and supply chains, and maybe the UK will run out of more than just pasta, yoghurt and chocolate. Perhaps those promised post-Brexit savings of £350m a week really will need to spent on the National Health Service…..

The “Vote Leave” campaign bus, 2016 (Image sourced from Bloomberg)

The seeds of the Brexit debacle were sown in David Cameron’s speech of January, 23 2013. As I wrote last year, that set in motion a series of flawed processes. Despite the protracted Brexit process, it’s now unlikely that the decision to leave will be reversed, especially as the opposition Labour Party has just been trounced at the polls. Instead, Labour continues to beat itself up over the failure of its outgoing leadership either to make a solid case in support of the Remain vote in the 2016 Referendum, or to establish and maintain a clear and coherent policy on Brexit leading right up to the December 2019 General Election. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has a huge Parliamentary majority, a fixed 5-year mandate, and a general disregard for traditional cabinet government and the delineation of roles between political advisors and civil servants. We have already seen that any form of dissent or even an alternative perspective will not be tolerated within government or within the Tory party, let alone from independent and non-partisan quarters.

Since that fateful speech of January, 2013, it’s possible to follow a Brexit-related narrative thread in film, TV and fiction. Not all of these accounts are directly about Brexit itself, but when viewed in a wider context, they touch on associated themes of national identity, democracy, political debate, public discourse, xenophobia, anti-elitism, anti-globalism, and broader popular culture.

The earliest such example I can recall is Brian Aldiss’s final novel, “Comfort Zone”, (published in December 2013), while the first truly “Brexit Novel” is probably Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” (November 2018). Somewhat to be expected, political thrillers and spy novels have also touched on these themes – Andrew Marr’s “Children of the Master” (September 2015, and probably still essential reading for Labour’s current leadership candidates); John Le Carre’s “A Legacy of Spies” (September 2017); John Simpson’s “Moscow, Midnight” (October 2018); and John Lanchester’s “The Wall” (January, 2019). (For another intriguing and contemporary literary context, I highly recommend William Gibson’s introduction to the May 2013 edition of Kinglsey Amis’s “The Alteration”. Plus there’s an essay on the outgoing Labour leader in Amis junior’s collection of non-fiction, “The Rub of Time” published in October 2017.)*

Elsewhere there have been TV dramatisations to remind us how significant, important and forward-looking it was when the UK joined the EEC in 1973 – most notably the chronicling of the Wilson and Heath governments as portrayed in “The Crown”. Even a film like “The Darkest Hour” reveals the love-hate relationship Britain has had with Europe. More distant historical context can be seen in films like “All is True” and “Peterloo”.

No doubt, Brexit will continue to form a backdrop for many a story-teller and film-maker for years to come. And we will inevitably see recent political events re-told and dramatised in future documentaries and dramas. Hopefully, we will be able to view them objectively and gain some new perspective as a result. Meanwhile, the current reality makes it too depressing to contemplate something like “Boris Johnson – Brexit Belongs to Me!”

*Postcript: hot off the press, of course is “Agency”, Willam Gibson’s own alternative reality (combining elements of the “Time Romance” and “Counterfeit World” referenced in “The Alteration”) – I haven’t read it yet, but looking forward (!) to doing so….

Next week: Joy Division and 40+ years of Post-Punk

 

Deconstructing #Digital Obsolescence

Remember the video format wars of the 1980s? At one point, VHS and Betamax were running neck and neck in the consumer market, but VHS eventually won out (although the also-ran V2000 was technically superior to both). Since then, we’ve had similar format battles for games consoles, video discs, computer storage, CD’s and e-books. It’s the inevitable consequence of operating platforms trying to dominate content – a continuing trend which has probably reached its apotheosis with the launch of Apple’s Beats 1 streaming service. This convergence of hardware and software is prompting some contrary trends and, if nothing else, proves our suspicion of hermetically sealed systems…

about-format2

Trevor Jackson embarks on a format frenzy….

1. Digital Divergence

Earlier this year, UK music producer Trevor Jackson released a collection of 12 songs, each one pressed on a different media format: 12″, 10″ and 7″ vinyl; CD and mini-CD; cassette; USB; VHS; minidisc; DAT; 8-track cartridge; and reel-to-reel tape. Of course, he could have also used 78 rpm shellac records, digital compact cassettes, Digital8 tapes, 3.5 and 5.25 inch floppy disks (still available, I kid you not) or any of the multitude of memory cards that proliferate even today.

While Jackson’s “Format” project might seem gimmicky, it does demonstrate that many digital formats are already obsolete compared to their analogue counterparts (and until very recently, I could have played 8 of the 12 formats myself – but I’ve just donated my VHS player to our local DVD store).

As I have blogged previously, there is an established body of digital/analogue hybrids, especially in data storage, and I can only see this continuing as part of the creative tension between operating systems and content formats.

2. Digital Archeology

Each new hardware/software upgrade brings a trail of digital obsolescence (and a corresponding amount of e-waste). It’s also giving rise to a new discipline of digital archeology, combining forensics, anthropology and hacking.

Back in 2002, it was discovered that a 15-year old multimedia version of the Domesday book was unreadable* – yet the hand-written version is still legible, and available to anyone who can read (provided they can decipher 1,000-year old Norman English). Apparently, it has taken longer to decrypt the 1986 video disc than it took to create it in the first place.

More digital archeologists will be needed to mine the volumes of data that reside in archival formats, if we are to avoid losing much of the knowledge we have created since the advent of the personal computer and the public internet.

3. Digital Provenance

We’re used to managing our data privacy and computer security via password protection, network protocols and user authentication. If we think about it, we also question the veracity of certain e-mails and websites (phishing, scamming, malware, trojans etc.).

A while ago I blogged about the topic of digital forgeries, and the associated phenomenon of digital decay. Just as in the art world, there is a need to establish a method of digital provenance to verify the attributes and authenticity of content we consume.

We are already seeing this happen in the use of block chains for managing cryptocurrencies, but I believe there is a need to extend these concepts to a broader set of transactions, while also facilitating the future proofing and retrofitting of content and operating systems.

4. Digital Diversity

In response to closed operating systems, sealed hardware units and redundant formats, there are several interesting and divergent threads emerging. These are both an extension of the open source culture, and a realisation that we need to have transferable and flexible programming abilities, rather than hardwired coding skills for specific operating systems or software platforms.

First, the Raspberry Pi movement is enabling richer interaction between programming and hardware. This is especially so with the Internet of Things. (For a related example, witness the Bigshot camera).

Second, Circuit Bending is finding ways to repurpose otherwise antiquated hardware that still contain reusable components, processors and circuit boards.

Third, some inventive musicians and programmers are resuscitating recent and premature digital antiques, such as Rex The Dog‘s re-use of the Casio CZ-230S synthesizer and its Memory Tapes to remix their first single, and humbleTUNE‘s creation of an app that can be retrofitted to the original Nintendo Gameboy.

These trends remind me of those Radio Shack and Tandy electronics kits I had as a child, which taught me how to assemble simple circuits and connect them to hardware. (And let’s not forget that toys like LEGO and Meccano started incorporating motors, electronics, processors and robotics into their kits many years ago.)

 5. Salvaging the Future

Finally, as mentioned above, built-in digital obsolescence creates e-waste of the future. A few recycling schemes do exist, but we need to do a better job of reclaiming not just the data archives contained in those old disks, drives and displays, but also the materials from which they are made.

* My thanks to Donald Farmer of Qlik for including this in his recent presentation in Melbourne.

Next week: #FinTech – what’s next?