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

Eileen Agar – My Brush With Surrealism

When I was a teenager, I kept a scrapbook of newspaper and magazine clippings, mostly relating to art, film, music and design. There was no particular theme, other than images that caught my eye. Sometimes, choices were triggered by things I had watched on TV, heard on the radio or seen at exhibitions. But there was one photograph which I cut out for no other reason than it mentioned Surrealism, featuring the artist Eileen Agar standing next to one of her paintings.

Eileen Agar in her studio, 1977 (Photo by David Reed) – Image sourced from The Guardian)

Although I had been interested in surrealist art for a while (probably thanks to ubiquitous reproductions of Dali and Magritte), I don’t think I had heard the name Eileen Agar, nor was I aware of having seen her work. That changed, somewhat, the following year, when I visited the major retrospective of Dada and Surrealism art at London’s Hayward Gallery, where she had several pieces on display. Yet, with such a huge exhibition, I don’t recall registering the name, nor making the immediate connection with the photo I had seen some months earlier.

A few years later, I was working for Kensington & Chelsea Council, where part of my role was to assist local residents with their housing problems. One day, I received a call from a woman who was concerned about her neighbour, whom she described as the “well-known artist, Eileen Agar”. The caller thought that Ms Agar needed some assistance with her accommodation, perhaps even relocating to somewhere more suitable. Following up the call, I duly contacted Ms Agar, but when asked about her housing situation, she replied “I’m fine, thank you, as long as I have enough light to paint by.” So I respected her wish not to be bothered or troubled by the Council.

By now, the penny had dropped, and I made the connection between the name Eileen Agar, her comment about “enough light to paint by” and the photo in my scrapbook – with its enormous studio window behind her.

Soon after, I was talking to some friends who were looking for ideas that would make good subjects for TV documentaries. I suggested a couple of topics, and happened to mention Eileen Agar, who by then was probably the last surviving surrealist artist who had been directly connected to figures like Picasso, Moore, Dali, Eluard, Breton, Man Ray, Penrose et al. Certainly, she was one of the few women included in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936.

Eventually, that idea turned into a documentary, called “Colour of Dreams” directed by Susanna White, originally broadcast in 1989. It formed part of Channel 4’s series “Five Women Painters”, with an accompanying book of the same name. Ms Agar was the only artist of the five still living at the time, and was guest of honour at the preview screening I was fortunate enough to attend.

Ironically, despite not receiving the same level of recognition that most of her male counterparts did during their lifetimes, Ms Agar attracted quite a lot of attention in her final years. Apart from being included in the TV series, she was the subject of a significant retrospective exhibition, and published her autobiography, before she passed away in 1991.

On my first visit to Auckland Art Gallery a few years ago, I was reminded again of that tangential connection, when I saw Ms Agar’s mixed media collage called “Tree of Knowledge”. Within the context of a modest collection of European surrealism, this was a significant work, and immediately recalled that original cutting.

(Sadly, unless it tours Australia, I won’t get to see the current Whitechapel show, “Angel of Anarchy”.)

Next week: Getting out of town

Synchronicity

I’m not sure I fully subscribe to Jung’s theory of Synchronicity, where causally unrelated events occur at the same time, and seemingly take on a significant meaning; in many cases, a coincidence is just that. But recently I have been forced to consider the possibility that maybe Jung was right.

Over the past few months, I have been reading the 12 novels that comprise Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”. Although I had never read them before, the books were familiar to me through a BBC Radio adaptation broadcast between 1979 and 1982, and a UK television mini-series from 1997.

Last weekend, and quite unrelated, a friend posted some music on-line – recordings made by the band we were in during the early 1980s. One of the tracks was a song I had written at that time, and whose title had been inspired by Powell’s magnum opus. But I hadn’t listened to or thought about this song for nearly 40 years.

Separately, and also by coincidence, in the last couple of days I have been listening to “The New Anatomy of Melancholy”, another BBC Radio series that draws its inspiration (and title) from Robert Burton’s 17th century tract on mood disorders. This series was first broadcast in May 2020 – no doubt prompted by the onset of the global pandemic, with its lock-downs, self-isolation and increased anxiety. And now the programme is being repeated, exactly 400 years after the publication of Burton’s original treatise – and at a time when we need his sage advice more than ever.

Until now, I hadn’t appreciated how self-absorbed (obsessed?) Powell’s narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, is by Burton – he even ends up publishing an academic text about this prescient Elizabethan writer. On one level, Jenkins is a proxy for his literary hero (as well as being Powell’s alter ego), and much of the 12-novel sequence is a response to Burton’s analysis on the causes of, and cures for, melancholia.

All of which may or may not prove Jung’s theory, but there is for me something of a personal thread between Powell, a song I wrote, and the BBC’s recent update on Burton.

Next week: The Last Half-Mile

Cancel or Recalibrate?

In the wake (sic) of wokeness and cancel culture, it was interesting to read that Disney has decided to add a health warning of “negative depictions of cultures” to re-runs of the Muppet Show. So rather than cancel these programmes, it has chosen to (re-)contextualise the content for a contemporary audience.

I don’t have a problem with this type of labelling, or indeed on any other content, if it helps to aid understanding, generate debate, and acknowledge past lapses of taste or judgement. Especially as programmes like the Muppet Show were huge in the heyday of mass-market network television, before cable and streaming fragmented audiences into pre-defined sub-genres and segregated demographics.

Indeed, I’ve grown used to similar health warnings attached to re-runs of many BBC radio dramas, from the 1950s through to the 1980s, when “social attitudes were somewhat different to today”.

But, if we continue along those lines, should we be applying similar health warnings to Shakespeare’s plays, Greek tragedies, French farces, Norse legends, European folklore as told by the Brothers Grimm, or Roman accounts of gladiatorial victories over their hapless victims?

In which case, I look forward to the same contextualisation (and health warnings) of any programmes that quote, cite, promote or reference key religious texts, most of which were written hundreds and thousands of years ago, yet which similarly offend our current values and societal norms.

Next week – Facebook and that news ban