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Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

The Camera Wins by Being Honest

October 8, 2014 | by

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Image via X-Tra

Richard Sharpe Shaver is best remembered as a controversial sci-fi writer—in the late 1940s, his pieces in Amazing Stories made outlandishly specific claims about evil ancient civilizations, and it became progressively clearer that Shaver didn’t regard these stories as fiction. Toward the end of his life, Shaver spent his time elaborating an arcane theory about “rock books”; in certain stones, he avowed, one could find intricate pictographic texts inscribed by the hyperadvanced races of millennia past. As the art quarterly X-Tra has it, Shaver believed he’d begun to decode the texts of “a whole prehistoric Atlantean library”:

Shaver accessed the rock books by cutting through stone with a saw to reveal a world of imagery within the fissures. “Humans figures [sic] are distorted by saw-cut as well as by wrong lenses—but recognizable. The enigma of man’s past does not need to be an enigma.” This statement, handwritten in blue ball-point pen on thin typewriter bond, floats to the right of an oculus cut into the paper, which reveals beneath a photograph of what appears to be a random black and white pattern. In fact, Shaver believed the pattern was a holographic picture created thousands of years ago by an advanced ancient technology.

It can feel voyeuristic to dwell on the remnants of lunacy—like gaping at the crazies on the subway—but Shaver’s devotion and imagination provoke a strange empathy. As Brian Tucker writes in an excellent summary for Cabinet, “Despite poverty and virtually unremitting scorn, Shaver continued this work until his death in November 1975.” A few years ago, Tucker curated an exhibit including some of Shaver’s papers and theories:

The pictorial content that Shaver identified in these rocks is dense and complex. Different images reveal themselves at every angle of view and every level of magnification; pictures mingle with ancient graphic symbols and typography in what he called “the most fascinating exhibition of virtuosity in art existent on earth” … Discouraged by critics who charged that the figures pictured in his paintings were mere fabrications from his own imagination, he eventually abandoned painting in favor of the relative objectivity of photographic documentation. In an unpublished manuscript, Shaver writes, “If I hadn’t been an artist most of my life, I would have realized that people will believe photos, and won’t believe drawings or paintings … The camera wins, by being honest … which doesn’t say much for artists’ honesty, I guess. We try … but people think we lie.”

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Instagram Meets the Death Wish, and Other News

October 1, 2014 | by

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Richard Prince’s show, “New Portraits.” Photo: the Gagosian Gallery

  • Richard Prince’s latest show: his Instagram feed, ink-jet-printed on canvas. “Is it art? Of course it’s art, though by a well-worn Warholian formula: the subjective objectified and the ephemeral iconized, in forms that appear to insult but actually conserve conventions of fine art … Possible cogent responses to the show include naughty delight and sincere abhorrence. My own was something like a wish to be dead—which, say what you want about it, is the surest defense against assaults of postmodernist attitude.”
  • You can probably guess where Louise Erdrich, who’s just won the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, comes down on the controversial logo of a certain NFL franchise: “It’s more than a stereotype, it’s an insult … It’s more of the same disregard for basic human dignity.”
  • Nell Zink sees the sights at the World Science Fiction Convention: “In one room, old folks discussing how society might function if rulers were programmed to be wise (Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels); in the next, young people defiantly setting the conditions under which they will watch TV.”
  • One way (perhaps not the best way) to liven up your history of classical philosophy: fill it with puns. “Once Adamson has spotted a pun in the distance, he will hunt it down and pry it from whatever linguistic comforts it may have once enjoyed … We can never prepare ourselves for ‘like a giraffe, Parmenides seems to be sticking his neck out too far.’ ”
  • “The rooms that hold the Museum of Natural History’s famous dioramas are vast and dimly lit. The dioramas themselves shine like stages in a darkened theater … That hushed public place is the private secret of every child in New York, I think.”

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The Brothers 40K

September 24, 2014 | by

War game as money pit.

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Ork Boyz from a recent version of Warhammer 40,000.

When you’re growing up, having a brother close to you in age means you’re never alone. There’s someone to share your clothes and chores, your blame and punishment, and, as was my case, your bedroom—my brother and I were together even in a state of sleepy unconsciousness. The second of my two oldest brothers predates me by a mere ten and a half months. When we were young everyone thought we were twins; even we secretly thought so for a while. A major, if less apparent, perk of our bond was that we could partake of enthusiasms we wouldn’t have wanted others to know about—not our friends, nor the girls we had crushes on, nor anyone, really.

The summer before high school we stumbled on something unbelievably uncool. If we hadn’t had each other for company, I like to think we wouldn’t have given the endeavor a second thought. We had our reputations to uphold, after all. His was being cool—he was a drummer in a punk band whose members, including a female bass player he would later start dating, were much older than he was. My brother drank a can of Mountain Dew every morning for breakfast and wanted everyone to know about it. I had considerably less to lose: I awkwardly straddled the world of jocks and skateboarders, with mixed results. But since my brother and I had each other, we found no reason to limit our interests, however obscure, unpopular, or geeky they may have appeared, and however much they might have jeopardized us in the eyes of our peers.

The pursuit I speak of is Warhammer 40,000, a dystopian, futuristic tabletop war game set in the forty-first millennium, a combination of Risk and Dungeons & Dragons with a sci-fi twist. Read More »

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The Future According to Stanisław Lem

September 12, 2014 | by

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A still from The Congress, a new film adaptation of Lem’s 1971 novella The Futurological Congress.

In his 1971 novella The Futurological Congress, the Polish science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem describes a group of futurologists who have gathered at the Hilton Hotel in Costa Rica to stave off planetary disaster. Overpopulation and resource depletion are at crisis levels; famine and political collapse are just around the corner. Even before the conference begins, events take an ominous turn. Guerrillas kidnap the American consul and start mailing in body parts, demanding the release of political prisoners. As Professor Dringenbaum of Switzerland explains how humanity will soon resort to cannibalism, rioting breaks out in the streets. In response, the Costa Rican government deploys new types of chemical weapons, intended to make the rebels docile and peace-loving. They induce feelings of empathy and euphoria, and come with names like “Felicitine” and “Placidol.” Planes barrage the city with LTN, or “Love Thy Neighbor” bombs.

Among the conference attendees is Ijon Tichy, an unflappable cosmic adventurer with the habit of getting into outlandish scrapes. Having inadvertently received a premature dose of the drugs through the hotel’s tap water, Tichy has the foresight to take refuge from the bliss-inducing crackdown in the building’s sewer system. Nevertheless, he winds up inhaling a near-lethal dose of psychotropic chemicals and tumbles down a dark rabbit hole of hallucinations. When he finally wakes up in the year 2039, after having been cryogenically frozen for decades, he finds a world where such substances have ceased to be used for crowd control and have become, instead, a way of life.

The novella—masterfully translated by Michael Kandel and recently adapted as The Congress, a part-live action, part-animated movie by the Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman—is more a satire than a poker-faced dystopia. Rather than solving its problems, humanity learns to mask them using comically sophisticated pharmaceuticals. In the “psychemized” future, you can take drugs like “gospelcredendium” to have a religious experience, and “equaniminine” to dispel it. Books are no longer read but eaten; they can be bought at the psychedeli, a kind of one-stop psychem superstore. For a friendly conversation there’s “sympathine” and “amicol,” for an unfriendly one “invectine” and “recriminol.” Even acts of violence and revenge are sublimated into ingestible form.

Folman’s movie adopts this premise, but reframes it as a critique of the entertainment industry. Instead of Ijon Tichy, the movie’s main character is the actress Robin Wright, who plays a fictional version of herself. At first, studio executives want to scan her to create a digital avatar that will take over all of her roles. Twenty years and a switch to animation later, they want to produce a drug that will enable anyone to “be” Robin Wright, or at least to believe that they are. The Congress itself is a Hollywood bash celebrating the new age of chemical entertainment, rather than an academic conference on humanity’s doom. As in Lem’s novella, however, this future promises not social and scientific progress, but technological hedonism and senescence. Read More »

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So Vivid You Can’t Get Free of Them

August 22, 2014 | by

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Ray Bradbury

Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story.
—Ray Bradbury, the Art of Fiction No. 203, 2010

Ray Bradbury would be ninety-four today—for more on his Art of Fiction interview, be sure to read “Fact-checking Ray Bradbury,” by our own Stephen Andrew Hiltner. And for proof of Bradbury’s metaphorical gifts, check out “All Summer in a Day,” a 1954 story published in the commonsensically named The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s conceptually unforgettable and, among the stories of his I’ve read, uniquely haunting.

“All Summer” takes place in a school on Venus, or rather, the Venus of the future—humans have colonized the planet. Problem is, Venus is rainy. All the time. “A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again.” The sun shines for only two hours (consecutive, fortunately) every seven years. And in this drenched Venusian schoolhouse, where all the descendants of the rocket men and women presumably suffer from constant Seasonal Affective Disorder and severe vitamin D deficiencies, there’s one girl, Margot, who remembers the glories of sunshine: Read More »

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A Rookery of Pterodactyls

May 22, 2014 | by

In celebration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday, have a look at these illustrations from the original serialization of his novel The Lost World, which appeared in The Strand Magazine from April through November of 1912. Conan Doyle’s novel tells of an expedition to South America, where—wouldn’t you know it?—dinosaurs still roam the earth. Everyone associates Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, but The Lost World also left its mark on popular culture: though Conan Doyle borrowed a large part of its conceit from Jules Verne, it remains the paradigm for a sort of swashbuckling supernatural adventure, full of bumbling professorial types and out-of-their-depth journalists and strapping, granite-abdomened men in pith helmets. It’s served as the source material for everything from The Land That Time Forgot to Land of the Lost and plain old Lost, and, of course, for Michael Crichton’s The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park.

This is no country for Jeff Goldblum, but these illustrations, full of terror and adventure, do seem like the sort of thing Steven Spielberg and George Lucas might have hanging in their offices—and there’s definitely something of that Industrial Light & Magic awe in Conan Doyle’s vivid description of a pterodactyl nest:

Creeping to his side, we looked over the rocks. The place into which we gazed was a pit, and may, in the early days have been one of the smaller volcanic blow-holes of the plateau. It was bowl-shaped, and at the bottom, some hundreds of yards from where we lay, were pools of green-scummed, stagnant water, fringed with bulrushes. It was a weird place in itself, but its occupants made it seem like a scene from the Seven Circles of Dante. The place was a rookery of pterodactyls. There were hundreds of them congregated within view. All the bottom area round the water-edge was alive with their young ones, and with hideous mothers brooding upon their leathery, yellowish eggs. From this crawling flapping mass of obscene reptilian life came the shocking clamor which filled the air and the mephitic, horrible, musty odor which turned us sick. But above, perched each upon its own stone, tall, grey, and withered, more like dead and dried specimens than actual living creatures, sat the horrible males, absolutely motionless save for the rolling of their red eyes or an occasional snap of their rat-trap beaks as a dragon-fly went past them. Their huge membranous wings were closed by folding their forearms, so that they sat like gigantic old women, wrapped in hideous web-colored shawls, and with their ferocious heads protruding above them. Large and small, not less than a thousand of these filthy creatures lay in the hollow before us.

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