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Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

The Eyes Have It

December 16, 2014 | by

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Odilon Redon’s The Cyclops (detail), ca. 1914.

Philip K. Dick was born on this day in 1928. His story “The Eyes Have It” originally appeared in Science Fiction Stories 1953, but since the copyright wasn’t renewed, it’s lapsed into the public domain. “A little whimsy, now and then, makes for good balance,” the magazine’s editors wrote then. “Theoretically, you could find this type of humor anywhere. But only a topflight science-fictionist, we thought, could have written this story, in just this way … ”

It was quite by accident I discovered this incredible invasion of Earth by lifeforms from another planet. As yet, I haven’t done anything about it; I can’t think of anything to do. I wrote to the Government, and they sent back a pamphlet on the repair and maintenance of frame houses. Anyhow, the whole thing is known; I’m not the first to discover it. Maybe it’s even under control.

I was sitting in my easy-chair, idly turning the pages of a paperbacked book someone had left on the bus, when I came across the reference that first put me on the trail. For a moment I didn’t respond. It took some time for the full import to sink in. After I’d comprehended, it seemed odd I hadn’t noticed it right away.

The reference was clearly to a nonhuman species of incredible properties, not indigenous to Earth. A species, I hasten to point out, customarily masquerading as ordinary human beings. Their disguise, however, became transparent in the face of the following observations by the author. It was at once obvious the author knew everything. Knew everything—and was taking it in his stride. The line (and I tremble remembering it even now) read: Read More »

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The Iconography of the Future, and Other News

December 3, 2014 | by

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Ron Cobb’s Semiotic Standard for All Commercial Trans-Stellar Utility Lifter and Heavy Element Transport Spacecraft, ca. 1979.

  • “There remain subjects aside from storytelling that the novel might continue to pursue profitably—subjects that weren’t exhausted in the nineteenth century. A few that come to my mind: interpersonal ethics; the varieties of form conscience takes in individual psyches; the difficulty of getting along with others; the qualities of mind that meaningfully distinguish one person from another … Whatever else it’s done, contemporary life hasn’t obviated these kinds of questions any more than it has rendered the novel incapable of addressing them.”
  • On Cubism and an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “What happened in Paris in the seven years up to 1914 can be thanked or blamed for almost anything you like in the later art of the century … ”
  • The Swedes knew how to design a great cemetery: Skogskyrkogården, built in the early twentieth century, fuses the classical and the modernist. “The cemetery showed the twentieth century a way forward. It showed that design could be in touch with the deepest roots of European civilization without being enslaved to old architectural languages … It transcended its time in a way that very few other works of modernism could manage.”
  • The typesetting of the future: How do sci-fi movies find fonts and visuals that seem believably vatic? Alien, for example, boasts a production design that’s “a perfect example of used-future chic.” It also features an entire iconography designed by Ron Cobb: the Semiotic Standard for All Commercial Trans-Stellar Utility Lifter and Heavy Element Transport Spacecraft.
  • These are a few of the sex acts no longer legally filmable by UK pornographers: “spanking,” “aggressive whipping,” “urolagnia (known as ‘water sports’).”

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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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