We don’t normally cover fantasy on Science Not Fiction, but I thought I’d make an exception for tonight’s premiere of Kröd Mandöon and The Flaming Sword of Fire on Comedy Central at 10/9c. If Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Bored of the Rings are your thing, this new parody of the fantasy genre is worth a look.
In Robin Hood fashion, the insecure hero, Kröd Mandöon (played by Sean Maguire), leads the struggle against the evil rule of Dongalor, a local king with big ambitions. Kröd is aided by a none-too-bright pig-man, an utterly ineffective wizard, the very gay Bruce, and his sexually liberated pagan warrior girlfriend. (A note on these last two characters—there’s a very fine line between ironically parodying how women or homosexuals are portrayed in a genre, and simply exploiting stereotypes anew. Once established, I hope these characters are given room to grow.) Not surprisingly, the funniest character so far (I’ve only seen the premiere episode) is the villainous Donglar, played by Matt Lucas of Little Britain fame. Lucas chews up the scenery, and plays perfectly off his trusted advisor Barnabus, the closest thing the show has to a straight man. It’ll be interesting to see if the show can sustain the humor of its premise over the course of an entire series, but I’m looking forward to seeing how these characters play out.
How often does the techno-babble utterly fail? Seriously, how often does a TV scientist explain a mysterious new phenomenon, McGyver together a device to tap it/diffuse it–and then totally strike out?
I can’t think of any, (eliminating of course, those inevitable mid-episode first attempts, where the cast has often overlooked some crucial piece of the puzzle that they figure out by the end), except perhaps for a failed attempt to stop an epidemic on an episode of Babylon 5 way back in 1995. But that’s the kind of cliche-breaking madness we’re coming to expect from Fringe. In last night’s episode (warning, spoilers follow!), our heroes were faced with the inexplicable presence of a boy who had somehow survived for 70 years in a sealed underground vault. The boy was mute, though he seemed to understand English well enough, so our resident mad scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (literally mad. Non-fans may not know, but he was in a psychiatric hospital for years) donned his white lab coat and got to work. His neuro stimulator (“What can’t it do?”) was supposed to read the boy’s brainwaves and convert them to speech, but aside from a voice-like noise, it simply didn’t work. And then…the plot moved on. No more neurostimulator. On with the show!
But I do wish someone had at least given poor Dr. Bishop a nice sip of cognac and a there-there pat. Science is nowhere near achieving what he was trying to achieve. Read More
Back in 1992, I spent most of my free time playing albums by The Pixies on an endless loop while running through the seemingly equally endless mazes of Wolfenstein 3D, a fact that may have contributed to my less than stellar grades in college that year. But Wolfenstein was something special—a game that, almost overnight, spawned a new genre of video game, the first person shooter. Play Halo or Call of Duty today and you’re playing a game that can trace a line of descent right back to Wolfenstein 3D.
Just a short note to say that if you’re one of those people who haven’t liked the pace of the current season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, then make sure you get caught up, because Friday’s night’s episode paid off for faithful viewers with not just one of the best episodes of the series, but one of the most memorable episodes of televised science fiction, period. This Friday’s episode is the season finale, and with the show’s current breakneck momentum, it looks to be a can’t miss. Here’s hoping the show gets picked up for another season.
Over on 80 beats, my colleague Eliza Strickland points out some interesting research on an autonomous laboratory. A group of four networked computers connected to a range of lab equipment was left alone to tease out some aspects of yeast genetics. The computers came up with some hypotheses about how various genes operated, then came up with experiments to test these hypotheses out. The upshot was a number of minor, but worthwhile, advances in our knowledge of yeast biology.
Teaching a computer how to learn is a perennial topic in artificial intelligence research, and one that’s long been mined in science fiction. The moment when the computer demonstrates it has learned how to learn is usually a pretty significant moment in any story it’s in, not least because it is one of the Laws Of Science Fiction that once a computer has started to learn, it will continue to learn at an ever accelerating rate. (A corollary of this Law states that if the computer isn’t already self-aware, sentience will arise by the end of the next chapter or act at the very latest.) Interestingly, the “My God! It’s learnt how to learn!” moment seems to be dwelt on by movie and TV shows (Wargames, Colossus, Terminator 3) much more than it crops up in literary science fiction. In literary science fiction, artificial intelligence is often simply presented as fait accompli. So does anyone have recommendations for a good literary treatment of the birth of an A.I.? (Frederic Brown’s 1954 short-short story “Answer” is of course taken as a given classic of the genre).
On this day in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey was released (watch the original trailer). Even though not everyone might agree (Phil, I’m looking at you), 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time, both for it’s ambitious story and its groundbreaking visuals. Even after four decades the special effects are holding their own (mostly — there are a few obvious cardboard cut-outs in orbit), and the movie still sets the bar for its realistic depiction of space hardware, and life in space.
Alas, the year 2001 has come and gone without moon bases, or privately operated orbital shuttles, but we’re getting there — the International Space Station may not have a Hilton, or rotate to provide artificial gravity, but at least it did just get its last major array of solar panels in place. And although PanAm Airways doesn’t exist any more, let alone the Orion III Space Clipper, private spaceflight did take a step forward recently with successful test flights of WhiteKnight Two, the launch vehicle for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo private suborbital spacecraft.
2001: A Space Odyssey‘s influence on later science fiction is impossible to underestimate, and the balletic spacecraft scenes set to sweeping classical music, the tarantula-soft tones of HAL 9000, and the ultimate alien artifact, the Monolith, have all become enduring cultural icons in their own right. Still, for those barbarians who find the measured pace of the masterpiece a little slow, check out this awesome one minute version of the movie. In Lego.