Star Wars, A.I., The Six Million Dollar Man, Star Trek and a host of other science-fiction films all share a particular futurist’s dream: a broken body is repaired with artificial replacements. Reality is finally catching up with our imaginations. Stem cells, mind-controlled arms, osso-integrated prostheses, exoskeletons, and xenotransplants are here. It’s important to note that most of these innovations are right on the cutting edge, either experimental, prohibitively expensive, or both. Individually they each may seem like small or too esoteric to matter, but as a whole, it looks like we’re on our way to a very cyborg future.
Rex Bionics has created what will be a commercially available set of robotic exoskeleton legs. The only currently existing set, custom built for Hayden Allen, allow him to walk up and down stairs and take awesome, super-mecha pictures like the one above. In an interview, he talks about basic quality of life issues (blood circulation, knowing when you have to go to the bathroom) that come from being ambulatory. Take that, paralysis!
Though Thor is the story of a god who crushes his enemies with a magical hammer, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor movie is set in a scientific universe. Or so it seemed from footage we saw this weekend, especially of Destroyer.
Branagh, whose previous films include Frankenstein and Dead Again, is known for over-the-top theatricality and an emphasis on acting in his films. The 3D Thor is no exception, especially since the director says he loved Thor growing up and has even worked to include different versions of the first Avenger in his film. Though the hero’s iconic hammer is pure Jack Kirby, Branagh assured the audience that “there are some Donald Blake touches” too.
Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster, a minor character in the comics who has a very large role in the movie. She called her character a rare “real, frazzled, grounded female scientist – not the low-cut lab coat and sexy glasses kind of thing.” She added that she was happy to get back in front of a green screen with an actor-oriented director like Branagh, because “working with green screens is a skill – it should be something you learn in acting school.”
Colonel Quaritch and his exoskeleton from Avatar
Science fiction is sometimes a playground to explore what it would be like to have a different body. Most recently, in Avatar and Iron Man 2 we saw people joined to exoskeletons, which are being developed in real life for the military and for rehabilitation. The biomechanics of these exoskeletons are a close mimic of our own but with much more power or size. In Avatar, we also witnessed people experience the novelty of inhabiting a three-meter-tall blue body with movable ears and a neural interface that conveniently doubles as a tail.
But why wait for the shapeshifting future? Corsets and girdles are the best known types of “foundation garments” or “shapewear,” but for me at least, they are more Jane Eyre than Madonna, despite the latter’s use of them in her performances over the past twenty years.
For those who actually use shapewear on a day-to-day basis, the most common types must be the padded bra and shoulder pads. But the past week highlighted two new ways of changing the shape of our body. The first was in a Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Dodes on padded panties that promise to give Beyoncé-level gluteus maximi to the large behind-inclined; the second is from Sylvester Stallone’s comment that “action movies changed radically when it became possible to Velcro your muscles on.”
The Eyjafjallajökull eruption as seen by NASA’s Terra satellite
In theory, geoengineering seems like the ideal remedy for our climate ills. Some white reflective roofs here, a little ocean fertilization there, a few simulated volcanic eruptions, and voilà! you have a potential fix for one of the world’s most intractable problems.
But there’s good reason to believe that many of these proposed schemes would prove much costlier to the planet over both the short- and long-term than more mainstream approaches to addressing climate change—and leave a number of critical problems, like ocean acidification, in the lurch.
Take the injection of sulfate aerosol particles into the stratosphere, which I alluded to earlier. The idea would be to recreate the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption by blanketing the sky with a thin layer of particles that would reflect a fraction of incoming sunlight back into space. For this method to put a crimp on greenhouse warming, studies estimate that it would have to cut solar radiation by roughly 1.8 percent—not an easy feat by any means, but not entirely out of the question either.
Ray Bradbury is the last living of the great early titans of science fiction, now that Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke have passed. He said he’s attended every Comic-Con since the first one, when he went to the El Cortez Hotel and spoke to a few of the 300 attendees that year. These days, 125,000 people turn out for Comic-Con every year, and I had to wait 30 minutes to get in to see Bradbury speak. He’ll be 90 in August, and he’s hard of hearing, but he’s still sharp, and he’s forgotten nothing.
The Bradbury panel featured Bradbury talking to his biographer, Sam Weller. I’m just going to share select quotes from his remarks. These are in order, but incomplete.
“The Internet to me is a great big goddamn stupid bore.”
“I got a call from a man who wanted to publish my books on the Internet. I told him, prick up your ears and go to hell.”
[Bradbury has met most, if not all, of the Apollo and Gemini astronauts.]
“All those astronauts had read the Martian Chronicles. When they were young men, they read my books and decided they wanted to become astronauts.”
Comic-Con gathered together the world’s top zombie experts not named George Romero to talk zombies. Unsurprisingly, they see our favorite brain-eating shamblers in radically different ways. I cobbled together their comments from throughout the panel to paint a picture for how each writer imagines zombies.
Max Brooks (World War Z): “Fast versus slow? Slow zombies are based on the hypothetical mobility scenario of necrotic flesh subjugated to high impact energy… and fast zombies suck.”
“The whole thing about zombies was the sheer size of the problem. The whole thing about monsters is you have to make a personal choice to go find them…you have to make a choice. With zombies, they come to you, and there is no safe place. That’s thing about zombies is they are global, it is big, it is all-encompassing. You could still make the right decisions, they would come for you, and it didn’t matter if you were a hot chick or a token black guy, you were dead.”
Mira Grant (Newsflesh Trilogy): “Zombies are humans enhanced chemically or by virus. Undead flesh eaters cannot be considered zombies. Only virologically or chemically enhanced humans can hold their heads high under the zombie name, preferably to better chew on your throat. I would posit they’d begin fast, then be reduced to the traditional zombie shamble, respirating the whole time.”
Carla Speed McNeil writes the Finder graphic novels, a work that in many ways blends science fiction and fantasy. With a hybrid work, she’s had to confront some of the definitional questions of the genres:
• Superhero comics are not SciFi. They’re stories of emotion and character embroidered with these scientific ideas.
• Fantasy and Sci-fi are both speculative fiction, but approached from different angles. Where Sci-fi builds on physics and chemistry and the laws of nature, fantasy, when done well, draws from the “softer sciences” (McNeil’s phrase) like sociology and anthropology. When I think about the fantasy novels I’ve read, at least the good ones, I think she’s spot on. Also, by this rule, superhero stories like Spider-Man and Superman are works of fantasy, not works of science fiction.
• I asked her thoughts on the question of breaking the rules that I raised in yesterday’s post. She pretty much admitted that one of the big problems is that a lot of sci-fi and fantasy writers simply don’t know the rules of science well enough to know when they’re breaking the rules. But she also agreed with Zack Stentz, in that she said she obeys “the rule of cool”: If it’s cool, you can break the rule. The art of the writing is making the rule-breaking not off-putting or boring.
A quick note for McNeil fans, she recently signed with Dark Horse Comics after years of self-publishing. She said the relationship is great so far, but still new. It’ll be interesting to see how or if the books change.
Here at Comic-Con 2010 it is a standard and recurring complaint that the event has been taken over by branding: An event that started out as a grass-roots gathering of comic-book culture has been overrun by corporate money, corporate product, and above all corporate advertising. Sure, it’s easy to see what they mean. The entire exterior of my Hilton hotel is covered with an ad for Scott Pilgrim (“an epic of epic epicness” — it’s a comic, soon to be a game and a major motion picture starring Michael Cera). The hotel elevators are wallpapered with promos for True Blood. Other buildings are draped in similarly vast posters for the game Red Faction and the upcoming movie Skyline.
The overall effect is a little overwhelming. It is also kind of…awe-inspiring.
Spring boarding from Amos’ post on Thursday’s Discover panel, I want to delve into some unexplored tension. The panel focused on how science could make storytelling better, and it included a mix of scientists and TV writers.
Jamie Paglia (Co-creator of Eureka) conceded that sometimes he’s had to “stretch the boundaries a little thin for my comfort zone,” and he was somewhat abashed thinking of those moments. But Fringe producer Zach Stentz threw down the gauntlet.
“Sometimes you have to break the rules to tell the story you want to tell,” he said, and ran a Fringe clip in which Olivia and Peter realize that Bell has extracted memories from Walter’s brain by removing actual pieces of Walter’s brain.
“He literally had his memories removed,” Stentz said. “We knew when we wrote it that memories aren’t stored in a discrete portion of your brain.”
Which I thought was a pretty direct challenge to Kevin Grazier, Sean Carroll, and Phil Plait, all scientists trying to make the case that accurate science can ratchet up the tension and provide a more satisfying resolution.
Alas, the argument never got going, and it left me wondering: where’s the line between acceptable and unacceptable scientific rule breaking?
Sure scientists enjoy the first Iron Man movie. They’re human beings after all, and that was a pretty decent movie. But I would never have expected scientists to love it for…well, for its approach to science.
“Our favorite part was the testing,” he said at the panel. “You know the part where he tries out the rocket boots, and he turns them on at like 10% and gets thrown onto the roof of car? We cracked up because that’s exactly what happens.”
Obviously, Street was joking, but his point was that Iron Man was one of the few movies to offer a smatter of realism in how science gets done: Have an idea, test it, have it not work right, try again.