This morning, io9 demonstrated that in addition to putting out an awe-inspiring blog every day, they could also put on a mind-expanding Comic Con panel. With no Hollywood celebrities and just a couple of special guests, our favorite sci-fi bloggers ran through the TV shows, movies, comics and books of the past year that “blew our minds without blowing up any giant robots.”
Here are a few of their recommendations:
Moon -Duncan Jones’s new movie topped the list for both Annalee Newitz and Meredith Woerner. Like a lot of the works recommended by the panel, Moon explores what it means to be human in a rapidly approaching era where humanity can be technologically upgraded or artificially created (note: this is not a spoiler, the lead character realizes very early in the film that he is a clone).
Julian Comstock – In this novel, Robert Charles Wilson depicts a 22nd century American that has sunk into barbarism and theocracy. In response, the hero undermines the regime in part through trying to popularize ideas about Darwin in a world that has forgotten about science.
Rest – What if someone invented a pill that meant no one would ever have to sleep, with no adverse side effects? Panel guest Bonnie Burton from StarWars.com picked the Devil’s Due comic Rest, which explores this idea and its implications on society, the environment and mental health.
Wonton Soup – James Stokoe’s comic, recommended by Graeme McMillan, investigates what humans would do if they had to be out in space for a really long time. Apparently the answers are get high and cook alien recipes.
Infoquake – io9 editor Charlie Jane Anders picked a series of novels by David Louis Edelman. In Edelman’s future, people can hack and upgrade their own bodies and brains, impacting human relations in both the literal and business senses of the phrase.
Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong made science-fiction geeks out of everyone. Without waxing too poetic, it was the moment when decades—if not centuries—of dreams about going to new worlds became a reality. With all due respect to Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, Armstrong’s step onto an actual extraterrestrial surface was the first real space travel, in the sense of going somewhere. For a short while, there actually was a man on the moon.
Given the awesomeness of science non-fiction that year, I might almost expect it to be a down year for science fiction. Not so. 1969 had some good sci-fi—maybe not as good as landing on the moon, but damn good nonetheless.
It was, for example, the year Billy Pilgrim came unstuck in time. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut challenged the idea that sci-fi wasn’t an appropriate genre for high-brow “literary-fiction” writers, tradition that has carried forward to become the “counter factual” fiction (sci-fi by any other name…) of writers like Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon. It was also the year Ursula K. LeGuin explored gender and identity in Left Hand of Darkness, and Michael Crichton scared the bejesus out of everyone with his mutated virus in The Andromeda Strain. Ray Bradbury published a collection of short stories in I Sing the Body Electric (the title story of which became The Electric Grandmother), and Isaac Asimov collected some of his best stories in Nightfall and other Stories.
There’s a scene in Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age in which a young hat-thief is being tried in the court of Judge Fang. The judge’s assistant enters the room at the start of the trial and ceremoniously unrolls a meter-by-meter square of paper on a low black table, and it becomes the center of action in the trial. The piece of paper is actually a display device that can access government cameras, graphs, and text, and can receive input from the user via finger-touch or a stylus. It is a most remarkable device and frankly, I’ve wanted one ever since.
It’s now looking like I might get one sooner than you’d think.
We seem to be striding toward that particular future with impressive speed. One could make the case that laptops represent our first faltering steps in that direction, but I say Amazon’s Kindle represents the next leap forward. Wafer thin and with its low battery consumption and low-eye-strain reflective surface, it marks a huge leap toward blending the benefits of paper with those of computers. But that’s only the beginning of what’s happening out there in Science Land.
Science fiction author J.G. Ballard died yesterday, aged 78. While most people know of Ballard as the author of the autobiographical Empire of the Sun, which was turned into a movie of the same name, Ballard was the creator of a number of relentlessly dystopic books and short stories. These haunting works were often set in times and places where worldly devastation was reflected in the equally scarred psyches of many of his characters. In a manner reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft, he portrayed humans as insignificant beings in a universe filled with terrible forces–civilization was a game of pretend that could come screeching to a halt at any moment. Unlike Lovecraft however, the forces that could irrevocably alter someone’s life overnight were not supernatural in origin—they were generally human or natural forces, amped up to apocalyptic proportions—floods, winds, wars, buildings, cars, and so on. (In choosing environmental and ecological disasters as the engine of many his apocalypses in a time when nuclear war was armageddon of choice, Ballard proved to be well ahead of the curve.) Reading Ballard was always a somewhat uncomfortable experience, but his willingness to explore the dark underbelly of technology and future will be sadly missed.
Image from Wikipedia
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).
One of the best publishers in the space business, Apogee Books, has just come out with The Saucer Fleet, by Jack Hagerty and Jon Rogers. This book is a follow on to the authors’ well-regarded Spaceship Handbook, and focuses on the fictional armada of flying saucers that dominated comics, movies and television during the 50’s and 60’s.
With a foreword by DISCOVER’s very own Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, The Saucer Fleet dissects in great detail flying saucers from classic productions such as This Island Earth, Forbidden Planet and The Invaders, and looks at their impact on the audiences of the day. As well as a detailed synopses of the movie or show and extensive production notes giving the history and background of how each fictional saucer was brought to life, the authors also use frame-by-frame analyses to create engineering diagrams of saucer exteriors and interiors (often struggling with the fact that the interior set designers didn’t care overly much about matching up with the scale shown by the exterior models.) Dedicated model-builders can use these diagrams to build their own reproductions, but any science-fiction fan will get a kick out of seeing how much thought and effort went into designing these deceptively simple spacecraft that once thrilled or terrified audiences.
Sanctuary finished up its first 13-episode run last Friday in classic cliffhanger fashion, with humanity on the verge of a war with the mostly hidden population of abnormals. The show had a strong first season (personally, the show had me when it brought on Nikola Tesla as a character. Tesla frequently makes cameos on science fiction shows as some kind of genius who turns out to be a century or two ahead of his time, but making him a vampire on top of everything else was a master stroke.) But turning back to the premiere, and the premise, of the show, there was an early scence where Helen Magnus, the central character of Sanctuary, tries to describe what she does to her bemused soon-to-be-protege Will Zimmerman. She claims to be a student of teratology, which she explains as the science of monsters. Now, in his recently published book Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, Mark S. Blumberg takes us on a tour of real-life teratology, and how understanding abnormalities is casting new light on the relationship between the genetic and non-genetic forces that shape us all.
Recently published by Nightshade Books and edited by Jonathan Strahan is Eclipse Two, an anthology of original science fiction and fantasy stories. While I puzzled over the selection of some stories (in particular, Margo Lanagan’s Night of the Firstlings seemed to be neither science fiction nor fantasy, but just a retelling, albeit a well-crafted one, of a bible story), what I did like more than made up for any possible misfires. Stand outs for me included Alstair Reynolds’ Fury — Reynolds is best known for his novels and stories set in the Revelation Space universe, but Fury is not set in that complex milieu. Instead it’s a clever stand alone tale about a robot bodyguard who discovers he must confront some home truths. I also liked Stephen Baxter’s SETI story, Turing’s Apples, Karl Schroeder’s voyage through an incredibly imaginative zero-gravity habitat in The Hero, and Daryl Gregory’s The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm, which makes a strong point about collateral damage without being preachy or predictable.
There’s a lot going on in January for science fiction fans—the start of the last ten episodes of Battlestar Galactica, the series finale of Stargate Atlantis*, the release of Outlander (which is either going to be embarrassingly bad or Totally Awesome) and more. Io9 has put together a handy day-by-day breakdown of January so you can buy your movie tickets, set your DVR, and get in line at the comic-book store at the right time.
*The nice people at SciFi sent me a screener of the last two episodes, and I can tell you now the penultimate episode of Stargate Atlantis on January 2nd is one of their cleverest ever in terms of storytelling.