It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


3 Comments

Fables of the Deconstruction, #1: Robots

All too often, people point at the tropes in a piece of fiction and use them to categorise it. This story has spaceships in it, therefore it’s science fiction; this one has elves, so it must be fantasy. One of the tropes often used to “identify” sf is the robot – well, a robot is clearly the product of technology, it’s an artificial person, a mechanical man or woman (or neither). What’s not science-fictional about that?

startling-comics-0491

The term “robot” comes from Karel Čapek’s RUR (1920), and is derived from the Czech word robota, a local form of serfdom in which serfs had to work only for a specified number of days each year for their liege. RUR was first translated into English in 1923 but, according to the OED’s Science Fiction Citations, the word’s first appearance in English wasn’t until 1925, in a novel by French-born British writer Thomas Charles Bridges, The City of No Escape. However, it was the mid-1930s before “robot” appeared in US science fiction magazines. It was then, of course, co-opted by Isaac Asimov, who wrote some forty short stories and a few novels (it’s hard to be precise as Asimov spent much of his later years trying to stitch his oeuvre into one great stupid shared future history, featuring both psychohistory and robots).

Čapek’s robota were actually biological – what are now commonly referred to as “androids” – so I’m not entirely sure why the term was adopted for purely mechanical beings. Perhaps this was because the mechanical being was an already existing trope: the automaton. (The SF Encyclopedia indicates there was a story in the November 1931 issue of Amazing titled ‘Automaton’.) But automata were real things – marvels of mechanical ingenuity, show-pieces, designed to display their inventor’s cleverness and so win them the patronage of some wealthy potentate; and they were often fake (the Mechanical Turk, for example). Automata were typically good for a single task, and in no way a replacement for a human being.

L6.1Talos

Go even further back, of course, and you have the golem, an automaton powered and controlled entirely by magic. There are also automata in Greek mythology, built by Hephaestus – such as Talos, the giant bronze man who protected the island of Europa (although it seems the clockwork owl in Clash Of The Titans is an invention of the film’s writers). But neither automata nor golems fit in with early science fiction’s burning enthusiasm for science and engineering, for technology. If electronics magazines showed readers how to build their own television sets, their readers were hardly likely to be interested in a mechanical servant which required magical incantations to operate.

robot_maid

And yes, servant – because technology exists, so these magazines would have you believe, to make life easier and more comfortable, and what could improve comfort more than a servant – to do the cooking, cleaning, laundry, fetch the mail, etc. And because these robots are servants, so they must be in the shape of a human being. Unlike real servants, however – and here lies their obvious superiority – they don’t require wages, food or rest, will always perform tasks to the high standard required, and will never be lazy, sullen, unresponsive or rebellious. In other words, robots are perfect slaves, but without offending anyone’s delicate morals. This could, however, be taken too far, as in Jack Williamson’s ‘With Folded Hands…’ (1947), in which robots do such a good job of looking after humanity that the race becomes too weak to survive without them. Or they could prove so ubiquitous that some humans might believe they were robots themselves, as in Margaret St Clair’s ‘Asking’ (1955) – although once the protagonist learns her true nature, she adopts all the arrogance of a slave-owner toward robots.

VW-Puebla-Robot

In the real world, robots are entirely different. They’re more often referred to by a name specific to their purpose, such as a Computer Numerical Controlled Machine or Autonomous Underwater Vehicle or space probe. They’re built for specific tasks, or to perform within specific spheres of operation; and programmed only for that task or for that sphere. They’re used in situations that are too dangerous for human beings – eg, AUVs and space probes – but they’re not capable of everything a human could do. Or they’re used to perform repetitive tasks more quickly, more frequently and more accurately than a human could. In such cases, building robots in the form of a human being is not an advantage.

Science fiction, however, rarely shows robots as CNC machines, AUVs or space probes, but almost always as anthropomorphic machines. (Although Star Wars didn’t – not only is R2-D2 one of the most famous robots in sf cinema, but remember the variety of robot forms in the Jawa Crawler?) The SF Encyclopedia claims robots have proven popular in sf cinema because they can be played by human actors. (These days, of course, they’re done using CGI.) But in written sf? Why this insistence on human form? Why this need to present them as mechanical humans? After all, pretending robots are human is effectively treating them as an underclass, as slaves. If they are human in all but origin – something which applies just as much to artificially-created persons, such as the title character in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, – if they are human to that degree, then to treat them as not-human is no more than scientific bigotry, it’s the sort of immoral rationalisation used by owners of slaves.

Io-robot

There are certainly science fictions featuring robots which question the morality of their existence, but they’re uncommon. Asimov used his robots to solve simplified moral conundrums, based around his Three Laws, which are themselves a moral code reduced to a single dimension – a moral code, that is, which does not question the existence or ownership of robots. Implicit in the use of anthropomorphic robots in almost every science fiction is an acceptance of slavery. And, to make matters worse, such robots are often then dehumanised – Cylons referred to as “toasters” in Battlestar Galactica, for example. Having created these ersatz people and enslaved them, they need to be reduced to the status of machines in order to justify ownership. They’re the people we demonise because we want to excuse our poor treatment of them, because we want to justify our belief that they are inferior to us. Much like the Tories are doing to the poor and unemployed in 21st Century Britain – calling them “skivers” and “scroungers”, as if it is their own fault, it is something they’ve done themselves, which means they’re not as good, not as human, as everyone else.

weapon

And speaking of Cylons, they’re another form of robot common in science fictions: the killer robot. Arguably, these sorts of robots are more common in twenty-first century science fictions (horribly old-fashioned Hugo-nominated stories by Mike Resnick notwithstanding). Robots make an excellent enemy because they are implacable – unlike humans, or even aliens, they will not stop, they cannot surrender, and you can destroy as many of them as possible without worrying about the morality of it all. Likewise, generals can sacrifice countless numbers of robots for the most trivial of gains, and it doesn’t really matter since they’re little more than smart bombs. It’s the machine-nature of war-robots that is stressed, and not their human-like qualities. Owning people, it seems, is fine in sf, but the genre still feels some small qualms at killing them in great numbers.

Of course, real robots are not people. No matter how sophisticated their programming, the code which drives them is still a series of IF and WHILE and FOR loops. Any operation they perform must be part of their programming… or they can’t do it. Even if they do have the right snazzy tool fitted to one of their manipulator arms. Smartphones are pretty damn clever devices, but no one would ever consider them more than a machine. The same is true of supercomputers, Voyager 1, Curiosity, a UAV or those dancing industrial robots in that old Volkswagen advert.

voyager

Perhaps people think there are no dramatic possibilities, other than in military sf, in robots-as-machines. Perhaps that’s why authors and film-makers have their robots look and behave like human beings. But once upon a time, science fiction’s spacecraft all used to resemble pointy rockets, of the sort painted by Chesley Bonestell in those Collier’s Magazine articles by Wernher von Braun. Look at the cover art of any late twentieth century or twenty-first century science fiction novel, however, and you’ll now see a huge variety in sizes, shapes and designs of spaceships.

What I think would be interesting would be to ditch the anthropomorphic robot, the ersatz human, with all its dodgy moral baggage, and instead treat robots as they actually are – like space probes, CNC machines, UAVs: ie, accept that they are products of their programming, they are tools, very sophisticated tools, but ones which can only perform tasks for which they have been designed and programmed. After all, it’s the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t be presenting worlds in which people, artificial or otherwise, are enslaved; we should be creating visions of the future in which technology plays a true role, is not just setting or a piece of hand-wavery used to justify magical maguffins. Far too many science fictions use genre tropes as little more than window-dressing for stories based on historical templates and loaded with historical baggage.


6 Comments

Loncon 3 and me

As you likely all know, the Worldcon this year takes place in London. So they’re calling it Loncon, the third of that name as there were previous Loncons in 1957 and 1965. It will take place from 14 to 18 August at ExCel, which is some sort of humungous exhibition centre in Docklands. It also seems it’s going to be the biggest Worldcon so far. All of which is academic as far as I’m concerned, as I won’t be going.

I did buy an attending membership, and I volunteered to be on programme items. I was asked to be on one panel, but I turned it down. It was not a topic that interested me, or one I felt could usefully contribute to. All of which is, again, pretty much moot.

There are a number of reasons why I’ve decided I’m no longer attending Loncon 3. One of them is that I had hoped to have Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows and Aphrodite Terra ready for the con. But that’s not going to happen, so I think I’d better spend the time working on them. Loncon 3 is also the weekend after a metal festival, and I doubt I could recover from one in time for the other.

There are lots of people I’d hoped to meet IRL at Loncon 3 for the first time. Back in 2005, at the Glasgow Worldcon, I remember such plans failing spectacularly – but then the “voodoo board” wasn’t very effective… These days, of course, social media and smartphones make it all so much easier. Another time, perhaps. Helsinki in 2017?


4 Comments

Moving pictures, #6

I’m not entirely sure what happened to June. It seemed to pass really quickly, without me getting much done. And July is looking like it might go the same way. But I have watched a lot of films – if only because of that damned f**tball. So while I scramble to catch up with various ongoing projects – including something a little more intelligent to post on this blog than just lists of books and films – here is a, er, list of films wot I have watched recently.

Sherlock Jr, Buster Keaton (1924, USA) Keaton is a cinema projectionist and dreams himself the hero of the film he’s showing, a murder-mystery among the wealthy, and, of course, there’s a nubile daughter, who Keaton wants to impress. There are some good gags in this, but none that matched the train journey in Our Hospitality (see here).

Wages Of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1953, France) The oil well is on fire, and the only way to put it out is using lots of nitroglycerine, but that’s stored a couple of hundred miles away at the company HQ, and the only way to get it to the wellhead is by truck. Which is, of course, really really dangerous – if not suicidal. But that’s okay because there’s loads of desperate men trapped in the nearby town, who have no jobs and not enough money to leave… The film takes a while to get going, but the drive over the mountains with two trucks full of explosives is pretty good.

Faust, Aleksandr Sokurov (2011, Russia) If Tarkovsky’s film often seem glacially-paced, then Sokurov’s are geological. But, like Tarkovsky’s, they’re also beautifully shot and observed. The title pretty much tells you all you need to know about the story of this film. The mise en scène looks fantastic, and the moneylender (ie, the devil) is horrible and creepy… a film to savour.

faust

Moscow Elegy, Aleksandr Sokurov (1987, Russia) Sokurov and Tarkovsky had been friends since film school, and this documentary was put together – from footage by Chris Marker, Tarkovsky himself (behind the scenes footage from both Nostalgia and The Sacrifice), and excerpts from Tarkovsky’s films – to be shown on Tarkovsky’s birthday in 1982. Interference by the Soviet authorities led to delays and, sadly, Tarkovsky died before the film premiered. Despite all the Tarkovsky footage in this, there’s no mistaking it for a Sokurov film. This is one of three documentaries on The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion, which I bought when it was released… and I see it now goes for around £88.

Lincoln, Steven Spielberg (2012, USA) I know only what most non-USians know about Lincoln, and this film pretty much covers all those – Civil War, emancipation, assassinated in a theatre, peculiar beard. It’s a dull film for the first half, but Lincoln proves a surprisingly pragmatic president – ie, openly buying votes to push his amendment through Congress. Things pick up a little in the second half, and despite it being an historical conclusion, Spielberg manages to wring some tension from the final vote scene. Having said all that, this is very much by the numbers American History 101. Day-Lewis plays a good part, but all those historical forces feel of the moment rather than the endgame of a long political struggle. Meh.

Make Way for Tomorrow, Leo McCarey (1937, USA) Old retired couple’s house is repossessed by the bank, leaving them homeless, and the grown-up kids are pretty adamant they don’t want the old folks dumped on them – though, in the end, one takes the father and another takes the mother. And they really are an unpleasant family. While this film may be 84 years old, not a fat lot appears to have changed since then. But when you have a welfare state with state pensions and council houses, old people don’t get left on the street to die as they are in some allegedly civilised countries…

Black Moon Rising, Harley Cokliss (1986, USA) A straight-to-DVD thriller notable only for the astonishing mullet worn by Linda Hamilton during the first half-hour (happily, it proves to be a wig). Tommy Lee Jones is a top thief, working for the government, but a job goes wrong, and he has to hide the stolen computer tape in an experimental 300 mph supercar invented by Richard Jaeckel. But then Hamilton’s gang of car thieves, run by shady billionaire Robert Vaughn, steals the supercar, and Jones must get it back.

blackmoon

Tristana, Luis Buñuel (1970, Spain/France) Catherine Deneuve plays an orphan who is adopted by a wealthy don in 1960s Toledo, who treats her like a daughter, but the moment she turns nineteen, he decides she’s his mistress. Meanwhile, she falls in love with a man nearer her own age, runs off to live with him, is taken ill, which results in her losing a leg, and she eventually ends up back with her don. An odd film, it played like an historical melodrama, but didn’t look like one.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany) This is probably my favourite Haneke film, and it’s beautifully put together. A series of mysterious incidents in a German village just prior to World War I cause the villagers to turn on each other, but Haneke refuses to explain who is responsible or why. Beautifully photographed and really quite unsettling.

Golem, Piotr Szulkin (1979, Poland) That Szulkin box set was definitely a good buy. There isn’t a duff film in it, although this is perhaps the least interesting. In a future much like the ones Szulkin has depicted in his other films – ie, grim and dystopian – clones are used to fill out the workforce, and are treated very badly. But one clone may actually be a man – he’s not sure as he can’t remember, and the scientists are too clear on the matter either, as they may have got confused between the clone and the original human.

Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland) I suspect this film is going to make my best of the year – which is a little perverse as it’s a 26-minute television short included as an extra feature in the Piotr Szulkin box set I bought earlier this year – and the actual films in the box set are all very good and worth seeing. But Mięso (Ironica) is in a class of its own. It’s a lecture on the history of Poland under Communism, using the availability of meat and meat products as illustration. It’s filmed in an outdoor meat market, by a cast who are clearly not actors, and in many cases are holding the script in their hand, or need prompting by others. There are also a number of dance routines, including one in which half a dozen riot police dance off against half a dozen Roman Catholic clergy in full regalia. In one scene, a woman in a wheelchair tries to position herself before the camera, but the cobbles are so slippery that by the time she’s in place she’s too knackered to speak.

Mięso (Ironica) (1993) 4 - 007

The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke (1989, Austria) Another favourite by Haneke, and allegedly inspired by true events. A middle-class Austrian family, after spending much of the film going about their lives, suddenly tell everyone they are emigrating to Australia. They then eat a large feast, smash everything they own, and then commit suicide. Like The White Ribbon, it’s deeply unsettling, but this time the lack of explanation plays off against the prosaic nature of what has gone before.

Lola Montès, Max Ophüls (1955, France) This has one of the strangest framing narratives I’ve come across in a mainstream film. Lola Montès is a circus performer, enacting scenes from her life, with the help of the other circus performers and narrated by ringmaster Peter Ustinov. As each new chapter in her life begins, the view fades from the circus ring to a flashback of the actual events. It’s all very colourful, sumptuous even, but Montès is not a sympathetic protagonist and not even the well over-the-top staging prevents interest from flagging. Apparently, this flopped on release, and was butchered by the studio in an attempt to save it. I saw the restored version, and it clearly should have been left alone – but I think I understand why it did so badly back in 1955…

lola-montes--max-ophuls


2 Comments

Women writing sf – critical works

Recently, I went through eBay and Amazon to see what critical works had been published on the topic of women writing science fiction (or feminism and science fiction, or feminist science fiction). I already had some books on the subject – In the Chinks of the World Machine, Partners in Wonder, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, How to Suppress Women’s Writing – but it seemed likely there were more such books than just those. And so there are.

These are the ones I’ve found so far. I’ve put them in order of year of publication.

Future Females: A Critical Anthology, Marlene S Barr, ed. (1981) The somewhat garbled description of this book on Amazon contains the following wonderful, if inelegant, line, “if the mere mention of the genre causes a ruffling of academic feathers, then relating [it] to women is analogous to placing all those simply ruffled feathers in front of a wind machine”. The book contains essays on feminist utopias, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, Ursula K Le Guin… and, er, Star Trek, and Alexei Panshin. Contributors include Joanna Russ and Suzy McKee Charnas, among others.

futurefemales

The Feminine Eye, Tom Staicar, ed. (1982) Subtitled “Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It”, this contains individual essays on Leigh Brackett, CL Moore, Andre Norton, CJ Cherryh, James Tiptree Jr, Suzy McKee Charnas, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Suzette Haden Elgin and Joan D Vinge.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ (1983) This is not specifically about women writing science fiction, but it’s such an important piece of work about writing by women that I thought it worth mentioning. (Do you own a copy? If not, why not?)

Worlds Within Women, Thelma J Shinn (1986) This was published by the ever-expensive Greenwood Press, is subtitled “Myth and Mythmaking in Fantastic Literature by Women”, and “examines some seventy novels by twenty-four women writers”.

In the Chinks of the World Machine, Sarah LeFanu (1988) Taking its title from James Tiptree Jr’s story ‘The Women Men Don’t See’, this book is split into two parts. The first analyses a number of sf works by women writers, and their place in the genre in the history, as evidence of LeFanu’s “thesis that science fiction is the ideal form for the fusion of feminist politics with the imagination” (from the back-cover). The second part contains individual essays on the works of James Tiptree Jr, Ursula K Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Joanna Russ.

chinksofworldmachine

Where No Man has Gone Before, Lucie Armitt, ed. (1990) This is a Routledge book, and has contributions by Lisa Tuttle, Gwyneth Jones, Josephine Saxton and Sarah LeFanu, on topics such as CL Moore, Katherine Burdekin, Doris Lessing, Mary Shelley, Hollywood science fiction and YA sf.

A New Species, Robin Roberts (1993) An overview of science fiction from a feminist perspective, albeit at an undergraduate level – according to Marleen S Barr in a review here. Barr also provides a few quotes from the book – I think this one is true and important, “Feminist science fiction exposes sexism and condemns female exclusion from science and science fiction”.

newspecies

Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, Jane L Donawerth & Carole A Kolmerten, eds. (1994) Contains a dozen essays on, among other subjects, Margaret Cavendish, Sarah Robinson Scott, Jane Gaskell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Naomi Mitchison, and Octavia Butler.

Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction, Jane Donawerth (1996) This appears to consist of three chapters: 1, Utopian Science in Science Fiction by Women; 2, Beautiful Alien Monster-Women – BAMS; and 3, Cross-dressing as a Male Narrator. There is also an epilogue, Virtual Women in Global Science Fiction, which covers non-Western women sf writers. There are some notes on the book on the website of sf writer Alison Sinclair here.

Future Females: the Next Generation, Marlene S Barr (1999) As the title suggests, this is a sequel work to Future Females: A Critical Anthology, covering topics which have arisen since 1981 – cyberpunk, postcolonialism, queer theory, and, er, Star Trek: Voyager, among others.

Women, Science and Fiction: The Frankenstein Inheritance, Debra Benita Shaw (2000) If the excerpt provided on Amazon is any indication, this looks fascinating – with chapters on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Katherine Burdekin, CL Moore, Margaret St Clair, James Tiptree Jr and Marge Piercy.

The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, Justine Larbalestier (2002) An historical study of women, and the presentation of women, in science fiction – from 1926 to 1973, during the career of James Tiptree Jr, and among the books selected by the Tiptree Award.

battlesexes

Partners in Wonder, Eric Leif Davin (2005) This is subtitled “Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926 – 1965″, and is an historical analysis of the women who were published in genre magazines during science fiction’s early decades.

Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, Marlene S Barr (2006) Barr spreads a wider net – including film, and non-sf film, television programmes and a variety of both female and male writers – in order to present her case that feminist sf is better consider as feminist postmodern literature.

Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought, Patricia Melzer (2006) Unlike other books on this list, this covers both film and literature – part one Part I covers Octavia Butler, Part II Alien Resurrection and The Matrix, and Part III is about Richard Calder’s Dead Girls trilogy and non-binary gender in Butler’s Wild Seed and Imago and in Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man.

Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction, Lisa Yaszek (2008) The cover illustration is of Jerrie Cobb standing in front of a Mercury capsule mock-up, and while the book appears to contain some inaccuracies regarding the Mercury 13, it also presents an interesting argument regarding the historical presentation and uses of science fiction by women writers.

Yaszek-Galactic

The Secret Feminist Cabal, Helen Merrick (2009) The book’s page on the Aqueduct Press website pretty much says all that needs to be said about this (click on the title).

Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Robin Anne Reid, ed. (2009) A series of essays which cover the historical contribution of women to genre fiction, from the Middle Ages through to 2005, and also branches out to cover “Heroes or Sheroes”, comics, genre poetry, games, “Feminist Spirituality” and WisCon.

The Past That Might Have Been, the Future That May Come, Lauren J Lacey (2014) Part of a long-running critical series, currently at 45 volumes, this is number 43. It has four chapters, covering: 1, Beastly Beauty and Other Revisioned Fairy Tales; 2, Tampering with Time in Historical Narratives; 3, Working through the Wreckage in Dystopian Fiction; and 4, Becoming-Alien in Feminist Space Fiction.

lacey

I’ve excluded books of science fiction criticism by women science fiction writers – such as, The Language of the Night, Ursula K Le Guin (1989); Deconstructing the Starships, Gwyneth Jones (1999); The Country You Have Never Seen, Joanna Russ (2007); In Other Worlds, Margaret Atwood (2011) – as well as critical works on individual women science fiction writers – eg, On Joanna Russ, Farah Mendlesohn, ed. (2009); The Cherryh Odyssey, Edward Carmien, ed. (2004) – or even biographies / autobiographies of women sf writers – James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Sheldon, Julie Phillips (2006); Better to Have Loved: the Life of Judith Merril, Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary (2004). Perhaps those are books for another post on another day.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,920 other followers