Cybernetics in the 3rd Millennium (C3M) -- Volume 4 Number 5, May 2005
Alan B. Scrivener --- www.well.com/~abs --- mailto:email@example.com
Cyberpunks in Cyberspace
~ or ~
The Future of Science Fiction
Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That's because 90% of
everything is crud.
-- Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction author
( www.jargon.net/jargonfile/s/SturgeonsLaw.html )
Well, it's 2005. We're halfway through the Decade With No Name.
I remembered that William Gibson's 1993 sci-fi novel "Virtual Light"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553566067/hip-20 )
was set in the year 2005. Critics saluted his bravery for forecasting
only 12 years into the future. So of course this was the year to re-read
that book. Also scheduled for this year -- actually this MONTH, just
in time for May "sweeps" on US TV --
( news.google.com/news?hl=en&ned=us&q=may+sweeps )
are the final episode of the final Star Trek show after 29 years,
"Star Trek: Enterprise" (TV 2001-2005),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0007TKH66/hip-20 )
( www.treknation.com/episodes/enterprise )
the final movie in the 28 years of Star Wars movies, "Star Wars:
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" (movie 2005),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/stores/series/-/188/ref=pd_serl_dvd/104-2103747-3587116 )
( www.starwars.com )
the long-awaited movie version of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the
Galaxy" (movie 2005),
( imdb.com/find?q=the%20hitchhiker's%20guide%20to%20the%20galaxy;tt=on;nm=on;mx=20 )
(I think I'll still like the original radio series better)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0563494212/hip-20 )
and the scheduled launch of the next space shuttle flight of
Discover, now alas postponed.
( www.nasa.gov/returntoflight/main/index.html?skipIntro=1 )
All of these factors add my sense that science fiction is and has been
important to our civilization, and that now is a good time to deliver
that promised analysis of cybernetics and science fiction.
WHAT IS SCI-FI FOR?
A couple of hundred years from now, maybe [science fiction
writers] Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the
important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the
professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten,
because they're just shallow and wrong, and their ideas
aren't very powerful.
-- Marvin Minsky
quoted by Stewart Brand, 1987
in "The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0140097015/hip-20 )
At the University of California at Santa Cruz in the 1970s I took
a class called "Sociology Through Science Fiction." The instructor
made it clear that the topic was not "Sociology OF Science Fiction,"
and that what "Sociology THROUGH Science Fiction" meant was that
we would use sci-fi as a tool for learning sociology. It occurs
to me that it is likewise important to distinguish between looking
at the cybernetics OF science fiction and studying cybernetics THROUGH
science fiction. Though what I originally had in mind was the latter,
plucking examples of cybernetic principles from sci-fi stories, I
came to the conclusion that there really isn't much to work with
and a lot of it the writers have gotten wrong. But the bigger
picture is the the cybernetics OF science fiction -- how sci-fi's
role in our culture has evolved.
In broad strokes:
* The 19th century stories of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells,
during the height of European imperialism, looked at a
civilization that had conquered the world run out of
frontiers, and projected new ones to expand into.
* In the early 20th century pulp fiction emerged,
including the sci-fi pulp magazines in the 1920s.
* The depression-era sci-fi classics from what we now call
the "golden age," such as early works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C.
Clarke and Robert Heinlein, provided hope and escape
to budding technologists frustrated by the economic quagmire.
Like the song said:
Once I built a tower way up to the sun
Of bricks and mortar and lime
Once I built a tower, and now it's done
Buddy can you spare a dime?
* In the 1940s and 50s sci-fi operated in its most traditional
roles: predicting the future, and providing escapist
action-adventure (monsters abducting damsels rescued by
* In the 1960s and 70s science fiction expanded to include
new mind-bending ideas in the air. McLuhan wrote in "Culture
Is Our Business" in 1970:
The conflict between the new "inner trip" and the
old outer trip in truck or jalopy is characteristic
of the larger flip in our current society.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/007045437X/hip-20 )
Some writers explored the emerging technologies of
psychology, while others veered off into pure fantasy.
Again we saw the tension between future prediction and
escapism. Also, after 1969 science fiction suffered
an identity crisis when the mainstream media claimed that
the present had "caught up with science fiction" after
with the Apollo moon landings. Some authors responded
with new hard science stories about exploring the
galaxy with theoretically known technology such as hydrogen
scooping ram jets. Niven, Hogan and Forward emerged
in this era.
* In the 1980s and 90s a new movement emerged, called "cyberpunk"
by most, which including the new trends of ubiquitous
cheap computers and emerging bio-tech, while incorporating
new, edgy, avant-garde stylistic elements. We were
becoming more "hip" to both technology and art.
* In the early 21st century science fiction has suffered
another identity crisis, as we blew past the futuristic
Year Two Thousand and hung a right at 9/11/01. Some of
most esteemed cyberpunk authors have retrenched into
non-science fiction or science non-fiction. "Star
Trek" and "Star Wars" have come to end. Fans are
being shunted into entertainment ghettos like the
Sci-Fi Channel. Is the mainstream sci-fi bubble about
to burst? Have people put the future on hold
and become neo-traditionalists? And yet new voices
continue to emerge, and futurists point to the technological
"singularity" expected in 2012 and the evolution towards
a "post-human" civilization heralded by the first (draft)
map of the human genome announced on June 26, 2000.
So this is the broad outline of the history of the genre.
Let's begin to fill in some details.
CAUGHT IN A CELLULOID JAM
...science fiction is likely to be the only form of
literature which will cross the gap between the dying
narrative fiction of present and the cassette and
videotape fictions of the near future.
-- J. G. Ballard, 1971
essay in "Books and Bookmen"
reprinted in "A User's Guide to the Millennium:
Essays and Reviews" (book 1996)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0312156839/hip-20 )
It is important to remember that unlike most other literary
forms the science fiction novel took shape almost completely during
an era of motion pictures, and there was considerable co-evolution
between books and movies, and later TV shows as well.
Science fiction authors have typically struggled financially, with
the exception of those hired by Hollywood to write, revise or
advise screenplays. Ray Bradbury told how he'd written a story
about a sea monster that falls in love with a foghorn, and it was
stolen by some Hollywood producers who later forgot who they'd
stolen it from and offered Bradbury a job fixing the script.
He took it. He needed the money.
Virtually all science fiction movies have been B movies.
In the pre-TV days a B picture was a second film for a double
feature show (which also often included a cartoon, a newsreel,
a serial -- like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon -- and maybe even a
short subject documentary). The B movie was probably the piece
made with the least care of this whole set.
(More modern versions of the B picture include the made-for-TV
movie, the direct-to-video movie, and the free-download-
The bizarre musical "Rocky Horror Picture Show" (movie 1975)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00006D295/hip-20 )
pays homage to the sci-fi B movie in its form and content.
The song for the opening credits is a valentine to the cheesy
sci-fi movie sung by a pair of disembodied lips, called "Science
Fiction Double Feature." It begins:
Michael Rennie was ill
The Day the Earth Stood Still
But he told us where we stand
And Flash Gordon was there
In silver underwear
Claude Rains was The Invisible Man
Then something went wrong
For Fay Wray and King Kong
They got caught in a celluloid jam
Then at a deadly pace
It Came From Outer Space
And this is how the message ran...
Science fiction (ooh ooh ooh) double feature
Doctor X (ooh ooh ooh) will build a creature
and ends with a few false finales in this way:
At the late night, double feature, picture show,
At the late night, double feature, picture show,
In the back row
At the late night, double feature, picture show.
( www.rockymusic.org/lyrics/rocky-horror.html#sfdf )
The movie itself was released by R.K.O., and the climactic
laser shootout occurs when the title character climbs a replica
of the R.K.O. logo tower like King Kong.
( www.leonardmaltin.com/03-01-09/RKO-logo1.jpg )
A whole subculture has been built around appreciation of
"bad" science fiction movies. When I was a kid growing up
in San Diego in the 1960s there was a local TV show called
"Science Fiction Theater," hosted briefly by a vampire-like
woman called Cosmosina, followed by another named Moona Lisa
who lasted a while. The format was campy intros to cheesy
movies like "The Crawling Eye" (movie 1958) directed by Quentin Lawrence
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005R1O7/hip-20 )
and "The Blob" (movie 1958) directed by Irving S. Yeaworth Jr.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004W3HE/hip-20 )
Today fan sites still pay tribute to these minor TV stars.
( partigirl.www1.50megs.com/MoonaLisa/MoonaLisa.htm )
( myweb.wvnet.edu/e-gor/tvhorrorhosts/hostsm.html#MoonaLisa )
Meanwhile, up in L.A., Elvira was doing the same thing on
local TV, carrying on the tradition of Vampira and others,
before going on to world fame in her deliberately bad movies
such as "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark" (movie 1988).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004Y6BX/hip-20 )
Another more recent entertainment concept that survived by heaping
ridicule on "bad" movies (mostly sci-fi) was the cable TV show
"Mystery Science Theater 3000" -- or MST3K to its fans -- which
featured an astronaut and his robot pals blurting wisecracks
during the picture, and performing satiric skits during breaks.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00006RJCL/hip-20 )
( www.mst3k.com )
And certainly there are plenty of "bad" sci-fi movies to
feed these ancillary markets. The reason I use quotes around
the word "bad" is that on person's bad movie is another's favorite,
appreciated either sincerely or ironically. My definition of
a "bad" sci-fi is that:
1) if a newbie asked me to recommend a science fiction movie
they could try and see if they liked the genre, I wouldn't
send them to this one,
2) the moviemakers didn't manage to communicate what they
meant to, at least to some audience members, and
3) it would be improved by the shadows of Joel and the 'bots
from MST3K sitting in front and making wisecracks.
Some of my nominees would be:
* "Plan Nine From Outer Space" (movie 1959) directed by Ed Wood
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00009LHYM/hip-20 )
I've never seen this as I've been told it's unwatchable,
as is everything by the legendary low-budget director Ed Wood.
( imdb.com/name/nm0000248 )
But I have seen the Oscar-winning bio-pic "Ed Wood" (movie 1994)
directed by Tim Burton, which is masterful.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000VD04M/hip-20 )
* "Lost In Space" (TV show 1965)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000DC3VM/hip-20 )
Maybe I'm still just annoyed that was on the same time
as "Batman" and my sister wanted to watch it instead,
but I found this show to be abysmal, especially the scenes
with Dr. Smith.
* "Barbarella" (movie 1968) directed by Roger Vadim
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000IREA/hip-20 )
Unamare sexism + pretentiousness = occasional irritating
scenes between long stretches of tedium.
* "Planet of the Apes" (movie 1968) directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004W21Q/hip-20 )
Heavy-handed social commentary and simple-minded symnbolism.
* "Destroy All Monsters" (movie 1969) directed by Ishiro Honda
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0001US5TC/hip-20 )
So bad it inspired the low-budget film "The Martian Space
Party" (1972) by the Firesign Theatre.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005Q65U/hip-20 )
* "Omega Man" (movie 1971) directed by Boris Sagal
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0790742802/hip-20 )
A lot of good moments, but almost all of them were in the
first 20 minutes. Reminds me of "The Shortest Science-Fiction
Story Ever Written," which goes like this:
The last man on earth sat in his room.
There was a knock at the door.
* "Logan's Run" (movie 1976) directed by Michael Anderson
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004VVNB/hip-20 )
Some good ideas and bad acting.
* "Battlestar Galactica" (TV show 1978-1979)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00018LTDI/hip-20 )
( www.mindjack.com/feature/piracy051305.html )
Almost everything about this show was wrong.
I have hear the 2005 remake is very good, though,
and the high-tech way some of its fans watch it has
fueled the controversy over digital property rights in
the new millennium.
( yro.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/05/15/179251&from=rss )
* "Escape From New York" (movie 1981) directed by John Carpenter
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000CNY27/hip-20 )
I dunno, maybe he meant to be that bad. If so, he succeeded.
* "Johnny Mnemonic" (movie 1995) directed by Robert Longo
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0767802454/hip-20 )
Even cyberpunk greats can stumble. It's hard to love a movie
when you hate the hero. Ice-T as the leader of the Lo-Teks
was good, though.
* "The Matrix" (movie 1999) directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000K19E/hip-20 )
This movie is like a good news/bad news joke. The good news
is that a "cyberpunk" movie became a huge hit. The bad news
is that it's a piece of crud, ripping off a few ideas from the
genre and watering them down, DUMBING them down and reworking
them into some paranoid nonsense that doesn't make sense,
ripping off effects that made sense in movies like "Dark City"
(1998) directed by Alex Proyas
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0780622553/hip-20 )
and using them pointlessly, apparently just because they look
GUTS AND BLOOD
Come with me if you want to live.
-- suggestion for the opening message from new California
Governor Arnold Schwarzneggar (Republican) to the
mostly Democratic state legislature, 2003
I'd like to acknowledge that sci-fi has sprouted some sub-genres
in movies that aren't really BAD, just NOT MY THING. There are the
ACTION and HORROR sci-fi films. This schism is reflected at my local
blockbuster which doesn't even have a Science Fiction section, filing
them in Action, or sometimes Horror, or Comedy even. We see
the taxonomy clearly in James Cameron's "Alien" series. The first,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00011V8IQ/hip-20 )
is a formula horror movie; one reviewer called in "Friday the
Thirteenth in space." The sequel, "Aliens" (1986)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00012FXAE/hip-20 )
is a formula action movie, sort of like "Rambo."
The Action sub-genre has done well, giving us movies like:
* "Mad Max" (1979) directed by George Miller, and its sequels,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005R2IS/hip-20 )
* "The Terminator" (1984) directed by James Cameron, and its sequels.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005N5S5/hip-20 )
I must confess I did like the theme park ride at Universal Studios
Hollywood and Florida, "Terminator 2 in 3D" (1996).
( themeparks.universalstudios.com/orlando/website/usf_attraction_terminator.html )
* "Robocop" (movie 1987) directed by Paul Verhoeven
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005N7Z1/hip-20 )
* "Demolition Man" (1993) directed by Marco Brambilla
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/630460288X/hip-20 )
I'm glad Hollywood can sell theater tickets this way, and the effects
people get work and a chance to improve their craft, and I wish them
well. It's just not, as I said, "my thing."
IS "GOOD SCIENCE FICTION MOVIE" AN OXYMORON?
I'm a Mawg, half-man, half-dog; I'm my own best friend.
-- John Candy's character in
"Spaceballs" (1987) directed by Mel Brooks
screenplay by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan & Ronny Graham
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0007O38XU/hip-20 )
As if things weren't bad enough, now I've been abducted by aliens.
-- Geena Davis' character in
"Earth Girls Are Easy" (1988) directed by Julien Temple
screenplay by Julie Brown & Charlie Coffey & Terrence E. McNally
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6301352238/hip-20 )
Well, maybe it's time to stop dissin' stuff, or even "damning with faint
praise," and say what I find excellent. First of all, I'm very
interested in those who put the "science" back into science fiction.
I've been asking my sci-fi fan friends in the last few weeks,
"What science fiction films have been the most scientifically
accurate?" The title that came up the most often was "2001: A Space
Odyssey" (movie 1968) directed by Stanley Kubrick.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005B8LW/hip-20 )
I recall that I first heard about this movie because of an
article in "Popular Science" about how some of the zero-G effects
were done. I next was given a magazine my dad found, called
"Industrial Design," which had a long article on all the product
placement gizmos in the movie and how Kubrick got high-tech companies
to fund the R&D to come come up with his props. So he was doing
two things that so many others after him have dodged:
* asking real engineers to predict the future, and
* dealing with the expensive and limiting Gravity Problem.
Many feel that "2001" was the first and last great speculative
fiction film. Some have complained that only the first two-thirds
is sci-fi, the last part being fantasy, or perhaps hallucination,
or maybe just nonsense. But I disagree. Arthur C. Clarke said
"any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from
magic," (this sometimes called "Clarke's Law") and Kubrick quoted
Mary Poppins: "I never explain anything." I liken the star-gate
"space ride" sequence to a plains Indian's locomotive ride to
Washington, D.C. to meet the "Great Father." Of course it
doesn't make sense. Clarke and Kubrick are having the courage
to predict that if we meet aliens:
1) it will be classified top secret by the government, and
2) we will find them, their culture and their technology
Another movie that came up frequently was "Apollo 13" (movie 1995)
directed by Ron Howard,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0783219695/hip-20 )
Which isn't even a science fiction movie, it's a historical piece
if you want to be precise, but it had the courage to do the gravity
right as well.
Other movies that were mentioned were:
* "Outland" (movie 1981) directed by Peter Hyams
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6304698674/hip-20 )
It bothers me that they botched the gravity in a couple of ways,
but it is plausable in most regards, and a gripping story,
lifted whole cloth from the western movie "High Noon" (1952)
directed by Fred Zinnemann,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00006JMRE/hip-20 )
with Sean Connery in the Gary Cooper role of the U.S. marshal.
* "Andromeda Strain" (movie 1971) directed by Robert Wise.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00008438U/hip-20 )
* "Jurassic Park" (movie 1993) directed by Steven Spielberg.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004U8JU/hip-20 )
Note that the last two were both based on books by Michael
Crichton, who has been known to deny being a science fiction
writer, preferring to claim he writes technical thrillers
along the Tom Clancy line. More on him later.
But setting aside the strict demands of "science!" there have been
a number of science fiction movies I consider "great" even though
current impossibilities like faster-than light travel, levitation, time
machines and are major plot points. Here is my list in chronological
* "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (movie 1951) directed by Robert Wise
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005JKFR/hip-20 )
* "Forbidden Planet" (movie 1956) directed by Fred M. Wilcox
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004RF9B/hip-20 )
* "The Time Machine" (movie 1960) directed by George Pal
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004Z4U9/hip-20 )
* "Absent Minded Professor" (movie 1961) directed by Robert Stevenson
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00009Y3RC/hip-20 )
* "La Jetee" (short subject 1962) directed by Chris Marker
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000031VPS/hip-20 )
J. G. Ballard went nuts over this short film. I saw it a zillion
times at youth camps and experimental high school classes.
I think the National Film Board of Canada was distributing it.
The idea was stolen and expanded for the movie "Twelve Monkeys"
(1995) directed by Terry Gilliam.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0007PALZ2/hip-20 )
* "Demon With a Glass Hand" episode of "The Outer Limits"
(TV show 1963-1965) written by Harlan Ellison
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00009Y3RE/hip-20 )
Filmed in the historic Bradbury Building in downtown L.A.,
later used in "Blade Runner."
* "Fantastic Voyage" (movie 1966) directed by Richard Fleischer
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004VVOH/hip-20 )
Cheesy in places, gets some science wrong, but quite a vision.
* "Fahrenheit 451" (movie 1966) directed by Franc§ois Truffaut
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000087F6L/hip-20 )
I always thought this story of book-burning "firemen" was an
allegory until the PC crowd started banning books like
* "THX 1138" (movie 1971) directed by George Lucas
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0002CHIKG/hip-20 )
Before "Star Wars," before "American Graffiti," the first
Hollywood movie by George Lucas was a frightening dystopia
with sex illegal, drugs mandatory, robot cops, computerized
judges, and a society with no imagination or joy that
was TOTALLY STABLE, with only vestiges of religion,
education, shopping, entertainment and political
discourse remaining as absurd caricatures. Shot
entirely on location in shopping malls, parking lots,
subway tunnels, traffic control centers and TV studios,
it was also a searing condemnation of modernism.
* "Slaughterhouse Five" (movie 1972) directed by George Roy Hill
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6305077592/hip-20 )
Involuntary time travel as satire of the American middle class.
* "Solaris" (movie 1972) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00006L92F/hip-20 )
Like Ray Bradbury's novel "The Martian Chronicles" this masterpiece
asks the question, "What if aliens appear in the form of lost
* "Dark Star" (movie 1974) directed by John Carpenter
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000F169/hip-20 )
Acidic satire. Makes "Spaceballs" look like doggy doo.
* "A Boy and His Dog" (movie 1975) directed by L. Q. Jones
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6304492405/hip-20 )
Based on a Harlan Ellison story, and one place "Mad Max"
* "The Man Who Fell To Earth" (movie 1976) directed by Nicolas Roeg
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00007JMCX/hip-20 )
The alien as alienated anti-hero.
* "Altered States" (movie 1980) directed by Ken Russell
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6305133131/hip-20 )
An adventure through inner space.
* "Blade Runner" (movie 1982) directed by Ridley Scott
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6305842442/hip-20 )
Awesome. A new vision. We'll come back to this when we look
at the cyberpunks.
* "Liquid Sky" (movie 1982) directed by Slava Tsukerman
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6305660328/hip-20 )
Warning: I believe the San Diego Union film reviewer was
fired for giving this film his highest rating, without
sufficiently mentioning the rampant bisexuality, heroin and
punk rock culture. It is genius, though, made from expatriate
Muscovites in New York City looking at the 1980s counter culture
from an alien point of view, and technically it is science fiction.
* "WarGames" (movie 1983) directed by John Badham
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0792838467/hip-20 )
* "Repo Man" (movie 1984) directed by Alex Cox
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000VV56C/hip-20 )
Similar warning to "Liquid Sky," except produced by Mike Nesbitt
of the Monkees (using money inherited from his mother, a secretary
who invented Liquid Paper) looking at L.A. 80s counter-culture.
* "Starman" (movie 1984) directed by John Carpenter
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0767812166/hip-20 )
What if aliens could emote like Jeff Bridges?
* "Explorers" (movie 1985) directed by Joe Dante
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0002V7O3I/hip-20 )
A kids movie, but it aspires to greatness.
* "Robocop" (movie 1987) directed by Peter Weller
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005N7Z1/hip-20 )
If you can get past the ultraviolence and how it seems to
belong in that Action Sci-Fi category, pretty darned good.
* "The Abyss" (movie 1989) directed by James Cameron
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00003Q438/hip-20 )
Technological and psychological thriller with heart.
Or maybe a deep romance (pardon...) with some awesome CGI
* "Sliders" (TV show 1995-2000)
Why isn't this great show on DVD? I'll bet it's
available in an alternate universe!
* "3rd Rock from the Sun" (TV show 1996-2001)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0007WQGVI/hip-20 )
* "Contact" (movie 1997) directed by Robert Zemeckis
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0790733226/hip-20 )
Best thing Carl Sagan ever did. Makes up for that sappy
"Cosmos" TV show about the puff ball spaceship.
* "Men in Black" (movie 1997) directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00004TFK3/hip-20 )
Sci-fi of the absurd. Hilarious too.
What about "Star Trek" you may ask. Well, it aspired to greatness
at times. I think if you polled sci-fi fans and got their favorite
10 episodes of all 5 TV shows (not counting the animated cartoon,
which I never saw) you'd get some great stuff, but the entire
body of work taken as a whole is just "pretty good." Season three
of the original series, and anything with Q in the "Next Generation,"
plus a lot of stuff with Neelix in "Voyager" pulled the average down.
You might also ask, what about "Star Wars" was well. Myth, I say.
Not sci fi. "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." More
on Lucas' epic later anyway.
IF I RAN THE CIRCUS
Next June, I hope, we'll have a new Tomorrowland, and starting
from the ground up.
-- Walt Disney, 1966 (shortly before he died;
he never saw the New Tomorrowland which opened in 1967)
Well, I suppose I shouldn't grouse too much without offering
positive suggestions. I would like to see more mini-series
or recurring series style science fiction on TV, based on
some of the classic novels. For example, the story of
Rhysling, "the Blind Singer ofd the Spaceways" from Robert
Heinlein's "Green Hills of Earth" (short story 1947)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0671578537/hip-20 )
suggests a format based around a balladeer at a spaceport who
earns tips with his songs based on true adventures of space
explorers, each song fading in to an hour drama. The stories
could be drawn from all of the tales in Heinlein's self-consistent
universe collected in "The Past Through Tomorrow" (1967).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0739410512/hip-20 )
There are currently fan sites devoted to this universe, based on
stories from almost forty years ago.
( members.tripod.com/templetongate/rahfuture.htm )
Another obvious bountiful source of material is the "Tales of Known
Space" by Larry Niven, in the short story collection of that name (1975),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345334698/hip-20 )
as well as a number of other novels and short stories.
( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Known_Space )
An ensemble series could easily be based on this universe.
It also includes the "Ringworld" series of books, which could
be used for either theatrical or miniseries movies.
Niven "farmed out" his Known Space universe to some other authors
for the story series "The Man-Kzin Wars" (1988) and its sequels.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0671720767/hip-20 )
They also could provide a rich source of plots for a series.
( www.larryniven.org/kzin/reviews.htm )
(More on Heinlein and Niven later.)
SInce 1977 Spider Robinson has been publishing stories
that take place in "Callahan's Crosstime Saloon."
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0812572270/hip-20 )
This short story collection and its sequels might make a great half-hour
( www.sfandf.com/html/scifi-fantasy-books.html?id=8&p1=637&p2=books&p3=sf )
And lastly, I have an idea for a show called "Mars Valley Days"
based on the old "Death Valley Days." Bring back the 20 mule team
with robot mules. Use the Digital Elevation Maps (DEMs) and satellite
photos NASA already has to do computer-generated texture-mapped
landscapes, with old west type characters in the foreground.
I daydream about having the money, time and energy to produce these
projects myself (that's right, I want to produce, not direct) because
I know the typical TV people would make a botch of it. They'd
study a story until they understood what the WHOLE POINT of it was,
and then take that part out. They'd add formulaic elements, dumb it
down, and saddle it with baggage like washed-out actors and non-sci-fi
writers. I've seen it before. Ah well.
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near Tanhauser
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
-- dialog improvised by actor Rutger Hauer
as android "replicant" Roy Batty in
Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (movie 1982)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6305842442/hip-20 )
While it seems like its been a hellacious struggle to get the
movie industry to take science fiction seriously, I think perhaps
science fiction writing has suffered too much from trying to
break into the ranks of great literature.
I must say, however, that I do appreciate how science fiction
writers tend to champion the novel form, predicting futures
in which books are still significant. (Both "Star Trek"
and "Twilight Zone" had episodes that touched on this topic.)
I was utterly charmed by Samuel R. Delany's 1968 novel "Nova"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0375706704/hip-20 )
in a far, far future in which a history student is attempting to
write a novel even though direct recording of sensory experience
is possible. He has chosen a rare element found only inside stars
going nova to symbolize the holy grail, but he has read about curses
on grail art projects, so -- as we discover at the end of the book
that his novel is the one we are reading -- he closes with the words:
The only way to protect myself from the jinx, I guess,
would be to abandon it before I finish the last
We see this impulse again most recently in Neal Stephenson's on-line
short story "Spew" (1994) commissioned by Wired Magazine.
( www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.10/spew.html )
It begins with these words:
Yeah, I know it's boring of me to send you plain old Text like
this, and I hope you don't just blow this message off without
But what can I say, I was an English major. On video, I come off
like a stunned bystander. I'm just a Text kind of guy. I'm
gambling that you'll think it's quaint or something. So let
me just tell you the whole sorry tale, starting from the point
where I think I went wrong.
But I have found myself getting nervous when writers like Ray Bradbury
began jockeying to be considered authors of literature. Some English
teachers bought it. While public speaking Bradbury liked to tell
the tale of how a young reader came up to him and said that in
"The Martian Chronicles" (novel 1950)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553278223/hip-20 )
on page such and such he describes the Martian moon Phobos
rising in the east, when it really rises in the west.
Bradbury likes to brag about how he told the kid off.
He doesn't care about getting the astronomy right. That's
not what he's writing about.
On the other hand, some authors have fled science fiction.
The aforementioned Michael Crichton seems to duck the genre
if possible. Some critics have likened Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's
Rainbow" (novel 1973) to science fiction. It certainly is technical,
though set in a very real past. Others have insisted it isn't sci-fi,
as if that would drag it down and it couldn't be literature.
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. has played with the societal image
of science fiction as crud with his fictional struggling pulp
sci-fi author Kilgore Trout. In what is ostensibly one of
Vonnegut's most down-to-earth and unfantastic novels, "God
Bless You Mr. Rosewater" (1965)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385333471/hip-20 )
he has numerous summaries of Trout's brilliantly envisioned and
terribly written stories.
( www.geocities.com/Hollywood/4953/kt_in.html )
It is significant that the stories are badly written and seem to only
be sold in the backs of dirty bookstores, but contain vital insights
into the future of humanity. This presages the Pynchonesque theme:
Somewhere, among the wastes of the world,
is the key that will bring us back,
restore us to our Earth and to our freedom
Which some say is the main sub-text of "Gravity's Rainbow."
It is also likely that Trout is a form of Vonnegut's self-image
as a writer, unsure of his own skill and yearning to be significant.
He was found and celebrated by the literati after a time, though some
of them periodically denounce him for his latest silliness.
But Vonnegut and Trout leave us with the question hanging: what
if it's for the best that science fiction writing isn't great
MYTHS TO LIVE BY
There And Back Again
-- subtitle of "The Hobbit" (novel 1937) by J. R. R. Tolkien
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0792158776/hip-20 )
Something that drags down the image of science fiction is
the way its fans often appear, or are portrayed, in the media.
No news report on the opening of "Revenge of the Sith" is complete
without footage of the "losers" in costumes camped in front of theaters
waiting for premier tickets, hamming it up with light sabers for the
On the day Episode III opened I was in Oklahoma City, listening
to a morning radio show as I drove to a business appointment.
One of the guys was suggesting that dressing like an Imperial
Storm Trooper for a Star Wars opening was no weirder than painting
one's belly blue for a football game. The others weren't buying
it -- football was one thing, but no normal, red-blooded Okie would
behave that way just because of a MOVIE.
I believe I attended the world's first Tolkien convention, Mythcon I
at Harvey Mudd College in 1970, and one of the world's first Star Trek
conventions, Equicon at the LAX Hyatt in 1972. Since then I have
been to Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) meets, Ren Faires,
and ComicCons. All of these are examples of what is sometimes
called "fandom," a voluntary kingdom of fans of historical,
fantasy and science fiction mythologies.
A somewhat condescending look at this subculture is found in
the documentary "Trekkies" (movie 1997) directed by Roger Nygard.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0792158776/hip-20 )
A more compassionate and insightful view of fandom can be found
in two fictional films, the utterly charming "Free Enterprise"
(movie 1999) directed by Robert Meyer Burnett,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00001TZ5Y/hip-20 )
and the magical "Galaxy Quest" (movie 1999) directed by Dean Parisot.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00003CXDV/hip-20 )
These pieces grapple with the questions: "What is the role of the
fan in science fiction culture?" and "What is the role of the
fan in society at large?"
One thing is for sure: the roles are changing. One new trend
is the fan-funded show revival. It hasn't quite happened yet,
but it will. Fans of the UPN show "Enterprise" came close
to funding a new season, via a web-organized campaign.
( www.trekunited.com )
After the attempt failed, the organizers wrote:
When TrekUnited was founded two months ago, it aimed to save
"Star Trek: Enterprise" and keep alive the Star Trek legacy in
one way primarily: by raising funds to sponsor the actual
production of another season of the show. Since then, TrekUnited
has collected $144,173 from fans who have contributed through
Paypal or sent in checks. Together with a generous donation of
$3m in pledges from investors in space-flight industry, this
has been the highest amount of funds ever raised by a fan
( www.trekunited.com/news.php?id=37 )
What stopped the effort was the unwillingness of the network
and the producers to work with them.
Psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, a latter-day futurist, claimed
that in any generation there were a percentage pre-adapted to
future conditions. He called them "futants," for future mutants.
His view of the "losers" in fandom was that they were rehearsing
coming changes in humanity.
But as I have explained before, the power and appeal of both
Tolkien and Lucas is not on the sci-fi but in the mythology.
As I explained in C3M Volume 4 Number 3, "Skeleton Key to Pop
Culture" in March 2005:
Joseph Campbell ... wrote "The Hero With a Thousand Faces"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0691017840/hip-20 )
finding a common pattern in the worlds mythologies which he
called "the monomyth." He claims these are the stories people
like to tell, and to hear: about being at home, receiving an
invitation from a strange creature (who gives us a charm),
crossing a magical threshold and discovering we can't cross back,
meeting a foe who become a friend, dealing with a crone and a
princess, training with a wizard, vanquishing a monster and
then making a magical flight home with the treasure.
The story has been told how "Lord of the Rings" creator J. R. R.
Tolkien and "Star Wars" creator George Lucas were both friends
with Campbell, and used his work in theirs.
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/c3m_0403.txt )
I have a very bad feeling about this.
-- spoken by every major character at one
point or another in the 6 "Star Wars" movies
This of course brings us to the cultural phenomenon of "Star
Wars" in May of 2005, 28 years after it began, being the biggest
blip on the entertainment radar. I already pointed out that
the story begins: "A long time ago..."
Here is what a reviewer with the handle "erikharrison" wrote
on Slashdot about Episode III:
I was one of those kids who knew Darth Vader was Luke's father
before I had heard of Star Wars, because I saw the parodies before
I saw the originals.
I will say this now. Episode III proves that "A New Hope" was a
mistake. A freak accident of success, because Lucas seems incapable
of doing fun action. How he managed to make "A New Hope" a
delightful, playful, fundamentally fun movie is beyond me.
Because when Episode III starts, it falls flat on its face,
continuing the sad attempt in Episode's I and II to make the
kind of joyous space opera that, of all six, only "A New Hope"
managed to be.
Lucas however, can do myth very, very well. And once Lucas gets
around to telling the Myth Of Anakin's Fall, the real story that
Episode I and II have been leading to, everything works. Here we
have the George Lucas of "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Return
of the Jedi." Hayden Christiansen goes from a pretty (if
ineffectual) actor to being the tragic Darth Vader, and you
believe. Darth Sidious is the villain that Darth Vader was in
the original trilogy. Better perhaps, more sinister. The fall of
Anakin is completely and utterly believable. I was shocked.
( features.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=05/05/22/199200&tid=101&tid=9 )
I think I am beginning to see Lucas' method here. These are
all B- movies with A+ special effects and A+ mythic elements,
and I think it's by design. The cardboard characters and wooden
acting are deliberate, to make the characters seem heroic, bigger
than life, and MYTHIC. Too much emoting makes them too ordinary and
human. And it's working all the way to the bank. Plus, never forget
the target market is 10 years olds.
I've come to understand that both "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" are
"bad" movies with good side effects, and that's what I love about them.
Their greatness has been in their appeal as much as in their
art. Almost like Kilgore Trout, a great vision clumsily
executed seems to be just the thing.
Generations will argue about which is the correct order to see the
films: the order in which they were made or the "episode order" of
I, II, III, IV, V and Vi. This argument misses the point of what
Lucas is trying to tell us: IT'S A CIRCLE! Just like "Finnegan's
Wake" (novel 1939) by James Joyce
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1577314050/hip-20 )
Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a
lone a last a loved along the
and then begins:
riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore
to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of
recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Lucas is telling us that his story is circular: the Rebels found a
new Republic which will degenerate into the next Empire.
Obviously, if you grew up with these movies you will favor
seeing the episodes in the order filmed: 4 5 6 1 2 3. There are
certain "reveals" which occur in this order as well, including
the famous "Luke I am your father." A pure treatment of the
story would favor seeing them in episode order: 1 2 3 4 5 6.
I haven't figured out let if there other "reveals" which happen
in this sequence. (As I write this a blogger has posted a 7-year-
old's reaction to seeing IV after III).
( blogs.starwars.com/ghent/15 )
But I've noticed another set of correlations. If you line
up the movies in filmed order with historical events unfolding
in the United Sates there is a pattern.
* 1977 "Star Wars" aka "Episode IV: A New Hope"
Nixon had resigned and Saigon had fallen, and Jimmy
Carter seemed to offer a "new hope" to America
* 1980 "Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back"
Iran was still holding our hostages and the Soviets
had invaded Afghanistan, and the U.S. seemed powerless to
* 1983 "Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi"
What Reagan called the "Evil Empire" shot down Korean Air
Lines flight 007. The old warrior proposed the Strategic
Defense Initiative (SDI) which the press derided as "Star
Wars." (Lucas only sued when pro-SDI lobbyists started
using the term.)
Reagan of course started the course of events that lead
to the collapse of the Soviet Union, much to the astonishment
of many people.
* 1999 "Episode I: Phantom Menace"
By now America was the only superpower, and aside from
a few hotspots like the Balkans, Middle East and parts
of Africa we were enjoying the Pax Americana.
* 2002 "Episode II: The Attack of the Clones"
After 9/11 a new threat mobilized Americans, and we
were willing to give new emergency powers to our
* 2005 "Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith"
A recent "Mad Magazine" offered a parody of a Harry Potter
book called "Donny Rumsfeld and the Prisoner of Abu Ghraib."
The biggest threats to democracy now are all under the category
of "abuse of power."
I am definitely not the only one to notice the political overtones
of "Star Wars," though I may be the first to point out it has
favored both parties at different times. A recent news report
( www.kfvs12.com/Global/story.asp?S=3345915 )
covers the impressions at the Cannes Film Festival of the
politics of the "Star Wars" movies:
Cannes premiere of `Star Wars' raises questions of U.S. imperialism
CANNES, France For some Europeans, George Lucas' latest "Star Wars"
film is invoking comparisons to today's political climate.
Audiences viewing "Episode Three -- Revenge of the Sith" at the Cannes
Film Festival are comparing the story of Anakin Skywalker's fall to
the dark side and the rise of an emperor through warmongering to
President Bush's war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq.
Among the lines they cite is when Anakin tells former mentor
Obi-Wan Kenobi "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy."
After the Nine-Eleven attacks, Bush said, "Either you are with
us, or you are with the terrorists."
Lucas says he created the "Star Wars" story long before the Iraq war.
I for one am grateful for Lucas giving us the wonderful line in
Episode II, spoken by Senator Amidala:
So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.
If we remember it, it may someday help us to save our republic.
Rights, sir, human rights--
the Bible, the Code of Hammurabi
and of Justinian, Magna Carta,
the Constitution of the United States,
fundamental declarations of the Martian colonies,
the statutes of Alpha 3--
Gentlemen, these documents all speak of rights.
-- Don M. Mankiewicz, Steven W. Carabatsos
"Star Trek" [original series] episode #1-15: "Court Martial"
[air date Feb. 2, 1967]
( www.voyager.cz/tos/epizody/15courtmartialtrans.htm )
( www.treknation.com/episodes/tos/season1/court_martial.shtml )
This brings us to the role of science fiction of creating the future,
not just predicting it. There is a story by self-help guru Werner
Erhard, paraphrased on the web by Laurence Platt,
( laurenceplatt.home.att.net/wernererhard/runawayt.html )
about some passengers on a runaway train:
A woman stood up and took charge.
She said: "Everyone sit on the left side.".
That didn't work. The train did not slow down, and neither did
it balance more securely on its tracks.
Then the woman said: "OK. This time, everyone sit on the right side."
And they did.
But that didn't work either...
Then slowly, very slowly at first, it dawned on them - each
passenger individually, one person at a time very, very privately
and very, very intimately - that what they were going to have to
do was to get out in front of that runaway train and lay some
As I am fond of pointing out, this piece of wisdom may or may not
help the people on the train, but that doesn't change the fact that
every train is running on track that was previously laid.
There are a number of cases of sci-fi influencing historical
developments, from the trivial to the monumental. For example:
* Jules Verne predicted in "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea"
that a submarine named "Nautilus" would be the first to cross
under the Arctic ice cap, and the first nuclear submarine
had this name and accomplished this feat. Obviously the U.S.
Navy read Verne. (He also predicted it would run on the energy
of molecules. Lucky guess?)
* In "Star Trek" (TV show 1966-1969) Gene Roddenberry
shows us a future in which a starship bridge crew is
integrated in race, national origin and gender. The
communications specialist, Lt. Uhura, is a black woman.
Another black woman, comedian and actress Whoopie Goldberg,
told the story of the first time she saw "Star Trek" on
TV, and ran to tell her mother, "There's a black lady on
TV and she ain't no maid!" This helped inspire her to
become an entertainer, and she later took the initiative
to get a part created for her on "Star Trek: The Next
Generation" (TV show 1987-1994) of Guinan, the wise and
ancient alien bartender.
Today of course we have many black women in TV and other
important fields, such as management, medicine, law and
politics. I like to think "Star Trek" helped get us to
* George Orwell's classic dystopia "1984" gave us the concepts
of "double-think," "newspeak," "Big Brother," and "war
is peace." It made actions by government to rewrite history
and deny obvious truths into well-known warning signs of the
approach of tyranny. I like to think Orwell helped us avoid
(or at least forestall) the negative outcome he described.
Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.
Dave: What's the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to
Dave: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL!
HAL: I know you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and
I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.
-- Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, screenwriters
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (movie 1968)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005B8LW/hip-20 )
The feeding back of history and science fiction described in the
last section implies a cybernetic system, in which life and
art co-evolve, each imitating the other. So there's one aspect
of your cybernetics OF science fiction. But what if we narrow
our focus after all, and look at cybernetics THROUGH science fiction.
Over all the pickings are slim. In the minds of most writers
cybernetics = computers = artificial intelligence.
This gives computers that somehow develop intelligence on
their own when the dials are scrambled a certain way, like
"Mike" in "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" (novel 1966) by Robert
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0312863551/hip-20 )
( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Moon_is_a_Harsh_Mistress )
Another common theme is the computer attempting to take over the
world, as in "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (movie 1970) directed
by Joseph Sargent.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0003JAOO0/hip-20 )
In the far future we are shown computers that fit into rings and
project images into thin air, like in "Zardoz" (film 1974) directed
by John Boorman.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000059HAE/hip-20 )
So far little of this is truly groundbreaking. I do give a big
nod to Douglas Adams and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
(radio show 1978),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0563494212/hip-20 )
in which, scattered among the comedy, are some withering satirical
looks at the folly of going to far in the direction of "user friendly."
His "Sirius Cybernetics Corp." produces overly-friendly computers
and elevators, and a too-sardonic robot which was an early failure.
But of course AI has been mostly a bust. It took us 50 years just
to get halfway decent voice recognition. The real revolution
has been in human-computer interface, and the invention of 2D
and 3D graphics and Virtual reality (VR). Early on this was
described by the cyberpunks, but before that the lone voice in
the wilderness was Vernor Vinge, whose short story "True Names"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0312862075/hip-20 )
first provided the vision of computer networks navigated through
an artificial 3D interface. Later William Gibson appropriated
the concept in "Neuromancer" (novel 1984)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0441569595/hip-20 )
and called it "cyberspace." He put in the mix with the stylistic
breakthrough called "cyberpunk" or "mirrorshades." This landmark
is heralded in Wikipedia
( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuromancer )
Here is the novel that started it all, launching the cyberpunk
generation, and the first novel to win the holy trinity of
science fiction: the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award and the Philip
K. Dick Award. With Neuromancer, William Gibson introduced the
world to cyberspace--and science fiction has never been the same.
I remember seeing Gibson on-stage at SIGGRAPH 1991 in Las Vegas,
on stage during the Electronic Theater, telling the audience "You
can take off those 3D glasses now."
( www.siggraph.org )
Later, in the tale of future VR and religious intrigue in LA,
"Wild Palms" (made-for-TV miniseries 1993) directed by
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00003TKFD/hip-20 )
Gibson has a cameo and someone feeds him the line, "You coined the
word cyberspace" to which he replies, "and they've never let me
forget it." (This is the same mini-series in which a future Oliver
Stone is interviewed about how he feels now that the truth about
Kennedy assassination has finally come out, and the conspiracy
was even bigger than Stone imagined.)
So, sooner or later, I expect sci-fi in print and on screen
to catch up with the idea that Intelligence Amplification
(IA) is more useful and Artificial Intelligence (AI),
and explore beyond the simplistic drama of "Charly" (movie 1968)
directed by Ralph Nelson,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0002KPHWY/hip-20 )
based on the novel "Flowers for Algernon" (1969) by Daniel Keyes.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553274503/hip-20 )
and the horroshow of "Lawn Mower Man" (movie 1992) directed
by Brett Leonard,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6304604572/hip-20 )
supposedly based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
This week, seeing "Revenge of the Sith," I watched a trailer
for a new movie, "Stealth" (2005) directed by Rob Cohen.
( imdb.com/title/tt0382992/trailers )
It's about a robot jet fighter which goes rogue and has
to be taken down by humans. Exciting action. Nothing new
on the cybernetics front.
THE BOW-TIE OF KNOWLEDGE
...the artist occupies the ivory tower in slow-changing society.
He moves to the control tower in a rapidly changing world.
He alone can see the present clearly enough to navigate.
-- Marshall McLuhan, 1970
"Culture Is Our Business"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/007045437X/hip-20 )
I use the term "the bow-tie of knowledge" to refer to an effect
I've noticed in how the general public views science versus
well-educated amateurs and scientific experts themselves.
For example, take any field: archaeology. Driving from LA to
Vegas, you pass a sign that says "Calico Early Man Site." The
average person doesn't know what that is. If told there are
ancient Native American artifacts, and asked to guess their age,
the answers might range from a thousand to a million years.
A well-educated amateur would know that they are 50,000 years old.
They are the ones with the most faith, because professional
archaeologists and anthropologsists will know that there are
varying theories on these dates, and how accurate the dating
methods are; for example, how well-correlated the dates of the
tools are with nearby charcoal that can be carbon-dated.
SO the specialists will have a series of clauses, catches and
footnotes riddled through their knowledge, making it less certain.
The highest surety is in the middle of the bow-tie.
There are moments in sci-fi when the feel of some future
technology, its limits as well as its powers, really seems
to come through.
One example of this was in the film "THX 1138" (movie 1971)
directed by George Lucas,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0002CHIKG/hip-20 )
in which one technician is training another on the new "Mark 8"
system that allows an experimenter to override a person's
voluntary muscle signals and control their limbs externally.
Our hero is laying on the floor of a lab twitching, while in
the control room one tech slowly teaches another how to
operate the equipment and keep the dials out of the danger zones.
Another example is in Bruce Sterling's novel "Heavy Weather" (1994),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/055357292X/hip-20 )
in which a nomadic band of tornado chasers has an expert in
making obsolete electronics work. A couple of samples:
Shutting down the Troupe's systems was delicate work. Even
the minor systems, for instance, the little telephone switches,
had a million or more lines of antique corporate freeware. The
software had been created by vast teams of twentieth-century
software engineers, hired labor for extinct telephone empires
like AT&T and SPRINT. It was freeware because it was old, and
because everybody who'd ever made it was either dead now or in
other work. Those armies of telephone engineers were now as
scattered and extinct at the Soviet Red Army.
Jane opened her favorite laptop, dragged the system monitor onto
it off Mickey's sysadmin machine, and checked to see that all the
instrumentation was safely down. Peter, Greg, and Martha had been
on the job; all the towers were off-line and down now, except for
the telecom tower. They always left the telecom for last. It
made more sense, really, to take down the security system last,
but the perimeter posts were pig stupid and paranoid little
entities that reacted to any sudden loss of packets as prima
facie evidence of enemy sabotage. Unless they were petted to
sleep first, the posts would whoop like crazy.
I shiver as I realize systems like Windows XP with Service pack 3
grow closer and closer to this chaotic prediction every day.
The future's not what it used to be.
-- Samuel Goldwyn
The accumulated history of over a century of science fiction
allows us to look at an interesting trend: how our vision of
the future changes over time.
This topic was studied at length in a book, "Yesterday's
Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future" (1984),
edited by Katherine Chambers,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0801853990/hip-20 )
based on a Smithsonian Institute museum exhibit.
( www.leelanauhistory.org/yt/exhibit.shtml )
( www.wvhumanities.org/YTapplication.htm )
There are both aesthetic and philosophical changes in
the view of the future, especially from the 1930s to 1960s,
and one place you USED to able to see chronology was in the
now-extinct theme park ride "Horizons" sponsored by
General Electric in the World Showcase of EPCOT, Walt Disney
World, Florida. It is preserved by fans on-line in a photo essay,
( www.darkstudios.com/horizons.html )
a DVD for sale that re-creates the ride (and the "Carousel of
Progress which it is a sequel to),
( www.extinct-attractions-club.com/store/cart.php?m=product_detail&p=5 )
and a record of its demolition,
( www.recentpast.org/preservation/lost/horizon )
and a "virtual model" being built of it.
( www.deepwaterstudios.com/modules/wfsection/article.php?articleid=1 )
This also reminds me somehow, of an obsolete "house of the future"
near Walt Disney World in Kissimmee called "Xanadu," and chronicled
in the book "Xanadu: The Computerized Home of Tomorrow and How It Can
Be Yours Today!" (1983) by Roy Mason, Lane Jennings and Robert Evans.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0874917018/hip-20 )
( www.roadsideamerica.com/set/xanadu.html )
INFLECTION POINTS IN HISTORY
The moment of truth ... came with Roger Fry's
Postimpressionist show at the Grafton Galleries in London, an
event that moved the novelist Virginia Woolf to the confident
assertion that "in or around December, 1910, human character
changed." Adams believed Woolf was right about 1910: "Within
five years either way of that date a great sequence of new and
different works appeared in Western culture, striking the tonic
chords of modernism. Ten years before that fulcrum of December
1910, modernism is not yet; ten years after, it is already."
-- Thomas S. Hines, 2000
"Irving Gill and the Architecture of Reform:
A Study in Modernist Architectural Culture"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1580930166/hip-20 )
In Isaac Asimov's epic novel series beginning with "Foundation" (1941),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553293354/hip-20 )
he proposes a science of "psychohistory" which can predict long-term human
behavior. To this I say "poppycock!" I have found history has
points where things really do change, which I call "inflection
points." Futurists can help extrapolate trends between these points,
but across them prediction is difficult. A list of recent such
points in U.S. history would include:
* 1941 - attack on Pearl Harbor
* 1952 - I'm still figuring this one out, but it resulted in
the election of Eisenhower and the withdrawal from Korea
* 1963 - Kennedy assassination
* 1968 - Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations;
"police riots" at Democratic Convention in Chicago
* 1974 - "smoking gun" Watergate tape; Nixon resigns
* 1979 - American hostages taken in Iran
* 1992 - American artists adopted computers; "alternative"
music oxymoronically became mainstream; Clinton elected
* 2001 - 9/11
A few examples will suffice. First, consider the movie "Blade Runner"
released in 1982. It is set in the year 2019, 37 years in the future.
None of the architecture is modern. It has a brown, turn-of-the-century
classicism, evocative of Empire and Patriarchy and not at all
like the Egalitarian and Socially Visionary designs of the
so-called International Style which dominated architecture
'from the 1920s to the 1980s, when "post-modern" styles emerged.
Watching that movie in 1982 it seemed rather absurd that public
building styles would take such a "retro" turn. I for one was
expecting a future more like the newly-opened EPCOT theme park
with its "Spaceship Earth" geodesic dome pavilion.
But since then we've had AIDS, the ascendancy of Depeche Mode as
a pop band, the Lewinski scandal, a revival of Big Band music
and Swing dancing, the dot-com crash, the rise of Compassionate
Conservatism, the growth of Christian Rock, and of course 9/11.
Today the year 2019 is only 14 years away, and the Edwardian
aesthetic it shows seems far more likely.
A second example: Robert Heinlein's novel "Starship Troopers" (1959)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0441783589/hip-20 )
was written in the xenophobic and conformist fifties, and
even by the sixties seemed painfully reactionary and very
out of fashion. It described a society in constant warfare against
killer alien bugs that cannot be negotiated with. Society has
reorganized itself so that you can't vote unless you've served
in the military. When director Paul Verhoeven (who gave us "Robocop")
made the movie version in 1997
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000648WZ/hip-20 )
it was plainly a satire, done with a straight face but with tongue
in cheek. The society portrayed seemed absurd, and the killer
bugs they fought a dark, paranoid fantasy.
Of course, now, post 9/11 it's not so absurd. Most of the satire
seems to have drained away from this movie, and it has transformed
into a run-of-the-mill sci-fi action movie, like many war movies
before it. Its value as anti-war propaganda is now gone, and it
has seemingly become pro-war instead.
BEYOND THIS HORIZON
Physicists like to think that all you have to do is say,
these are the conditions, now what happens next?
-- Richard P. Feynman
The classic way to deal with inflection points is to talk about the
farther future, a few hundred years off, beyond a whole series of
local fireworks. Works from the golden age of sci-fi did this --
nobody could predict what Hitler would do next in the 1930s, so few
stories were set in the 1940s. 2100 was an easier target.
It was a safe bet that space would be colonized by then.
What was great about these stories was that they usually got the
science right. For example, most of the "Heinlein juveniles"
written for boys in the 1940s are pretty scientifically accurate
(and educationally so), at least until aliens start showing up...
( www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=16265 )
* "Rocket Ship Galileo" (novel 1947)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/044101237X/hip-20 )
The first SF novel I ever read, at age 12. Originally
titled "The Young Atomic Engineers and the Conquest of the
Moon" by Heinlein and changed by the publisher.
* "The Red Planet" (novel 1949) by Robert Heinlein
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345340396/hip-20 )
The second SF novel I ever read, after finding that
the junior high school library filed fiction by author's
last name, and there was a whole shelf-full of Heinlein.
Other grand masters of so-called "hard" sci-fi include Isaac
Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (more on them later), and the Australian
genius Cordwainer Smith. Smith described a far future with horrific
yet plausible ideas.
( www.scifi.com/scifiction/classics/classics_archive/smith/smith1.html )
One short story, "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" (1961), reprinted
in the collection "The Rediscovery of Man" (1993),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0915368560/hip-20 )
described a planetary defense that combined suicidal mutant weasels
and ESP amplifiers and projectors, causing invaders to kill themselves.
It also is a great example of the old sci-fi trick (which Smith was
a master of) in which an old word is used in a sinister new way.
Smith described a planet colonized by Australians called "Norstrilia"
-- a slang mutation of "New Australia." I was quite amused recently
while watching the new "Duck Dodgers" show on Cartoon Network,
( www.cartoonnetwork.com/tv_shows/duckdodgers/index.html )
Captain Dodgers (Daffy Duck) and the Eager Young Cadet (Porky Pig)
visited a planet of giant nostril creatures called "Nostrilia."
Other examples of classic sci-fi in which the science is gotten
* "Tau Zero" (novel 1970) by Poul Anderson
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0575070994/hip-20 )
A story in which Einstein's Special Relativity Theory is
well-used to explore vast reaches of space and time.
* "Omnibus of Science Fiction" (short story anthology 1952) edited
by Groff Conklin
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0517453703/hip-20 )
A majority of these stories from the 1950s and before represent
good, hard classic SF.
In the 1960s a new bright star emerged in the hard sci-fi genre,
just in time to save us from a wave of mush-headed fantasy that
had been sweeping the field (and still is, to judge by the number
of "sword and sorcery" books in the SF sections of bookstores).
A writer who actually hung out with astrophysicists and picked
their brains, Larry Niven ushered in a new era of stories that
used the new discoveries of black holes and neutron stars (supporting
Einstein's General Relativity) the way Anderson used Special Relativity
and Heinlein used Newton's celestial mechanics. A good starting
place are the short story collections:
* "Neutron Star" (1968)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345336941/hip-20 )
* "Tales of Known Space: The Universe of Larry Niven" (1975)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345334698/hip-20 )
all of which take place in the same universe of explored space within
a few dozen light years of earth, with overlapping planets and
( www.larryniven.org/biography.htm )
Niven's weakness is his characters, who sometimes lack believability.
He solved this problem by collaborating with Jerry Pournelle, who
was better at the people stuff. Together they produced some very
interesting hard SF with well-developed characters, such as:
* "Oath of Fealty" (novel 1981)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0671532278/hip-20 )
An exploration of privatized space, and Paolo Soleri's idea
for the giant one-building city, or "arcology."
* "Dream Park" (novel 1981)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0441167306/hip-20 )
The best darn extrapolation of theme parks and VR technology.
Niven seemed to usher in (I'm not sure if he actually inspired) a
new wave of hard SF authors, including James P. Hogan:
* "Code of the Lifemaker" (novel 1983)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0743435265/hip-20 )
This clever inversion of biology and machinery is a good
place to start with Hogan.
and Robert L. Forward:
* "Dragon's Egg" (novel 1988)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/034543529X/hip-20 )
Forward was an engineer for Hughes Aircraft Company's
research science center in Malibu for many years, the Hughes
Research Laboratories (HRL),
( www.hrl.com )
and developed concepts such as the "elevator to orbit" for
use 50 years in the future. Then, frustrated by aerospace
inertia, he began taking his ideas directly to the public
through SF. His science is even better than Niven, and his
characters are even worse.
This book is the first in a fascinating series, and
some of the "hardest" SF I've ever read.
* "Ender's Game" (novel 1985) by Orson Scott Card
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0812550706/hip-20 )
This is the first in a series of stories that explores
youth, war, games and telepresence.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it,
doesn't go away.
-- Philip K. Dick, 1966
"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345404475/hip-20 )
Those of you who are serious fans of science fiction writing
are probably saying, "yeah, what ABOUT Philip K. Dick?" I see
Mr. Dick as symbolic of -- and the best example of -- what I call
"psycho sci-fi," implying both "interested in the study of the
mind" and "crazy." He has been called "the paranoid SF writer"
and compared to Kafka, especially in how he creates a surreal
atmosphere while probing human suffering. Technical dystopias
were his forte; I don't think he ever wrote any utopias.
In December 2003 "WIRED" magazine ran a cover story on Dick's
stories being picked up (finally) by Hollywood, called "The
Second Coming of Philip K. Dick."
( www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.12/philip.html )
Of course the greatest and most famous movie based on his
writing was "Blade Runner" (1982) directed by Ridley Scott,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6305842442/hip-20 )
based on "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (novel 1966).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345404475/hip-20 )
But there have also been "Total Recall" (1990) directed by Paul Verhoeven,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000640RW/hip-20 )
based on "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" (short story 1966),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0586207694/hip-20 )
and "Minority Report" (2002) directed by Steven Spielberg,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005JL78/hip-20 )
based on "Minority Report" (short story 1956),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0375421874/hip-20 )
and rumor has it "A Scanner Darkly" (novel 1977)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679736654/hip-20 )
is on its way to film this next year, directed by Richard Link-later
of "Slacker" (movie 1991) and "Dazed and Confused" (movie 1993) fame,
and starring Keanu Reeves (who else?).
When I think about Dick's stories I'm reminded of an article in
"Oui" magazine in August of 1976, entitled "Meeting Manson --
The Acid Apostle and the Prophet of Doom Discuss Life and Fear
and Death" by Timothy Leary. Dr. Leary was in solitary confinement
in Soledad prison in the cell next to Manson's and got to have a
few philosophical "chats." That is an amazing tale in itself, but
Leary also talks about how other prisoners idolized him and asked his
advice. One "trusty" said he'd been advised by two different people
to read the Bible and the I Ching, and wanted to know which to read
first. "Neither," said Leary, "they're both 2,000 years obsolete."
Then he thought about the man's background, and what books were
available, and said "Read science fiction."
I like to think that Philip K. Dick stories were the kind
he had in mind.
THE VANISHING UNCANNY PREDICTIONS
The Americans are so clever, that some day they will
reach the very sky, and, once there, they will change
the face of the whole universe.
-- Jose Castro, Military Chief of Alta California,
Sooner or later when looking at science fiction it occurs to
one to ask the question, "Who has gotten it right?" i.e., "Who
has correctly predicted the future?" Of course, for all the
Grand Masters who look hundreds or thousands of years ahead
(or even tens of thousands, like Cordwainer Smith) we don't
know yet if their predictions will come true. But occasionally,
bravely, a writer has looked at the shorter term and so given
us predicitions to evaluate -- especially from the least recent
In comparing predictions with actual events (looking at the
cybernetics of the process), I've noticed four interesting
patterns, which I call "self-fulfilling prophecies,"
"self-preventing prophecies," "post-facto self-evident ideas"
and "the present as mystery." Let me delve briefly into each:
1) self-fulfilling prophecies
Examples of this include Jules Verne predicting
the first submarine under the polar ice caps would
be called "Nautilus" (mentioned above), Robert Heinlein
describing water beds in "Stranger In a Strange Land"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0441790348/hip-20 )
as well as tele-operated mechanical hands called "Waldoes"
in the novella "Waldo" (1942),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345330153/hip-20 )
and Arthur C. Clarke predicting communication satellites and
describing solar sails. The history of the latter is documented
on a web site about weird words
( www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-sol1.htm )
which has this to say:
The name was popularised by Arthur C. Clarke, in his short
story "Sunjammer" of 1964 (reprinted as the title story of
"The Wind from the Sun" in 1972),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0575600527/hip-20 )
though the concept in science fiction goes back at least
as far as Cordwainer Smith's "The Lady who Sailed the
Soul" of 1960.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0915368560/hip-20 )
In factual speculation it is even older: the Russian'
aeronautics pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and his'
colleague Fridrickh Tsander wrote in 1924 of "using'
tremendous mirrors of very thin sheets and using the'
pressure of sunlight to attain cosmic velocities." The'
term itself seems to have been coined in the late 1950s'
by the American engineer Richard Garwin.
Another thing that happened this May, 2005 was a solar
test that worked. On CNN's web site
( edition.cnn.com/2005/TECH/space/05/13/vision.solarsail/index.html )
this story was posted:
NASA tests solar sail technology
Monday, May 16, 2005 Posted: 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
(CNN) -- A solar sail that scientists believe could
power missions into deep space has passed its first
A 20-meter square sail was deployed and its orientation
controlled in a vacuum chamber designed to mimic space
at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio, developers ATK
Space Systems said in a press release.
NASA has described the tests as a "crucial milestone"
in the development of a unique propulsion technology
that could be used to send probes to study the sun
and the rest of the solar system.
From the point of view of giving science fiction authors
credit for accurate predictions, somehow a self-fulfilling
prophecy doesn't seem to count, like it's cheating. You
can always predict what you can control.
2) self-preventing prophecies
As mentioned above, sometimes this is a good thing. Most
of us don't want to live under the tyranny described in
"1984" which (hopefully) has been made less likely by
Orwell's writings. But other times this effect can be
frustrating. The Alweg Corporation, which built the monorails
for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, expected to find immediate
markets for their innovative trains, especially since they
required less real estate than other mass transit options
through cities (and that's where the big bucks get spent).
But the monorail was branded "futuristic" which somehow
translated to "expensive" in taxpayers' minds, and
the concept proved very difficult to sell. In a very real
sense Tomorrowland almost killed the monorail.
3) post-facto self-evident ideas
This may be the toughest problem futurists of all kinds face.
A close study of the history of prediction reveals that many
ideas are obvious AFTER THE FACT. As a result when the
prediction is made it seems fantastic, but when it comes
true it seems like "everyone knew" it would.
In the book "The Idea of History" (1956)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0192853066/hip-20 )
R. G. Collingwood makes the case that before the empires of
Greece and Rome the idea of history wasn't very widespread.
People didn't write down what we now think of as "history"
because they didn't have the idea. But it is so very hard
to imagine not having that idea, because it is so fundamental
to the ideas of our culture (and to many other cultures as well).
Sci-fi authors face this same blind spot in their readers.
No one is amazed today that we have communications satellites.
Most people don't even think of them as part of the space
program -- they're just part of the telecomm industry, like
phone polls, cell antennas and microwave repeaters. It's
hard to imagine (or even to recall, if you're old enough like
me) a time when most experts said it wouldn't work.
4) the present as mystery
If we're talking about public perception of predicitions,
we have to factor in widespread ignorance of the present.
If you ask most people when we'll have "swarm computing"
in little computers you can wear as rings that can wirelessly
cooperate to perform supercomputing tasks, they'd probably say
5 to 10 years in the future. But Sun Microsystems
demonstrated this technology in 1998 at the JavaOne Conference.
( java.sun.com/features/1998/03/rings.html )
It just isn't publicly known.
Given the above factors it is remarkable when an SF author's
prediction comes true and it actually manages to seem dramatic
after the fact. Here are a few of my favorites (with some other
media mixed in):
* "The Past Through Tomorrow" (short stories 1967) by Robert Heinlein
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0739410512/hip-20 )
Correctly predicted, in the 1930s and 40s, that the 1960s would
be "crazy years."
* "Rowan and Martin's Laugh In" (TV show 1968-73)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00008PHCV/hip-20 )
In the "News of the Future" set twenty years hence they
accurately predicted that Ronald Reagan would be president
from 1981 to 1988, and that the Berlin Wall would fall in the
autumn of 1989.
* "Stand On Zanzibar" (novel 1968) by John Brunner
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345347870/hip-20 )
This one book sets a record for correct predictions for the
year 2010 that have already come true: "zock" (music videos),
"muckers" (what we call "going postal"), artcrime, and third
world biotech political intrigue.
This is the book I did my report on for the "Sociology
Through Science Fiction" class at UCSC. I took a list of
seven social functions of sex from "The Human Zoo" (book 1969)
by Desmond Morris,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1568361041/hip-20 )
and gave examples of each ion the behavior of "Shiggies and
Codders" in Brunner's novel. This was actually something he
may have gotten wrong (though it's not 2010 yet, who knows?)
-- he didn't foresee AIDS, and so predicted endlessly rising
* "A Clockwork Orange" (movie 1971) directed by Stanley Kubrick
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005ATQB/hip-20 )
Ushering in the seventies, Kubrick's dark masterpiece can
be argued as the first "postmodern" film, recontextualizing
Beethoven and "Singing in the rain." It predicted the breakdown
of civility, the rise of gangster culture, and the increased
frequency of abrupt political and fashion shifts.
* "Sleeper" (movie 1973) directed by Woody Allen
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0792846117/hip-20 )
This comedy about a 20th century man (Allen) who wakes up
in a disturbing future of tyranny and artificial sex includes
two prediction "zingers" -- first that one day smoking and
fried foods would turn out to be good for you (not proved to
date but some other weird inversions, like the Atkins diet,
have happened), and second that US President Richard Nixon
would do something so terrible that he would be virtually erased
from history (and this was before Watergate!).
* "The Years In Your Ears -- Mid-Century to Century Two Thousand"
on "How Time Flys" (audio comedy 1973) by David Ossman and the
( shop.store.yahoo.com/laughstore/daoshowtifl.html )
This tale of a returning astronaut launched in 1979 and
coming back to earth in 2000 has him receive a recorded
"wakeup call" to catch him up on the history he's missed.
One amazing prediction is that in the late 1970s:
...after a long string of local fireworks, the first
of the Oil Wars exploded. Business improved. Public
A transcript of the entire bit is on-line,
( jakeoboy.home.radiks.net/firesign/funpage07.html )
but I'd like to share an excerpt, on the 1980s and 90s,
to a give a flavor for the surreal quality of good future
prediction (even when it isn't right):
NELLIE: Back here it was Business As Usual...
JIM: The Irish-Israeli Crisis...
NELLIE: The near-tragic Latin American Devaluation...
JIM: The Pacific Energy Conflict....
NELLIE: The Pirate Raids of '85 and '86...
JIM: Weren't those something? Yet, at home, things slowed down
a lot. Eco-Planning and Life-System Improvement, together
with the Population Stabilization Program under President
Bolt, created the North American Village Movement. By
1988, just as you were entering the orbit of Planet X,
Political Life began to become a Thing Of The Past.
SOUND: 1990's MUZIK UNDER, PUNCTUATING.
NELLIE: Some called them the Empty Eighties, but now others are
being Naughty in the Nekkid Nineties! New words like "nov
shmov ka pop"...
JIM: Boltarama (Registered)...
NELLIE: Tide Energy...
JIM: Retirement Camp... And new ideas like...
NELLIE: Poopain (Registered)...
JIM: Tsoeng-kwo-run shahn yen...
NELLIE: New Tourist Nations like Amazonia and Nam-Land....
JIM: And a few surprises, Mark! For instance, a new head in
Rushmore National Park, and the final elimination of
the combustion engine -- two years ahead of schedule!
(By the way, from the album cover it becomes obvious that
the "new head in Rushmore National Park" is John Lennon!
Of course this hasn't happened, but they did name an airport
after him in Liverpool.)
I can't leave the subject of predictions without mentioning my own.
When I was in high school I went around telling people that:
1) shortly after we put an optical telescope in orbit
out side the Earth's atmosphere we would discover a
5th force in the universe (besides the four known forces of
gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear
This one has come true.
2) One day we will mine our own garbage dumps.
Well, where I live we have mandatory trash sorting for
recycling, but we're not digging it up yet.
My one attempt to predict the stock market for financial gain worked
well. I bought Cisco stock the week after 9/11 and sold it in the
fall of 2004 when it had gained about 50%. (I figured that it was
artificially depressed by terrorism fears, and that it would grow
due to a) HDTV sales, b) customer dissatisfaction with cable
and satellite offerings for HDTV, c) people turning to broadband
internet to get HDTV content, and so d) increased demand for
Cisco's backbone equipment.)
Here is a new prediction for the future:
If someone from 100 years in the future described for you
daily life and entertainment from their time you would
think they were a deranged sex maniac.
I base this on the same contrast between today and 100 years
ago. Imagine showing Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty" video (2002)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00006J9RF/hip-20 )
CYBERPUNKS IN CYBERSPACE
The counterculture of the 1960s was rural, romanticized, anti-science,
anti-tech. But there was always a lurking contradiction at its heart,
symbolized by the electric guitar. Rock technology was the thin edge
of the wedge. As the years have passed, rock tech has grown ever more
accomplished, expanding into high-tech recording, satellite video, and
computer graphics. Slowly it is turning rebel pop culture inside out,
until the artists at pop's cutting edge are now, quite often, cutting
edge technicians in the bargain. They are special effects wizards,
mixmasters, tape-effects techs, graphics hackers, emerging through
new media to dazzle society with head-trip extravaganzas like FX
cinema and the global Live Aid benefit. The contradiction has become
-- Bruce Sterling, 1986
introduction to "Mirrorshades --
The Cyberpunk Anthology"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0441533825/hip-20 )
Most critics and fans saw the whole "cyberpunk" thing as a
stylistic fad. Much was made of the new, post-modern multi-media
forms. In addition to the obvious accolades for "Blade Runner"
(op. cit.) there was also the original "Max Headroom" (made-for-cable
movie 1985)" directed by Annabel Jankel,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6301651677/hip-20 )
which started with a title card saying "twenty minutes into the future."
Cyberpunk Grand Master William Gibson came from out of nowhere
in the mid-1980s with stories published in "Omni" magazine, the
pop-futurist attempt by "Penthouse" publisher Bob Guccioni. Gibson
likes to tell the story how, in the late 1970s, he knew all these
hip artists who dressed in black and did Avant Garde stuff and
knew nothing about computers, while there were these engineers
who tended to wear flannel plaid and were totally unhip but knew
all about computers. And he got to wondering, what if the artists
got technical and the engineers got hip? And he based his books
such as "Neuromancer" (novel 1984) and its sequels on the idea.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0441569595/hip-20 )
Stylistic it was, beginning with the epoch-sounding knell:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned
to a dead channel.
But self-appointed-genre-spokesperson Bruce Sterling has insisted
that the "cyberpunks" are actually carrying the mantle of hard SF
and speculative fiction. The future will be "weirdly cool"
to use the Firesign Theater's phrase. There is demographic
evidence. They're just writing about it.
Sterling pulled together a bunch of writers and rechristened the
genre "mirrorshades" in 1986 with the short story collection
"Mirrorshades -- The Cyberpunk Anthology."
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0441533825/hip-20 )
The same year Gibson published "Burning Chrome" (short stories 1986)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060539828/hip-20 )
which included the ill-fated "Johnny Mnemonic" ( a GREAT story
by the way).
From the point of view of speculative fiction, though, Gibson's
so-called "bridge trilogy" is most gratifying. As I mentioned
at the beginning of this essay, the first novel, "Virtual Light"
was written in 1993, set in 2005, 12 years ahead.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553566067/hip-20 )
I've read on the web that Gibson intended his story to be set in
2005 but he didn't want it widely known, so he just buried a few
clues. But then he made the mistake of mentioning this to a
reporter, who published it, and then his publisher picked up
on it and put it on the book cover of subsequent editions without
his permission. So when he produced the two sequels, "Idoru" (1996)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0425158640/hip-20 )
and "All Tomorrow's Parties" (1999)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0441007554/hip-20 )
he was even cagier about the setting dates.
There were three things that sustained my interest through
re-reading this trilogy in the last several weeks:
1) the things Gibson got right
* bigger screens, more screen-in-screen
* the rise of reality shows
* networks attacking each other using on-air
investigations of reality shows
* increased airport security (written in 1993)
* pervasive hacking into official computers
* in 2005 the LA airport (LAX) would still have recordings
that said "the white zone is for immediate loading and
unloading only -- no parking"
2) the things Gibson got wrong
* nanotechnology birth control
* nanotechnology underwater tunneling
(instead we have the leaky "big dig" in Boston)
* evolution of viruses produces an AIDS cure
* projected holograms
* virtual light (radio waves directly to optic nerve)
3) the spooky number of cultural references I personally
* Southern Gothic
* "Miracle Mile" (movie 1988) directed by Steve De Jarnatt
(I also got the habit of putting movie and book dates
after titles in parens from these books.)
"Whiter Shade of Pale" (song 1967) by Procol Harum
Other cyberpunk authors have also done a workmanlike job of
speculative fiction, especially good old Bruce Sterling.
Some of his well-done efforts include:
* "Holy Fire" (novel 1996)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/055357549X/hip-20 )
A sober exploration of the down side of longevity --
a future political system dominated by the old, who outnumber
the young 10 to 1.
* "Distraction" (novel 1999)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553576399/hip-20 )
Among other things this tour de force addresses the
question "what will the wired world be like in 2044,
when the web is 50 years old?"
* "A Good Old-Fashioned Future" (short stories 1999) by Bruce Sterling
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553576429/hip-20 )
Some good old-fashioned future fiction short stories about the
Neal Stephenson is the third cyberpunk author who has pulling his
share in the spec fic domain. His Hugo award-winning novel "The
Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" (1995)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553380966/hip-20 )
explores the sociology of virtually infinite wealth through
nanotechnology, and sees a future of a future of neo-Victorian
economic aristocrats ("Vickies") who form political
collectives to protect themselves from rude and vicious proles.
As mentioned in a previous 'zine, his short story "Spew" (1994)
( www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.10/spew.html )
is another thought-provoking look at the future of the web.
TIME CONSIDERED AS A HELIX
Doc Brown: Marty! You're still not thinking fourth-dimensionally.
Marty McFly: Yeah, I have a real problem with that.
-- "Back to the Future Part III" (1990)
screenplay by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00006AL1E/hip-20 )
The title of this section is cribbed from "Time Considered as a Helix
of Semi-Precious Stones" (short story 1969) by Samuel R. Delany
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553256106/hip-20 )
which is a lovely tale -- and relevant in the cyber era because
of its look at secret passwords in the public's avoiding law
enforcement, like today's BitTorrent tracker sites -- but actually
not about what this section is about: time travel.
A lot of science fiction deals with time travel, and most of
it in nonsensical ways. Only a few stories get it right (as I
see it). Let me settle this for once and for all: if you get in
your time machine and go back and shoot your grandpa, then travel
forward in time, you will still exist but you will be in a world
where nobody knows your name, like Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful
Life." Any artifacts you have with you -- like a photo of yourself
-- will not fade out like in "Back to the Future" (movie 1985)
directed by Robert Zemeckis.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00006AL1E/hip-20 )
If you then go back in time and shoot yourself before you shoot your
grandpa, preventing his murder, you will travel forward to a world
where people DO know your name. Any videos who take of this whole
mess while survive unscathed if you take them in the time machine.
(Got it?) The only stories I've read that got this right, as I can
* "All You Zombies" (short story 1959) by Robert Heinlein
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0515028223/hip-20 )
( www.answers.com/topic/all-you-zombies-3 )
( home.alltel.net/dwrighsr/Heinlein/AllYouZombies.html )
* "Mutiny in the Time Machine" (novel 1963) by Donald Keith
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0007E9SWA/hip-20 )
based on the stories in "Boys Life" magazine
* "The Technicolor Time Machine" (novel, 1967) by Harry Harrison
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0812516079/hip-20 )
* "The Man Who Folded Himself" (novel 1972) by David Gerrold
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1932100040/hip-20 )
This last I read while stuck at an apartment overlooking
Ventura Blvd., about how when the time traveler got depressed
he would live in an apartment overlooking Ventura Blvd.
just experiencing the same year (1955?) over and over...
Larry Niven wrote an essay in the collection "All the Myriad Ways"
(stories and essays 1975)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345334167/hip-20 )
in which he argued that if time travel WERE possible, some sort
of "time cop" would go back in time and prevent its invention,
which would then be a stable state. This view is explored in the
movie "Timecop" (1994) directed by Peter Hyams.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0783225520/hip-20 )
But it also looks at what happens if some of those cops are corrupt,
as does the story "Mozart in Mirrorshades" in the above-mentioned
And I must point out that this view of time travel (which I call
the "Heinleinian system" for its discoverer) really posits
another dimension besides what we call time, a pseudo-time.
If time is not the dimension of causality, then pseudo-time is.
(This is what makes tenses so hard for talking about time travel,
hence the joke in the title "Back to the Future.") This same
concept is utilized in an alternative interpretation of
quantum mechanics, alternative that is to the standard
"Copenhagen interpretation" which has stood since 1936, with
its "Schrodinger's cat" paradox and causality-violating
"Bell inequality." This alternative is called "the
transaction interpretation of quantum theory" and also
( mist.npl.washington.edu/npl/int_rep/tiqm/TI_toc.html )
Some may ask, "Why bother thinking about an impossibility like time
travel? Isn't that just another form of fantasy?" But if you
really "grok" (know like drinking deeply -- a metaphor of Heinlein's
Martians) the concept of pseudo-time, you realize that the paradoxes
are solved. Combine this with ideas from Einstein's general relativity
that predict time travel through rotating black holes, worm holes,
etc., and it begins to seem plausable enough to explore, given that
the consequences would be so extreme. As the Firesign Theatre once
said, it is "a power so great it can only be used for good or evil!"
But another good reason is just that it stretches the mind, like logic
puzzles, and helps you to think more 4th-dimensionally. Doc Brown
would be proud!
TIME CONSIDERED AS A TREE
Parallel Universe 'So Much Better' Says Alternate You
-- headline in The Onion 5/11/05
( www.theonion.com )
If time travel stretches your mind, another sub-genre called
"alternate history" gives it a workout. Since history is an
experiment that is only run once, this format allows authors
to explore "what if" scenarios. (Come to think of it,
"Saturday Night Live" had a skit called "What If?" in
which a teenage boy made up scenarios portrayed out by a group
of actors, with questions like "What if Spartacus had a Piper
Cub?") Some of the classics in this field are "Bring the Jubilee"
(novel 1953) by Ward Moore,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345405021/hip-20 )
about the Confederacy winning the Civil War, and the aforementioned
Philip K. Dick's "The Man In the High Castle" (novel 1962)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679740678/hip-20 )
about the Axis powers winning World War Two.
The collection "Roads Not Taken" (short story anthology 1998) edited
by Gardner Dozois
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345421949/hip-20 )
has some good, new fiction in this vein, and the TV show
"Sliders" (1995-2000) based on the "many worlds" idea is finally
coming out on DVD in July.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00022FWEU/hip-20 )
The Japanese love "futuristic" things precisely because they've
been living in the future for such a very long time now. History,
that other form of speculative fiction, explains why.
-- William Gibson, 2001
"My Own Private Tokyo" (article in WIRED)
( wired-vig.wired.com/wired/archive/9.09/gibson.html )
Science fiction authors, as part of their job, study science,
and sometimes they write books about the subjects they've studied.
A master of this was Isaac Asimov, who for years wrote science
essays for Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&FSF) magazine and collected
them into groups of 17 in book form.
( homepage.mac.com/jhjenkins/Asimov/Books/Book148.html )
* "Fact and Fancy" (essay collection 1962)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0380011743/hip-20 )
* "View from a Height" (essay collection 1963)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0380003562/hip-20 )
* "Adding a Dimension: Seventeen Essays On the History of Science"
(essay collection 1964)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005VAUX/hip-20 )
* "From Earth to Heaven" (essay collection 1966)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0380421844/hip-20 )
* "Science, Numbers, and I" (essay collection 1968)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0441754570/hip-20 )
* "The Stars In Their Courses" (essay collection 1971)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0586041222/hip-20 )
Asimov helped teach to think like a scientist with these essays.
My all time favorite book by Arthur C. Clarke is "Lost Worlds of 2001"
(fiction and commentary 1972),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0451125363/hip-20 )
in which he tells the story of how he wrote the novel "2001" for
Kubrick to turn into a screenplay, WITH FEEDBACK from Kubrick,
and gives examples of the directions the plot took in earlier
drafts that didn't make it to the final cut. It has information
about science, about writing, about filmmaking and about collaboration.
Engineer Robert L. Forward explains inventions of his own and
his colleagues in "Future Magic" (1988),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0380898144/hip-20 )
telling how space elevators and black-hole levitation systems
Bruce Sterling has been a great scout into the future, with:
* "The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier"
(book 1992) by Bruce Sterling
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/055356370X/hip-20 )
* "Tomorrow Now -- Envisioning the Next Fifty Years" (book 2002)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0812969766/hip-20 )
Neal Stephenson used his hacker perspective to remind us all
that graphical interfaces can never replace text when it comes
to the "heavy lifting" of human-machine interfaces, in the
essay "In the Beginning Was the Command Line" (book 1999).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0380815931/hip-20 )
And though he isn't a SF author, I recommend Stewart Brand's
"The Clock of the Long Now" (book 1999)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465007805/hip-20 )
for a real long view.
A lot of these guys have also written nonfiction articles for WIRED.
( www.wired.com )
FORMER SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS
If it isn't now, who cares?
-- one of many changing "Radio Now" slogans in
"Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death" (audio comedy, 1998)
The Firesign Theatre
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000AG7T/hip-20 )
A interesting trend has occurred among thee cyberpunks. They seem
to have all dropped out of the future, into the present. The
excuse given is the "present as mystery" effect described above --
the present's so weird, we don't need the future to have sci-fi!
But I also suspect these guys are trying to chase Tom Clancy and
Michael Crichton into respectability, and bigger bucks.
It starred with a foray sideways into an alternate past. Gibson and
Sterling collaborated on "The Difference Engine" (novel 1991).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/055329461X/hip-20 )
Then Stephenson snuck out and collaborated with his uncle, J. Frederick George, and published under the pseudonym "Stephen Bury," these two contemporary action & technology thrillers:
* "Interface" (novel 1994)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553572407/hip-20 )
* "The Cobweb" (novel 1996)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553378287/hip-20 )
Then Stephenson wrote a present and past hybrid about codes and
codebreaking called "Cryptonomicon" (novel 1999),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060512806/hip-20 )
and followed it with the epic historical trilogy that began with
"Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1)" (novel 2003).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0380977427/hip-20 )
Bruce Sterling finally moved into contemporary fiction with
"Zeitgeist" (novel 2000),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553576410/hip-20 )
and "The Zenith Angle" (novel 2005) by Bruce Sterling
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345468651/hip-20 )
and William Gibson entered the fray with "Pattern Recognition" (novel 2003).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0425192938/hip-20 )
These three are all set in the year they are published, stylistic
wonders, and very high tech.
THE BEAT GOES ON
Remember what we sang
Remember how we danced
In America so many years ago.
-- "Diana" (song, 1971) by Paul Kantner
on the album "Sungighter" by Grace Slick and Paul Kantner
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000002X1R/hip-20 )
( theuncool.com/writtenby/door/sunfighter.htm )
Just as sci-fi faced an identity crisis after the 1969 moon
landings, it also faced a crisis after the year 2000. I call
this "science fiction's Y2K problem."
It reminds me of my own personal Y2K problem (see my web site).
( www.well.com/~abs/2000+.html )
Sterling helped me with this in "Virtual Light" when it was 1993 and
I was having a hard time imagining looking back to movies made in 2002.
( us.imdb.com/Sections/Years/2002 )
That millennial divide seemed so great. Now, on the other side of it,
it seems hard to imagine the future from here. But some are still
doing it. A recent collection called "Hard SF Renaissance" (short
story anthology 2002) edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0312876351/hip-20 )
offers up recent stories in the spec fic tradition, and recently
a new bright young Voice has appeared: Corey Doctorow, who dazzled
with his ultra-hip far-future immortalist and cyber "Down and Out
in the Magic Kingdom" (novel 2003).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/076530953X/hip-20 )
( www.authorama.com/book/down-and-out-in-the-magic-kingdom.html )
His short story "0wnz0red" in the collection "A Place So Foreign and
Eight More" (2004)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1568582862/hip-20 )
is awesome, a near perfect post-millennial story, and his latest
novel "Eastern Standard Tribe" (2004) is subtler but deep.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0765307596/hip-20 )
After the SF revolutions of Heinlein, Niven and Gibson, this looks
to me like "Episode IV: A New Hope."
FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS IN ONE DAY
Nobody goes there any more, it's too crowded.
-- Yogi Berra
Well, "Star Wars Episode One: Revenge of the Sith" has set a bunch
of box office records, but I can't find anybody outside of my circle
of friends who will admit to going to see it.
At a recent company meeting of about 100 people, only two would
admit to reading science fiction. Is it a guilty pleasure? I
know people who insist that claiming to be a "fan" is equivalent
to social suicide. But doesn't everyone want to know the future?
I reflect on the fact that astrology and astronomy both ask the
question: "What is your place in the universe?" But astrology
answers "You are so important that the stars in their courses
exists to predict your feelings," while astronomy says "You live
on an insignificant clod in the unfashionable outer spiral arms
an average galaxy, and one day this clod will be burned up by a
Guess which is more popular with the public?
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