Boy meets girl meets robot

So what to read next, after Dune? More sci-fi? Ian McEwan’s “retrofuturist family drama” seems to be getting some attention.

Man, woman, and robot in Ian McEwan’s new novel
It’s London, 1982. The Beatles have reunited (to mixed reviews), Margaret Thatcher has just lost the Falkland Islands to Argentina, and Sir Alan Turing, now seventy, is the presiding spirit of a preemie Information Age. People have already soured on the latest innovations, among them “speaking fridges with a sense of smell” and driverless cars that cause multinational gridlock. “The future kept arriving,” Charlie ruminates. “Our bright new toys began to rust before we could get them home, and life went on much as before.”

Buyer’s remorse is a recurring theme in Ian McEwan’s witty and humane new novel, “Machines Like Me” (Nan A. Talese), a retrofuturist family drama that doubles as a cautionary fable about artificial intelligence, consent, and justice. Though steeped in computer science, from the P-versus-NP problem to DNA-inspired neural networks, the book is not meant to be a feat of hard-sci-fi imagineering; McEwan’s aim is to probe the moral consequences of what philosophers call “the problem of other minds.”

In “Machines Like Me”, Ian McEwan asks an age-old question
Amid all the action, there are sober passages of philosophical discussion between Charlie and Adam. But in parts the novel is funny, too. To Charlie’s disgust, Adam’s encyclopedic recall of Shakespeare makes him seem the better catch to Miranda’s father, a writer, who assumes Charlie is the robot, because he isn’t interested in books.

Late in the story it emerges that other androids around the world are committing suicide in horror at the behaviour of their flesh-and-blood masters. Adam wonders about the “mystery of the self” and his fear that he is “subject to a form of Cartesian error”. Strip away the counterfactual wrapping and “Machines Like Me” is ultimately about the age-old question of what makes people human. The reader is left baffled and beguiled.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan review – intelligent mischief
This is the mode of exposition in which he [Kipling] seems to address the reader from a position of shared knowledge, sketching out an unfamiliar reality through hints and allusions, but never explaining it too completely. This inside-out style is the default mode of modern SF. It is economical and of special usefulness to makers of strange worlds, plunging a reader into a new reality and leaving them space to feel like a participant in its creation. It’s the opposite technique to that of McEwan’s narrator, who explicitly sets out his world, overexplains the historical context and never turns down a chance to offer an essayistic digression.

To my taste, this is a flat-footed way of doing sci-fi.

‘It drives writers mad’: why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi?
Machines Like Me is not, however, science fiction, at least according to its author. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,” McEwan said in a recent interview, “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.” There is, as many readers noticed, a whiff of genre snobbery here, with McEwan drawing an impermeable boundary between literary fiction and science fiction, and placing himself firmly on the respectable side of the line.

But perhaps we’ve had enough about robots and AI recently.

Never mind killer robots—here are six real AI dangers to watch out for in 2019
The latest AI methods excel at perceptual tasks such as classifying images and transcribing speech, but the hype and excitement over these skills have disguised how far we really are from building machines as clever as we are. Six controversies from 2018 stand out as warnings that even the smartest AI algorithms can misbehave, or that carelessly applying them can have dire consequences.

Dune. Done.

So. They’re remaking Dune.

7 things we know so far about the Dune remake (& 3 things fans are hoping for)
Dune has quickly become one of the most anticipated upcoming movies. With plenty of talent and a beloved source material already behind it, there were plenty of fans looking forward to this big screen adaptation. However, with big names being announced to the cast seeming every day, excitement for the film has skyrocketed.

I thought now would be a good time to read the book, to see what all the fuss is about. All I knew of it was from the David Lynch film. It didn’t make much of an impression, to be honest.

Dune, 50 years on: how a science fiction novel changed the world
Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius. Its concerns – environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism – are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.

The book is over 50 years old. You can buy this collector’s edition from the Folio Society for £75, or the e-book together with its five sequels on Amazon for £1.99. I chose the latter.

Manny Rayner’s review of Dune
So that was the Dune we know and love, but the man who rewrote it now would get a rather different reception. Oh my God! These Fremen, who obviously speak Arabic, live on a desert planet which supplies the Universe with melange, a commodity essential to the Galactic economy, and in particular to transport. Not a very subtle way to say “oil”! They are tough, uncompromising fighters, who are quite happy to use suicide bombing as a tactic. They’re led by a charismatic former rich kid (OK, we get who you mean), who inspires them to rise up against the corrupt, degenerate… um, does he mean Westerners?

Dune has made a huge impact on many people, one that it failed to make on me, but then I watched this. My goodness, imagine if this had been made instead.

Jodorowsky’s Dune | Official Trailer HD (2014)

I knew Jodorowsky from watching the incredible, hypnotic Santa Sangre many years ago, and knew he had wanted to do something with Dune, but hadn’t really appreciated the full extent of his surrealist and psychedelic project until I watched that documentary. Goodness me.

And what an incredible legacy that film-that-never-was has left us. Dan O’Bannon and HR Giger’s work on Alien, for example. But also Dan O’Bannon’s collaboration with Moebius.

“The Long Tomorrow”: Discover Mœbius’ hard-boiled detective comic that inspired Blade Runner
Alejandro Jodorowsky may never have made his film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but plenty came out of the attempt — including, one might well argue, Blade Runner. Making that still hugely influential adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott and his collaborators looked to a few key visual sources, one of them a two-part short story in comic form called “The Long Tomorrow.”

The Long Tomorrow, by Moebius
As we were still in the stage of preparations and concepts, there was almost nothing to do and he was bored stiff. To kill time, he drew. Dan is best known as a script writer, but is an excellent cartoonist. If he had wished, he could have been a professional graphic artist. One day, he showed me what he was drawing. It was the story board of ‘The Long Tomorrow’. A classic police story, but situated in the future. I was enthusiastic. When Europeans try this kind of parody, it is never entirely satisfactory, the French are too French, the Italians are too Italian … so, under my nose was a pastiche that was more original than the originals.

dune-done

And from The Long Tomorrow to Blade Runner and back to Dune, with the news that Denis Villeneuve, the director of the Blade Runner remake, will direct this new Dune remake.

Simon Stålenhag’s sci-fi to hit our screens

I was happy to read that the work of sci-fi illustrator Simon Stålenhag may be on our screens, in the not-too-distant future.

Simon Stålenhag’s dystopian art to come to life in a new Amazon sci-fi TV series
Its eight-episode run will tell the tale of the town of people who live above ‘The Loop’, a machine built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe. A cast hasn’t been announced, but we do know Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Know) will be directing the pilot, while Legion‘s Nathaniel Halpern and Planet of the Apes sequels director Matt Reeves are on board as executive producers.

They’re talking about his book Takes From The Loop, but my money’s on his other work, The Electric State, being the bigger winner. As I mentioned before, this one may also make it to the big screen, if the Amazon page for its Kindle edition is to be believed.

Dystopian Swedish sci-fi

Digital Arts has some images of wonderfully atmospheric paintings from Simon Stålenhag, an artist and designer from Sweden.

Simon Stålenhag’s incredible paintings show an alien invasion that has gone wrong
The artist’s near-photorealistic style provides a wonderful contrast to its otherworldly subjects.

They’re from his new book, The Electric State, due out this September. This is the description from Amazon of the hardcover version.

The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag
A teen girl and her robot embark on a cross-country mission in this illustrated science fiction story, perfect for fans of Ready Player One and Black Mirror.

In late 1997, a runaway teenager and her small yellow toy robot travel west through a strange American landscape where the ruins of gigantic battle drones litter the countryside, along with the discarded trash of a high-tech consumerist society addicted to a virtual-reality system. As they approach the edge of the continent, the world outside the car window seems to unravel at an ever faster pace, as if somewhere beyond the horizon, the hollow core of civilization has finally caved in.

And this is the description from the Kindle edition’s page.

The Electric State eBook by Simon Stålenhag
Stranger Things meets On the Road in this hypnotic, lavishly illustrated novel.

Set in a post-apocalyptic 1997, The Electric State is the story of Michelle who, accompanied by her toy robot Skip, sets out across the western United States in a stolen car to find her missing brother. Told in achingly melancholy, spare prose and featuring almost a hundred gorgeous, full-colour illustrations, The Electric State is a novel like no other.

Rights in The Electric State have already sold in thirteen territories and Deadline reports that the film rights were snapped up by the Russo Brothers’ production company (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War) with Andy Muschietti (Mama, It) attached to direct.

There are many more images from his various projects on his website.