Finding our digital selves

I’m a big fan of the work of Joanne McNeil and Jenny Odell. I guess the all-knowing Google must have picked up on that somehow, which was why YouTube recommended I watch this video of the two of them, plus others, on a panel discussing social media. The event was organised by the Second Life Book Club, and was what prompted me to resurrect my long-forgotten account last week.

Second Life Book ClubSecond Life
Meet book authors and discuss your favorite books at the Second Life Book Club, a series of literary-minded events. Draxtor Despres will bring established as well as up-and-coming authors, poets, publishers, and indie store owners together for virtual book discussions.

Previous shows are on this YouTube playlist, and news of the next ones are on this events calendar maintained by the host, Bernhard Drax (Draxtor Despres in SL), one of the people behind this award-winning documentary.

Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is MeYouTube
Filmmaker Bernhard Drax travels from Los Angeles to rural South England to explore why people ranging from 24 to 92 years of age find solace and inspiration in a user-created digital wonderland that only exists inside their computers. Drax sends his documentarian avatar Draxtor Despres into the virtual universe of Second Life as well as next generation VR platforms like High Fidelity and Sansar where he meets a 40-something disabled Chicago native feels best represented by a colorful superhero gecko and Cody LaScala – confined to a wheelchair his entire life – who makes his avatar an exact replica of his physical self.

Here are some crappy pics I took from last week’s Book Club event, with the sci-fi writer Julie Novakova. It’s all really piqued my interest in digital identities again, though I feel like such a newbie.

Here’s Johnny!

William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic first appeared in Omni magazine in 1981, before being published in his Burning Chrome collection in 1986. It takes place in the same world of Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive and, in the 1995 movie at least, starts on 17 January 2021.

Johnny MnemonicMuseum of Arts and Design
Artist Robert Longo’s directorial debut, Johnny Mnemonic adapts for the big screen William Gibson’s story of the same name. Set in a dystopian 2021, when megacorporations rule the world, the movie features Keanu Reeves as Johnny, a “mnemonic courier” who discreetly transports information too sensitive to carry over the Net via a special device implanted into his brain—a career that’s cost him his childhood memories. Hoping to recover them through an expensive surgery, Johnny agrees to one last job, which requires him to download more information than his implant can handle.

2021 and the conspiracies of Johnny MnemonicWIRED
Johnny is a digital-era delivery guy. If you need some data transported hypersecurely, simply load it into his head and off he goes: your very own walking—more often running, from bad guys—USB air-gapped meatstick. So what if the gig comes with memory lacunae and the risk, in the event of information overload, of brain-burst, to say nothing of the Yakuza at your back, who are more than happy to carry out a file transfer by way of decapitation? It pays well, and you look cyber-cool doing it.

Gibson’s cyberspace was always bound up with the body. Data can be wet-wired; manipulating files requires Power Gloves and an “Eyephone.” When Johnny jacks in, it kind of hurts. Such meat-meets-metal has, in the quarter-century since Johnny Mnemonic came out, been called a failure of prediction. Our internet ended up disembodied, virtualized, socially distanced, our iPhones more of a figurative prosthesis. Yet, this last year, we sat slack at our desks, muscles atrophying, nerves attenuating, as we doomscrolled our way to new aches, new anxieties, new ailments. Some wild-eyes went so far as to claim that 5G triggered the pandemic, which is the most Gibson-sounding conspiracy of all. In Johnny’s world, the black shakes are caused not by a virus but by a signal. Epidemic through technic. There’s something in the air, no matter what you do. You’re already sick, you’re already dying. Connectivity is killing you.

Looking back at Johnny MnemonicDen of Geek
Really, it’s pretty difficult to figure out exactly why this film doesn’t live up to the brilliance of Gibson’s material, and why it didn’t find a wider audience. It may be down to the studio’s interference – allegedly, the film was re-cut shortly before its release, to be more mainstream; Gibson himself attests that the rough cut was funnier and more alternative. It may also be that the general cinema-going audience may not have known what to make of it – it was science-fiction, yes, but without the usual tropes they might expect of the genre. Virtual reality had also been done before, and Johnny Mnemonic’s cyberspace sequences are similar to those seen in 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, and 1995’s Virtuosity also played around with the concept a few months later – really, audiences were promised nothing new. And, of course, nobody knew The Matrix was only four years away, which would redefine the way in which simulated realities had been presented in films forever.

Can technology make you sick, like ‘NAS’ does in Johnny Mnemonic?Syfy Wire
The real risk of exposure to technology might exist not in the technology itself, but in our relationship to it. It’s true that excessive internet usage is linked to depression. What’s unclear is which factor is the instigator. One interpretation of the data suggests that excessive internet usage causes depression. This makes intuitive sense as the information most readily available online is overwhelmingly negative. Another interpretation is that those predisposed to depression exhibit higher internet usage. […]

NAS or the Black Shakes, the physiological disease showcased in Johnny Mnemonic, has yet to rear its head, but the psychological impact of constant information demanding attention can have real consequences. And we all need to be aware of where we devote our attention, what society is demanding from us, and how we navigate an ever-changing and increasingly digital landscape.

Creative reality

I enjoyed these recent interviews with a couple of creatives. It’s good to see some more work from Simon Stålenhag is on its way.

Simon Stålenhag puts a darker twist on his nostalgic sci-fi worldsThe Verge
There’s a weird coincidence in that it features police brutality and face masks — it has nothing to do with COVID or the protests in the US. I did it before they broke out. And that made me feel like I was afraid people might see this as a cheap exploitation of real-world events.

There are a lot of faceless enforcers of state violence. That’s a theme in The Labyrinth. While doing this, those images started pouring in from the protests in the US. When I started thinking about it, it was from protests in Spain in 2016 or 2017, I remember thinking it’s so weird that a democracy can have these thugs on the payroll to do these things. […]

It felt really weird when I really saw stuff in the news… reality is worse than your imagination.

Reality may be worse than your imagination for that artist, but it’s better for this one.

A conversation with animator and director Anna Mantzaris explores her penchant for nuanced emotion and finding humor in the mundaneColossal
Sometimes reality is better than your imagination. Sometimes when I try to make things up, I cannot make them as funny as a really good observation of something that happens. You’re like, “This is too good to be true. This is so weird.”

I thought I had already shared a link here to Anna’s witty and poignant Enough animation, but I can’t find it now, so I guess I didn’t. So here it is.

Staff Pick Premiere: Enough is enoughVimeo Blog
Mantzaris’ work lives somewhere between tragedy and comedy – a duality beautifully realized in her visual aesthetic. Her characters are stuck in a modern world defined by a sense of loneliness and isolation, where communication is either muffled or noisy, but never pleasant. … “I knew I wanted the characters to be quite awkward, imperfect but yet sympathetic,” explains Mantzaris. “I wanted them to have a soft feeling to contrast the not so soft actions.”

Science fiction, present tense

23 of the best sci-fi books everyone should readWired UK
It is a pro-science novel that at its heart shows Dr Frankenstein as the callous fiend of the story, who created a being and was not willing to accept responsibility for his actions. In an age where the space between technical life and death is narrower than ever, and scientists are playing with the makeup of what makes us humans, Frankenstein can still teach an important lesson: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Trailer From The Loop

Two years after I first saw his work, it’s finally hitting our screens.

‘Tales From the Loop’, a wondrous Amazon Prime series based upon the artwork of Simon StålenhagLaughing Squid
The series takes its title from a pair of books written by Stålenhag about “paintings from a childhood that never was and a future that could have been.” The series focuses on a machine that unlocks such a future for those who enter.

Tales From the Loop enlivens the gravity-defying dystopia of Simon Stålenhag’s illustrationsColossal
Launching April 3, the television series is based on the understanding that “not everything in life makes sense” as it chronicles the lives of those residing in the Loop, a machine built to uncover answers to the world’s mysteries. It features a gravity-defying universe that sees floating objects, snow ascending from a pile on the floor, and pieces of a house ripped upward. Retro robots even foster relationships with the families and children immersed in the explorative environment.

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Next month, then, for Amazon Prime customers. Let’s hope it’ll spill out wider for those of us who aren’t primers. Meanwhile, here’s an interview with the man behind those melancholic images.

Simon Stålenhag: meet the artist behind Amazon Prime’s mysterious new TV showDigital Arts
Tales from the Loop is based on the books and artworks of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, so to coincide we’ve looked backed to when we interviewed him about how he conceives and paints his sci-fi worlds – and what the hell is really going on.

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Happy Robot Day!

They come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re all 99 years old today, kind of.

Today in History 1921: The word ‘Robot’ enters the English languageBoing Boing
On January 25, 1921 the Czech play Rossum’s Universal Robots premiered, entering the word into the Science Fiction vocabulary.

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The Czech play that gave us the word ‘Robot’The MIT Press Reader
Thus, “R.U.R.,” which gave birth to the robot, was a critique of mechanization and the ways it can dehumanize people. The word itself derives from the Czech word “robota,” or forced labor, as done by serfs. Its Slavic linguistic root, “rab,” means “slave.” The original word for robots more accurately defines androids, then, in that they were neither metallic nor mechanical.

The contrast between robots as mechanical slaves and potentially rebellious destroyers of their human makers echoes Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and helps set the tone for later Western characterizations of robots as slaves straining against their lot, ready to burst out of control. The duality echoes throughout the twentieth century: Terminator, HAL 9000, Blade Runner’s replicants.

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Machine Morality and Human ResponsibilityThe New Atlantis
This year [2011] marks the ninetieth anniversary of the first performance of the play from which we get the term “robot.” The Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. premiered in Prague on January 25, 1921. Physically, Čapek’s robots were not the kind of things to which we now apply the term: they were biological rather than mechanical, and humanlike in appearance. But their behavior should be familiar from its echoes in later science fiction — for Čapek’s robots ultimately bring about the destruction of the human race.

Before R.U.R., artificially created anthropoids, like Frankenstein’s monster or modern versions of the Jewish legend of the golem, might have acted destructively on a small scale; but Čapek seems to have been the first to see robots as an extension of the Industrial Revolution, and hence to grant them a reach capable of global transformation. Though his robots are closer to what we now might call androids, only a pedant would refuse Čapek honors as the father of the robot apocalypse.

I hope someone’s planning a big celebration next year.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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