You can take your pick of Cassandras: Michael Crichton, Mary Shelley, whoever made Gattaca. Literature and pop culture never stop obsessing about the bastard spawn of technology and biology, although movies love to have it both ways, wallowing happily in high-tech gadgetry even as they deplore its effects.
Feverish as all this artistic angst is, what’s remarkable is that it barely keeps pace with reality. We are hurtling ever faster toward a point of no return. Consider that, just earlier this year, MIT researchers managed to implant false memories in mice. Or that the now-common procedure of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) lets would-be parents in fertility treatment test their multiple embryos for defects and discard the embryos they don’t want. One of these days, we may also be able to slow down aging by stopping the degradation of telomeres. (Telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes that keep them from fraying.)
. . . Given how close reality has come to surpassing imagination, what do the Atwoods of the world have to offer? Only what good novelists have always offered: a sense of the tragic, a respect for the power of malevolence, a grasp of how things go awry. In her most recent works, a trilogy in the anti-utopian tradition of Brave New World and 1984 that she began with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and ended this September with MaddAddam, transhumanism meets capitalism. In place of Orwell’s totalitarian state, Atwood gives us an all-powerful genetic-engineering industry. Biotech corporations have superseded governments and turned criminal. Since they are so good at keeping people healthy, they have to come up with new profit centers, so they add viruses to their vitamins.
— Judith Shulevitz, “Margaret Atwood: Our Most Important Prophet of Doom,” The New Republic, September 25, 2013
Also see the September 20 radio interview with Atwood (nearly an hour long, downloadable or streamable) on NPR’s On Point:
Margaret Atwood writes “speculative fiction” — but don’t call it science fiction, she says. It could all happen. And maybe it is. Her latest novel is the culmination of a mind-bending trilogy story of the end of the world that seems all too hideously possible. The world, debauched and wrecked by human over-reach. A designer plague has wiped out almost all of old humanity. Gene-altered pigs and a successor race of leaf-eating humanoids are all over. A new Genesis story is unfolding. For a new world. Up next On Point: novelist Margaret Atwood, and after us.
— “Margaret Atwood Will Make You Afraid of Her Tomorrow,” On Point, NPR, September 20, 2013
In or around June 1995 human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago.
. . . Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.
I live in the heart of it, and it’s normal to walk through a crowd — on a train, or a group of young people waiting to eat in a restaurant — in which everyone is staring at the tiny screens in their hands. It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.
. . . A short story that comes back to me over and over again is Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’, or one small bit of it. Since all men and women aren’t exactly created equal, in this dystopian bit of science fiction a future America makes them equal by force: ballerinas wear weights so they won’t be more graceful than anyone else, and really smart people wear earpieces that produce bursts of noise every few minutes to interrupt their thought processes. They are ‘required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.’ For the smartest person in Vonnegut’s story, the radio transmitter isn’t enough: ‘Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.’
We have all signed up to wear those earpieces, a future form of new media that will chop our consciousnesses into small dice. Google has made real the interruptors that Vonnegut thought of as a fantasy evil for his dystopian 2081.
MORE: “Diary: In the Day of the Postman“
Last of the Titans: A Note on the Passing of Ray Harryhausen (and Forrest Ackerman and Ray Bradbury)
EDITOR’S NOTE: With this post we welcome award-winning writer, editor, filmmaker, composer, and artist Jason V. Brock to the Teem. Jason’s work has been published in Butcher Knives & Body Counts, Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities, Fungi, Fangoria, S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings series, and elsewhere. He was Art Director/Managing Editor for Dark Discoveries magazine for more than four years, and he edits the biannual pro digest [NAMEL3SS], dedicated to “the macabre, esoteric and intellectual,” which can be found on Twitter at @NamelessMag and on the Interwebs at www.NamelessMag.com. He and his wife, Sunni, also run Cycatrix Press.
As a filmmaker Jason’s work includes the documentaries Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man, The Ackermonster Chronicles!, and Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic. He is the primary composer and instrumentalist/singer for his band, ChiaroscurO. Jason loves his wife, their family of reptiles/amphibians, travel, and vegan/vegetarianism. He is active on social sites such as Facebook and Twitter (@JaSunni_JasonVB) and at his and Sunni’s personal website/blog, www.JaSunni.com.
Jason will contribute an occasional column titled “Monstrous Singularities.” For this inaugural installment, he offers an elegiac reflection on the passing of three authentic titans of fantasy, horror, and science fiction whose work literally helped to define major aspects of popular culture and collective psychology during the twentieth century.
* * *
They were present at the beginning… and we are witness to their end.
Endings, in many ways, are entrances into self-realization — whether a portal into some altered state of mind, a window into collective insight, or even a chance for some final and comforting acceptance. Endings signify not only change, but also, often, transcendence, either metaphorically or literally, and on occasion simultaneously. Be it a lonely struggle that reaches a sad (even tragic) conclusion, or perhaps the unexpected outcome of a traumatic situation, or the shared exhilaration of justice served, endings are always transitional, even transformational, in ways that beginnings cannot be. Endings are the true headstones by which we collectively measure and define history. They are markers of conclusiveness — more so than births or the start of a new venture, which can be shrouded in secrecy, obscured by the fog of antiquity, or both. Thus, they are uniquely able to serve as touchstones for what has been bequeathed to the past (what cannot be again) and what is yet to be accomplished (and is therefore allotted to the future).
In May of 2013, the 92-year-old stop-motion animation film pioneer and artistic genius Ray Harryhausen, perhaps best known for his creation of the special visual effects for Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, passed away. His ending completes, in a sense, a circle of loss for the world; with the transitioning of Harryhausen away from the realm of the living and into the annals of time, a triumvirate of giants has now vanished from the Earth, a troika destined to become even more powerful in voice, authority, and veneration over time. This amplification will undoubtedly be quite profound in the immediately foreseeable future, as people who are not yet aware of them, or who may have forgotten the seismic impact of their works and personalities, discover or rediscover their greatness and celebrate it even more, perchance, than those who instantly recognized it and mourned their loss to humanity and culture. Read the rest of this entry
In a word: wow. This new short film, released on July 30 and currently receiving enthusiastic praise all over the place, is a beautifully realized piece of short-form dystopian science fiction.
It tells the story of a near future in which, to quote the official press release, “a neurologist and two homicide detectives use experimental brain taping technology to question a murder victim about his final moments.” It stars Paul Reubens (who’s a joy to watch here in a dramatic role) as the neurologist, with the other roles filled by equally impressive actors.
The writer-director, acclaimed graphic novelist M. F. Wilson, invokes the idea of the Singularity, especially in its Kurzweilian iteration, as his main inspiration:
I was influenced by the theories of Ray Kurzweil on the Singularity and digital immortality and curious to see how the law will deal with the situations that arise from it. I’m excited about the idea of copying memories into code. Imagine that after your body dies, you can go on living in a digital state. This technology is in our near future and will challenge the very definition of life and death. It makes a great basis for a high-tech crime story…
Short of the Week offers a nice description of the film’s really impressive style, tone, and production quality:
Visually inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, one of the directors favourite science-fiction films, the dark, industrial aesthetics of The Final Moments of Karl Brant make the short feel like a cross between Blade Runner and Se7en. With Brett Pawlak’s cinematography, J.R. Hawbaker’s costume design and Level 256′s visual FX all using their extensive industry experience to paint a gritty and uncompromising vision of the future.
Enough with the preamble. Just watch.
Remember Ray Bradbury’s famous fascination with the idea that hot weather spurs an increase in assaults and other violent behavior? This was the basic premise behind his widely reprinted 1954 short story “Touched with Fire,” in which two retired insurance salesmen try to prevent a murder. In a key passage, one of them shares his thoughts on the relationship between heat and violence:
More murders are committed at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature. Over one hundred, it’s too hot to move. Under ninety, cool enough to survive. But right at ninety-two degrees lies the apex of irritability, everything is itches and hair and sweat and cooked pork. The brain becomes a rat rushing around a red-hot maze. The least thing, a word, a look, a sound, the drop of a hair and — irritable murder. Irritable murder, there’s a pretty and terrifying phrase for you.
Notably, Bradbury adapted this story twice for television, once for Alfred Hitchcock Presents as the 1956 episode “Shopping for Death” and then more than thirty years later for his own Ray Bradbury Theater as the 1990 episode “Touched with Fire.” He also inserted the same idea about heat and violence into his screen treatment for the 1953 minor science fiction classic It Came from Outer Space, which was thoroughly reworked by screenwriter Harry Essex, who got the actual screenplay credit, but which ended up including much of a Bradburyan nature, including a detailed statement of the 92-degrees thesis, placed in the mouth of a small-town American sheriff confronting an alien invasion. (Note that you can hear an audio clip of this dialogue at the beginning of Siouxsie & the Banshees’ 1986 song “92 Degrees.”)
Now comes a new study, conducted by several U.S. scientists, that appears to offer preliminary “official” vindication for this idea that so fascinated Bradbury when he encountered it somewhere or other during the early decades of his long and fertile career:
Bring on the cool weather — climate change is predicted to cause extreme weather, more intense storms, more frequent floods and droughts, but could it also cause us to be more violent with one another? A new study from scientists in the US controversially draws a link between increased rates of domestic violence, assault and other violent crimes and a warming climate.
That conflict could be a major result of global warming has long been accepted. As climate change makes vulnerable parts of the world more susceptible to weather-related problems, people move from an afflicted region to neighbouring areas, bringing them into conflict with the existing populations. That pattern has been evident around the world, and experts have even posited that conflicts such as Darfur should be regarded as climate related. But the authors of the study, published in the peer review journal Science, have departed from such examples to look closely at patterns of violence in Brazil, China, Germany and the US.
The authors suggest that even a small increase in average temperatures or unusual weather can spark violent behaviour. They found an increase in reports of domestic violence in India and Australia at times of drought; land invasions in Brazil linked to poor weather; and more controversially, a rise in the number of assaults and murders in the US and Tanzania.
. . . The underlying reasons could run from increased economic hardship as harvests fail or droughts bite, to the physiological effects of hot weather.
— Fiona Harvey, “Climate change linked to violent behavior,” The Guardian, August 2, 2013
To illustrate this study, here’s that episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents:
You can also watch the (alas, decidedly inferior) adaptation of the same story for Ray Bradbury Theater online.
Over at The Daily Grail, Greg describes this fascinating and very slick short film as a “fun little superhero story with a Fortean feel to it.” io9’s Observation Deck calls the title character “the creepiest superhero” and concurs about the film’s quasi-Fortean dimension. Both point out that it recalls Mexico’s rash of flying humanoid sightings from several years ago.
In more detail, and as summarized by USA Today‘s Whitney Matheson, The Flying Man “tells the story of a mysterious flying man/being who is taking out unsuspecting citizens. Is he a hero? Is he a vigilante? It’s up to us to decide. Interestingly, viewers are given no background about The Flying Man, and unlike most superhero stories, this tale is told from the scared citizens’ points of view.”
The film was directed, produced, financed, and edited by Toronto-based filmmaker Marcus Alqueres and co-written by Alqueres and Henry Grazinoli. Alqueres has also done visual effects work on a number of A-list films, including 300 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
I’m really impressed at the ominous and semi-apocalyptic tone that Alqueres and his team were able to evoke in just nine minutes — an effect that’s created not just by the great visual effects, writing, and actors’ performances, but by an excellent musical score. Seriously, how would we all feel, and how would society as a whole react, if incontrovertible evidence of supernormal powers came crashing at us like a tsunami through our televisions, computer screens, radios, and the rest of the collective totality of our flickering media web? And what if the mysterious individual displaying those powers happened to be using them in a vigilante capacity to commit public acts of mayhem and murder? In the words of The Flying Man’s official press release, the film “depicts the first appearances of a super powered vigilante, his impact in a modern society and its ethical discussion.”
My documentary “essay” on legendary/notorious space program pioneer and Crowleyan occultist Jack Parsons, composed of carefully chosen quotes and extracts from other writings, is now the featured piece at The Daily Grail:
Many thanks go out to The Daily Grail’s mastermind, Greg Taylor, for expressing an interest in this piece (which was originally published here). As many of you already know, TDG is a venerable and fairly indispensable site devoted to paranormal themes and “exploring the fringes of science and history.” See this great Skeptiko interview with Greg for details about the site’s founding, purpose, and immense popularity. So I’m proud and pleased to have my work — or rather, in this case, my creative mining and remixing of some other people’s work — featured there.