Saturday, 11 July 2015

Reach For The Stars

An unusual star system containing five stars has been found by the WASP astronomy project, as reported on the BBC News website here. Multiple star systems occur in two classic science-fiction works. Isaac Asimov's novella Nightfall is set on a world with six suns - as a result night falls only once every few thousand years. Liu Cixin's novel The Three Body Problem, translated from the original Chinese, features a virtual world with three suns in irregular and unpredictable orbits.

Both stories explore the impact of these star systems on the civilizations below - in Nightfall, the inhabitants cannot detect stars beyond their system so cannot grasp the size or nature of the Universe, and they have a deep-rooted fear of the dark. The aliens on Liu Cixin's world also struggle to make sense of the Universe, and are striving to find a way to predict their suns' movements so they can prepare for the deadly hot or cold spells that occur when the suns get too close or too far away.

On our own world, we had it easy. All the clues were within easy reach - a single, stable sun, a clear view of the other stars, our own Moon and other planet/moon systems visible through simple optical devices, and it still took us centuries to work it all out, burning heretics along the way.

Friday, 3 July 2015

She's Always A Woman [Review: Ex Machina]

Programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the opportunity to spend a week with his company's mega-rich and secretive boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). On arrival at the remote and ridiculously expensive location, inhabited only by Nathan and his housemaid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Caleb discovers his real purpose - to Turing-test Nathan's secret pet project, an artificial intelligence in a humanoid robot called Ava (played by Alicia Vikander).

Alicia Vikander as Ava

I love it when this happens: a film is promoted as if it is an effects-laden, action-heavy Hollywood blockbuster, posters on buses and everything, but when you get to see it, it turns out to be a low-key, four-handed character-driven stage play. Brilliant! There's plenty of darkness, drama, threat and revelations for all four characters, but not a single fireball.

Alex Garland's involvement probably boosted the promotional budget, but rightly or wrongly, it's probably the iconic look of Ava's transparent robot body that has mis-sold the movie. I do think, once again, that roboticists should think twice before designing their robots to resemble attractive women - have they not seen The Machine, Humans, Battlestar Galactica, or (especially) Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery? The warnings were all there. Robots need to look like robots, or there'll be so much trouble.

When the Singularity comes, it will look like this...

Monday, 29 June 2015

Bright Eyes [Review: Humans episode 3]

I'm enjoying Humans more with each episode. I like the easy Asimov references. I like the way different characters get to show new depths or aspects of their personality each week - and the way, each week, we get a more disturbing version of what synths can do, whether limited to their original programme like NHS droid Vera (Rebecca Front) or whether illegally modded or freed like Niska (Emily Berrington). Last week Niska discovered she could kill - this week she makes her bid for freedom and starts to explore the world. It turns out she has some scruples, or at least limits on what she's prepared to do.

Emily Berrington as Niska

Anita (Gemma Chan) is still the central character. It's becoming clear how good she is at lying and manipulating her owners - but she's different from the other synths, and when Mattie (Lucy Carless) tries to hack into her system, just for a few seconds we get a hint of what she really is. It's compelling viewing, gradually building into a classy sci-fi drama with the emphasis strongly on the drama.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Sci-Fi Gene Music Video Playlist

I present The Sci-Fi Gene music video playlist: a carefully curated museum of music videos that have caught my attention, inspired or amused me, plus a few of my own productions thrown in for good measure. The list will be updated from time to time whenever I come across new music videos that make the grade.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Plastic Man [Review: Humans episode 2]

A man lives at the corner of the street,
And his neighbors think he's helpful and he's sweet,
'Cause he never swears and he always shakes you by the hand,
But no one knows he really is a plastic man.
(Ray Davies / The Kinks)

There's some kind of tournament going on amongst the synths in episode 2 of Humans - who's the king of Uncanny Valley? Anita is her usual, cheery-creepy self: "I am watching you too, Laura. You're right in front of me!" But she also shows her soft-hearted side, and of course no-one who loves spiders is ever truly evil. Will Tudor's Odi, Dr. Millican's outdated and malfunctioning synth, is also in the running, but the race leader has to be Rebecca Front's NHS synth Vera, both for her cold efficiency and for the script which makes clear just how easy it is for the human secondary user to lose control.

Still not sure where this series is going, which is a good thing. Is it an analog of the Russian revolutions via Rossum's Universal Robots or slavery in the West perhaps leading to a Civil War?Or is it about the fear of the Singularity, or just a simple monster-horror scenario - in which case where are the Eyeborgs?

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Shiny Unhappy People [Review: Humans episode 1]

Synths - synthetic humans - are the new iPhones. They're cheaper than a car (with the discount), anyone can buy one, and they can do more or less anything. They're the perfect addition to your family. Watch the advert here - they're not creepy at all, are they?

Channel 4's new drama Humans is based on the Swedish drama Real Humans. The first episode revolves around Joe Hawkins and his family. Laura, his wife, is a lawyer and spends too much time away from home, so Joe buys a synth, Anita, to tidy up at home and help him look after the children. The fun begins when Laura gets home... but meanwhile, sinister events are occurring elsewhere, and Anita may not be quite the first-hand, new model she appears to be.

Humans is well written, produced and acted. The synths are brilliantly almost-human with perfect skin, shiny eyes and expressions that are slightly too slow and controlled. Watching synth Anita (Gemma Chan) freak out Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is compelling. Predictably the plot revolves around whether the synths are machines or sentient slaves, and Channel 4 does take some risks here - one scene, where a synth is challenged by a sinister investigator and runs away from his position in a poly tunnel farm only to be shot and recaptured, evokes very strong imagery of the plantations, including the racial appearance of the runaway.

However, the "reveal" of the first episode is pretty tame, and so far in plot terms there is nothing we haven't seen in AI, Blade Runner or I,Robot. I'll continue watching for the drama but I'm hoping that conceptually there is a lot more to come during the series.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Festival Music Video Highlights Part II: St. Albans Film Festival

Six music videos from St. Albans Film Festival, including five of my favourites plus my own video for John Anealio's song "Steampunk Girl".

The St. Albans selection included some beautiful videos, such as "Robin" and "Silver Girl", as well as some videos featuring talented young singers - Gaby Polcino's power ballad, and the Magician's Nephew Band who at just 8 and 10 years old are already so good at sticking it to the Man that they have been sued by Peppa Pig. True story (via the Telegraph).

"Robin" (Efrat Ben Zur) No words to describe how beautiful this is.
"Ice Cream" (Magician's Nephew) "Silver Girl" (Vanaka) "Judgement" (Gaby and 2ouche) "Steampunk Girl" (John Anealio) "Toadlickers" (Thomas Dolby) This is not good clean fun. Features adult themes and language and some extremely naughty puppets.