Monday, April 24, 2017

The Halls of Science Fiction



The October, 1962 cover of Galaxy Magazine found here.
All Galaxy Magazine issues can be found here or here.
(All images can be clicked-on for larger views.)

"My fiction writing took a decided turn for the morose after I first really watched "Blade Runner." Now I'm almost incapable of writing a story that isn't set in a bleak, urban near-future where it rains a lot and characters have conspicuously easy access to consciousness-altering technologies ranging from particle accelerators to funky designer drugs.

Here's an excerpt from a blessedly unpublished novel about neurology and quantum physics I wrote in 1998/1999. This particular project, while educational, ultimately failed because of Kitchen-Sink Syndrome. I was trying to graft way too many weird ideas into one story, producing more than a few scenes like the following:

...He looked up at a ceiling festooned with video cable, a kind of sloppy fish-net used to suspend the few books and videocassettes left over from the Roma he had used to know. She had reduced them to squalid ornaments. 

To what purpose? Zak thought. He felt he was traipsing through some piece of misguided conceptual art. He looked back at Roma, who slowly detached herself from the mothering animatrons and walked toward him, bare feet unscathed by the debris covering the floor. Flecks of dried blood fell from her thighs as she walked. Zak could see the illicit dance of sinew in her neck and calves. 

He forced himself to stand still. Roma walked within touching distance and spread her palm, revealing a single Pentium chip. Only on second glance did he realize it had been pressed deeply into her flesh, and even then he wanted desperately to believe it was simply trompe l'oiel, something to be wiped away with a warm, soapy cloth. 

"Look," Roma said. 

"I'm looking" 

"She leaned closer until Zak feared she would collapse into him. "Look closer." 

He did. And for the first time he saw the shimmering matrix embedded in her skin, a rambling fractal composed of strands thinner than spider silk. The strands, faint but unmistakable, branched from the Pentium chip and traced riotous patterns up her wrist, arm and shoulder. 

Roma pivoted like a runway model striking a pose, letting the light reveal the matrix in its entirety. It spanned her entire body: galaxies of triangles and squares that caught the light and threw it back at him in eye-scalding clarity..."

- Mac Tonnies from a May 17, 2004 Posthuman Blues post. The cyborg image (inset, right) by Victor Habbick can be found here. (Sorry, Victor, I found the image before I found your site. I liked your cyborg best. Think of it as free press. If you'd rather, I will most certainly remove it... only please don't send the goon squad.) And, if cyborgs are your thing, here's more.


"The literary genre of science fiction is diverse, and its exact definition remains a contested question among both scholars and devotees. This lack of consensus is reflected in debates about the genre's history, particularly over determining its exact origins. There are two broad camps of thought, one that identifies the genre's roots in early fantastical works such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (earliest Sumerian text versions c. 2150–2000 BCE). A second approach argues that science fiction only became possible sometime between the 17th and early 19th centuries, following the scientific revolution and major discoveries in astronomy, physics, and mathematics.

Question of deeper origins aside, science fiction developed and boomed in the 20th century, as the deep integration of science and inventions into daily life encouraged a greater interest in literature that explores the relationship between technology, society, and the individual. Scholar Robert Scholes calls the history of science fiction 'the history of humanity's changing attitudes toward space and time ... the history of our growing understanding of the universe and the position of our species in that universe. In recent decades, the genre has diversified and become firmly established as a major influence on global culture and thought.'"

- An excerpt from Wikipedia's The History of Science Fiction. For lists of Science Fiction categorized by country of origin, go here. For a listing of Sci-fi/Fantasy artists, see this page. Inset, left is the cover from Philip Jose Farmer’s Strange Compulsion, a science fiction novel published in 1953, and found in this Huffington Post article.

***

Seven Oracles found here.

Call me crazy, but, while science and technology may have evolved in leaps in bounds in the past several centuries, science fiction has gone a lot further and faster into the unknown realms. Scientific discovery, after all, is limited by its very nature. It can only analyze existent phenomena and is focused on the here and now. Science fiction, however, is only limited by the human imagination... and from what we can gather, there are no limits to the human imagination.

Of course, science fiction authors are often science fans to some degree - Mac was - but, as for the general public, well, when it comes to topics like Mars, robots, exoplanets, spaceships and the like, they are likely to prefer the more entertaining fiction over the disillusioning facts. And, why not? NASA might still be searching for water on the Red Planet, but a host of sci-fi visionaries - up to and including Ray Bradbury - "discovered" it years and years ago. In other words, scientific data pales in comparison with the pseudo-scientific dreams which pre-date it...

Case in point: the idea of alien life on other planets. Generally, the most science will concede is the existence of microbial life on any celestial sphere apart from Earth. Meanwhile, in the mythic world, humans have charted whole universes teeming with every variety of living entity for a very, very long time. How long? Well, it's generally a matter of opinion regarding whether or not the mythical stories and fanciful tales of the past actually fit the criteria of authentic science fiction. Presumably, as there wasn't a great deal of "actual" science before the Age of Enlightenment, some scholars are prudent in distinguishing between true science fiction, mythology and other examples of creative endeavor. For others, however, even biblical texts, Sumerian myths, and the Hindu Ramayana make the grade.

"The whole of this city is built of gold, and the enclosing wall of emerald. It has seven gates, each made of a single cinnamon plank. The foundations of the houses, and all ground inside the wall, are ivory; temples are built of beryl, and each contains an altar of one amethyst block, on which they offer hecatombs. Round the city flows a river of the finest perfume, a hundred royal cubits in breadth, and fifty deep, so that there is good swimming. The baths, supplied with warm dew instead of ordinary water, are in great crystal domes heated with cinnamon wood.

Their raiment is fine cobweb, purple in colour. They have no bodies, but are intangible and unsubstantial--mere form without matter; but, though incorporeal, they stand and move, think and speak; in short, each is a naked soul, but carries about the semblance of body; one who did not touch them would never know that what he looked at was not substantial; they are shadows, but upright, and coloured. A man there does not grow old, but stays at whatever age he brought with him."

- From The True History of Lucien.

Then there's Lucien of Samosata, a Greek satirist writing way back in the 2nd century. While some view his True Histories as "parodies of travel tales" - stories in which his characters travel through space encountering alien life-forms - it was published again in 1894 as a work of science fiction, illustrated by such luminaries as Aubrey Beardsley, among others. (Two illustrations are inset, above and to your right. Others can be found on artist John Coulthart's website.) After reading some of the text, however, like the excerpt (above), I'm not convinced that satire was entirely Lucien's motive.

On the other hand, we have one of the first (known) ladies of science fiction: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, born in 1623, who published under her own name at a time when (Wiki reminds us) "it was not common or accepted for women to be publicly intelligent."

And, as it turns out, Cavendish - despite lacking a formal education - was somewhat of an early scientist as well, publishing along side of a peer group which included Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Robert Boyle. But, it's her "utopian romance" The Blazing World which established her place in the halls of science fiction; a tale about a woman who becomes "the empress of a society composed of various species of talking animals, and organizes an invasion back into her world complete with submarines towed by the "fish men" and the dropping of "fire stones" by the "bird men" to confound the enemies of her homeland, the Kingdom of Esfi."

It's a weird little tale in which she seemingly addresses a number of scientific, philosophical and esoteric subjects of her day, up to and including alchemy:

"This Relation amazed the Empress very much; for though in the World she came from, she had heard great reports of the Philosophers-stone, yet had she not heard of any that had ever found it out, which made her believe that it was but a Chymera; she called also to mind, that there had been in the same World a Man who had a little Stone which cured all kinds of Diseases outward and inward, according it was applied; and that a famous Chymist had found out a certain Liquor called Alkahest, which by the vertue of its own fire, consumed all Diseases; but she had never heard of a Medicine that could renew old Age, and render it beautiful, vigorous and strong: Nor would she have so easily believed it, had it been a medicine prepared by Art; for she knew that Art, being Natures Changeling, was not able to produce such a powerful effect; but being that the Gum did grow naturally, she did not so much scruple at it; for she knew that Nature's Works are so various and wonderful, that no particular Creature is able to trace her ways."

- Excerpt from the text of The Blazing World found here.

In any case, science fiction goes back a lot further than you might suppose; so much so, that I began to wonder if there were any actual museums devoted to it. It certainly seems as if there should be. As it was, after a short search, I did find a few things of interest. For instance, there is the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, Washington which features several science fiction exhibits. There is also the Hollywood Science Fiction Museum in California whose mission is "to teach and inspire people of all ages with an uplifting vision of the future found in science fiction media, art and literature by teaching Real Science through Science Fiction, including technology, ecology, engineering, computers, robotics, math, space travel and all aspects of filmmaking through fun, interactive exhibits and programs."  There is even The Time Machine Museum of Science Fiction in the UK devoted to Dr. Who and other television science fiction franchises (where the character inset, right can be found).

But, in terms of a true, massive, comprehensive museum, well, as it so happens, one is actually being established right now: The Museum of Science Fiction, "founded in the spring of 2013 by Greg Viggiano and a team of 22 volunteer professionals with a goal of becoming the world's first comprehensive science fiction museum, The site selection process was expected to be completed by the end of 2014, with the Preview Museum opening in 2015 and the full-scale 50,000 square-foot facility in 2018.

The Museum is intended to encompass seven permanent galleries that celebrate and encourage the human tendency to always ask, "What if?" The permanent galleries include: The Creators; Other Worlds; Vehicles; Time Travels; Aliens, Creatures, and Altered Life; Computers and Robots; and Technology. Science fiction is to be presented as a form of rational speculation that has influenced and been influenced by scientific and technological progress for centuries."

More information can be found on their website. Below is a short promo video.




And, really, it looks pretty cool and very exciting... very American: flashy, slick and extremely expensive... a technological wonder! But, there's another side to science fiction as well: the less commercially accessible world of Visionary art (and here), which holds the key - the alchemical element - that opens the portals to futuristic worlds. As is stated below (and found here):

"What is Visionary Art? It is the child of surrealism and fantasy, but with a stronger message of conscious evolution.  Art that captures the depths of imagination, the infinite potential of other dimensions, the journey of altered states of being, and the quest for spiritual enlightenment.  It is a glimpse into other worlds, or what our world could become..."

Now, while there is an American Visionary Art Museum, devoted to Outsider art or Art Brut, I think for the real (science fiction-related) deal we'll have to journey across the pond again, into the hills of Brittany, France, to the idyllic little village of Rochefort-en-Terre. And, there we will find a castle, built upon the ruins of a 12th century chateau where, in 2015, a strange museum was opened (named after a local witch!): Le Naïa Museum (also, see here, here and here).

Below is a very cool video for Naïa found on YouTube.



And, so, we come to the end of the post I promised you a month ago. I still have a few more links to throw into the mix - and, no doubt, a number or typos to repair - but, as for now... well, au revoir (till we meet again)!

(Note: all links are in!)
_______________________________________

An Afterword

Pulp cover from the 1920s found here. For more covers, try this NASA page.

''I glanced at a mainstream "news" publication the other day and was shocked to discover that America is facing a "gay marriage crisis." Crisis? Gays wanting legal recognition as couples constitutes a "crisis"? Who sold this moronic idea?

You want a crisis? Ocean life has started dying in what could very well be the first stage in a global ecological nightmare. That's a crisis. The Bush administration is controlled by biblical fundamentalists who believe in a literal interpretation of Armageddon -- and it has nukes. I think that qualifies as a crisis.

But -- silly me -- it's those gays I should be losing sleep over. Forget mercury poisoning, ozone depletion, escalating carbon dioxide levels, melting ice-caps, "missing" plutonium, and our cheerful disregard for near-Earth asteroids."

- Mac, from his May 28, 2004 Posthuman Blues post.

"The people who choose to believe that our invasion of Iraq was to relieve Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction should team up with the Flat Earth Society. They're natural allies. The Iraq war, already fading from American consciousness with the rapidity of a particularly lukewarm TV commercial, was an atrocity, an evil fiction, a geopolitical fever-dream . . . and a rude glimpse of a future when the American public can be utterly and astoundingly duped in wholesale quantity. All it takes, it seems, is some bumper stickers, presidential "tough talk," and a complete disregard for human life and intelligence."

- Mac, from his May 25, 2003 Posthuman Blues post.

"I watch our planet steered by soulless multinational corporations and bigoted governments whose "future" is as reassuringly near as next month's NASDAQ or voter opinion polls. Is this how it ends, snuffed out into petrochemical oblivion before we make the critical move off-planet? Our space shuttles crash because they're obsolete, fragile museum pieces. But our smart-bombs are cutting edge: gleaming chrome and laser-light, avatars of technological cunning."

- Mac, from his March 6, 2003 Posthuman Blues post.

***

Oddly enough, or not so odd, there seems to be a strange, bilateral symmetry between the Republican domination of American politics in 2003 and that same domination in 2017, as if no time has passed; a sort of Déjà vu. The same topics are seemingly up for review: gay marriage (an issue we thought was finally settled) the abortion question (which can never be laid to rest while a white, sexist male is on the throne) "weapons of mass destruction" (this time in Syrian hands) and climate change (which was, at least, acknowledged by Bush, unlike his predecessor). But, while Mac robustly complained about Bush in 2003 and even recommended impeachment, we can only imagine what his response to the Trump nightmare would be.

As we know, yesterday was Earth Day, and in, yet, another wave of anti-Trump sentiment - and let's face it, about the only thing that can be said in Trump's favor is that his election spawned a refreshing new wave of American political activism - we witnessed the March for Science, as "scientists and science supporters from around the world gathered together" to "voice concerns about science policies under the current White House administration." By 'science  policies" they refer to the proposed budget cuts targeting scientific research - specifically related to environment and climate change. In reality, Trump's budget adversely effects almost all Federal agencies with the exception of those favoring the War Machine. About the only humanitarian aspect visible in that part of his plan is a nod in the direction of the veterans who have sacrificed to the War Machine. Apparently, they will finally be (deservedly) getting a piece of the pie (or so we assume).

Above mage credit: Thomas Heatherwick: UK Pavilion - Photo credit: Iwan Baan - found on this MOSF page.

What fewer people take into account is the Trump administration's attack on American Culture. That is to say, while the Halls of Science may suffer a blow by the Trump Regime, the Halls of Science fiction may crumble before they've even been fully constructed. Basically, he "requests the dissolution of independent federal agencies directed towards the arts," eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. In other words, despite the fact that the overall funding for these relatively small agencies amounted to only 0.02 percent of the total federal budget -  445 million USD in 2016- Trump finds reason to cut funding altogether. So, basically the numbers look like this: Culture: 0. War Machine: 574 billion USD. Which is a sad commentary on American priorities, but, so it goes. Far from making America "great" again, Trump appears to want to drag humanity back into the darkness. Will we go quietly?

Hell, no.


News Source Links:

March for Science:  articles by CNN and LiveScience.

Trump's Budget Cuts: articles by CNN and the New York Times.

Funding for the Arts: articles by the Huffington Post and Global Risk Insights.


2 comments:

  1. So cool. I've always been a sucker for sci-fi and the Golden Age of pulps.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, you're not the only sucker; there seems to be a lot of sites devoted to them nowadays.

      Thanks for dropping a line; it's been entirely too quiet here these days.

      Delete