Lost in the quiet immensities

Watching Aniara for New Scientist, 7 September 2019

In the opening sequence of the Swedish sci-fi film Aniara, a space elevator rises into low earth orbit to meet an interplanetary cruiser, bound for new settlements on Mars. (The Earth, pillaged to destruction by humanity, is by now literally burning.)

But when we cut to its interior, the elevator turns out to be, well, a night bus. A tight focus on lead actress Emelie Jonsson, staring out a misted-up window into the featureless dark, accentuates, rather than conceals, the lack of set.

The interplanetary cruiser Aniara is a pretty decent piece of model work on the outside but on the inside, it’s a ferry. I know, because work for New Scientist once had me sailing down the coast of Norway on board the same vessel, or one very like it, for an entire week.

Have writer-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja turned out a film so low-budget that they couldn’t afford any sets? Have they been inept enough to reveal the fact in the first reel?

No, and no. Aniara is, on the contrary, one of the smartest movies of 2019.

Aniara’s journey to Mars is primarily a retail opportunity. Go buy some duty-free knits while your kids knock each other off plastic dinosaurs in the soft-play area. Have your picture taken with some poor bugger on a minimum wage dressed as large, stupid-looking bird. Don’t worry: in a real crisis, there’s always the pitch-and-putt.

When the worst happens — colliding with a piece of space debris, the Aniara is nudged off course into interstellar space with no hope of return or rescue — the lights flicker, someone trips on some stairs, a couple of passengers complain about the lack of information, and the hospitality crew work the mall bearing complementary snacks.

“Transtellar Cruise Lines would like to apologize to passengers for the continuing delay to this flight. We are currently awaiting the loading of our complement of small lemon-soaked paper napkins for your comfort, refreshment and hygiene during the journey.”

Not Aniara, this, but a quotation from Douglas Adams’s peerless radio tie-in novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, to which Aniara serves as a particularly bleak twin. Don’t think for a moment this is a film without humour. There’s a scene in which the captain (played with pitch-perfect ghastliness by Arvin Kananian) reassures his castaway passengers that rescue is imminent while playing televised billiards. Balls and pockets; planets and gravity wells. It’s every useless planetary mechanics lecture you’ve ever suffered through and you realise, watching it, that everyone is doomed.

“They awoke screaming and clawing at their straps and life support systems that held them tightly in their seats.” (Adams again, because I couldn’t resist, and besides, it’s as good a summation as any of where Aniara is headed.)

Not only will there be no rescue. It begins to dawn on our heroine, Mimaroben (a sort of ship’s counsellor armed with a telepathic entertainment system that (you guessed it) kills itself) that there there is no such thing as rescue. “You think Mars is Paradise?” she scolds a passenger. “It’s cold.” May as well be here as there, is her conclusion. Death’s a waiting game, wherever you run.

Aniara is based on a long narrative poem by the Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and the sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, reviewing a 1964 American edition of the poem, said it “transcends panic and terror and even despair [and] leaves you in the quiet immensities”. So there.

But I don’t care how bleak it is. I am sick to the back teeth of those oh-so-futuristic science fiction films, and their conjuring-up of scenarios that, however “dystopic”, are really only there to ravish the eye and numb the mind.

Aniara gets the future right — which is to say, it portrays the future as though it were the present. When we finally build a space elevator, it’s going to be the equivalent of a bus. When we fly to Mars, it’ll be indistinguishable from a ferry. The moment we attain the future, it becomes now, and now is not a place you go in order to exprerience a frisson of wonder or horror. It’s where you’re stuck, trying — and sometimes failing — to scrape together a meaning for it all.

Just a nuclear-powered dinosaur

Pondering the science of Godzilla for New Scientist, 12 June 2019

FOR Japanese children, Godzilla is the ultimate scary adult: fierce, honourable, clumsy and a bit out of control. For their grandparents, he’s the irradiated embodiment of wartime tragedy, a bad memory come to life. For the rest of us, I suppose, he’s “just” a nuclear-powered dinosaur.

Godzilla is also a pay cheque. Films featuring the epic creature, almost all by the Japanese studio Toho, have been produced since 1954, a cinematic franchise record. The current release, Godzilla: King of the monsters, is the 35th, and the third to be produced entirely within the Hollywood system.

Its human stars play the shattered Russell family. Millie Bobby Brown from TV hit Stranger Things is Madison, whose brother Andrew was killed during a 2014 kaiju (monster) attack on San Francisco. Her dad Mark is literally living with wolves; her mum Emma prefers kaiju to people.

Terroristic eco-warriors are out to awaken Godzilla’s subterranean cousins in an effort to bring the planet “back into balance” – and Emma is inclined to help them. Newsreel images of ruined San Francisco make her point: in five short years it has turned to jungle, accelerated by ionising radiation spilling from Godzilla’s insides.

Why do movies, stretching back to the giant ants of Them!, assume that excess radiation promotes growth? The evidence has always pointed the other way. Ionising radiation weakens and breaks up DNA, damaging cells enough to kill them, or cause them to mutate in ways that, somehow or other, lead to the grave. In humans, epidemiological studies show that even low doses of radiation increase the risk of cancer.

Still, human nature being what it is, whenever a new kind of ray is detected, we speculate about its magical properties. Radium, a radioactive metal, was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1898, and though it eventually killed her, it still found its way into the food chain thanks to products like Hippman-Blach bakery’s Radium Bread (made with radium-laced water, which was supposed to cure everything from arthritis to impotence to wrinkles).

Is there more to this accelerated-growth idea than magical thinking? “Hormesis” is the controversial notion that things that are dangerous in high doses might be beneficial to human health at lower levels. Some lab studies have shown the effect in action. Whether there is radiation hormesis, however, is a big question – and a timely one.

China’s space programme has studied the ability of plants to develop and thrive in conditions of microgravity and exposure to cosmic radiation in space. Since 1987, 66 mutant varieties have been cultivated through its space-breeding efforts.

So far, so workaday: “atomic gardening” has been around since the 1950s, exposing plants to radioactive sources (typically cobalt-60) to generate mutations, and over 2000 new varieties of agriculturally useful plants have been created this way.

The Chinese results, however, are a bit weird. Plants positively mutated during space flight have grown faster than their irradiated Earth-grown counterparts. Space-bred mutations do better than their “atomically gardened” controls, and no one is sure why.

Is there something magical about cosmic rays? Probably not, though if I were Godzilla (traditionally Earth’s first line of defence against alien attack) I would watch my back.

100 minutes of immersive terror

I interviewed Carl Guyenette, the creative intelligence behind The War Of The Worlds: The Immersive Experience, for New Scientist, 23 May 2019.

It’s six years since the Martian invaders succumbed to a microbial infection, leaving us once again in possession of our planet. Carl Guyenette has repaired to The Spirit of Man to raise a glass to Earth’s victory, and to take stock of his new production, a 100 minute-long immersion in Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds.

The pub, which is part of the set and an integral part of the show, comes with its own meticulous backstory. On its walls, animated paintings record famous scenes from humanity’s first interstellar conflict. Remnants of Martian technology loom over the patrons. The effect is amusing for the first few minutes, but the aura of threat is unmistakable: pleasingly, the guts from one of the invaders’ war machines turn out to have been re-engineered to dispense gin.

Wayne’s musical retelling of H G Wells’s sci-fi shocker was released as a double album in 1978, and remains a hit, having sold over 2.5 million copies in the UK alone. There have been spin-offs a-plenty: video games, DVDs, stage shows, live tours. Nothing quite like this, though: “When I’ve been trying to explain this show to people,” says Guyenette, “I say it’s like walking into a cinema, except that once you’re there, you just keep on walking, into the screen. Into the movie itself.”

The full effect of Guyenette’s experiment in “layered reality” can only really be experienced at first hand. Nothing stays still, and neither does the audience, as it moves in groups of a dozen through over 2000 square metres of unlikely theatrical space – two floors of the old Metal Exchange in the City of London.

Visiting this venue mid-development, it had looked like somebody’s open-plan office: bad fluorescent lighting, grey carpet tiles; bins full of sandwich-shop litter; plastic water bottles in cardboard trays; laptops everywhere. Now, as the cast and crew set about unkinking the show’s phenomenally complicated logistics, the space is coming alive, fully dressed in both real and virtual light. Everything trembles. Everything moves, especially the air. Everything has a temperature. Everything has a smell.

Some of the experiences on offer in this show use VR headsets. Others use projection mapping. Some involve puppetry. Almost all manage to work in one of eight different holographic effects. Reality intrudes on the virtual world in unsettling and shocking ways. Things grab you – things you had thought were only in the headset. In VR, meanwhile, figures that seem to be fellow theatre-goers are plucked into the sky by Martian harvesting machines, their eyes meeting those of the participants (thanks to a neat eye-tracking algorithm) as they rise and perish.

Carl Guyenette talks about how he created the show.

New Scientist: What do they call you here?

Carl Guyenette: My job description’s a nuisance. When I called myself the CTO, the technologists on the show insisted I was actually the creative director. Then the creative people told me I’m a technologist. What I actually do is bring things together and makes new things out of them. So I suppose I’m an inventor.

NS: How did you come to work in theatre?

CG: I studied computer science, then joined the film visual effects industry, compositing for big Hollywood films. From there I moved on to making creative technological applications for the British Museum and other venues and festivals. I worked on Viens!, a virtual-reality piece by Michel Reilhac, which then went to Sundance and Cannes. This shot me into the centre of things. And now with the production company dotdotdot I’m trying to bring new media technologies and general audiences together through immersive theatrical experiences like this one. Not that we’ve worked at quite this scale before.

NS: Which of these new media are making the biggest impact on live performance at the moment? 

CG: Projection mapping is really interesting. There are systems now that will project images and textures over objects even as you move them. This is edging us towards VR experiences that won’t require us to wear headsets. And there are domes which you can projection-map from the inside which give you immersive video experiences. There’s a massive one that is going up in Madison Square Garden in 2020 which has a capacity of around 20,000 people: that’s going to be fun!

NS: How did you select the technologies for War of the Worlds?

Stability was essential. Because we’re splitting the audience up into groups of a dozen, and leading them from set to set, and from experience to experience, we’re effectively putting on 70 shows a day. The bottom line is, you want to be using kit that doesn’t break or fall over, so we’re using the HTC Vive Pro. We try out more exotic machinery in our prototyping and experimental work — everything from Hololens to Magic Leap, which I’d dearly like to use in a theatrical setting. But augmented reality systems are still a generation behind VR in terms of stability.

NS: Even with a workhorse VR platform, you’ve been able to mix the real and the virtual in clever ways. Was achieving that mix always an important aspect of the production?

CG: More important for us was to make sure that the technologies worked well with the storytelling. At one point we place our audience in a small boat and set them afloat on a computer-generated sea. The graphics are just one element to the experience. The mechanisms that move the boat, the breeze, the drop in temperature: these elements are just as important. And timing’s the most vital element of all, not just to provide seamless experiences, but also to give the audience breathing space between experiences.

NS: A lot of the technology you’re using is old…

CG: I wanted this show to be an homage to old media: Pepper’s Ghost illusions, and zoopraxiscopes, pyrotechnics and animatronics. It’s a show set over a hundred years ago, after all, at the birth of photography and cinema. In The War of the Worlds, all these technologies feel new.

NS: VR was said to be a medium that would isolate us from each other but you’ve used it to create a social experience. Is this the future of VR?

CG: I think there’s still money to be made from the home VR market. But building something big, in a spacious venue, layering technologies together so you can let audiences do things they couldn’t do anywhere else, means that you can also add a social dimension to the experience. There are not many places where you can be with 12 people in the same room in VR, firing cannon at Martian invaders, fighting off tentacles, befriending and losing people as you struggle through a besieged city.

Stanley Kubrick at the Design Museum

The celebrated film director Stanley Kubrick never took the future for granted. In films as diverse as Dr. Strangelove: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick’s focus was always savagely humane, unpicking the way the places we inhabit make us think and feel. At the opening of a new exhibition at the London Design Museum in Holland Park, David Stock and I spoke to co-curator Adriënne Groen about Kubrick’s most scientifically inflected film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and how Kubrick masterminded a global effort to imagine one possible future: part technological utopia, part sterile limbo, and, more than 50 years since its release, as gripping as hell.

You can see the interview here.

How Stanley Kubrick‘s collaboration with science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke led to 2001 is well known. “The ‘really good’ science-fiction movie is a great many years overdue,” Clarke enthused, as the men began their work on a project with the working title Journey Beyond the Stars.

For those who want a broader understanding of how Kubrick gathered, enthused and sometimes (let’s be brutally frank, here) exploited the visionary talent available to him, The Design Museum’s current exhibition is essential viewing. There are prototypes of the pornographic furniture from the opening dolly shot of A Clockwork Orange, inspired by the work of artist Allen Jones but fashioned by assistant production designer Liz Moore when Jones decided not to hitch his cart – and reputation – to Kubrick’s controversial vision.

But it’s the names that recur again and again, from film to film, over decades of creative endeavour, that draw one in. The costume designer Milena Canonero was a Kubrick regular and, far from being swamped, immeasurably enriched Kubrick’s vision. (There’s a wonderful production photograph here of actor Malcolm McDowell trying on some of her differently styled droog hats.)

Kubrick was fascinated by the way people respond to being regimented – by the architectural brutalism of the Thamesmead estate in A Clockwork Orange, or by a savage gunnery sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, or by their own fetishism in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s fascination with how people think and behave is well served by this show, which will give anyone of a psychological bent much food for thought.

 

11 April 2019: Smart Robots, Mortal Engines

Come to Cinema 3 at London’s Barbican Centre, where I’ll be kicking off a season of Stanislaw Lem on film with the Brothers Quay, artists Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal, and Dr Mark Bould, author of the BFI Classics monograph on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

We’ve got some short films kick off the evening at 6.45pm on Thursday 11 April. More details here.

Whose head is it anyway?

Reading Hubert Haddad’s novel Desirable Body for the Guardian, 22 December 2018

English speakers have only two or three translations from the French by which to judge the sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish output of Tunisian poet and novelist Hubert Haddad. He began writing long prose in the 1970s and has been turning out a novel a year, more or less, since the turn of the century.

First published as Corps désirable in 2015, this novel sews a real-life maverick neurosurgeon, Sergio Canavero, into a narrative that coincides with the bicentenary of the first ever neurosurgical horror story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Cédric Allyn-Weberson, scion of a big pharma plutocrat, has set sail for the coast of Paros with his war correspondent girlfriend Lorna Leer, on a yacht called Evasion. A horrible accident crushes his spine but leaves his head intact. Funded by Cédric’s estranged father Morice, Canavero sets about transplanting Cédric’s head on to a donor body. Assuming the operation succeeds, how will Cédric cope?

Nevertheless, this short, sly novel is not about Canavero’s surgery so much as about the existential questions it raises. Emotions are physiological phenomena, interpreted by the mind. It follows that Cédric’s head, trapped “in a merciless battle … abandoned to this slow, living enterprise, to the invading hysteria of muscles and organs”, can’t possibly know how to read his new body. His life has, sure enough, been reduced to “a sort of crystalline, luminous, almost abstract dream”.

Cédric doesn’t forget who he is; he simply ceases to care, and adopts a creaturely attitude in which self hardly matters, and beings are born and die nameless. In his world, “There was no one, with the exception of a few chance encounters and sometimes some embraces. Did birds or rats worry about their social identity?”

There is something dated about Haddad’s book: an effect as curious as it is, I am sure, deliberate, with piquant hints of Ian Fleming in his use of glamorous European locations. It’s in its glancing, elliptical relationship to technology that Desirable Body takes its most curious backward step. Yet this elusive approach feels like a breath of fresh air after decades spent wading through big infrastructure-saturated fictions such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Haddad focuses succinctly on formal existential questions: questions for which there are no handy apps, and which can in no way be evaded by the application of ameliorating technology.

The besetting existential problem for the book, and, indeed, for poor Cédric himself, is pleasure. He discovers this with a vengeance when he once again (and at last) goes to bed with his girlfriend: “Getting used to this new body after so much time seems like an appropriation of a sexual kind, a disturbing usurpation, a rape almost.” Lorna’s excitement only adds to his confusion: “The last straw is the jealous impulse that overtakes him when he sees her writhing on top of him.”

French critics have received Desirable Body with due solemnity. Surely this was a mistake: Haddad’s nostalgic gestures are playful, not ponderous, and I don’t think we are required to take them too seriously. Following Cédric’s dismal post-operative sexual experience, the book changes gear from tragedy to farce; indeed, becomes laugh-out-loud funny as he finds himself king-for-a-day in a buffoonish and clockwork world where “no one is really loved because we constantly go to the wrong house or the wrong person with the same extraordinary obstinacy”.

Desirable Body is about more than one decapitated man’s unusual plight; it’s about how surprisingly little our choices have to do with our feelings and passions. A farce, then, and a sharp one: it’s funny to contemplate, but if you fell into its toils for a second, you’d die screaming in horror.

The Endless: Timeless avant-garde

Watching Benson and Moorhead’s The Endless for New Scientist, 21 July 2018

SINCE they escaped a UFO death cult, nothing much has gone right for Justin and his younger brother Aaron. They clean apartments for a living, subsist on junk food and have rotten luck with women. The arrival of a mysterious videotape convinces them that they should revisit the cult for the sake of “closure”, though it’s obvious that Justin is only going for Aaron’s sake, and what Aaron actually wants most out of this is some decent salad.

But when Justin attempts to jog around the settlement he gets caught in time (although he doesn’t know it at first). Other things are amiss, too, like the third moon. And the rope into nowhere. And an evening heat blur that turns the whole valley into shimmering mirrors.

It transpires that the friendly, gentle people our heroes ran from a decade ago are living in the presence of an unidentified “something”. It is invisible, but it isn’t hiding. Indeed, it is trying to communicate by showing them, through old photographs and videotapes, what it sees.

This low-budget Lovecraftian thriller explores territory we more usually associate with the heavyweights of the 1970s avant-garde – with the tangled story arcs of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and the cunningly withheld narrative revelations of Andrei Tarkovsky’s groundbreaking film Solaris. In fact, I’ll stick my neck out here: The Endless is very nearly this decade’s Solaris.

But while the intelligent planet in that film was innocent, even as its little “gifts” sent the scientists studying it clear off their heads, the entity presiding over The Endless is more overtly malign: like the wanton boy in King Lear killing flies for sport, perhaps.

It is trapping people in time, affording them just enough free will to recognise their plight, but not quite enough to escape it.

But then, isn’t that just like life? We nearly all live out days that by most objective measures are more or less the same as each other.

Justin and Aaron’s cleaning job was certainly a trap of this sort. And are they any worse off now? It is, after all, a very laid-back, well-behaved sort of death cult, up there in the hills behind San Diego. Its spokesman Hal talks a lot, but he’s not in any real sense a leader. The group seems happy, and the beer they make and sell is top notch. All is as Aaron remembers from his childhood: a lot of nice people preparing a lot of good food.

Maybe Justin’s the one with the problem, that he cannot see the charm in living a looped existence here. Knowing they are trapped and being looked at, this “cult” at least has the graciousness to imagine that they are also being looked after. And who’s to say their metaphysical jailer has not handed them a chance – an endless series of chances, apparently – to become the best people they can be?

The directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also play the brothers Justin and Aaron. (Benson is, wonderfully, a dead ringer for Richard Dreyfuss.) And they have made The Endless dovetail neatly with their first micro-budget feature Resolution (2012). This kind of self-reflexive game-playing can get old extremely quickly, and a rather clunky emotional working-out between the brothers at the climax of the movie should serve as an amber light. Any further with this and self-indulgence will swallow them whole.

My guess, though, is that these two know what they are doing. In Spring (2014) they managed to turn the love affair between an American soldier and a vampiric octopus into one of the most funny, touching and ultimately profound screen love affairs since Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Benson (who writes) and Moorhead (who wields the cameras) take the hokiest ideas and discover in them rich seams of human experience. They’re not ironic. They’re not distant. They’re not portentous. And if they can only hold their nerve they will improve the science fiction genre immeasurably.

Vodolazkin’s The Aviator: A time-traveller’s life

Reviewing The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin for The Guardian, 7 June 2018

Innokenty Petrovich Platonov, who lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, has awoken, a hale and hearty thirtysomething, in a present-day hospital bed. Innokenty’s struggle – a long and compelling one, delivered with apparent leisureliness by the Ukrainian-born novelist Eugene Vodolazkin in a translation by Lisa Hayden – is to overcome his confusion, and connect his tragic past life to his uncertain present one over the gulf of years.

We’ve been here before. Think Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror: a man’s life assembled out of jigsaw fragments that more or less resist narrative until the final minutes. Or think Proust. In The Aviator, an old translation of Defoe’sRobinson Crusoe replaces Marcel’s madeleine dipped in tea: “With each line,” Innokenty explains, “everything that accompanied the book in my time gone by was resurrected: my grandmother’s cough, the clank of a knife that fell in the kitchen … the scent of something fried, and the smoke of my father’s cigarette.”

So far, so orthodox. But Vodolazkin’s grip on this narrative is iron-tight, and what we take at first to be Innokenty’s pathology – or the working out of a literary method – turns out to be something much more important: a moral stand, of sorts. Innokenty knows, in a bitter and visceral fashion, that history is merely a theory abstracted from the experiences of individuals. So he chooses to care about the little things, the overlooked things, “sounds, smells, and manners of expression, gesticulation, and motion”. These are the things that actually make up a life; these are the true universals.

A journalist interviews the celebrity time-traveller: “I keep trying to draw you out on historical topics and you keep talking about sounds and about smells.” He’s right: “A historical view makes everyone into hostages of great societal events,” Innokenty observes. “I see things differently, though: exactly the opposite.”

Innokenty has skin in this game: shortly before he was transported to the future, the Bolsheviks, history’s true believers, threw him into the first and worst of the labour camps. “Those who created the Solovetsky hell had deprived people of what was human,” Innokenty says, “but Robinson [Crusoe], after all, did the opposite: he humanised all the nature surrounding him, making it a continuation of himself. They destroyed every memory of civilisation but he created civilisation from nothing. From memory.” Inspired by his favourite book from childhood, Innokenty attempts a similar feat.

He discovers his old, unconsummated love still lives, hopelessly aged and now with dementia. He visits her, looks after her. He washes her, touching her for the first time; her granddaughter Nastya assists. He falls in love with Nastya, and navigates the taboos around their relationship with admirable delicacy and self-awareness. But Nastya is as much a child of her time as he is of his. They will love each other, but can never really bond, not because Nastya is a trivial person, but because she belongs to a trivial time, “a generation of lawyers and economists”. Modern faces are “nervous in some way”, Innokenty observes, “mean, an expression of ‘don’t touch me!’”

Innokenty is the ultimate internal exile: Turgenev’s ineffectual intellectual, played at an odd, more sympathetic speed. He is no more equipped to resist the blandishments of Zheltkov (the novel’s stand-in for Vladimir Putin), or the PR department of a frozen food company, than he was to resist the Soviet secret police. Innokenty’s attitude drives Geiger – his doctor, champion and friend – to distraction: how can this former prisoner of an Arctic labour camp possibly claim that “punishment for unknown reasons does not exist”?

Innokenty’s self-sacrificial piety provides his broken-backed life with a distinctly unmodern kind of meaning, and it’s one that leaves him hideously exposed. But we’re never in any doubt that his is a richer, kinder worldview than any available to Nastya. Innokenty’s bourgeois, liberal, pre-Bolshevik anguish over what constitutes right action is a surprisingly successful fulcrum on which to balance a book. And we should expect nothing less from an author whose previous novel, Laurus, was a barnstorming thriller about medieval virtue.

All that remains, I suppose, is to explain how this bourgeois “former person” comes to be alive in our own time, puzzling over the cult of celebrity, post-industrial consumerism and the internet. But why spoil the MacGuffin? Let’s just say, for now, that Innokenty has been preserved. “I did not even begin to question Geiger about the reasons, since that was not especially interesting,” he writes in his sprawling, revelatory journal. “Knowing the peculiarities of our country, it is simpler to be surprised that anything is preserved at all.”

The dreams our stuff is made of

To introduce a New Scientist speaking event at London’s Barbican centre on 29 June, I took a moment to wonder why the present looks so futuristic.

Long before we can build something for real, we know how it will work and what it will require by way of materials and design. The steampunk genre gorges on Victorian designs for steam-powered helicopters (yes, there were such things) and the like, with films such as Hugo (2011) and gaming apps such as 80 Days (2014) telescoping the hard business of materials science into the twinkling of a mad professor’s eye. Always, our imaginations run ahead of our physical abilities.

At the same time, science fiction is not at all naive, and almost all of it is about why our dreams of transcendence through technology fail: why the machine goes wrong, or works towards an unforeseen (sometimes catastrophic) end. Blade Runner (1982) didn’t so much inspire the current deluge of in-yer-face urban advertising as realise our worst nightmares about it. Short Circuit (1986) knew what was wrong with robotic warfare long before the first Predator aircraft took to the skies.

So yes, science fiction enters clad in the motley of costume drama: polished, chromed, complete, not infrequently camp. But there’s always a twist, a tear, a weak seam. This genre takes finery from the prop shop and turns it into something vital – a god, a golem, a puzzle, a prison. In science fiction, it matters where you are and how you dress, what you walk on and even what you breathe. All this stuff is contingent, you see. It slips about. It bites.

Sometimes,  in this game of “It’s behind you!” less is more. In Alphaville (1965), futuristic secret agent Lemmy Caution explores the streets of a distant space city, yet there is no set dressing to Alphaville: it is all dialogue, all cut – nothing more than a rhetorical veil cast over contemporary Paris.

More usually, you’ll grab whatever’s to hand – tinsel and Panstick and old gorilla costumes. Two years old by 1965, at least by Earth’s reckoning, William Hartnell’s Time Lord was tearing up the set of Doctor Who and would, in other bodies and other voices, go on tearing up, tearing down and tearing through his fans’ expectations for the next 24 years, production values be damned.

Bigger than its machinery, bigger even than its protagonist, Doctor Who was, in that first, long outing, never in any sense realistic, and that was its strength. You never knew where you’d end up next: a comedy, a horror flick or a Western-style showdown. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the whole point. It said, we’re bolting this together as we go along.

What hostile critics say is true, in that science fiction sometimes is more about the machines than about the people. Metropolis (1927) director Fritz Lang wanted a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond (1929) and roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre-tall liquid-propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building a rocket 11 metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily, they ran out of money.

The technocratic ideal may seem sterile now, but its promise was compelling: that we’d all live lives of ease and happiness in space, the moon or Mars, watched over by loving machines – the Robinson family’s stalwart Robot B-9 from Lost in Space, perhaps.

Once Star Trek‘s Federation established heaven on Earth (and elsewhere), however, then we hit a sizeable snag. Gene Roddenberry was right to have pitched his show to Desilu Studios as “wagon train to the stars”, for as Dennis Sisterson’s charming silent parody Steam Trek: The moving picture (1994) demonstrates, the moment you actually reach California, the technology that got you there loses its specialness.

If the teleportation device is not the point of your story, then you may as well use a rappelling rope. Why spend your set budget on an impressive-looking telescope? Why not just have your actor point out of the window? The day your show’s props become merely props is the day you’re not making science fiction any more.

The dreams our stuff is made of

 

We imagine things before we make them, from spacecraft to smartphones – and designers often turn artists’ imaginings of the future into our everyday reality. So who’s in charge?

I am.

At least, I will be on 29 June when I herd Matt Smith (editor of 2000 AD) spaceflight expert Piers Bizony and architect Liam Young into London’s Barbican Centre for a session called The Dreamer’s Club. Fun and games begin at 7.30pm. Details and tickets here.