A couple months ago I stumbled on an intriguing connection. Monty Norman who is credited with the theme song for James Bond apparently adapted it from the score for Bad Sign, Good Sign, a tune that he had written for an ill-fated stage version of Naipal’s “A House for Mr Biswas.” See Monty Norman – The first man of James Bond music. That the James Bond theme song turns out to be based on a song meant to be sung by Mr Biswas is some sort of post-colonial irony.
Here are the lyrics to Bad Sign, Good Sign start,
I-I was born with this unlu-ucky sneeze and what is wo-orse I came into the the wo-orld the wrong way round. Pundits all agree that I-I’m the reason why…
Stan pointed me to the inaugural issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research which has a number of fine articles.
These two pieces make an interesting contrast since Benedikt focuses on space and Bell manages to define virtual worlds without any reference to space. Benedikt calls for architects to engage in the design of virtual spaces while Bell focuses on the network of avatars – or the people within the space (and persistent time.)
Ever since the Gartner press release saying that “80 Percent of Active Internet Users Will Have A “Second Life” in the Virtual World by the End of 2011″ there has been a renewed interest in virtual worlds. My sense is that the 1990s interest in virtual reality was overblown and ultimately wrong in that people predicted we would be manipulating information inside virtual worlds with VR interfaces, data-gloves, headsets and so on. What has emerged instead is the proliferation of massive multiplayer online environments from games like World of Warcraft to social/creative spaces like Second Life. The headsets and torture apparatus of Lawnmower Man are gone, thank you!
So … what is next? I’ve just finished Halting State by Charles Stross which is a near-future detective story set in Edinburgh where players can move their avatars from game to game in the Zone (something actually proposed by Linden Labs and IBM – see Lohr Free the Avatars – this reference is from the Messinger, Stroulia and Lyons article “A Typology of Virtual Worlds” in the JCWR.) What is more interesting is the way Stross imagines the overlay of virtual and real worlds. Everyone, including cops, wear glasses that provide augmented reality views on the world they walk through, including the ability to see people in their in-game avatar representation while, for example, at a trade fair. Stross does a imaginative job or weaving the virtual into everyday life. (If you like this book you should also read Accelerando – a great accelerating run through the artificial life as it leaves meat behind.)
William Gibson can’t read his own fiction, I’m sorry to say. I went to his reading here in Hamilton organized by Brian Prince and some guy from a bookstore in Burlington who thought it was a good idea to merge the science fiction in his bookstore with the other fiction (see below). Gibson read from Spook Country which I blogged before. He is a bland reader who, when combined with local musician Tom Wilson looks pickled white. He also had some strange pronunciations, like “bitch” for “bench”. (Benches show up surprisingly often in Spook Country chapters, something you don’t notice until someone pronounces them “bitch.”) Perhaps it’s an elaborate joke, or a Vancouver accent, or just that Gibson was at the end of a tour in boring town in Ontario reading after Tom Wilson.
Reminder to self … never follow Tom Wilson!
To be fair Gibson was good at answering questions, most of which were of the sort, “what sort of books-music-movies do you read-listen-watch.” I think Gibson fans confuse him for an oracle of nerd cool because his recent characters seem so hip. To be frank I’m more interested in what music Tom Wilson listens to. For that matter, Gibson more or less said he doesn’t read fiction after a long day writing it. As for his musical tastes his answers felt canned, and sure enough, showed up verbatim on his web site.
Now to comment on the idea of merging sci fi with regular fiction. This was presented to us (Gibson fans) as a legitimation of sci fi as if we were worried all along that our reading wasn’t being taken seriously. Who cares what others think? I personally prefer my sci fi in one place so I don’t have to wade through a large bookstore by author; that’s how I discover new authors like Ian Banks. The advantage of organization by genre is that you can discover more books in that genre when you don’t have an author in mind. Margaret Atwood talks about what sci fi or speculative fiction can do in The Guardian. If she is right that certain things can be done better with sci fi, and if that is what you want to read, why not have a couple shelves dedicated to it (and, of course, fantasy, which doesn’t do the same stuff, but gets lumped in there.) Thank Atwood that Brian Prince hasn’t reorganized their shelves.
Last weekend I read William Gibson’s new book, Spook Country. Like most of Gibson’s book he does a great job imagining the evolution of computing technologies. He is the master of close-future forecasting. In this case he looks at GPS (Global Positioning System) or, more specifically its use for what is called locative art or augmented reality. One of the parallel plots of the story has the main character Hollis follow an artist and look (through a special visor) at virtual works superimposed over real locations like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death where it really happened. Gibson in Q&A with the Boston Globe calls it graffitti (compared to current locative art which is mostly audio-cellphone based.) Gibson has put his finger on something important – the way GPS and WiFi enable an outdoor virtual reality superimposed on where you are.
What I find dissappointing is the increasing predictable passivity of Gibson’s characters. In Spook Country he has three witness zombie characters who essentially move around the plot watching the real protagonists and reflecting on them. That Hollis would by sheer luck (and her having been part of a defunct band) get invited to witness and talk to the protagonists becomes unbelievable at the end. I can see no reason why either Bigend or the old man would involve her as they do based on Gibson’s prose. Likewise the character Milgrim is dragged along to witness the far more interesting character Brown. The strange passivity of such central characters spoils an otherwise very smart book. Gibson is trying too hard to avoid a third-person point-of-view so he creates unbelievable witnesses.
One thing Gibson does well is science fiction of the here-and-now. Spook Country takes place after 9/11 and in the shady reality of contract intelligence. It reflects in the way that speculative fiction can on what we are worried we will become. Washington Post reviewer Bill Sheehan rightly compares Gibson to Don DeLillo, both of whom write “fiction that is powerfully attuned to the currents of dread, dismay and baffled fury that permeate our culture.”
The BBC has a story about roboethics, Robotic age poses ethical dilemma, triggered by a South Korean initiative to develop a Robot Ethics Charter as part of a focus on robotics as a growth area.
In the past, robots were considered just a useful tool in the manufacturing industry. But it is gradually embedded in human life by cleaning homes, protecting them from thieves and providing education. Nowadays robots are also used to rescue people at accident spots such as fires.
This year, various robots are to be introduced: a robot that teaches English and sings songs to children, a robot that guides people at the post office and a robot designed to save people at disaster areas. (Korea.net, Robots, cars, batteries hold key to future growth)
Poking around I found this Painter Robot from Yahoh. (Sounds like Yahoo to me.) The BBC story also mentions the Roboethics.org – Official Roboethics website which has issued a Roboethics Roadmap.
Roboethics is the ethics applied to Robotics, guiding the design, construction and use of the robots.
In this site you may find: birth and history of Roboethics; all the information concerning the development of the concept of a human-centered Roboethics; the events which have marked the update of the original proposal; the international projects on Roboethics; the EURON Roboethics Roadmap; the activity of the IEEE-RAS Technical Committee on Roboethics.
Thanks to Daryl for this link.
What happens to the gods of immigrants when they come to America? Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a tour through displaced mythology pitting the old world gods (and demons) like Loki and Odin against the new gods of television and the computer. Told by a wandering Shadow, perhaps a native spirit, who slowly learns about the underground network of forgotten entities stranded in the new world.
Gaiman is better known for working on comics some of which are being adapted into movies (Terry Gillian is working on one), but he has written some fine dark fantasy like Neverwhere which, like Philip Pullman‘s work, is both social commentary and metaphysical. American Gods is hard to classify; it is barely fantasy, more magical realism woven out of a tour of mythology. I think he is heading towards a view that American’s are animists – endowing their new technologies with volatile wills. Think of how we talk about computers as if they were imps with a mind of their own.
The Guardian has a thoughtful article about CS Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia, titled His dark materials after Philip Pullman’s trilogy. Why Alison Lurie titled the article about Lewis after Pullman’s trilogy is a bit of a mystery; yes, Pullman is quoted on the controversies around Lewis’s sexism, racism and “muscular” Christian propaganda, but is Lurie suggesting Pullman (another Oxford fantasy writer) has special authority? Or it is just a good title for a story on the a series we loved as kids and now find distasteful for their incoherence and racism. See also Pullman attacks Narnia film plans on Pullman’s critique and The Narnia Skirmishes on the controversy around the release of the Disney version.
Continue reading CS Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia
Light by the British author M. John Harrison is a dark and sometimes violent meditation on how we encounter the incomprehensible. Three strands follow the protagonists weaving the novel.The three twisted characters, including one who brutally murders women to escape his fate, never meet but are responding in different ways to a massive trench of alien artefacts that cannot be understood, just pirated. One of the best of that strain of dark Brit sci-fi/fantasy that includes Ian M. Banks and China Mieville.
There is a decent interview with Harrison at, m. john harrison interview – for zone-sf.com.
Mona Lisa Overdrive is the last in the sprawl trinity that made William Gibson famous. It follows Neuromancer and Count Zero. Like his other novels it plays with reality and virtual reality or “cyberspace” (the word Gibson coined.) The title character is vintage Gibson, a smart street girl who is picked up and altered to look like a star so that her body can be used in a kidnapping. In the end Mona Lisa replaces the star when she goes virtual (into the aleph, a biochip holding the/a world) and then takes off to meet another distant alien AI she might marry(?). It is a very old form of swapped reality, the peasant and king trading places. There are other ways Gibson plays with the varieties of altered reality. One character, the young daughter of a Japanese ganster, has a digital ghost only she can see who comforts and advises her. Another character builds robotic sculpture to exorcise his penal ghosts. Gibson is reminding of all the virtualities, including that enigmatic painted smile by Leonardo.
Continue reading Gibson: Mona Lisa Overdrive
“I wonder if anyone who sees a photograph of the moon-walker in the newspapers will imagine that inside this steel saucepan, which exists for the sole purpose of crawling seventy kilometres across the moon and then halting for eternity, there is a human being gazing out through two glass lenses? But what does it matter?” (p. 69)
Omon Ra by Russian author, Victor Pelevin is a dark science fiction novel about a young Russian who wants to be a cosmonaut and discovers that the Russian space program is a sham and that supposedly automated moon exploration robots actually have young men like him in them (who never come back.) And there’s more. I’m not sure if it is science fiction or surreal anti-science fiction.
I found the full text of a different translation into English at Lib.ru, see Victor Pelevin. Omon Ra. There is a menu which lets you get a text file version.
Continue reading Victor Pelevin: Omon Ra