Monday, 22 June 2009

Leaps of the Imagination

Apologies for the slight delay in posting this. The Midsummer weekend (which is a time of celebration here in Sweden) simply came in between, but now I am back in the proverbial saddle.

Having recently written of how SF (and indeed all literature) is, as it were, a victim of its own time in my previous post entitled "Visions of the Future Are Always Anchored in the Past and the Present", I figured it might be appropriate to write a few words on the subject of why, perhaps, certain SF indeed does succeed in some of its predictions (despite of its failure to accomplish a complete prophetic vision).

I remember watching a documentary program called Cyberpunk on Swedish television back in the early 90s. Truth to tell, I believe I still have the program somewhere on a VHS tape since I recorded it and viewed it at least a few more times. The most interesting aspect of the program (filled as it was with editing effects of various kinds and some rather frightening people waiting to be jacked into their computers for good) was the included interview material with William Gibson, who is one of the founding fathers (if not THE founding father) of the cyberpunk genre.

One of the things that has really stuck with me from those interview bits, was Gibson's confession that his first novels were all written on typewriter, contrary to what one might easily believe. In fact, Gibson tells an anecdote about getting himself a computer around the time of (if I remember correctly) writing Mona Lisa Overdrive (i.e. the third novel in his Cyberspace trilogy). The account is amusing as it reveals Gibson, who already at this point had made a name for himself among computer people, to be fairly unaware of how a computer actually works, even in the most rudimentary fashion. He relates to his audience how he brought the computer home, turned it on and got worried from hearing a whining kind of sound. Because of this he nervously called the store and told them that the computer was making this noise, whereupon the person in the other end responded something like, "that, sir, is the sound of your hard drive." Gibson laughs after revealing this to the audience and admits that he'd never really considered the inner workings of the computer as a machine. Yet all in all, he had expected it to be more sophisticated somehow; liquid crystals or some such thing.

Yet, I think that there is something revealing about this revelation (and not only in the most obvious sense). It, in fact, suggests an explanation as to how SF as a genre might accurately predict certain things which might not have been predicted through the application of scientific data and pure logic. I would suggest that there are occasions when fiction has a much stronger capability of predicting something than pure factually based accounts do. I am, of course, talking about leaps of the imagination.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of good SF writers out there who are very grounded in the science of our own time, and who are making excellent use of that knowledge to generate their own credible future worlds. Yet even these writers need to rely on said leaps to get where they want to go often-times. As SF writer Arthur C. Clarke has been known to say on more than one occasion (in fact, I've heard him say so in few interview snippets myself), sufficiently advanced technology would seem like magic to a technologically lesser advanced society or individual. To get past one's own less advanced position and mine those future technological possibilities in some manner of speaking would, to my mind, require said leaps of imagination.

Now the interesting thing is that these leaps seem very much to actually help our technological advancement. While we undeniably need hard science to define our possibilities, it strikes me that at times we also need leaps of imagination to break out of what we know to be possible (or in fact, perhaps more importantly, impossible). It is matter of looking at the world with fresh, unburdened eyes, and while such eyes certainly cannot alter the laws of physics, it might be that they can occasionally unlock new potential understandings of these laws for someone who knows them, but who is also blinded from seeing new potentials by the known limitations of the laws.

All of this being a (perhaps) circuitous way of saying that ignorant points of view, on occasion, can help the knowledgeable to review their own knowledge from another perspective; i.e. to view existing data in a manner not previously thought of and which the data itself might actually make it nigh impossible to see.

As for the fictional universes themselves, as always, real world limitations mean nothing. Verisimilitude is the key. The word, derived from the verisimilar, refers to something having the appearance of truth, which is more than a few steps away from portraying any kind of actual truth or reality (if that, in the strictest sense, is even remotely possible). As such, there can be few genres to which verisimilitude is more important than those of the fantastic, like SF, fantasy and horror. But that, ladies and gentlemen, strikes me as a different subject than the one at hand, although one which I am more than certain we will have reason to return to in future posts.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

A World in 3D – It's RealD!

Okay... so a rather busy week and then to top it off I had planned to write a completely different post than this one. But, for reasons that will become apparent (I hope), I just had to write this one first and postpone the other one until my next update.

See, this Monday I spoke to a friend and colleague who absolutely raved about Coraline 3D. Now, as a big fan of both Neil Gaiman's book and director Henry Selick's previous, wonderful collaboration with Tim Burton (i.e. The Nightmare Before Christmas, in case anyone had missed that), it's almost a wee bit odd that I'd not already seen it, but I do believe the trailer simply didn't catch my interest enough. What I had seen seemed lighter and... fluffier somehow, than the book as I remember it.

As it is, I'm kind of happy that I hadn't already been to see it. Because if I had, it would most likely not have been Coraline 3D I'd gone for but the regular Coraline feature. I mean, why waste extra money on 3D, right? I remember 3D. It became rather fashionable for a while back there in my childhood in the 80s. Red and green glasses on the whole family in the sofa in front of the telly watching Creature From The Black Lagoon and all that. Followed by a wave of other TV stuff (especially directed at kids) as well as a few comics. Fun to be sure, but still... not something I'd spend a bundle of extra cash on, really.

Don't get me wrong. It's not as if I thought the technology hadn't advanced or anything. I simply just didn't figure it was my particular cuppa. Not something that I required, as it were. But my friend's raving was as much about the whole 3D thing as the film itself. How the two worked ever so well to create depth in the fictional world of the piece. And it was the latter that really sold it to me. I simply had to see this film... and in 3D.

The technology is new, to be sure. Gone are the red and green glasses, now replaced by some nifty looking "sunglasses" (though they're not really sunglasses, of course; the caveat on the package made this abundantly clear in about three different languages). RealD is obviously the term for this new 3D technology and it relies on polarized light in some fashion or other, from what I've understood.

Yet, what is most amazing, at least with Coraline 3D (and also seemingly with Ice Age 3, Up and G-Force from what I could tell from the 3D trailers they showed at the cinema; all looking really good to different degrees), was not the great technology in and of itself, but rather how it was used. There has always been an impetus to use 3D to reach out and grab the audience, scare them and figuratively poke them in their eyes (something which Coraline 3D does quite literally at one point, but at least with a very good reason). This is probably why the technology has often been applied to horror films (the aforementioned Creature from the Black Lagoon leaps to mind), and still is to at least some degree. I couldn't help noticing a poster for My Bloody Valentine 3D, a film for which I, despite all my newly found love for the RealD format, couldn't muster even the slightest enthusiasm.

Coraline 3D, on the other hand, uses the technology mostly to, as my friend put it, create depth in the fictional and animated world it projects. And with great effect, at that. The whole world came to life before me in a new way, and part of me think it's telling that it is an animated film that manages to do this so well (note that the trailers mentioned above, that caught my eye as well, are all for animated films as well). It may well be that animation knows, as it were, how to use the technology to help tell the story rather than (as effects of all sorts can be manhandled at times) using a story – any story – to showcase the latest and greatest in terms of effects.

In short, what this film shows is the profound and ages old practice of excellence in storytelling. Of using whatever effects, stylistic or technical, that you have at hand to tell the story, and tell it in the best possible way. This is no mere showcase of a proverbial fireworks display saying look-at-what-we-can-do. It is a sincere case of we're-here-to-tell-you-a-story-and-we-will-use-all-the-tools-available-to-us-in-order-to-tell-it-the-best-way-we-possibly-can. And a very successful case, at that.

It also hints at this being an ongoing option already for animated films. This is, I'll admit, an assumption on my part thus far, but one I'll stick with for the time being, taking the aforementioned 3D trailers into account (and let's remember that trailers are usually keen on showing off effects for effects' sake. So if that's not a burden in a trailer, it seems less likely to be a burden in the finished product).

All in all, I'm gearing up to watch at least two more 3D films before the end of this year: Pixar's Up and Disney's G Force. Worlds in 3D – it's RealD!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Visions of the Future Are Always Anchored in the Past and the Present

It is no secret that literature (and in fact most any form of narrative fiction regardless of medium) is contextual in nature. It is shaped and bound by parameters of geographical and socio-historical nature, and guided by literary and cultural traditions, which it both follows and attempts to break away from.

As such, the genre of science fiction (or at least, and in particular, futuristic SF) is perhaps the one which is most visibly affected by said phenomenon. Don't get me wrong. It isn't as if historical fiction (of any sort and including several types of fantasy) or contemporary fiction (of any era) escape in any way. The former shows us the past through the inevitable lens of its own present (whether it be Victorian England seen through the lens of early 21st century England as in the case of Sarah Waters or the Middle Ages seen through the lens of Scottish Romanticism as in the case of Sir Walter Scott), whereas the latter is inevitably focused upon its own present moment in time and is therefore, at least to some degree, interested in capturing those very elements. The possible exceptions (or at least near exceptions) being fiction that through the use of aesthetic traditions attempts to use an older lens in its endeavour to depict past, present or even future, for that matter.

SF, however, strives to a large degree as a genre to depict that which is not yet upon us. Not merely a fantasy based on whatever historical or empirical fancy of sorts appeals to the author's imagination, but an actual attempt at prophecy of what will come, in terms of social, cultural and technological developments and upheavals.

Whereas our knowledge of the past or the present is never complete or absolute, it is nevertheless something that is somewhat fixed. It is true that both our understanding of the past and our way of viewing our contemporary age alter over time, but there are set boundaries within which such alteration occurs (even though some of those boundaries can admittedly themselves change over time as well). The future, on the other hand, is in a state of constant flux.

Our future (or even historical and contemporary) understanding of space travel, for instance, differs vastly from that of any science fiction produced before actual space flight and the moon landing. The projections made way back then could not conceive of all the changes which have happened after those events or those which are still happening now. In fact, even when science fiction does hit the mark (which it does remarkably well every so often), there are still more often than not things that fall through the cracks, as it were. Sometimes these things are small, sometimes perhaps just seemingly small and sometimes they are of enormous size or consequence.

I am reminded of something British SF writer Richard Morgan said on this subject at a seminar at the Gothenburg Book Fair a few years ago. He pointed to the example of William Gibson, who in his breakthrough novel Neuromancer introduced concepts like cyberspace and software/hardware interfaces in various ways, some of which we've now seen realised and some of which we are still working towards realising. Thus Gibson arguably presented a future which still holds up even to this day. This statement is fully true in terms of literary power and effect, but not entirely so in terms of future vision however. Morgan's point was that even Gibson, for all his visionary power, failed to see the future in toto as it were.

In a scene, late in Neuromancer, the protagonist Case has discovered the existence of an A.I. and the A.I. in turn knows it has been discovered. In an attempt to contact Case, the A.I. uses the existing phone system and the scene depicts Case walking by a line of payphones, each one ringing in turn as Case moves past them. Morgan said that this scene was one of his favourites in the novel and from a literary viewpoint I would say that the scene is inspired in the sense of dramaturgy and narrative effect. But, as Morgan made a point of stating, when was the last time you saw a line of payphones? Gibson, for all his seeming prescience vis-a-vis cyberspace and the internet, quite obviously failed to predict the coming of the cellphone; a technical achievement which of course has had enormous effect on our current society.

Now, Gibson obviously kept his writing in the area of the near future, a future period which is perhaps most susceptible to becoming dated in such a manner. It always becomes a question of balancing the urge to make the advances too profound and the risk to make them lesser than they actually turn out (or, of course, simply failing to foresee an important social, cultural or technological change).

Asimov, on the other hand (and yes, we are back at Asimov yet again. What with my working my way through his Foundation books now, these texts of mine are wont to touch upon the man's oeuvre for a while longer, I fear), manages to avoid some of this problem by working in the far distant future. With the exception of the Robot short stories, both his Robot and Foundation books are set in the very distant future, and the very distant future allows both for certain technological aspects of near magic (from our present day limited perspective) and, to some degree, for the possible notion of regression within various fields, both cultural and technological. This notion is very prevalent even within the fictional universe of Foundation books (what with the basic premise being the inevitable decline of an Empire that has slowly forgotten its own technological advances) and certainly helps to generate a sense of verisimilitude, of believability.

And yet, it is hard (looking at these books today) not to notice a glaring point which Asimov obviously failed to foresee. That is, that of the slow but continuous shift from paper to screen media and internet communication. Contrary to what many may believe, print media and the use of paper is not yet out, but similarly any contemporary depiction of the future (even a very distant one, or perhaps especially a very distant one) would have to take into account trends and probabilities pointing towards a paper-less (or close to paper-less) society. Yet Asimov's learned Foundation and its people rely on books, in a very physical sense. Messages are delivered on paper, and even when said messages are delivered within electronic (or perhaps atomic) devices, the medium used within the devices to hold the actual messages is nevertheless paper.

Perhaps this shows that the real trick is not in tracing the larger developments per se in either technology, society or culture, but to manage to spot the small things that will change, though such change may be impossible to predict (at least in full). Because clearly some of these things (whether they be cellphones or internet, e-mail and e-books) will affect other things on a much larger scale within society, culture and technology.