Archive for the ‘the future’ Category

Them, Robots

Morgan is a great airplane movie. I had no plans to see it when it came out. My expectations were set quite low on a flight last week. It jumped that low bar and gave me some things to think about. Before the thinking, the movie: things are going mighty wrong in the effort to create a fake human (synth, android, robot, pick your poison). Right at the beginning, synthetic human Morgan, looking about 15, but real age five (she’s a fast grower), stabs a caretaker in the eye.

Things are going to get worse. You can tell. Particularly once we figure out this is a movie trotting out the old trope (or cliche, you choose) about building fake humans (synths, robots) to be soldiers. More precisely, weapons. I won’t ruin the end, in case you’re on plane sometime soon.

My thinking:

  1. An entire category of movies and TV shows would disappear if the imaginary robot/android/synth/fake-life manufacturing industry followed Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. I mean, why would you not put in Law 1? “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” The Amazon series “Humans” nods at the law, then walks around it. A character talks about overriding the Asimov protocols in a synth. That. Should. Not. Be. Possible. For a safe society, at least, though boring robot movies.
  2. My next thought, as the movie ground toward its pretty inevitable conclusion, was about how indignant Isaac Asimov was when his laws were not programmed into Hal 9000, the computer aboard the ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was a great exchange between Asimov and 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke, but I can’t find it anywhere on my interwebs. Suffice it to say, Clarke felt he could do what he wanted in his universe. I’ve not read that Asimov protested the hundreds of TV shows and movies after that ignored his Three Laws of Robotics–probably realizing it would do little good. Thus was born a mighty industry making  filmed entertainment about deadly robot-android-synths.
  3. But really, why bother making the movie Morgan when the best film about synthetic human soldiers, Blade Runner, has been around for decades. The banal Morgan dialogue was replaced in my head by Rutger Hauer as Roy, speaking his dying words. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
  4. Credits rolled at the end Morgan, and I got an answer to No. 3.  The director of the film was Todd Scott. I start wondering. Up comes the executive producer, Ridley Scott. Interweb confirms Todd’s the son of the director of Blade Runner. Not only are deadly robot-android-synth movies and shows an industry, they’re a family business.

Alternating history


I love alternate histories. They are the greatest of “what ifs.” The biggest trope in this genre: What if the Allies lost World War II? But before it was even a trope, Philip K. Dick wrote the novel The Man in the High Castle. The U.S. is divided by the Nazis in the east and the Empire of Japan in the west and some very mysterious stuff is going on (with Dick you are rarely allowed to figure all of it out).

Whether it’s the weirdness of Dick’s stories or their magnificence, Hollywood loves them. First came “Bladerunner,” based on the novel Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? and ushering in cyberpunk before the cyberpunk authors knew what they were about to do. Dick was the proto-punk, the Lou Reed of science fiction.

Took a few more years for the rest of Hollywood to catch on, after which it seemed movies were being made of everything with Dick’s name on it. Makes and remakes and remakes again (see “Total Recall,” from the novel We Can Remember It For You Wholesale). I’m waiting for one of his prefaces to get turned into a film.

This is not to say I was disappointed when Amazon rolled out a pilot for “The Man in the High Castle.” With Amazon, you watch the pilot and then vote on whether they should make a series. (Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch mystery series became TV this way. It premieres on Amazon as “Bosch” this month.) “The Man in the High Castle” pilot was excellent. The mysteries layered on mysteries are there. Nazi New York and Japanese-controlled San Francisco are real in the way alternate history must make you believe what didn’t happened did. Check the pilot out and vote (so I can watch the series).

Update: “The Man in the High Castle” received a full-series order from Amazon, The Hollywood Reporter wrote Feb. 18. THR said Amazon Studios exec Roy Price called “High Castle” Amazon’s “most watched pilot ever.”

Straight scoop from the Weekly World News

I love newspapers. Pretty much all newspapers. Big city dailies. Small town weeklies. Broadsheets. Tabloids. Even Berliners.

I even have a special place in my heart for supermarket tabloids (a category created, I guess, to differentiate them from newsstand tabloids likes those of the Murdoch/New York Post variety). But the supermarket tabloids I really love are gone from the checkout line. Now it’s all diets and the same tiddle taddle about Beyonce and Taylor. Boooring.

Ah but back in the day, the supermarket tabs were glorious in the range of stories they covered. Alien invasions. Elvis sightings. Elvis invading with aliens. The Weekly World News was the king of them all, delivering stories like the woman who married a giraffe, a baby born with antlers and the merman caught in the South Pacific. This stalwart of a very special kind of journalism lasted from 1979 to 2007. Now there’s a book out by Neil McGinness offering the best (I would never say funniest) pages from the Weekly World News. Few book trailers fire the imagination like this one:

I’m sure there are doubters out there. How could this paper possibly be important culturally, historically or in any other way whatsoever? Read a best-of book about it? Never.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Agent K in “Men in Black” on supermarket tabloids: “Best investigative reporting on the planet. But go ahead, read the New York Times if you want. They get lucky sometimes.” Or visit Fox Mulder’s basement office on “The X-Files.” Articles from a paper just like the Weekly World News, maybe the very paper itself, hang on the wall. Something is out there.

‘2001,’ ‘Interstellar’ and Howard Johnson

1968HowardJohnson2001-01Collisions that happen in my mind: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Interstellar” and Howard Johnson. Okay, the first two are obvious for the way the first movie informed the second. (How many “2001” references did you count in “Interstellar”?)

But Howard Johnson?

Easily explained. I happen to be working on scenes in my work-in-progress set in the HoJo that once operated in the heart of Times Square. In researching colors and menus and other details, I came across a wonderful blog Dreams of Space —Books and Ephemera. That blog features what I’ve pictured here, a free comic book telling the story of “2001.” Given out by HoJo as the children’s menu! Howard Johnson received a brief product placement in the movie itself. Still, I’d love to meet the person who convinced perfectionist Stanley Kubrik to sign up for the HoJo comic book children’s menu. Here’s two other pages:










Book to the future: what’s to come for readers and writers

Most everything I read about the future of the book takes on the didactic nature of all online debate. Amazon good. Amazon bad. Self publishing good. Self publishing bad. Big 5 good. Big 5 bad. You’re wrong. You are. Shut up. No you.

As counter to that, The Economist published a brilliant essay a week ago, “From Papyrus to Pixels: An Essay on the Future of the Book.” The Economist doesn’t fear complexity, but that doesn’t mean it fails to produce clarity. The essay starts by taking one book, Cicero’s de Officiis (On Duties), from the papyrus scroll to codex to illuminated manuscript to books printed on the Gutenberg press to the book technologies we know now, right up through to the ebook. It does that in just the first few paragraphs to make a point.

Technology always has an impact, the magazine admits. Gutenberg died almost penniless.

But to see technology purely as a threat to books risks missing a key point. Books are not just “tree flakes in cased in dead cow,” as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.

It wouldn’t be right to quote too much from the essay. People need to read it, rather than having the usual binary debates I described in my first paragraph. Anyway, I honestly can’t do the piece justice here, particularly as it examines self-publishing, digital, Amazon and shifting publication technologies. Once upon a time blogs (weblogs) were supposed to point you to articles and pages worth reading. This is one of those times. If you care about reading, if you care about writing, if you care about books, read this essay.

The Economist does a nice little trick with the online version by letting you listen to it or read it like a scroll or a book (with virtual pages flipping), so experiencing three different book technologies. The magazine always finds the best people to quote. Take this from Niccolo Perotti on certain scourges of publishing, “Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would be best forgotten, or better still, be erased from all books.” Perotti was a humanist scholar complaining to a friend. In 1471.

The chapters of the essay give you a feel for where this essay will take you:

  • Chapter I: In which something old and powerful is encountered in a vault
  • Chapter II: In which deaths foretold do not unfold
  • Chapter III: In which new sorts of author meet new sorts of reader
  • Chapter IV: In which standards are always in steep decline, and life gets ever better
  • Chapter V: In which ideas from the past move on into the future

You don’t, on the other hand, need to give much attention to another thinking person’s magazine, New Republic, as it takes on one piece of the debate over the future of the book with a tabloidy cover story by editor Franklin Foer headlined “Amazon Must Be Stopped.” Foer wants the anti-trust laws to be twisted around somehow to stop Amazon from being big, even though it hasn’t tripped any of the actual rules that I know of. The key damage to the economy that Foer can find will be the loss of publishing advances to writers. “This upfront money is the economic pillar on which quality books rest, the great bulwark against dilettantism. Advances make it financially viable for a writer to commit years of work to a project.”

Like 95 percent or more of authors, I’ve not benefited from this mighty pillar. Nor am I a dilettante. Sounds more like Foer is.

I do have a conflict of interest in this discussion. As a debut author writing for a smaller publisher, I can’t bite the hand that might squash me, so everything I write about Amazon might be seen as suspect. So maybe you should read the article yourself to see if Foer makes a real case.

I’ll finish with novelist Anthony Horowitz quoted on Amazon in the better Economist piece: “They really are evil bastards. I loathe them. I fear them. And I use them all the time because they’re wonderful.”

Time Town

I’m fascinated by time and memory and how they wind round each other. That’s probably why I’m writing a historical mystery series set in the mid-Seventies, and why I’ve got a middle-grade time travel story in the works.

Earlier this summer, I visited the Lake George area of upstate New York for the first time since I was child. Several stops along the way gave me the feeling I was visiting the past—or at least bits and pieces of it.

burleighsDowntown Ticonderoga has its fair share of boarded up shops and closed buildings. The present day reality for the town is the recession hasn’t been very good for the tourist grade. But it also has Burleigh’s Luncheonette, a place that truly deserves to be called luncheonette, emphasis on “ette.” Half of Burleigh’s is taken up by the classic luncheonette counter, really two U-shaped counters built to maximize seating. One row of booths runs along the wall opposite. The place is what it always has been, but also recognizes that it is retro. There are old bikes hanging from the ceiling, copies of hand-typed menus from decades ago and a jukebox loaded with singles. Unlike restaurants dressed up to play the old-time part, Burleigh’s has been presiding over downtown Ti (as locals call it) for a very long time.

Oh, and the food was as good as you’d expect.

Outside the town, Fort Ticonderoga represents the typical time travel available to mere mortals—a fort preserved from the era of the French and Indian Wars, with warriors in replica gear firing muskets and narrating the story of the place. We never visited the fort when I was a kid, though it was in my collection of brochures back then. “I really want to go dad.” I finally got there this summer and discovered my own odd temporal link with the fort. I live in the Town of Pelham next to the Bronx. Thomas Pell founded the town in the 1650s. Almost two hundred years later, the Pell family, with a summer home on Lake George, acquired the fort, which had fallen into ruin. It would be another hundred years before the Pells could begin real reconstruction work in 1909. That is why the huge star-shaped fort is now in excellent condition, run not by the National Park Service but a non-profit foundation.

Why fuss about such an obscure connection? I don’t know. It’s these little ties across time and space that interest me. I live in a town founded by a man whose family saved a place that has fascinated me since I was a kid.

storytownThe last stop on this trip was Great Escape and Splashwater Kingdom, a Great Adventures theme park outside the Village of Lake George. This was like visiting an archeological dig of my own childhood. You see, Great Escape was built on top of Storytown USA, which, in turn, was a homely little amusement park opened in 1954 (pre-dating Disneyland by a year). My family visited Storytown during the seventies. It was our trip to Disney. If you look carefully under the roller coasters and other new rides, you’ll see signs and scenes from the original park left in place to keep the connection. I took the steam train ride—it also looked unchanged—and chugged by a storybook house, vintage Storytown USA signs and  a smiling purple dragon.

I headlined this post “Time Town” not just for its topic, but in memory of a Lake George amusement park that is long gone. The area once had a number of other parks besides Storytown: Frontier Town, Gaslight Village. One of the last to be built when I was a kid was Time Town, essentially a knock-off of Epcot offering attractions on the space and the future. Damn the brochures looked good. I so badly wanted to go there. And was so baldy disappointed when we did. Real-life mosquitos big enough to have traveled forward in time from the Jurassic era were the feature I best remember. The book Amusement Parks of New York mentions it just once, on a list of “gone but not forgotten” parks.

It wasn’t forgotten by me, time and memory winding round each other.

Max Headroom and Ray Bradbury

The tagline for the TV series “Max Headroom” was, famously, “20 minutes into the future…” This future was cyberpunk, gritty and a battleground dystopia where TV networks would do anything to win ratings. Made in 1987, it lasted just 14 episodes.

Any science fiction writer will tell you the most dangerous story to attempt is the one that depicts the near future. No one’s going to call you on getting the year 3535 wrong. But they will when you predict next week. That’s what makes “Max Headroom” so excellent. The show peered just around the corner in 1987, and still stands up 25 years later. My son and I just finished watching the DVD set. This is one of those SF shows—Firefly is another—that barely lasted a season but is still worth getting and watching.

Everything about “Max Headroom” is 20 minutes into the future. New subliminal ads called blipverts are so dangerous they make viewers blow up. Literally explode. Rakers play a deadly underground sport. Dreams are stolen to create ratings-winning TV shows, killing the dreamers in the process. Thugs kill to harvest organs. So-called “Blanks” use their status as the only people with out computer ID numbers to attack the central computer system. A news package broker sells exclusive access to terrorist attacks. Great ratings to follow. That’s a sample, and all the episodes feature stories that could happen any day now.

“Max Headroom” keeps the medium of TV right in its dark satirical cross-hairs, an achievement for a network show. My favorite episode is the second to last (and the last to air in the U.S. after the show was cancelled). “Lessons” follows the efforts of the network censors to shut down pirated feeds of pay-TV education channels. Schooling is delivered by TV in this future, and if you can’t pay, you don’t get an education. Investigative reporter Edison Carter, the show’s hero along with his computer doppelgänger Max Headroom, discovers the pirating is cover for another plot. Blanks are printing actual paper books for the poor kids to learn from. Edison and Max help them, of course.

Max Headroom, who is an AI version of the ultimate anchorman talking head, tells the audience: “Now, I’m no librarian, in fact, I don’t know what star sign I am. But, as a famous person once said, ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.’ And as I – another more famous person – once said, ‘If you don’t teach them to read, you can fool them whenever you like.'”

I’m certain the episode is homage to the late master Ray Bradbury and his Fahrenheit 451. The show ends with the censors defeated and a little girl reading the opening to “A Tale of Two Cities.” I love a cautionary tale about censors and censorship, particularly one that features an old-fashioned flatbed printing press.

Concludes Max, “Have you any idea how successful censorship is on TV? Don’t know the answer? Hmm. Successful, isn’t it?”

Here in our present, last week was Banned Books Week, the effort by libraries, teachers and writers to call attention to attempts at censoring what we read. It’s still happening now, and will be 20 minutes into the future.

Music of the Times (and the spheres)

Most days, it’s pretty easy to guess what the New York Times will lead on. That’s because most days, it’s the Democrats yelling at the Republicans yelling at the Democrats… Well, you get the point. And if it’s not that, it’s the obvious big economic report of the day or the obvious major unrest in foreign parts or the obvious natural disaster.

But the top story on Thursday, July 5, was none of those. The day before, physicists announced they’d found the Higgs boson, an elusive subatomic particle the existence of which may (or may not) confirm the key theory on how the universe operates. You probably know this by now, as the story got big coverage all over the place (cover of the Economist, etc). Still in all, running it as the lead story — that’s the top story on the righthand side of page 1— made the New York Times look science fictional.

Staff writer Dennis Overby rose to the occasion, pulling out all the stops in writing this oddest of top stories. I’m going to quote a bunch of it, because you almost never read prose like this in the lead story of the Times. To wit:

Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view since last winter, as the first signals of its existence grew until they practically jumped off the chart.

He and others said that it was too soon to know for sure, however, whether the new particle is the one predicted by the Standard Model, the theory that has ruled physics for the last half-century. The particle is predicted to imbue elementary particles with mass. It may be an impostor as yet unknown to physics, perhaps the first of many particles yet to be discovered.

That possibility is particularly exciting to physicists, as it could point the way to new, deeper ideas, beyond the Standard Model, about the nature of reality.

The nature of reality? Wow. And Overby was just getting warmed up. Read on for the rock-show ovation, a rendezvous with destiny, and even what it takes to become a bill in Congress (a faint delicious echo of School House rock):

In Geneva, 1,000 people stood in line all night to get into an auditorium at CERN, where some attendees noted a rock-concert ambience. Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh theorist for whom the boson is named, entered the meeting to a sustained ovation.

Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very much like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry.

According to the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.

Gerald Guralnik, one of the founders of the Higgs theory, said he was glad to be at a physics meeting “where there is applause, like a football game.

Yay applause! Yay Higgs! Yay boson! Yay physics! Yay physicists. Yay the New York Times for delivering surprising writing on a surprising story.


‘…book paper catches fire, and burns’

I failed to do my job that night. Didn’t even try. I was supposed to be chasing scraps of gossip and bits of deal news that HBO executives might dole out to a neophyte reporter from a C-list trade publication. That was not my excuse for not trying. No, mine was three amazing hours spent talking to the late Ray Bradbury.

I was at something called the television critics tour, an odd little meeting where TV critics from the nation’s newspapers assemble in one place to interview network executives and the stars of upcoming series. The acceleration in coverage of entertainment news, even back in July 1984, meant that beat reporters like me were along in the hopes of the scoops and tidbits that might leak (or be planted).

HBO hosted that warm night in Phoenix. The A-list critics and columnists sat with HBO chief Michael Fuchs and his court of executive vice presidents. This was at a time when Fuchs was being called “The Man Who Ate Hollywood” by Esquire magazine because of his company’s massive spending on movie rights.

A junior publicist led me to a table far from that crowd and sat me next to Bradbury. He was supposed to tub-thump for his new HBO series “Ray Bradbury Theater.” As you know, I was supposed to find a way to track down the scoops being given out several tables away.

Instead, Bradbury and I talked. And talked. We had several glasses of white wine. I fawned. And he was generous, so generous that I didn’t feel like I was fawning, but chatting about something we both loved—story. I don’t remember exact dialogue, but under that clear desert sky we covered Martians and things wicked this way coming and a house destroying itself after its family is itself obliterated by nuclear fire. We talked about his great short story “A Sound of Thunder,” a tale that presages every other change-the-past, change-the-future time travel story. Step on a butterfly hunting dinosaurs and your own present is altered completely.

And, of course, we talked about “Fahrenheit 451.” We had to, for the dystopian novel of firemen burning books was and is my favorite Bradbury story. Read it again. It holds up far better than the bad futures dreamed up by the so-called literary writers—George Orwell’s “1984,” Adolous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Government doesn’t take away books from people; people give up on books as they immerse themselves in interactive soap operas that play on the four walls of their living rooms. (In 2009, Amazon deleted “1984” from thousands of Kindles because of a rights dispute, so really, we’re almost there.)

The setting that night was even perfect. The Arizona Biltmore was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and could easily have been a building on Bradbury’s Mars. His Martians, like Wright, created structures that fit into their arid world by making use of landscape and light.

Bradbury was wonderful company. That too should have been no surprise to me. The Times quoted him in its obituary: “I have fun with ideas; I play with them. I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring. My goal is to entertain myself and others.”

Entertain me he did. That assignment—ignoring the real assignment—was the best of my varied but not-so-storied journalism career. Some interviews came close. But only close. And many events I reported on would be considered bigger, more important, even more interesting by most anyone else. They are welcome to them. A three-hour conversation in the desert with the master tops them all.


As postscript, I’ll leave you with a link to the obituary the Economist did on Bradbury. It’s great for the form they chose and the stories they touch on.