Tuesday, December 23, 2014

BBC's History of Science Fiction

Editorial note: this will be my last post for a few days as I observe a holiday hiatus.

Just about all of the BBC's programming is of a high caliber.

Its "Real History of Science Fiction" is no exception. I'm entirely certain that there is a naysayer somewhere out there stomping her/his feet, wailing "But they left out (fill in the blank)!" And they may very well have left out your fill-in-the-blank. Given the constraints of four, one-hour episodes, I still find the miniseries of interviews and archival footage o be most insightful.

As I said, there are four installments. These deal with the subjects of space, time travel, alien invasion, and robots. While all four are quite good, I will keep my blog comments confined to the last of those four subjects as that is where my mental bandwidth is devoted these days.

I liked how this installment keyed in on one aspect of science fiction that has always seemed to fascinate us. We create robots in order to, in a way, create life. Perhaps more to the point, to create other versions of ourselves. To mimic that which god is alleged to have done, to...paraphrasing Genesis here... "create in our own image." There are, of course, dangers and unseen pitfalls to such an act as well as serious responsibilities. To know these robotic responsibilities, one must go straight to Isaac Asimov and his Three Laws of Robotics.

That being said, just what would our relationship be with our robot companions? Master-servant? Pals? Enemies?

While certainly not being the first to address the question, George Lucas added a significant contribution to it with Star Wars. Yes, whether you want it to be so or not. The "droids" R2-D2 and C-3PO can be seen as such and certainly have grown to be endearing symbols of the "buddy" robot. It is rightly pointed out in the episode that Lucas took his inspiration for Threepio's look from that of the robot Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Also as another aside, I found intriguing this statement from Anthony Daniels, the actor who portrayed C-3PO, to a group of roboticists:

"You are all very clever but none of you know what it feels like to be a machine. I do."

Given that it is science fiction, such a "sunshine and lollipops" mentality cannot be sustained for long. There is a warning. The next logical question is, "What if our robots decide to turn on us?" Indeed, there are any number of examples of that in the genre, from the earliest R.U.R. (yes, left out of the documentary) to current books and films.

In the case of the latter, you can find examples that range from the though provoking to the commercial and popular. The Kubrick/Clarke collaboration of 2001 brings us HAL. While on a journey to Jupiter, the spaceship Discovery has a problem with its computer, HAL. Specifically, HAL decides that the most logical and efficient way of completing the mission is to do so without the human crew. HAL then goes about methodically ridding the Discovery of said crew. If you've seen the film, I'm certain you're hearing HAL's chilling voice right now as you read this. "Dave...what are you doing, Dave?"

Such a program could not leave this thread of thinking without citing The Terminator and The Matrix. These films series, while obviously heavy on the splodey action, are also cautionary tales. What happens if we are not careful with our creations? Ma and Pa always taught us to be responsible with our toys, but the most we might have done is break a window or put out an eye. Now, we might create machines that hunt down all of humanity or take us as power cells while trapping us in a reality of their own making. What happens when the machines control us?

This naturally prompts a paradigm shift from the external to the internal. Asimov mused about a time when "Robots drift away from metal to being organic while humans drift from the organic to metal." Obviously there's some of that in the Terminator series, but for the real deal, one must go to that sumptuous cocktail of Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott with Blade Runner.  Are replicants people? Well, that's the big, throbbing question isn't it?

While not specifically related to robots per se, the installment of the BBC series closes out with a bit from the venerable William Gibson. In his all-too-brief interview, Gibson once more discusses his inspiration for Neuromancer. He watched kids in arcades as they played games, their faces all bathed in viridescent light. They appeared to him to want to be inside the machine, to be in the "feedback loop." Is it not a forgone conclusion that we would merge with computers?

At the end of it all, I was heartened. There really is nothing new under the sun. While many of the pieces of aforementioned science fiction are brilliant, they absorbed and then built upon what came before them. Whether it was the droids of Star Wars or the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, the song remains the same. While that may be, great writers and artists modify this song to produce variations on a similar theme that have both fresh presentations and questions.

If I'm very lucky and I actually know what I'm doing, my robot Stem may become an entry into such a legacy.

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..."

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