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Tuesday, 7 February 2006
3,000+ Years of the Fembot
Topic: Science Fiction
In book 18 of the Iliad Achilles' divine mother, Thetis, visits the vulcan metalsmith god Hephaistos where she receives a new suit of armor for her son and the famous shield depicting all the universe with detailed scenes of two cities, one democratic and the other in violent disarray. An interesting detail easily overlooked in this incredible chapter of Homer's epic is what is perhaps the first description of the "fembot" we have become familiar with through popular media, some serious, like Fritz Lang's powerful 1927 film Metropolis), and some kitschy, like the graphic art of Sorayama Hajime, who is sort of what Patrick Nagel would be with an airbrush and an obsession with robots.

Then with a sponge he wiped clean his forehead, and both hands,
and his massive neck and hairy chest, and put on a tunic,
and took up a heavy stick in his hand, and went to the doorway
limping. And in support of their master moved his attendants.
These are golden, and in appearance like living young women.
There is intelligence in their hearts, and there is speech in them
and strength, and from the immortal gods they have learned how to do things.

Chapter 18 lines 417-421
trans. Richmond Lattimore

Posted by thenovakids at 2:21 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 30 May 2006 12:03 AM CDT
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Friday, 13 January 2006
Mars, Space Elevators, and Dust Devils
Topic: Science Fiction
Here at TAKOTRON we like to make good use of our vacations, seeing our friends, families, and allies, traveling, exploring, and watching movies. But no vacation feels complete without finally getting down and reading some of those things that have been put off for a while. In those terms, this winter break has been fairly productive. Just yesterday I finally finished Red Mars, the first book of Kim Stanley Robinson's Martian trilogy.

It's quite an epic, and I don't know when or if I will get to the other two volumes. But Red Mars was full of great ideas and observations on science, society, politics, and global economics. In 2026 an international group of scientists are sent to explore and colonize Mars from Earth, which is falling into deeper political turbulance as powerful transnational companies, the few wealthy nations more powerful than the corporations, and desperate heavily-populated countries struggle and rebel against one another. The utopian hope for a new start on Mars runs into immediate trouble (even before touchdown) as the scientists disagree on terraforming (engineering global climatic and ecological changes) the new planet and how to deal with the conflicting interests of the global organizations (UNOMA), national governments, and corporations supporting their work.

Factions develop and tension builds, especially with the construction of a space elevator, a one-day feasible method of space transport in which, rather than rocket powered shuttles and landers, travelers and goods are brought to and from a planet by a thin cable tethered between the surface and a weighted anchor (such as a captured asteroid) extended beyond geosynchronous orbit by centripetal force. In Red Mars the elevator boosts the import of an unskilled labor force that mines Mars' natural resources for export. The unregulated, unprotected, and overpopulated workforce ultimately revolts (with the aid of some of the original scientists), affecting the whole Martian population. Lying, backstabbing, murder, ecological terrorism (exploding underground aquifers, blowing up one of Mars' moons[!]), and the dramatic collapse of the elevator (the cable whips around the equator twice, decimating everything around it) all ensue. But that's humanity, wherever it goes! I am under the impression that the sequels are a bit more optimistic, but there's a lot to learn from science and society's worse moments.

Red Mars is full of well-researched, illustrative descriptions of Martian landscapes, but since the novel came out in 1993 a lot has been revealed about the planet's surface. Since 1997 NASA's probes and rovers have been sending back detailed images and data, much of which indicated a watery past.

Space Elevator
The Space Elevator Comes Closer to Reality
NASA: Audacious & Outrageous: Space Elevators
Space Elevator? Build it on the Moon First

Mars Missions
Martian Weather: Dust Devils
NASA: Demystifying Mars
Rover Images

Posted by thenovakids at 12:31 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, 30 May 2006 12:06 AM CDT
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Tuesday, 5 April 2005
Topic: Science Fiction
Greetings! We are currently transmitting from our executive bunker suite just above the earth's mantle, about 29 km beneath Chicago. Our executives were forced to take evasive action after one of our core reactor's wet storage units collapsed. Like Chicago energy company ComEd (under Mothership Exelon), we have been filling vast, exposed water pools located above our plant to max-capacity for several years, even though they were created to hold a fraction of that waste only temporarily (see: "Exelon: No plans to change its storage of nuclear waste: Science group cites risk of terror attack" Robert Manor ; Chicago Tribune; Apr 1, 2005; pg. 1)

Our new base of operations happens to have a large film library, which we naturally have been accessing frequently given these circumstances. Last week we consumed two science fiction films from the 1970s. They are both ambitious productions with substantial budgets, but the similarities stop there.

Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979) is a masterpiece of subtlety, emotion, and thoughtfullness. The premise is simple and classically science-fictional:

"'What was it? A meteorite? A visit of inhabitants of the cosmic abyss? One way or another, our small country has seen the birth of a miracle--the Zone. We immediately sent troops there. They haven't come back. Then we surrounded the Zone with police cordons...Perhaps that was the right thing to do. Though, I don't know...' -from an interview with Nobel Prize winner Professor Wallace"

In the center of this treacherous Zone (within which conventions of emotion and laws of science are warped) there is rumoured to exist a room, which grants the deepest wish of whoever enters it. "Stalker" is one of the only mean able to traverse the Zone and return safely. His latest assignment is to escort "Professor" and "Writer" to the room. This SF plot allows Tarkovsky to explore the essential meanings of humanity through philosophical dialogues of faith, doubt, reality, being, etc. This is visually empowered through experimental filmmaking techniques--parts are in a deep sepia tone, while other scenes portray the water-logged abandoned industrial zone in drab color. It was made painstakingly. In fact, a whole year was spent filming it with an experimental Kodak film only to be spoiled (perhaps purposely) by inept developers. The whole project was wasted. Though this had a profound impact on the director, the movie was ambitiously redone entirely, this time in two parts (2hrs45min total) with half the necessary budget.

At the other side of the spectrum is Logan's Run. Why did I even rent this--or rather, request its retrieval from our bunker's film library? It is supposed to be good or interesting at least, and perhaps a successful film could be made from its premise, or the book it was based on (Stalker, too, is an adaption, from Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky). This, however was not that movie. Its flashy effects today look cheap, though I don't imagine chrome-painted plastic and explosions that appear to be the result of tampered-with road flares were impressive even in the 70s. Look to THX1138 or Rollerball for more successful sets and effects that portray 70s visions of the future. I understand and even love that future-visions historically depict more about the era in which they were created than that which they attempt to create. But please. Farah Fawcett and poorly-crafted, unconvincing plastic scale models for pan-over shots are not transporting me to any place of the imagination, nor are the awkward, wooden dialogues helping these trite characters.

If you even want to know, in three millenia all of society exists enclosed in a vast bubble (apparently, 2.5 feet in diameter and made of cheap plastic). Everything's pretty groovy, with silk robes, orgies, and shopping malls. However, when you turn 30 you are sacrificed in a big cult-ish spectacle called "carousel," and promised reincarnation by the giant computer that runs society (like in Rollerball, kinda, without commentary on beaurocratic censorship/incompetence or corporate power). If you run away you (in the future they cleverly call these people "runners") you will be tracked and killed by "sandmen," a.k.a. bladerunners that suck. Our hero is a sandman who betrays the system and runs himself, with the chick, and they escape outside the bubble, find an old guy (remember, people can't age within society), bring him back to bubbleworld, blow up computer, display old man to masses, revolution and freedom ensue. FIN. THE END. OWARI. Now you needn't see it. Please rent something worthwhile, something that brings dignity to SF. Rent Bladerunner, THX1138, Rollerball (with James Caan, not that lousy remake), Brazil, Solaris (also Tarkovsky, not that lousy remake), Alphaville: Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (for Godard's 60s future vision) etc. Make a movie out of ideas and talent, not lame-ass effects. Be like George Lucas in 1971, not in 2$$5.

Posted by thenovakids at 8:32 PM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, 30 May 2006 12:59 AM CDT
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