Whether Platonic or Romantic


“Near the start of his relationship with a computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning film Her, Samantha the OS (Scarlett Johansson) helps Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) play a videogame. Called “Alien Child” by the filmmakers, the game seems familiar enough to be plausible to viewers, yet foreign enough to induce estrangement. The same could be said of the film’s high-waisted trouser fashions, improbable high rises and mass transit in future Los Angeles, and Theodore’s job as an outsourced personal correspondence writer. This is not our world, but it might be.

“The viewer sees the game’s uncanniness most clearly when Theodore controls the helmeted creature in its holographic world. In a burlesque of recent “natural” physical interfaces like Microsoft’s Kinect, Theodore moves the game character by walking the fingers of his own downturned hands to operate the character’s feet. The act is ridiculous; it looks like dog paddling, or rifling through paper files, or prancing like a show horse.

“The effect defamiliarizes the game even as it casts Theodore as a washout. His cumbersome inner life is expressed through his awkward interface with a computer game. At the same time, the film juxtaposes that ungainly interface with the natural, seductive draw of Samantha. Why would one dog-paddle a computer when instead one can flirt with Scarlett Johansson to operate one?


“The “Alien Child” video game scene serves a specific narrative purpose in Her: It demonstrates a halfway point between the impersonal, voice-operated interfaces that pervade its handheld devices and work terminals, and the empathetic artificial intelligences exemplified by cybernetic OS1 individuals like Samantha. The alien child not only possesses enough of a personality to ridicule Theodore, but also it can respond to the environment—insulting his prospective blind date, or calling the incorporeal Samantha “fat.”

“But despite this slow and steady ramp from familiar to unfamiliar forms of computer intelligence, Her never really challenges the viewer to imagine what it would be like to enter into a relationship with a computer operating system—whether a platonic or a romantic one. At the end of the day, Samantha is just a cipher for Scarlett Johansson—an actress whose voice is so characteristic that no reasonable viewer could possibly dissociate one her from the other. When Samantha starts worrying about incorporeality, it’s nearly impossible for the viewer to take her seriously. Samantha’s vocal reality is so strongly affixed to the rest of her famous body that the film ultimately fails to invite the viewer to ponder what it would be like to fall in love with an operating system. Instead, all we can do is ponder falling in love with a woman we’ve never seen.”

Text: You Are Mountain, Atlantic Monthly


What The Hell is Going On?

“For Sharp, the most interesting part of the Benjamin experiment has been learning about patterns in science fiction storytelling. Benjamin’s writing sounds original, even kooky, but it’s still based on patterns he’s discovered in what humans write. Sharp likes to call the results the “average version” of everything the AI looked at. Certain patterns kept coming up again and again. “There’s an interesting recurring pattern in Sunspring where characters say, ‘No I don’t know what that is. I’m not sure,'” said Goodwin. “They’re questioning the environment, questioning what’s in front of them. There’s a pattern in sci-fi movies of characters trying to understand the environment.” Sharp added that this process has changed his perspective on writing. He keeps catching himself having Benjamin-like moments while working: “I just finished a sci-fi screenplay, and it’s really interesting coming off this experience with Benjamin, thinking I have to have somebody say ‘What the hell is going on?’ Every time I use his tropes I think, oh of course. This is what sci-fi is about.” Sharp’s next project will be directing a movie called Randle Is Benign, about a computer scientist who creates the first superintelligent computer in 1981. “It’s uncanny how much parts of the screenplay echo the experience of working with Benjamin,” he said.


“Of course, Benjamin is hardly an objective source of information about our sci-fi obsessions. His corpus was biased. “I built the corpus from movie scripts I could find on the Internet,” said Goodwin (the titles are listed in Sunspring‘s opening credits). But some stories got weighted more heavily than others, purely due to what was available. Explained Sharp, “There’s only one entry on the list for X-Files, but that was every script from the show, and that was proportionally a lot of the corpus. In fact, most of the corpus is TV shows, like Stargate: SG1 and every episode of Star Trek and Futurama.” For a while, Sharp said, Benjamin kept “spitting out conversations between Mulder and Scully, [and you’d notice that] Scully spends more time asking what’s going on and Mulder spends more time explaining.”

“For Sharp and Goodwin, making Sunspring also highlighted how much humans have been trained by all the scripts we’ve consumed. Sharp said this became especially obvious when the actors responded to Sunspring‘s script as a love triangle. There is nothing inherently love triangle-ish about the script, and yet that felt like the most natural interpretation. “Maybe what we’re learning here is that because of the average movie, the corpus of what we’ve watched, all of us have been following that pattern and tediously so,” mused Sharp. “We are trained to see it, and to see it when it has not yet been imposed. It’s profoundly bothersome.” At the same time, it’s a valuable lesson about how we are primed to expect certain tropes: “Ross [Goodwin] has created an amazing funhouse mirror to hold up to various bodies of cultural content and reflect what they are.”

Text:  Movie written by algorithm turns out to be hilarious and intense, Ars Technica

Pic: The Difference Engine.

Really, really, really, really great



“Anytime we’re talking about cultural objects like Avatar, in a corporate dominant culture, we are playing with fire, clearly. When the so-called indigenous is so-called natural, the extraordinary naturalization of the indigenous, no matter how talented, no matter how really, really, really, really great, no matter how many inventions they may have invented – but it requires the other half of the equation. Which is a particular production of whiteness. Even though there were plenty of people of colour occupying the category of whiteness in that film. Whiteness is a space to occupy for those who are associated with the technologies of conquest, extraction, commerce, etc. and that strikes me. Both of those two require each other. And actual, living people believe these things of each other, to damaging degrees. Such that I know no small number of white people, some of whom I’ve found in my own skin, at various moments, you know, who somehow feel less able to speak up, in a critical way, in a conversation with someone who is produced as more natural. Whether it’s in an indigenous rights discussion, a discussion about who owns race, class, and gender properties, and so on, and so on. The very much in play ways that these story-fragments continue to set people out around these nature/technology contrasts, to perpetuate the trouble. People actually inhabit these imagined positions and do it to one another, including doing it to oneself. So, take the hyper-murderous, almost-impossible to kill – the machine enemy right out of the Alien sequence, you know that particular kind of killer robot that shows up, in how many films? It was in District 9, it was in Alien – it shows up, it’s a required visual object that does in my view, a whole lot of race production work. It is one of the technologies of the production of this thing I’ll call whiteness. Whether white people occupy that position or not, or so-called Euro-people.”

Text: Donna Haraway, The Dialogical Avatar, &&& Journal

The Unfathomable Archive


“In science fiction, the dynamics of preservation and access to the archive involve entropy and amnesia. The question of the archive’s legibility arises when processes of obsolescence, which amount to a technological ‘forgetting’, ensure new media technologies are unable to retrieve the information of the obsolesced forerunner. The archive becomes unreadable. In terms of science fiction, once the archive is illegible, existing in a state that permits no access to accessible meaning through lived human memory, it swiftly ends up being no archive at all. Time passed renders the archive not only incomprehensible in terms of its content, but a priori unfathomable qua archive. In science fiction the corollary of this is the immanence of the archive. In the context of the science fiction narrative, when an archive becomes post-archival (in the sense that it is no longer connected to the now-vanished culture that had assigned to it the meaning of ‘an archive’), it assumes its new existence as an anomalous amalgamation of things or images (assuming the category of objects known as ‘images’ pertains in the science fiction universe in question). At this point the typology of the archive is not an issue, as its formal qualities, features and structure could be instantiated in any way. At this stage, in a post-archival world, nothing and everything can be an archive depending not on its properties but its place in the science fiction text: a point which changes, reveals and to some extent recovers a lost world.”

Text: Chris Horrocks, Disinterring the Present: Science Fiction, Media Technology and the Ends of the Archive, Journal of Visual Culture 2013.

Image: The Morlock Sphynx, The Time Machine, Dir. George Pal, 1960.

Vernacular Reality


***We also recognize:***

The imaginative challenge that awaits any Mundane Afrofuturist author who accepts that this is it: Earth is all we have. What will we do with it?

The chastening but hopefully enlivening effect of imagining a world without fantasy bolt-holes: no portals to the Egyptian kingdoms, no deep dives to Drexciya, no flying Africans to whisk us off to the Promised Land.

The possibilities of a new focus on black humanity: our science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individuality, needs, dreams, hopes, and failings.

The surge of bedazzlement and wonder that awaits us as we contemplate our own cosmology of blackness and our possible futures.

The relief of recognizing our authority. We will root our narratives in a critique of normative, white validation. Since “fact” and “science” have been used throughout history to serve white supremacy, we will focus on an emotionally true, vernacular reality.

The understanding that our “twoness” is inherently contemporary, even futuristic. DuBois asks how it feels to be a problem. Ol’ Dirty Bastard says “If I got a problem, a problem’s got a problem ’til it’s gone.”

An awakening sense of the awesome power of the black imagination: to protect, to create, to destroy, to propel ourselves towards what poet Elizabeth Alexander describes as “a metaphysical space beyond the black public everyday toward power and wild imagination.”

The opportunity to make sense of the nonsense that regularly—and sometimes violently—accents black life.

The electric feeling that Mundane Afrofuturism is the ultimate laboratory for worldbuilding outside of imperialist, capitalist, white patriarchy.

The sense that the rituals and inconsistencies of daily life are compelling, dynamic, and utterly strange.

Mundane Afrofuturism opens a number of themes and flavors to intertextuality, double entendre, politics, incongruity, polyphony, and collective first-person—techniques that we have used for years to make meaning.

Text: Martine Syms, The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, via rhizome.org

Pic: Hebru Brantley, Into Obscurity, via Chicago Reader.

Sentient Actors

“Critic Gary Wolfe argues that cities are basically antithetical to the science fiction imagination. Cities, he suggests, represent confinement, limitations on possibility, the known rather than the unknown. They are stasis rather than change, contrary to the science fiction spirit of adventure and discovery (and certainly city-as-limitation has been a regular theme since Arthur Clarke’s The City and the Stars). This position goes beyond a simple negative evaluation of city life (cities as jungles, cities as sources of eco-catastrophe) to a larger position that, in effect, cities are useful only to serve the spaceports that allow authors to launch their stories into unfamiliar territory.


“I argue the contrary – that cities can also be front and center as vividly imagined worlds whose characteristics play active roles that help to structure the arc of the story, forcing and constraining the choices that the characters make. For earthly cities, for example, the Los Angeles of Octavia Butler in Parable of the Sower and the Bangkok of Paolo Baciagalupi in The Wind-Up Girl fill the bill. Their state of physical and social decay is an essential drive force for their developing plots. New Crobuzon is as much a force in China Miéville’s novels as London was for Charles Dickens. Cities are sentient actors in Greg Bear’s Strength of Stones and John Shirley’s City Come A-Walkin.

“As we think about SF cities, consider additional syllogisms that suggest two of the basic and inclusive ways that SF approaches cities. One strand derives from the technological/design imagination and its ability to think up cities whose form and function depend on and express new technical possibilities. The second approach is the desire to explore the future of social and cultural systems that find their most developed and conflicted forms in cities. Together the physical and social imaginations create two big clusters of city types.”

Text: Carl Abbott, Science Fiction Cities, via Deletion
Pic: Vintage Photo: Aerial Manhattan and NYC by Andreas Feininger

Sound Spectacle

“Sound, previously a neglected aspect of film and television studies, is now enjoying a surge of academic and critical interest. In Sound Design and Science Fiction, William Whittington makes the case that science fiction cinema and the practice of sound design create a “symbiotic relationship” through their “interplay between style and content”. He argues that “the science fiction genre has historically been the site that has inspired developments in sound technology as well as innovations in sound signification (narratively, thematically, and aesthetically)”. Using formal analysis of the soundtrack (i.e. dialogue, music and sound effects) and image-sound relations of key science fiction films, he demonstrates how genre and sound work together to shape audience expectations of sci-fi. According to Whittington, seminal Hollywood blockbusters from the late 1970s onwards, such as Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), not only “drove the sound design movement” but also “recalibrated audience expectations for spectacle, in terms of not only special effects but also sound design”.

“Specific sound effects from popular science fiction films have become what K. J. Donnelly terms sound “stars”, such as the light sabre sound in Star Wars or the TARDIS sound in the long-running BBC television series Doctor Who. Drawing on these fantastical sound effects in the introduction to his book, Whittington argues that the “innovative sound effects from dinosaur roars to the clash of light sabers” make up the aesthetic experience of science fiction sound. In addition to the signature sound of particular sci-fi sound effects (their texture and quality, their fantastical strangeness), the spatial aspects of science fiction sound are also an important part of sci-fi’s aesthetic. Developments in surround sound technology have fed (and have themselves been fed by) aesthetic approaches to sound design:

In this new era of multichannel sound formats, the film soundtrack can be channeled into different speakers within the theater environment … This multidimensional aspect of sound deployment allows for the localized use of effects and music, avoids sound masking or sounds cancelling each other out, and fosters a new sense of immersion for filmgoers. Sound design within the theater venue creates a new kind of space, which fosters new kinds of sound spectacle. More than any other development, multichannel sound shifted reading protocols and altered the expectations of filmgoers for contemporary Hollywood cinema, particularly in relation to the blockbuster.

“Science fiction sound design uses the space of the cinema in a manner that creates “sound spectacle”. Surround sound has become the industry standard for Hollywood blockbusters of all genres to such an extent that “cinematic experience shifts from watching a movie to being immersed in the diegesis of one”. This spatially playful immersion, working hand-in-hand with the fantastical sounds of sci-fi, is a key attraction of science fiction. As Whittington puts it, “sound became part of the cinematic event, a selling point and a part of the spectacle, immersing filmgoers in spacecraft travelling at light speed or jolting them with the explosions as planets disintegrated”. This suggests that spatially
playful “sound spectacle” has become a convention of science fiction cinema.”

Text: Nessa Johnston, Beneath Sci-fi Sound: Primer, Science Fiction Sound Design, and American Independent Cinema, Alphaville.