Sufficiently-advanced literature

Science & Science Fiction at the Royal Institution

A funny, interesting but sometimes scatter-gun talk at the Royal Institution by two engaging academics in the field of science communication.

My favourite quote is above in the title of this post, which they take from Prof Mark Rose: “Science Fiction is the fantastic that denies it’s fantastic”.

Rough notes follow.

Science & science-ficiton / RI
Introduced: Jenny rowan , lablit magazine
Prof Mark Brake / Rev Neil Hook (uni of glamorgan)
Their book: “Difference engines: how science drives fiction and fiction drives science”

“I like to think of the earth as an alien planet” (this reminds me of BLDGBLOG/Geoff Manuagh’s contention that “the earth is becoming unearthly“)

copernican revolution made it that way

infinite, inhuman universe as opposed to earth-centric Aristotelean cosmos (earth myths populated heaven)

“if copernicus wasn’t enough, then came Darwinism”

“a series of demotions”

“SF is a response to the cultural shock of discovering our marginal place in an alien universe”

“an attempt put the stamp of humanity back on the universe”

we can identify 4 themes (based on prof mark rose)

1. space
2. time
3. machine
4. monster


something to be conquered, part of dominion over nature


flux, change, process, revealed over time
contradiction, paradoxes

computers atom bombs, robots, but also 1984, Brave New World: social machines

about us, the monster within.
remaking of human.
super heroes = upbeat monsters


copernican rev:
if the earth is a planet, then the planets can be earths
Galileo gave this evidence: mountains, craters, features on moons
sudden decentralisation, diversity, possibility
Kepler: 1st book of sci-fi 1630s “Somnium”
Bishop Godwin: 1st alien contact story

new discoveries, mediated by SF: the play between: alienation / sensawunda

kepler to gallileo: “there will certainly be no lack of human pioneers when we have mastered flight…” look up

Bishop Godwin of Llandaff: “man in the moon” – kept it secret, published posthumously
shipwrecked Spanish buccaneer trains flock of 40 geese in an apparatus, geese fly to the moon in winter, moon white because covered in geese, so travels to the moon.
meets king of moon
moon = utopia, earth is the dumping ground for the moon’s rejects.

robert goddard wrote to h.g. wells to tell him how he was inspired by ‘wotw’

rocket launch countdown was invented by fritz lang as a cinematic shortcut, and then adopted by science.


industrial revolution, earth working, fossil record: the long now evident, species that walked the earth

time was something to be mastered (baconian/enlightment science: nature to be mastered)

mechanised time travel = industrialised britain

kronos/ charios – Greek words for time

kronos – more concerned with measurement and mastery of time
industrialised time

HGWells: 4th dimension, to be measured, managed and mastered

1894 The Time Machine / 1905 special relativity

space-time is born. a revolution in time.

the time machine – double meaning to the title.
time traveller sets out to master time, but finds time is the master.
we are all trapped in the time machine.

Ballard, Drowned World: (not mentioning his fixation race-memory, mitochondrial time?)


Carel Kapek Rossums Universal Robots
Asimov’s 3 laws (+ zeroth law) – based on Hippocratic oath
now enshrined in s. Korean laws!
machine takes human form (stamping humanity on the unknown)
martin rees – industrialisation might be a mass-extinction event (a 400 year ELE)

atom bomb imagined by hg wells in ;the world set free 1914 (cf. de groot)
influenced leo szilard, initiated/lobbied roosevelt to create manhattan project

red alert peter george 1956, adapted by kubrick to strangelove


Godzilla: a proxy for dealing with the consequences of the WW2 atomic warfare
took a machine and turned it into a monster (with two legs and two arms – again the stamp of the human on the new)

Most monsters and aliens are proxies or cyphers for ourselves
(only unknowable alien in SF is Lem’s Solaris)

Giger’s Alien and Hannibal Lecter are the same? Monsters and aliens – we are in the middle, examining ourselves through these characters.

closing remarks from prof. brake.
we’re the first generation living in a science-ficitonal world, sf is hardcore reality, not escapism…


aldiss: SF is ‘hubris clobbered by nemesis’
prof mark rose: SF is: ‘the fantastic that denies it’s fantastic’

questioner mentions: greg egan short story (wang’s carpets? may have misheard) sea of carbohydrates performing computation.

question (from a biologist): the attitude to progress and evolution in much of SF
is not very sophisticated in it’s understanding of biology. eg. 2001.

Brake: much of SF is very physically determinist, hierarchical in its view and many of the 20th’s spokespersons about biology thought there was not life other than on earth. interesting to see what astrobiology brings to it.

NASA Kennedy Space Center, originally uploaded by moleitau.

“I have no sort of objection now to telling the whole story. The subscribers, of course, have a right to know what became of their money. The astronomers may as well know all about it, before they announce any more asteroids with an enormous movement in declination. And experimenters on the longitude may as well know, so that they may act advisedly in attempting another brick moon or in refusing to do so.”

The Brick Moon by Edward Everett Hale

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The spacewalking taikonautics of last week, a successful launch into orbit of SpaceX Falcon-1 and this news all make for a fantastic new dawn of a post-NASA era, foregrounded against the spectacular collapse of western late-capitalism.
Charlie Stross is right – you couldn’t make it up.

A sketch I did of the great man a few years ago.
Rama, Heuristically programmed Algorithmic Computer: 9000 model, Stargates, 1:4:3, Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1, Space elevators, Clarke’s 3rd Law (how many times has a technologist or designer invoked that in a talk or meeting?), and of course, The Nine Billion Names of God.
Like many, Clarke’s work rewired my brain from a young age, and he’s got my thanks for that.
Whatever’s next for him, I hope it’s “something wonderful”.
RIP, Arthur.

“I remember those nights, planning technologies that didn’t exist yet, outsider science, futurist dreaming, half-magical. The things I could do outside the unversity setting, now that I didn’t have to wait for the pompous fools at the college! I was building another science, my science, wild science, robots and lasers and disembodied brains. A science that buzzed and glowed; it wanted to do things. It could get up and walk, fly, fight, sprout garish glowing creations in the remotest parts of the world, domes and towers and architectural fever dreams. And it was angry. It was mad science.”

The words of Doctor Impossible, from Austin Grossman’s excellent “Soon, I will be invincible”

Warren Ellis, on his creation of another mad scientist: Doktor Sleepless:

“I was ready to do another big piece of political sf, and I knew what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about the subsumation of authenticity into fiction. I wanted to talk about liars, on a grand scale. I wanted to talk about the end of the world, in the major and the minor. And I wanted to talk about where I think we are today, and where we could end up in ten or fifteen years. The motor of innovation and novelty is really kind of cranked up right now, but, in contrast, the general culture is still in a sort of post-millennial shock, just laying there and drooling over its nipples.”

The just-announced Call-For-Papers for Etech 2008:

At the 2008 version of ETech, the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, we’ll take a wide-eyed look at the tech that’s just arriving and cast a cynical one at some that have been emerging for too long. From robotics, health care, and space travel to gaming, finance, and art, we’ll explore promising technologies that are just that–still promises–and renew our sense of wonder at the way technology is influencing and altering our everyday lives.

A theme (ahem) emerging?

Ellis’ Tony Stark took a pop at Etech (and I joined in, embolded by the lead taken by a fictional alcoholic billionaire superhero) and the somewhat introverted web-centricity of it in his run on Iron Man a few years back.

Perhaps with Shellhead poised for mainstream glory, it’s time for science heroes again?

Perhaps, at last, some genuine outbreaks of the future…

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13112006285, originally uploaded by blackbeltjones.

Greatly enjoyed the BBC4 programme, “The Martians and Us” tonight, which is a non-sniggering look at British SF from Wells onwards, without C-list celeb talking heads and with serious interviews with the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss and China Mieville.

Olaf Stapleton's chart of the future

One wonderful moment was the interview with Olaf Stapledon‘s daughter, showing the detailed hand-drawn chart her father had made describing the future history of mankind that was to become “First and Last Men”.

Olaf Stapleton's chart of the future

Can’t seem to find it online anywhere, but instead here’s what I did get for googling “Olaf Stapledon” and “Timeline”!


Update: corrected the spelling throughout from Stapleton -> Stapledon throughout. Wierdly I had remembered it as Stapledon (I read “First and Last Men” when I was about 16 I think) but then googled and found it as Stapleton… Hence the error – thanks for putting me back right John

Brain switched on fully this morning.

Woken by, like a bell ringing backward from tomorrow, this headline – heralding the terrible, wonderful material future:

Fullerene Super-Armour

Let’s have that again.

Fullerene Super-Armour

Along with the rollicking arphid-blistered-rollercoaster of a ride that’s been “Shaping Things”, I’m getting just-enough medicinal futureshock to crank the year into the gear.

Evidence is building that Nicholas Carr’s argument against peer-production of knowledge by amateurs is dead-on.

Today’s Guardian rounds up a panel of experts to score the wikipedia entries against their deep domain knowledge in their somewhat-pointedly-titled “Can you trust Wikipedia”

It’s broadly good news for the free, open and amateur with scores in the 6’s and 7’s out of 10, with one 5 for the article on ‘encyclopedias’ as judged by an ex-editor of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Could the harnessing of “collective intelligence” not just be the wishful thinking of venerable west-coast technohippies, but something that could help humankind out of the beginnings of what may turn out to be it’s most difficult century, a.k.a. The Grim Meathook Future?

Maybe, maybe…

Until – we get to a 0 out of 10.

It’s from Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue:

“Broadly speaking, it’s inaccurate and unclear. It talks about haute couture and then lists a large number of ready-to-wear designers. As a very, very broad-sweep description there are a few correct facts included, but every value judgment it makes is wrong.”

We’re so HOSED!!!

I had a  random friday afternoon thoughtfart while listening to Paul Morley/Strictly Kev’s 1hr remix of ‘raiding the 20th century’.

Listening to Morley‘s* cultural history of the cut-up on top of Kev’s sonic critique made me think how cool it would be to hear Melvyn Bragg and the "In our time" gang’s thursday morning ruminations on, for instance, Machiavelli – cut-and-pasted over mashed-up madrigals.

Putting this fancy to one side for one minute… it made me think of other superlayered participatory critique and knowledge construction – the Wikipedia.

If there were a transcript of "In our time" (is there?) why couldn’t that be munged with wikipedia like Stefan did with BBC news… and what if then new nodes were being formed by Melvyn, his guests and his audience – together, for everyone, every week, and cross-referenced to a unique culutral contextual product – the audio broadcast.

The mp3 of "In our time"  sliding into the public domain and onto the internet archive’s servers, every thursday rippling through the nöösphere reinvigorating the debate in the wikipedia, renewing collective knowledge.

"In Our Time" is great ‘campfire’ stuff – you have The Melv as the semi-naive interlocutor and trusted guide, the experts as authority to be understood and questioned… but it’s only 30 minutes and 4 people… what about scaling it way out into the wikinow?

How good would that be??!!!!

Of course a first step, a sheltered cove, would be to set up "In Our time" with their own wiki for Neal Stephenson Baroque Cycle / Pepys diary style annotations of the transcript and mp3..

The Melv’s own multimedia mash’d up many-to-many mp3 meme machine.

Update: over the weekend, Matt Biddulph showed another example of how powerful mixing BBC web content with web-wide systems might be: with tags extending BBC Radio3’s content. Fantastic stuff.

p.s. from a Bio of Morley found at
earns a farthing every time Charlie’s Angels, Full Throttle is shown or
trailed, owing to his contribution as a member of the Art of Noise to
Firestarter by the Prodigy, which features a sample of the Art of
Noise’s Beat Box, used in the film. The pennies are mounting up."

From GameGirlAdvance:

"The interesting thing about war games is that the default state of a
war game is peace. Think about it: what if you started up a multiplayer
game of WarCraft III
and none of the players built
anything but workers and buildings? The natural state of the world is
for the races of WarCraft to peacefully coexist (although you would
eventually run out of resources), and this tranquility is shattered by
player actions.

So the way you make a peace game is to create a world where the
default state is conflict, and the player must act to calm the violence
through a variety of means. That’s the trick: you’ve got to show peace
as something that’s challenging to achieve, not a default state."

I’m currently reading "The Shield of Achilles" by Phillip Bobbit, which certainly underlines that last sentence of the quote.


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