Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Post by Vijayalakshmi Kalyanaraman

Why are scientists less popular than artists? Take Mozart and Doppler, for example, both born in Salzburg. Mozart’s music is remembered and loved centuries after he composed it. Although the Doppler effect led to the invention of radar and influences our lives every day, Doppler does not enjoy the same level of fame or popularity.

Even if you produce both art and science, the disparity is noticeable. Natalie Portman just won an Oscar for her acting in “Black Swan”. She also has a graduate degree in neuroscience and a research award from Intel. As an article in the New York Times noted, “You can be a scientist, but if you want your name in lights, you’d better play one on TV.” Few people are aware of her scientific achievements–and most who are heard about them after her Oscar.

We enjoy and appreciate art with our senses; sight, smell, hearing, and touch. It doesn’t require analysis, or comparison to some outside truth. Art has no defined boundary. But science can seem hard to appreciate without just this kind of analysis.

If we combine science with art, will the science be appreciated more? Will its essence become more memorable? Will it touch people’s hearts?

Science has been expressed through art many times. Many movies make use of science (Terminator or Iron Man), as do many video games (Half-life). Yet another place where science and technology are integrated with art is opera. “Death and the Powers” is the latest example. It was composed and directed by Tod Machover at MIT media lab, and the premiere is coming to Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre starting March 18th. The opera comes to Chicago’s Harris Theatre starting April 2nd.

“Death and the Powers” is centered on Simon Powers, an entrepreneur and a computer genius who gets tired of his life in the flesh, and wants to upload his “self” into purely digital form. He tries to find out what happens after his death: What is left behind? What can he control? By moving from one form of life to another he hopes to project himself into the future. Whether he is even still alive or not is a question. His wife, his daughter and his adopted son must come to terms with events, and decide whether they want to join him in his digital existence.

In addition to being about technology, the show also takes advantage of technology for its effects. Several robots transform into human form, reenacting the lives of the Powers family in order to learn more about humans and to understand death. The performance uses moving and flashing walls, and a chandelier whose strings seem to speak and respond to touches from a human performer.

The opera also uses something called disembodied performance system. This system allows an off-stage actor or singer to give compelling and rich performance on stage in a completely non-anthropomorphic form. The system uses a variety of sensors to collect the performer’s gestures, action, and voice, distilling the character’s essence at any moment. Light, projection, mechanical movement, and sound then recreate the performance on stage. So just as the play is about humans becoming part of a machine, it also takes advantage of the same phenomenon.  Simon really is inside the system.

The motive behind the opera is to use technology to tell a story about how humans relate to technology. You can see excerpts here.

When people watch “Death and the Powers,” will they appreciate the art, the science, or both?  And which will be remembered the longest?

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Finding African American heroes was always relatively easy for me.

What types of heroes, you may ask?

Great authors and hard-hitting journalists that brought down institutions with pen and smarts?  Doctors or firemen saving lives on the front lines?  Not always.  As a kid, my heroes came to me on a regular schedule, after school and on Saturday mornings on a Zenith television (with an actual cathode ray tube!)

Like most every other kid that I knew in the 80’s (and part of the 90’s), I was glued to the television watching my favorite shows.  Whereas my older sister watched shows like Dance Party USA and listened to Menudo, I found myself lost in, and totally enthralled with, the world of science fiction.  To me, the absolute perfect blend of art and science.

Sure, there are the obvious list of greats including Lando Calrissian (Star Wars).  But everyone knows him.  He’s got an action figure.

What about those little known stars you may have forgotten about?  Let’s travel down a little stretch of memory lane at a time when VHS toploaders were the “hottest technology” and a new cell phone only weighed a few pounds.

5.  Dr. Elvin “El” Lincoln. Misfits of Science.  El is a very tall and socially awkward man, who is able to shrink from 7’4″ to 11″ with a press on the back of his neck.

4.  Winston Zeddmore.  The Ghostbusters.  The only member of the Ghostbusters team that wasn’t a founding member.  Zeddmore provided common sense and comedy relief.

3.  JazzThe Transformers. Self-possessed, calm, and utterly collected, Jazz is head of Special Operations, with his own dedicated roster of agents.

2. J. D. Bennet (aka I.Q.).  Bionic 6.  Super-strength (he is even stronger than the other, superhumanly-strong members of the team) and super-intelligence.

1. Geordi LaForge.  Star Trek: The Next Generation.  LaForge started out aboard the Enterprise as Helmsman, but was shortly promoted to Chief Engineer of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Justin H. S. Breaux

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I have a confession to make. In spite of working in one of America’s largest cities, full of amazing cultural and entertainment opportunities, I rarely end up taking advantage of Chicago’s slate of evening activities. This should provide some context for the fact that, when I heard Octavia Butler would be speaking at the Harold Washington Library, I rushed out of work early and stayed downtown late. It was a good choice. Butler was as brilliant in person as on the page. It also turned out to be one of her last public appearances before her death in early 2006.

Octavia Butler, along with Samuel R. Delany, is one of the earliest and best known African-American science fiction writers. She’s also one of the best science fiction writers the genre has ever boasted, and one of my favorites. Her stories use scientific ideas to explore issues that few writers can handle successfully: inequality, social justice, and the morality of power.

Dawn, the first novel in her Lilith’s Brood series, is a perfect example. Following a nuclear war, a small group of survivors are rescued by the alien Oankali. The Oankali, with their advanced genetic manipulation abilities, are willing to save the human race—in exchange for mixing with them biologically to form a new hybrid species. Butler uses this unusual premise to focus on issues that inspire deep passion in the real world. The bigotry and fear that can plague mixed-race children is only the most obvious. The Oankali also have a great deal of power over the humans, who depend on them for continued survival, and the moral obligations of both sides in such a relationship are a major theme.

Power in Butler’s work is never simple. A modern African-American woman uses time travel to save the life of a slave-holding ancestor, so that she can eventually be born. People who’ve been genetically engineered try to negotiate their rights with those who’ve engineered them. An entire society tries to maintain civilization, with no recourse to negotiation, after a plague robs them of the ability to use language. Throughout, the stories are sympathetic to the holders of power as well as the powerless, and to the costs that unequal relationships have on both.

Butler’s books depend both on the scientific speculation that supports their ideas, and on her perspective as an African-American woman. If you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend Blood Child—her short story collection, recently re-released.

This post was originally planned as an overview of several African-American science fiction authors, but my appreciation of Butler got away from me. If you’re looking for further suggestions, the Carl Brandon Society posts yearly recommendation lists, generally full of excellent reads. I can personally recommend Samuel R. Delany and Steven Barnes, who would have easily taken up an enthusiastic post apiece. And my secret cadre of consultants (i.e., the friends I asked while putting this together) put in votes for Andrea Hairston, Nnedi Okorafor, and Nalo Hopkinson.

-Ruthanna Gordon

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