Thursday, 28 April 2022

Arturo Aldunate Phillips

Aldunate Phillips (left) with Norbert Wiener
In November 2020, I wrote a post about a project I’d been involved in, to translate Juana y la cibernética (1963), a short story by the Chilean SF writer Elena Aldunate, with my colleague Ana Baeza Ruiz. The publication, a Spanish-English bilingual edition of the story, had an online launch at the Desperate Literature bookshop in Madrid. During the event, Ana and I reflected on the translation and aspects of the story we’d found intriguing. One of the questions raised by Juana concerns cybernetics itself. The plot, which revolves around an erotic encounter between the protagonist (Juana) and her factory work station, never explicitly touches on the topic of cybernetics and is very far removed from Norbert Wiener’s influential definition of ‘the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal’. However, the human-machine relationship which is central to the story does suggest a thematic link to the idea of cybernetics as it relates to the imaginary of robots and automated life. 

This is where the figure of Arturo Alduante Phillips (the author’s father) comes in. A writer-poet and engineer, Aldunate worked for the Electricity Company in Chile (later Chilectra) and as a university lecturer teaching courses in cybernetics. Even more significant, he published two books on cybernetics, Los robots no tienen a Dios en el corazón (Robots do not have God in their hearts) (1963) and Por las fronteras de la cibernética (On the frontiers of cybernetics) (1973). In the first of these books, published in the same year as Elena’s story, Aldunate Phillips explains the fundamentals of cybernetics and the current state of the discipline in relation to machine intelligence, as well as discussing the implications for industry, construction and healthcare. A contemporary review remarks that the book will be of interest to readers who want to know more about how today’s scientific developments will contribute to ‘the material progress of the world and the social transformation that will follow from their application’.

Pages from Los Robots (1963)

In this context, the reference to cybernetics in Juana appears to be less incidental, as it seems likely that the topic and its potential to transform society was discussed in Elena Aldunate’s family. There is one moment in the story that especially chimes with the issues and debates covered by Aldunate Phillips in his book. Juana remembers some articles she’s read in the newspapers: ‘One day the machines will rebel against their masters. They will not depend on them, they will take control of their future’. By contrast, Los Robots is dismissive of the idea of autonomous automated life. One of the concluding remarks in the book reads ‘I believe that it will never be given to the machine to replace the capacity of the human brain, which will continue to be the inspirer, the guide, the one that will have to manage the world of machines’. The message of Juana is more ambiguous and can be read as a cautionary tale. In the final passages, in the consummation of Juana’s desire, she is simultaneously released and obliterated by the machine’s motions: ‘The movement demands surrender […] its expression is burning, lacerating’. An interpretation of this ending might be that humans underestimate machines at their peril, with Juana’s fate serving as a warning about the destructive tendencies of automation…

Saturday, 26 February 2022

The Story of Solaris

Solaris is the best-known work of the Polish novelist Stanisław Lem (1921-2006), a philosophical science fiction writer. It has been adapted twice into major feature films and on each occasion met with the author’s disapproval.

Lem’s 1961 book re-evaluates the nature of Contact with a truly alien intelligence, an immeasurable and unknowable entity. It opens with the arrival of a psychologist, Dr Kris Kelvin, at the station on Solaris, a distant planet dominated by its sentient, plasmic ocean. The disordered state of the station is reflected in the mental distress of the beleaguered remaining crew – the ocean apparently sends ‘visitors’ to them, (re-)constructed from their memories. From the initial premise, Kelvin recounts the science of Solaristics, the planet’s discovery, exploration and studies/theories of the ocean’s enigmatic organic structures, before he receives his own ‘visitor’. 

The Yugoslav SF writer, Darko Suvin, a contemporary of Lem’s, credits the Polish author with raising sci-fi “to the dignity of a major literary genre,” praising Solaris as “puzzle, parable and cognition of freedom”. Critics have attempted to unlock the book’s “psychological puzzle” by placing it within a Freudian framework or interpreting it as a parable of madness/schizophrenia. Acknowledging the novel’s complexity, Richard E. Ziegfeld saw in it Lem’s depiction of “the infinite nature of the universe,” contrasted with “the limits of man’s knowledge”.

Both the English and Russian translations of Solaris are problematic – an English version (the first of any of Lem’s work) was not available until 1970, Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox basing it on a French translation. The background to the film adaptation is similarly complex and difficult. The very first film was made for Soviet television in 1968, directed by Boris Nuremberg and, though low-budget, regarded as faithful to the novel (more so than the following versions). It was Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, released in 1972, that remains the most celebrated and controversial version of Solaris.

An “uncompromising visionary” working within the Soviet system, Tarkovsky had no love of science fiction, but (correctly) reasoned that working within the genre would grant him greater leeway. He had seen numerous projects blocked outright, and others subject to lengthy delays before release. According to artist and the set designer of Solaris, Mikhail Romadin, in the eyes of the authorities sci-fi “was hardly serious and intended for youngsters”. Tarkovsky’s proposal of “a futuristic thriller set on board a remote space station” was granted official approval by Goskino (USSR State Committee for Cinematography), though an initial draft of the screenplay re-located two-thirds of the film to Earth. After meeting a disapproving Lem in Moscow, and working with writer Friedrich Gorenstein, Tarkovsky settled on another draft, closer to the novel. 

Andrei Tarkovsky on the set of Solaris

However, the final version of Solaris, clocking in at more than two and a half hours at a stately pace, concentrates more on the ‘human’ aspect of the narrative. The film inserts a lengthy prologue on Earth, at Kelvin’s dacha, where the pilot Berton’s report on the phenomena he witnessed in the ocean is delivered. Kelvin’s relationship with his own ‘visitor’ and the response of the other inhabitants of the station to theirs remains central. Even after filming was completed, at a reduced budget, further changes and cuts were requested by the authorities. Ostensibly science fiction, Soviet censors still objected to the religious themes (present in all Tarkovsky’s work) and caused the usual delays in the film’s release; meanwhile Lem, already irritated by the liberties taken with his novel in the screenplay, accused the director of making “Crime and Punishment in space”.

Coming soon after Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated 2001: A Space Odyssey, there was bound to be a perception of Solaris as a Soviet equivalent. Where 2001 used compositions by Johan and Richard Strauss, J.S. Bach provides the main theme for Solaris, with additional soundtrack contributions from the contemporary Soviet electronic music composer Eduard Artemiev (in the first of his three collaborations with Tarkovsky). The production values reflected the respective budgets, with Mikhail Romadin in charge of the slightly kitsch interior design of the Solaris space station at the state studio Mosfilm – cutting-edge certainly in terms of Soviet film at the time, the future has dated rapidly in this instance. However, Tarkovsky clung to his vision of a mysterious, philosophical epic, haughtily dismissing 2001 as “phony... a lifeless schema with only pretensions to truth,” and continuing to bemoan his own film’s sci-fi trappings as “a distraction.” 

After winning the Grand Jury Special Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival (and also the BFI’s ‘Film of the Year’ award), the international reputation of Solaris was secured. Its many admirers see it as a high watermark for the genre in film: “the benchmark against which all sci-fi should be held accountable.” The English writer Trevor Hoyle was “absolutely blown away” by Tarkovsky’s “magical” film. Other critics have found it confusing, overly long, pretentious and – presumably in contrast to 2001 – commented on its “visual poverty” (New York Times). The director himself later came to regard Solaris as the least favourite of his films.

Like 2001, Solaris has been subjected to innumerable academic re-readings and critical interpretations, and remains the director’s most enduring work. Tarkovsky returned once more to science fiction for the similarly fascinating, grandiose and troubled Stalker in 1979. He left the Soviet Union the same year, made two further films during his European exile and died of cancer in Paris, aged only 54, in 1986.












Long after Tarkovsky’s death, a third adaption of Solaris was made, this time in the United States. Steven Soderbergh’s slick and expensive 2002 film version, while cutting more than an hour off the running time, is essentially a Hollywood re-make of the Soviet epic thirty years on rather than an attempt to return to Lem’s text. The author was distinctly unimpressed: “And I thought Tarkovsky’s Solaris was bad.”

In continuing to distance himself from both major versions of the film, as late as a 2002 interview, Lem stated: “As Solaris’ author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.”


Stanisław Lem

Saturday, 4 September 2021

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: Listening in the 1990s

Hi-Fi: Heading to the Digital Age

How was the music of the 1990s experienced as home entertainment? On traditional stereo ‘systems’ via the analogue formats of vinyl and cassette, with the future looming in the shape of compact discs, and the brave new world of Digital Audio Tape about to revolutionise the music industry… 


On the Move

Anyone storing their entire music collection on a phone or iPod should spare a thought for the 90s mobile listening experience. Developed over the previous decade, surprisingly bulky Minidisc and Walkman players allowed you to enjoy your favourite discs and tapes (one at a time) if you were on the move – until the batteries ran out… 

Cassette Culture: Home Taping is Killing Music

The cassette remained thriving throughout the first half of the decade (in my experience at least), both in commercial form and for exchanging music via the ubiquitous mix-tape – there was even a market for the cassette single… 

Among the more notable discoveries was the ‘outer space’ design of Memorex’s Sound Invasion tape – this particular example found at Music Zone, Salford Shopping City in 1993/94…

A number of ‘lo-fi’ musicians made an art form of the humble cassette, while magazines were still happily advertising blank tapes for sale, compatible with glossy home stereo and portable players…


In the Future

Meanwhile, German researchers had been working since 1987 on developing digital audio files, a project which eventually resulted in the MP3. It was patented in the US in 1996 and, rather than a cutting-edge electronic label, the independent Seattle-based Sub Pop (the first home of Nirvana and ‘grunge’) is credited as the first to release music in the MP3 format. The file-sharing network Napster was launched in 1999, and the transformation of the record industry was underway. Music in the twenty-first century was to be consumed in different ways than any previous listening experience…

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Day in the Life of a Tech Hub Librarian

I was going through some old files the other day, when I came across a speculative writing exercise I did for the Dream of a Low Carbon Future project back in 2014. The brief was to use the model of the future envisaged by the project (based on people, societies, and the human and physical environment) and write a 'day in the life' of someone from 2150. Reading it back now, some of these ideas already seem out of date (!) but anyway this is what I came up with... 

The Tech Hub Librarian

Let me describe for you the conditions of my life in 2150AD. I live a fairly solitary existence. I’m not exactly a social pariah but my position in my community is a precarious one. Now at 60 years of age, with no close family, it hardly seems to matter much, although loneliness sets in from time to time. I should be grateful, at least I’m never cold; a side-effect of living in the hub is the abundance of surplus heat generated in powering the knowledge servers. My job title ‘librarian’ is somewhat deceptive. The general understanding of such a role was for many years closely associated with books and written papers, and it was those things that initially drew me to the profession. I was always attached to the romantic idea of preserving material culture - caring for the books and artefacts accumulated over centuries and so treasured by 20th and 21st century societies - that old-fashioned notion of the ‘authentic’. The reality, of course, is vastly different. The hubs constitute a digital cultural record, made up of 0s and 1s. It’s not much to look at; rows and rows of servers punctuated by the odd terminal. There’s a popular myth that these hubs still hold and protect the original treasures. In fact, most of them were sold off long ago into private collections; no one really noticed, what with all the flooding and famine. And goodness knows what happened to them after that! 

Long-held prejudices persist, however, the old ‘knowledge is power’ stereotype... Naturally, it gives us librarians a bad reputation. We’re treated with general suspicion, subject to occasional threats and one extremist group is out to prove we’re a sect of information overlords, who control the inner workings of society. Par for the course, I suppose. Perhaps once there was some grounding for this conspiracy theory. Back in the 21st century, huge server warehouses (probably resembling the hubs of today) used to guide the investment of trillions of assets all over the world, prolonging the boom years and delaying the inevitable financial collapse of world economies by almost 100 years. Sinister stuff. Now, the economy is relatively transparent, although the Citizen’s Income allocation gets more farcical every year. Yes, gone are the ‘knowledge societies’ of the 21st century. A popular, widely held view is that culture is dormant and we’ve returned to the Dark Ages. Odd time to be a librarian, eh? 

It’s all nonsense though! The concept of high culture may be dead but a different kind of cultural value has taken centre stage: know-how, as opposed to Knowledge with a capital ‘K’. There’s still an appetite for heritage in my community but more in the form of family history, which has always been popular. That’s what the majority of the hub’s visitors come for. In the 21st century, there were companies that compiled huge databases of information, digitized from written records: birth, death and marriage certificates, newspapers etc. The floods wiped most of them out but there are still records, saved from the Amazon servers, of individuals’ purchasing history. An odd kind of family history if you ask me but people seem to be fascinated to learn that on the 23 May 2050 great great grandad bought a new birdfeeder. They obviously find all that consumerism rather quaint.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Reciprocal Dialogues: Researching Digital Culture and Science Fiction

It feels like a very long time ago now, but back in January 2020 (pre-the first UK lockdown), I gave a talk at the University of Birmingham in the Centre for Digital Cultures. The theme 'Researching Digital Culture and Science Fiction' gave me the opportunity to draw together the threads of my research over the last few years, and speak about many topics I've covered in the blog in one form or another, including J.G. Ballard's invisible literature, Computational Economies in History and Science Fiction, and the Transcultural Fantastic.

Niall Gallen - who invited me to Birmingham - produced a write-up of the talk here, which includes some great critical reflections and insights. Niall is a doctoral researcher in the department of English Literature (Birmingham), whose thesis explores Eduardo Paolozzi, J.G. Ballard and contemporary responses to technological acceleration. He is also a committee member of Research/Curate, a network for postgraduate students researching curation, art, or objects within an academic context. His recent projects include co-editing a special issue of Alluvium journal on 'Futurity in Crisis'.

Thanks to Niall for this piece and the original invite to speak. I really enjoyed the conversation with other researchers and students affiliated with the Centre.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Science Fiction-Music Interconnections: The Indie 90s

Whilst researching the various SF-related 90s topics which have informed recent posts, I began to explore the connections with one of my formative influences of the decade: Indie Rock. As a fan of all things ‘indie’ around the first half of the 90s (when I was a late-teenager and student), I had various memories and favourites from the genre’s heyday in that pre-Internet age. The affiliation is less immediate than with the ambient and rave scenes of the era, but various connections can be found. 

The associated English artists Spacemen 3, Sonic Boom/Spectrum, and Spiritualized (the best-known/most commercially successful of the trio) all explored otherworldly imagery and themes, often pharmacologically inspired. The Spiritualized albums Lazer Guided Melodies (1992) and especially Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Now Floating in Space (1997) epitomise these qualities. Among their contemporaries categorised as ‘shoegazers’, the band Slowdive ventured into similar territory with their second album, 1993’s Souvlaki, including collaborations with Brian Eno and the ambient-inspired ‘Souvlaki Space Station’. 

Sonic Boom, Spectrum (1990)Spiritualized, Lazer Guided Melodies (1992)

Stereolab, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1993)

Stereolab, with French vocalist Laetitia Sadier, offered a combination of easy-listening sensibilities and avant-pop epitomised in the 1993 EP Space Age Batchelor Pad Music – a nod to the hi-fi test records and ‘space age pop’ of an earlier era. The following year’s Mars Audiac Quintet expanded on the formula, with ‘The Stars Our Destination’ a reference to Alfred Bester’s 1956 novel (itself seen as a precursor of Cyberpunk). Meanwhile ‘International Colouring Contest’ was a tribute to outsider musician Lucia Pamela, whose 1969 album Into Outer Space reports a trip to the moon. 

Ash, 'Girl from Mars' (1995)Northern Irish band Ash kicked off a series of successful singles with 1995’s ‘Girl from Mars’, and a later compilation, Intergalactic Sonic 7″s, reinforced their sci-fi influences. Less likely artists also touched on sf themes; the title and artwork of Suede’s B-sides collection, Sci-Fi Lullabies (lifted from an earlier lyric). A song by Swedish outfit the Cardigans, ‘Daddy’s car’, imagines a carefree European road trip turned cosmic: “From Luxembourg to Rome, From Berlin to the moon / From Paris to Lausanne, From Athens to the sun / Our car became a spacecraft, flashing through the world – Crashed down in Amsterdam.” 

Suede, Sci-Fi Lullabies (1997)

The ongoing rise of MTV in North America saw an expansion of indie content, notably 120 Minutes. Videos by artists drew on sci-fi themes, even where they were apparently unrelated to the song. The Smashing Pumpkins produced ‘Tonight, tonight’, directly influenced by Georges Méliès’ 1902 pioneering silent film A Trip to the Moon. Also in 1995, Norfolk band Catherine Wheel collaborated with Tanya Donelly (one of the decade’s most influential indie figures with Throwing Muses, the Breeders, Belly and as a solo artist) on ‘Judy Staring at the Sun’, with its kitsch sf imagery. 

The growth of US alternative/college rock music through the 1980s saw a spate of bands emerge in the Boston/Massachusetts area. Galaxie 500 produced a psychedelia-influenced sound with space-rock references. I continued to associate them with sci-fi even after discovering they were actually named after a car! Singer and lead guitarist Dean Wareham continued to explore this ‘dream pop’ territory with his next band, Luna, formed in 1991. The better-known Pixies also sprang from the Boston area, led by Black Francis and gaining acclaim by the late 80s for their combining an abrasive style with melody, and the quiet/loud dynamics which would influence Nirvana among others. Their early 90s albums Bossanova and Trompe le Monde saw Francis delve into sf-inspired lyrics, which developed further in his solo career as Frank Black. His 1997 album The Cult of Ray paid homage to writer Ray Bradbury (who Black also interviewed).


Finally, a song that stands alone: Pop Will Eat Itself’s ‘X, Y and Zee’, 1991’s slice of ‘intergalactic punk rock hip hop’. Singer Clint Mansell later became a film composer, with credits including the soundtrack to Moon, directed by Duncan Jones in 2009.

Art & Design Credits:

Ash, ‘Girl from Mars’ (1995): Design – Carnage; Other [Girl from Mars] – Sarah From Islington; Photography – Roger Sargent
Luna, Lunapark (1992): Art Direction – Laurie Henzel; Studio Photography – Macioce
Pixies, Bossanova (1990): Art Direction, Design – Vaughan Oliver / v23; Artwork [Globe] – Pirate Design; Photography – Simon Larbastier; Design Assistance – Chris Bigg
Sonic Boom, Spectrum (1990): Artwork [Commercial Art] – Sonic, T + CP London; Lacquer Cut By – Porky; Photography [Sonic] – Steve Double; Photography– Andy Earl
Spiritualized, Lazer Guided Melodies (1992): Original Artwork – Mr Ugly; Logo Design – Albert Tupelo; Design – Andrew Sutton for Blue Source; Model Maker – Gavin Lindsay; Photography – Pete Gardner
Stereolab, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1993): Design – Magic Glue
Stereolab, Mars Audiac Quintet (1994): Layout – Trouble; Photography – Peter Morris 
Suede, Sci-Fi Lullabies (1997): Image ‘Hidden’ by John Kippin; Art Direction – Peter Saville; Design – Howard Wakefield

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Juana y la cibernética

November 2020 saw the online launch of a new Spanish-English parallel text translation of the science fiction story Juana y la cibernética (1963) by Elena Aldunate at Desperate Literature, Madrid, for La noche de los libros.

Elena Aldunate (1925-2005) was born María Elena Aldunate Bezanilla in Santiago de Chile, the daughter of the mathematician and engineer Arturo Aldunate Phillips, who was also a published author. She worked as a writer of stories, articles and radio scripts, from the 1950s onwards. An early pioneer of science fiction writing in Chile, Aldunate was one of the first women authors to become associated with the genre through her story anthologies, including El señor de las mariposas (1967) and Angélica y el delfín (1977). With Ilda Cádiz, Hugo Correa, Antonio Montero, Roberto Pliscoff and Andrés Rojas, Aldunate was also involved in the founding of the Club Chileno de Ciencia Ficción, which began in the 1970s. 

As critics have noted, Aldunate’s stories consistently explore psychological themes, such as loneliness, repressed desire and existential crisis, from the perspective of women protagonists. In a biographical essay on Aldunate by Barbara Loach, she quotes the author as saying that ‘one is constantly being filled with experiences and one has to know how to take advantage of what one sees, hears, lives [...] Only with this basis can the imagination be given wings: that is, make fantasy with a foot in reality, and with elements that will be difficult to refute’.  Aldunate’s literary influences include Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Chilean authors Hugo Correa, María Luisa Bombal, Marta Brunet and María Elena Gertner

Reflecting on the emerging legacy of Aldunate, Andrea Bell observes that, although she was ‘occasionally profiled and her books reviewed in the Chilean press, her work has only recently come to the attention of literary historians’. During the last decade, the re-publication of Aldunate’s stories in collections such as Cuentos de Elena Aldunate: La dama de la ciencia ficción has helped to remedy this situation, and introduced the author to a new generation of readers. However, little of Aldunate’s writing has been translated into English, an oversight we sought address through the production of this new bilingual edition of Juana y la cibernética. Among the most remarkable and disturbing of Aldunate’s stories, it narrates an ambiguously erotic encounter between the character Juana and her factory work station. 

The seeds of this idea for a translation were planted a while ago at the start of 2018, but the planning became more concrete because of my involvement in an event series at the University of Leeds: The Transcultural Fantastic (co-organised with colleagues Ingo Cornils and Sarah Dodd). The joint aims of the series were to open up the traditions of the Fantastic from a transcultural and interdisciplinary perspective, investigating utopian and dystopian thought in art, fiction and film, as well as science fiction, folktales and fantasy literature. A workshop on ‘Publishing the Transcultural Fantastic’, which took place on 15 March 2019, featured insights from Terry Craven, co-owner of Desperate Literature; researcher Ruth Kelly (University of Oxford), who has worked on publishing projects in Bangladesh and Uganda; and Sarah Dodd, who, in addition to her role at the University of Leeds, is co-editor of the online magazine of speculative fiction in translation Samovar. The workshop discussed methods for contributing to a body of scholarship that has concerned itself with recuperating the Fantastic from contexts beyond the Anglo-American tradition, as well as alternative approaches to publishing, through small presses, short editions and print on demand, which offer more responsive and dynamic publishing routes. The series also contributed funding for the print edition of Juana.

You can find out more about the translation here: