Friday, 20 December 2013

Mechanical Muses: The Legacy of Automata in SF

Since 2009 I've been jointly responsible for maintaining the Leeds Verse database, creating catalogue entries for poetry from 17th and 18th century manuscripts. I rarely find anything in the way of interesting SF-related stories but I recently came across a poem called On seeing the Microcosm, dated September 1774, an extract of which reads:

Here all Copernicus's pains,
The labour of great Newton's brains,
What puzzled ages - one short view
(Each knowledge of the mind) can shew.
Inigo Jones with envious eyes
Might see the finished orders rise;
Raphael, outdone, behold, with grief,
The painted figures spring to life.

The description of painted figures springing to life was intriguing. After a bit of research, I discovered that the Microcosm in question referred to an automaton, one of the clockwork machines that became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. From the Greek meaning 'to act of one's own will', automata enchanted the courts of Europe, with their lifelike movements and musical chimes. During the French Revolution, they were so much associated with the ruling classes that revolutionaries likened them to the wealthy elites, 'bodies without souls, covered in lace'.

However, automata were sometimes exhibited to wider audiences for publicity purposes, hence the poem's full title of On Seeing the Microcosm, Now Exhibiting in the Red Lion Assembly Room, which originally appeared in Swinney's Birmingham and Stafford Chronicle. This particular automaton was credited to the British goldsmith James Cox, who was best known for producing mechanical clocks.

Along with Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin, Cox was also the creator of the famous Silver Swan, now the star attraction of the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle. Mark Twain describes his own encounter with the swan in Innocents Abroad:

I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes – watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop – watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it.

Of course, the automaton has been a continuing source of fascination for scientists and novelists alike. Inspiring characters from Isaac Asimov's Bicentennial Man to Douglas Adams' Marvin the Paranoid Android (for a more comprehensive list see this Wikipedia entry, 'List of fictional robots and androids'), it has become a classic trope of SF literature. Perhaps one of its most memorable incarnations is in the character of 'False Maria', the Maschinenmensch (German for 'machine-human') from Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis. Also notable for being the first feature length film of the SF genre, Metropolis tells the tale of a divided city: a utopian idyll above ground but below the surface a dark pit, where workers run the heavy machinery that keeps the city functioning. The image of Lang's Maria, a female automaton created to cause unrest among the workers, is an enduring and haunting screen icon.

Those interested to know more about the history of automata (as I was) can watch this excellent documentary, Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, presented by Simon Schaffer:

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Shock of the Numan: Electric Music to Freak your ‘Friends’

It is safe to say that Gary Numan (solo, or with his Tubeway Army) was never a critical favourite, but perhaps the time has come to recognise his contribution to a particular strand of dystopian science fiction and musical innovation. As a pioneer of popular synthesiser music, he brought both content and medium from the margins and the avant-garde to Top of the Pops. The mechanised sound and image was undoubtedly refined from Kraftwerk and David Bowie’s earlier templates, but his lyrics, at least up to 1980’s Telekon, are imbued with the bleak futurism of his literary heroes. The defining album Replicas, released in 1979 at the height of both Numan’s creative powers and popularity, is based on “a series of short stories... concerned with London in a few decades time”, distilled into a set of three/four-minute pop songs. This is his explanation of one of the central themes, and specifically those of his first number one single, ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’:

Machines were made with cloned human skin, making them almost identical to humans. These were called 'Friends' and carried out a wide range of services from police officers to prostitutes. The only difference was the eye, they had a horizontal black bar as the pupil, rather like a sheep.

By his own admission, Numan was consciously echoing concepts expressed in the work of Philip K. Dick, primarily his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – probing the nature of reality, the essence of humanity and the notion of the simulacrum. The resultant sound was like nothing on earth, with Gary an alien, android or replicant, constructing a cold, otherworldly persona. Part of the same song/story cycle, ‘Down in the Park’ (“where the machmen meet”) combines sci-fi imagery with the alienated, violent dystopias of Crash and A Clockwork Orange, performed live in all its strangeness. Then there is his rendition of ‘M.E.’, with Numan rising, caged, as if from the subterranean depths of Metropolis, before emerging, cutting a singular figure in his jumpsuit as he intones lyrics of isolation and despair from the perspective of “the last machine left on Earth”. His other number one single, ‘Cars’, remains a prescient vision, which certainly resonates with anyone exposed to the UK’s public transport network on a regular basis, while ‘I Nearly Married A Human’ captures the elusive Numan sense of humour (though in fact he married a fan, one of his devoted Numanoids). ‘Listen to the Sirens’, the opening song on the first Tubeway Army album, references another seminal Philip K. Dick novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, in its introductory line; he is also an avowed admirer of J.G. Ballard, though he never paid homage as overtly as his contemporaries the Normal did with their ‘Warm Leatherette’.

So much for the texts; Numan’s pop-cultural influences extend from the groups who followed the path he charted, such as Depeche Mode, the Human League and Japan, to luminaries of the formative New York hip-hop scene – Afrika Bambaataa commented that he “was so spooky, so spaced out and it sounded like the future of music to me.” Just as Gary himself has acknowledged his debt to various literary inspirations, there is a sci-fi novel featuring a character speaking entirely in Numan lyrics (Sean Williams, Saturn Returns, 2007), and then there were the Sugababes, returning him to the top of the charts by sampling ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’; you can even visit a themed establishment in Wolverhampton, the Numa Bar. In truth, it is easy to mock the man for his love of flying, conservative politics, and especially the unabashed ambition to succeed, which aroused the ire of the late 70s music press – then, as now, he and his music were deeply unfashionable. Fashion is nothing if not fickle, however, and there have been suggestions of a critical re-appraisal. For all the variability of his later output, the early albums (1978-80) stand as his legacy, bridging the worlds of popular music and dystopian literature like no-one before, or since – yesterday’s ridiculed eccentric may yet prove to be tomorrow’s prophet.