Future Perfect – takeaways from a fascinating event on sci-fi and policy

On Friday, I joined Data & Society’s Future Perfect conference, which aimed to explore “the use, significance, and discontents of speculative design, narrative, and world-building in technology, policy, and culture.”

This seemingly broad and ambitious agenda took shape through several fascinating presentations and conversations with writers, academics, critics, technologists, and academics.

For my part, I spoke about the apparent contradictions I encountered when writing my new novel After the Flare (Unnamed Press, September 2017) in a country where nomads and space technology co-exist. I also delved into how my work as a digital rights activist at Access Now informed the technology and questions I pose in the thriller, which is mostly set in the U.S. and Nigeria.

Here are some takeaways from the conference, in random order:

  • Ada Cable, a trans scholar, spotlighted several pioneering trans creators of games and narratives. She argued that trans people, by their experience, can break boundaries into new realms of thought and creativity, particularly with respect to the body. Nonetheless, she observed that trans people are often paid to explain their work to non-trans audiences, but are rarely paid to present to trans audiences. I think this criticism applies to African literature and Africa-based science fiction as well.
  • Joanna Radin presented a fascinating paper about how Michael Crichton’s influence on science and technology is under appreciated, not just within fiction but upon the development of science. I nodded throughout her talk as a Crichton fan — I wrote an extensive essay that was published in The New York Review of Science Fiction entitled How to Create Your Own Jurassic Park.
  • Farai Chideya discussed her explorations at Harvard and MIT Media Lab on how speculative fiction informs science policy in the Trump era.
  • Jillian Crandall analyzed the architectures of the video game Horizon Zero Dawn, featuring a matriarchal society thriving in a planet infested by A.I. robots. The game visually depicts a computer virus as a red, ropy infestation. (In After the Flare, I visualize a zero day attack through the use of a biomimetic machine.)
  • Alexander Huggins presented a very interesting analysis of the musician Brian Eno and Muzak, noting how music can shape our experience of physical environments. (Again, music plays a big role in After the Flare, with a lead character who is a vibroacoustic engineer.)
  • Ava Kofman gave a thoughtful analysis of the films Robocop and Minority Report, and explored how these seemingly dystopian films have actually inspired the Taser company in the design of its offices and also its stun-gun and wearable body camera technologies used by police.

There were many more compelling conversations and presentations, so this is just a small sampling. You can watch the video of the conference here. Kate Ray also posted this excellent Tweet that compiles the books, games, and movies discussed throughout the day. (Click through to Twitter to read the full list of recommendations, since she replied to her own Tweet to compile the list.)

Thanks to Data & Society, and particularly Ingrid Burrington (author of Networks of New York), who hosted and curated this enriching, diverse event.

Featured image by Mac Rebisz http://maciejrebisz.com/.

Alien: Covenant is a horror film waiting to burst into a space opera

Despite mediocre reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which I confess I regularly check, I decided to watch the latest film in the Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant. What drew me to the movie was filmmaker Ridley Scott. Scott directed the first Alien (1979) and took a long hiatus before directing the prequel Prometheus (2012) and now this installment. He’s directed some of my favorite films, such as the groundbreaking Blade Runner (1983), and also some of my least favorite films, such as Black Hawk Down (2001), which depicted Somalis as bloodthirsty savages. Then there was 2015’s The Martian, which was fine. Fine, I say. Fine.

Here are my brief takeaways of Alien: Covenant (the points below contain SPOILERS):

What the heck is going on and why do the aliens all seem to look different? This is probably the only major spoiler in this article, but the fact that I need to write it suggests that the answer is not at all obvious. (I’m not going to do a plot summary, which plenty of brave reviewers have already done.) If you’ve seen Prometheus and the first three Alien films, you’ll have noticed that the aliens are not at all the same. Specifically, there is the alien that we know and love and a bunch of weird ones that are sort of similar. The aliens don’t look different in Prometheus and Covenant because the sculptors and animators forgot what the alien looked like, but because they are different. Each of the different aliens has been created from a pathogen that mingled with another life form. That’s why some aliens look like flatworms, others like trilobites, and others like humans. What they have in common is that the mutants created by the pathogen grow and propagate quickly and seem to have a limitless capacity for eating and exploding out of human flesh. The way this pathogen infects biological specimens is really the crux of the entire franchise now, even if it wasn’t important when Alien came out in theaters nearly 40 years ago. The pathogen is also called Agent A0-3959X.91 and appears to have been created as a biological weapon for some nefarious purpose, created by the giant humanoid Engineers we met in Prometheus. You can rabbit hole down the Alien wiki to learn more. (Fun fact – the first Alien was played by a 7 foot tall Nigerian man, Bolaji Badejo.)

Ridley Scott is a master of layering. The film features enough mysteries, clues, and palimpsests to hold your attention. Giant stalks of wheat? A mysterious space wreck? As Scott has explained, his background in shooting advertising commercials allows him to pack lots of information onto the screen and tell a story quickly. This includes creating a defining color palette. His sets have a convincingly archaeological feel – when something in the film is meant to look ancient, it feels ancient — unlike some films which look like a set designer scrubbed some dirt on the wall to look old. Longshots and landscapes are richly detailed, and awe inspiring. Spaceships are relatively constrained by physics, and are scarred up enough to feel like they’ve actually been used. As long as Ridley Scott is involved, I’ll probably keep watching the Alien movies.

Swiss artist HR Giger

H.R. Giger’s spirit infuses the film. The late Swiss artist’s biomechanical art created the dark, brooding mood in the first Alien, which disappeared later in the franchise with Aliens 3, Resurrection, and the Alien vs. Predator series. Scott was wise to return to the dark aesthetic developed by the artist, which you see in the android David’s graphite sketches and sprinkled throughout the picture. Giger was a true genius, whose life is depicted in the excellent documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World.

Alien: Covenant does not have to be a horror series. How about turning it into space opera instead? There are several moments in the plot where the film could have tilted towards a happy ending, or at least some kind of justice. But the writers seemed hell-bent on preventing that. I’m torn about this decision. Frankly, I’m a bit tired of the rampaging violence of the xenomorphs and neomorphs and whatever other freak show is created by the “black goo” pathogen, but very intrigued by the other civilizations that the humans encounter. How about giving the aliens a rest for a while (surely, they’ve eaten enough humans to deserve an interstellar snooze), and exploring some of the broader questions the series has posed?

Space opera is a genre that can be loosely defined as featuring space travel, long story arcs, and struggles for power between cultures or species. Star Wars is the most famous example, but there are darker varieties, such as The Expanse and Dune. In the Alien franchise, there is plenty to work with. The Engineers are a fascinating culture (they built us humans, right?), and if they had enemies, why? What’s it like back on Earth? What happened to the Weyland-Yutani corporation? Alien fan culture and wikis suggest to me that there is a rich trove of ideas to work from to create a viable space opera. Author William Gibson even wrote an unproduced script for Alien 3 — there are countless other creative artists willing to take on the challenge.

Alien: Covenant is a study in the dissolution of the human body. After watching Prometheus, I recall thinking that I would have liked the movie more if there wasn’t so much gore. That gore is amped up to 11 in Covenant, but I now recognize it’s part of the attraction of the series. Scott seems determined to think of how many ways to make a human body come apart, whether through aliens exploding out of people’s backs, mouths, or wriggling around in their mucosa. It’s disgusting, but also fascinating. The contrast between the advanced technological marvel of space travel and our utter mortality can be disturbing and intriguing at the same time. I still don’t think it’s an appropriate film for a 7 year-old to watch, and I bristled at the parents sitting behind me who seemed amused as their daughter complained that she was scared. I was scared too. For her upbringing.

Maybe stop relying on robots as a crutch. Robots and artificial intelligence are becoming devices for filmmakers and writers to avoid having to imagine more interesting characters. Granted, androids have appeared in the Alien series since the first installment, so Scott has every right to depict them, but given their successful exploration in other recent films and television series (Ex Machina, Westworld), I think the Alien series relies upon them a bit too much to drive forward the narrative. Michael Fassbender is such an accomplished actor that Alien: Covenant is still watchable, but maybe something else should burst from the creative chests of the writers.   

The things that suck in Alien: Covenant suck in any horror film. Going into dark rooms by yourself, looking into jars with weird things in them, traveling down to a planet without sending a probe, slipping on ejecta and spraining your ankle, trusting people who should not be trusted, and splitting up when you should stick together — these are tropes that have xenomorphed into clichés. Come on folks, we can do better.

Katherine Waterston in Alien Covenant.

Diversity can make it on big screen sci-fi. While the leading actors are all white, I was pleased to see interracial couples and a relatively diverse cast, which even featured an assured performance from a comedian in Danny McBride (surely a species unto themselves.) I liked that Katherine Waterston doesn’t have the amazon-like features of Sigourney Weaver, but still made for a convincing heroine.



Notes from my mind-blowing event at ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination

In April, I was invited to participate in a special workshop on the future of space exploration at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. This unique think tank was created on a dare after author Neal Stephenson complained that scientists today lacked the grand visions that inspired previous generations. Instead of scoffing at the idea, ASU’s President Michael Crow took up Stephenson’s challenge and within a few short years helped the Center get off the ground. Today the Center unites artists with scientists while inspiring and influencing public policy.

I have been following the Center for Science and the Imagination since its inception, when it created a blog site called Project Hieroglyph that aimed to foster online dialogue between creators, engineers, and scientists. While that effort didn’t succeed, the Center released Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, a unique compendium of fiction that explored what could be possible while avoiding dystopian modes of storytelling. The Center has since hosted scientists and artists from around the world.

The purpose for the gathering was to discuss a new book on space exploration, where I contributed an essay on inequality in Low-Earth Orbit. We met with NASA engineers, ASU scientists, artists, science fiction writers, and even the president of the acclaimed Planetary Society, Professor Jim Bell. I spoke about Nigerians in Space and my forthcoming sequel After the Flare, and also discussed my work at Access Now, where I fight to ensure that technology respects human rights. Below is a short photo tour of my experience at ASU.

I truly enjoyed the trip and I have been talking about it non-stop to whoever will listen. We need more risk-takers like the Center for Science and the Imagination. I just finished Joi Ito and Jeff Howe’s new book Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future (Hachette), and they argue that inter-disciplinary research centers — just like ASU — can model how people can thrive in our rapidly innovating, unsettled world.

I’ll follow up soon with details about the new book collection — it should make for a great read.

Appearing at NASA Space Futures launch at Center for Science and the Imagination

I’ll be in Phoenix on April 13 and 14 for the launch of a new book collection on space futures produced by NASA and the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. I’m thrilled — ASU is the leading institution focusing on working with science fiction authors to imagine a better future. My essay in the book focuses on diversity and inequality in space, including how private space companies like Space X and Blue Origin may impact the new space race.