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Space Canon
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    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.

    In 2004, some robotics geeks and sci-fi fans built a functional robotic likeness of Philip K. Dick. It looked like Dick, dressed like Dick, and was completely autonomous. Capable of operating without the intervention of its makers, it could track people coming in and out of a room with face-recognition software, greeting those it knew. It could listen to conversation, and, using complex algorithms, could respond verbally using speech synthesis.

    This “robotic portrait” was as much an art project as it was a feat of engineering. For several years, the android made public appearances — at conferences, comic conventions, Artificial Intelligence organizations, and so forth. In 2006, it mysteriously disappeared in transit to Mountain View, California, where it was to meet with some Google employees. Speculation abounded. Horrified, I imagined the android out in the world, having a hellish time of consciousness. Strange and poetic as it was, the story could have ended here.

    And yet, the Philip K. Dick android has now been rebuilt. Behold!

    The new android is being referred to as “New Phil.” Its vanished predecessor, “Old Phil.” To recap: a man who spends his career writing about about androids dies. Twenty years later, an android is made in his image, effectively bringing him back to life. That android disappears. A new one is built; at this point we’re three degrees of separation from the original. I can’t help but fantasize about a future model (New New New Phil?) becoming self-aware, and immediately being convinced that he is the real, original Phil. I mean, it literally reads like an actual Philip K. Dick story — life imitating art, imitating life.

    The brain-boggling postmodern meta-irony is not lost on its makers, thankfully. On translating this particular writer — and not, say, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov — into an android, they explain, “An android of Philip K. Dick is a sort of paradox. It’s certainly what Hofstader would call a ‘tangled hierarchy.’ This is something that you don’t get by making an android out of any other science fiction writer.” They point out that Dick didn’t just write about androids; he wrote about people thinking they were androids, or androids thinking they were people, and everything in between. The terrible crux of Dick’s canon often hinges on the question, “what is the difference between being human, and being programmed to believe you are human?”

    Still, it’s hard to guess what Dick, who died in 1982, might have thought of his robotic likeness. In a 1975 essay called, “Man, Android, and Machine,” he wrote:

    “Within the universe there exist fierce cold things, which I have given the name ‘machines’ to. Their behavior frightens me, especially if it imitates human behavior so well that I get the uncomfortable sense that these things are trying to pass themselves off as humans but are not. I call them ‘androids,’ which is my own way of using that word. By ‘android’ I do not mean a sincere attempt to create in the laboratory a human being. I mean a thing somehow generated to deceive us in a cruel way, to cause us to think it to be one of ourselves. Made in a laboratory — that aspect is not meaningful to me; the entire universe is one vast laboratory, and out of it come sly and cruel entities which smile as they reach out to shake hands. But their handshake is the grip of death, and their smile has the coldness of the grave.”

    Would New Phil — or for that matter, Old Phil — embody this “coldness of the grave” to his namesake? I can’t help but think of Jack Bohlen, in Martian Time-Slip, servicing the simulacra in his son’s school and having schizoid episodes where he believes that every person is secretly a machine, a mechanism. The profound sense of disconnect that this vision lends to his reality, the Philip K. Dick android does to me.

    Dick’s books have been endlessly adapted to the screen, and yet this bearded machine does more to bring the philosophical mise-en-abyme of his work alive than any number of Darryl Hannahs or Arnold Schwarzeneggers (be they lurking in rainy alleyways or gun-fighting in the red-tinged Martian atmosphere) ever could. I mean, it is Philip K. Dick: both visually and theoretically. It’s a physical embodiment of everything he feared, loved, rhapsodized on, got paranoid about. It’s a “living” paradox; it’s science-fiction reality, a powerfully strange sculpture.
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    Out beyond the farthest stars,
    Where the cold of space spreads thin,
    We endeavor to look out,
    While they are looking in.
    – adapted from Isaac Asimov.

    Written on the occasion of the Science Poems book and exhibition, published by the design collective OK DO in Helsinki, Finland.

    Science fiction is art.

    Science fiction is science poetics.

    Science fiction is more honest about our hell and heaven, the compassion and the monstrous failings of our species, than any other form of art. Science fiction is real counterculture. Science fiction has legs and arms, fire and brimstone, void and aether, bellows and pickaxe. It creates the world and then it walks among it, knowing it, loving it before it plunders the truth from difference.

    We, the science poets, have the stars – inherited from your apathy – and the future; you, the rest, have our common past, and this slovenly Earth. Science fiction trammels the past, sows its bones into the soil. Science fiction looks into the abyss and sees life, builds life out of death.

    Science fiction is not a canon of equivalence (Dick our Pynchon, Delany our Derrida, Butler, Tiptree, and Russ our de Beauvoir, Cixous, and Dworkin), but a canon of its own. The science poets have always known this. In our secret utopia where the kings and queens are those with stars in their teeth and dark chasms on their shoulders, the science poets honor one another. From their gates, the science poets will never turn you away, because cold pangs of fearful yearning for the alien live within us all.

    No man is an island,
    And no planet is in turn;
    And that in six billion years,
    We’ll stand and watch it burn.

    Science fiction doesn’t tell the future, it builds it. Science fiction is a living tradition that informs the very world it critiques, inventing new myths, words, and realities just as we catch up to its old ones. Science fiction does not obey; it does not consume. It presents the path, so we can walk it without fear.

    Science fiction is a tender, holographic tunnel reaching all the way back to us from the distant future, from beyond the stars, broadcasting comfort despite difference, hope among despair, and teaching us the importance of our moment in the face of the impassive monument of time.

    Science poems are not abstract, they are not separate from the world: the future is a poem, for it doesn’t yet exist. And those things which don’t yet exist are like the breath on the tongue, a gesture yet to be made – they are sheer potentiality. They have the kinetics of real art.

    As Stanislaw Lem wrote, science fiction “comes from a whorehouse but…wants to break into the palace where the most sublime thoughts of human history are stored.” Within the shadowy, grimacing frame of its own poetics, it does. Because the sublime thoughts of human history have always been projected outwards, to the vastness outside of our minds. Science fiction is a movement outwards, not inwards: “up, up, and away”.

    Science fiction knows, like the science poets do, that the sky begins at our feet.

    The science poets look at our sky and they see three moons, or a ringed planet in sultry sunset; they hear a voice whispering across the void, hear the malice in its tone, but still find how to forgive it. Science poets see a tentacle and know its embrace. Science fiction is the grief of tomorrow and the horror of today. Science poetry makes no illusions.

    Some days the poets burn out,
    They drink deep from the cup,
    They look all around them,
    And they think, “Beam me up!”
    Fri, Sep 10, 2010  Permanent link
    Categories: design, Poetics, Science Fiction
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