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TransFormations 3: Fiction Science

This past weekend marked the third installment of the University of Southern California's year-long series of events, TransFormations. This most recent event was titled Fiction Science and focused on the relationship between, well, fiction and science. Rather than summarize the blurbs about the events, panels and speakers (which can all be found on the event website), I'll get right into my account of TransFormations 3.

The first panel, "Sciene Fiction, Fiction Science," was moderated by Anne Balsamo and hosted Nathan Schurr, a USC Ph.D. candidate studying Artificial Intelligence, "sandwiched" (that was their wording) between two science fiction authors, Tim Pratt and Larry Niven. Larry was the last to speak, but I'm going to address him first. Larry was born in 1938 and has been writing science fiction stories since 1964. He began his talk by listing some of the science which has become fiction and some of the fiction which has become science in his 69 years of life on Earth. Speaking of both fiction and science, Larry said, "Stories change as people tell them," and speaking of science fiction, "it's not supposed to be impossible." But, as Larry pointed out, what is possible versus impossible is always contested and changing, in both science and science fiction, and if we don't push the limits of possibility, we won't know what is impossible.

This brings us to the next science fiction author on the panel, Tim Pratt. Tim introduced a movement within science fiction writing called mundane science fiction. Mundane SF (during the panel, science fiction was always referred to as "SF," rather than what I always considered the more popular term, "SciFi." I guess it's a matter of emic versus etic terminology, or perhaps "SF" refers to writing while "SciFi" refers to film and television) subscribers believe that science fiction writing should be set on Earth, within the near future, and be highly plausible within the constraints of current technology and scientific knowledge. Support for the mundane movement comes from the belief that the promotion of a future where humans have left (and/or destroyed) Earth to inhabit other planets is irresponsible because it supports the reckless abandon of care for Earth while the possibility that a habit shift could occur is quite unlikely. Tim argued that the whole point of science fiction is to push science beyond the obviously capable, and if we only stick to what is highly plausible, we will not know what could be possible. This made me think: What if their was a mundane science movement, where scientist only ran experiments in which they already knew the outcome? Then, what would be the point of science? Censoring all boundary-pushing SF because of ethical concerns would be like censoring all stem cell research because of ethical concerns. We should have a concern for ethics, but that concern should be balanced with a concern for discovery and critical dialogue, in both science and SF. Also, science fiction is just that, fiction, so authors should have license to write about whatever they want. We don't censor movies (well, yes we do, but not completely) because they depict highly unlikely scenarios or raise ethical concerns, that's the point of fiction, to create worlds which parallel and make us think about our own. Of course there will always be those people who take what they see at face value and decide that wicked witches really do command armies of flying monkies(which is where we have to call into question their reasoning capabilities as well as the culture/family/school in which they were brought up that would allow and promote such an unhealthy relationship with reality), but for the most part, people understand that fiction is fiction and that fiction is meant to inspire thought and responsible action.

Now, speaking of responsible action, the final panelist, Nathan Schurr, spoke of how he draws inspiration from scientist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov when designing Artificial Intelligence systems. In his writings, Asimov outlined "Three Laws of Robotics:"

    1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Nathan spoke of how he uses these laws as guidelines when designing AI for the management of large scale urban disaster response units in the Los Angeles Fire Department. This research is funded through the Department of Homeland Security and sounds very promising. It also sounds like Asimov's laws fit well within the scope of the project. However, the relationship between Asimov's laws and Nathan's other project is questionable. That is because Nathan's other project is funded by another government entity, this time, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This project also involves the LAFD, but instead of just developing AI systems, this project involves robots. This project wouldn't raise concern if it wasn't funded by a military organization and if it didn't involve the production of technology which has the potential to do physical harm. When questioned by an audience member (and event co-organizer, Perry Hoberman) about the relationship between Asimov's laws and DHS/DARPA, Nathan responded that he acknowledges the concern that his project or an extension of it could be used for military purposes, but that he feels that any harm caused by the technology/robot would be outweighed by the (inevitable potential perceived constructed imaginary?) harm that the technology/robot is preventing . . . but . . . that's not what Asimov's laws state . . . The matter wasn't pushed at the conference, and I won't push it here.

In between Panel I and Panel II, was a live video chat with Rudy Rucker, co-founder of cyberpunk SF and author of 28 books (seriously, 28!). If you missed it, that's a shame, it was great. I'll sum it up by describing 3 incidents: first, we were using Windows Live Messenger and for about 10 seconds it froze up, then came right back, the fleetingly still image of Rudy was actually quite nice; second, a request was made from the audience to have Rudy sign a copy of his book, actually the request was made by Anne Friedberg who had Rudy sign a piece of paper addressed to "Anne," hold it up to the camera, align it correctly, and we took a screen shot from our end and emailed it to Anne and Anne, Balsamo that is, she also wanted her copy signed, the idea was that they could print out the screen shot and stick it in their books; third, in response to a question concerning virtual reality, Rudy replied, "Virtual reality is complete bullshit." It was perfect.

Moving on to Panel II, "Hollywood Science, Special FX," moderated by Anne Friedberg, we heard first from media scholar Scott Bukatman. Scott spoke of SF films in relation to "the sublime," at one point stating that "the sublime" is "something we know we don't know." He also spoke of how SF films employ grand scale, atmospheric, natural phenomena to signify "the sublime" and how this relates closely to historic landscape painting and concepts of the spectacle and spectator. Scott presented some clips from "Close Encounters" to exemplify his argument. The clips presented were those which feature the mother ship landing in the desert. First, the sky is full of enormous clouds rolling and flashing an array of bright colors, then the ship, covered in many, many brilliant lights, appears over the rocks and begins to descend on the landing pad, again filling and spilling over the frame and the landing pad itself, the humans look up, frozen in awe, jaws dropped, muttering obscenities of astonishment. I love "Close Encounters." My boyfriend and I both remarked how it used to scare the crap out of us as kids and even with these few clips in this setting, we still felt a bit of that same excitement and Scott's take on it was great, but, it was his comparison of superhero movies to musicals that I really loved, partly because I love musicals, but mostly because it made so much sense, yet I had never thought of it before. Basically, superhero movies, with all their fancy schmancy special effects, and musicals, with all their wonderful singing and dancing, are exactly the same thing . . . basically. Of course it's more complicated than that, it involves discourse about the human body becoming the super human body, but basically, it's all the same. Just look at "Spiderman," the first scene in which Peter Parker really actualizes his super powers and goes on a web swinging tour of downtown, then compare that to the couch-jumping, wall-climbing "Make 'Em Laugh" production from "Singin' in the Rain." Totally the same, right? I know. Thanks Scott!

Following Scott was Academy Award winner (is there some legislation that requires you to put that title before the name of everyone to which it applies?) Kevin Mack who talked about all the cool "Hollywood Science, Special FX" he creates. Kevin began by responding to Scott, saying (earnestly, not condescendingly) that he appreciates his analysis and it all makes sense, but really, when special effects people are doing their special effects stuff, they're actually just thinking, "I want this to be as big as possible, with as many lights as we can put on there." He went on to state that in order to develop special effects, he has to really believe in the story, and sometimes this leads to him driving part of the story line. He said he has to create a logic for special effects that work within the laws of physics, but sometimes he has to cheat the laws of physics to "make things look right." An example of this can be seen in his most recently-released work, "GhostRider." In the film, Nicholas Cage's character has a flaming head and flaming motorcycle wheels (that's the best I can explain it, go watch the trailer to get a better idea), so Kevin (and presumably a few other people) had to do their special effects stuff (as I am now calling it) to make that happen. To make the fire "look right," it had to be computer generated and slowed down from the normal speed of fire. Trails of fire had to be inserted following the motorcycle because although fire doesn't actually leave trails as it moves through space, the images didn't "look right" without fire trails. This "cheating the laws of physics" to make things "look right" makes me think about how the representation of reality, and reality itself, is contested and fluid, not just for artistic or expressive purposes but even for the simple, or rather not so simple, purposes of making things "look right."

The next panelist, Elizabeth Kessler, presented on space photography and showed us that special effects people (as I am now calling them) aren't the only ones involved in making things "look right" for massive public audiences. Elizabeth is a post-doc in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford where she is working on a book about Hubble Space Telescope images. Elizabeth showed us some Hubble photos, including this one, as they were released, quite Photoshoped, to the public, then showed us what the (somewhat, but not completely) raw images look like. To learn how they make the photos so pretty go here. Orientation, framing, color, and even lens flare are standard alterations applied to Hubble photos to make them what we think they are. Elizabeth compares these aesthetics of Hubble images to 19th-century romantic landscape paintings, like Thomas Moran's "Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory, 1882." Even Hubble people (as I am now calling them) themselves compare Hubble pictures to landscape photography. And, aside from the aesthetic similarities, both the Hubble photos and those of the American West were commissioned in conjunction with scientific explorations as images to bring back to present to the public and those funding the expeditions. And, both sets of images relate back to Scott's discussion of "the sublime" and that which "we know we don't know." At the time of exploration of the American West, we (the explorers and those who waited behind for them) knew something was out there, but we didn't know what that something was, so we sent explorers to find out. The same is true of the deep space penetrated by the Hubble's massive lens. Both are intended to convince their audience of the greatness of the unknown. I'm convinced, especially after Elizabeth told us, when questioned by the audience as to the scale of these space things (as I am now calling them [no, actually, I've not yet tired of saying that]), that Earth, if portrayed in these images, would be such a tiny dot that it would be unnoticeable. Whoa! Who cares if the colors, orientation, lens flare and all that is made up? The scale alone boggles my mind.

After the panels we had some delicious cheese and coffee and got to watch "Morphology/Face Shift," a video of a performance art piece by Arthur Elsenaar and Remko Scha. The performance consists of Arthur wearing 8 (I think) electrodes placed on various muscles on his face. The current provided to the electrodes is controlled by an algorithm in conjunction with a speech synthesis machine which "says" the number of each muscle as it is being activated. The performance/video/muscle activation/speech synthesis starts out slow, then becomes (humorously) fast and lasts for about 25 minutes. I could go on with my explanation, but it really wouldn't do justice to the piece. I will end by answering the two questions that I think everyone wonders when watching the performance: No, it does not hurt, it's just a bit uncomfortable, and yes, Arthur's face is tired afterwards.

After that, I had to leave and so couldn't watch the other video art projects. I also couldn't come back on Sunday. I wasn't planning on it because I had other commitments, but after we were warned about the LA Marathon madness that would be going on downtown, I really wasn't planning on coming back. Sorry. Maybe when we can finally teleport ourselves we won't have to worry about traffic, or maybe we will, maybe instead of our cars, it will be our particles getting jammed up, mabye only half of our body/mind will arrive at our destination, maybe we'll have to check teleportraffic reports, maybe . . .

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1 comment

Anonymous (not verified)
Even Hubble people (as I am now calling them) themselves compare Hubble pictures to landscape photography. And, aside from the aesthetic similarities, both the Hubble photos and those of the American West were commissioned in conjunction with scientific explorations as images to bring back to present to the public and those funding the expeditions. And, both sets of images relate back to Scott's discussion of "the sublime" and that which "we know we don't know." At the time of exploration of the American West, we (the explorers and those who waited behind for them) knew something was out there, but we didn't know what that something was, so we sent explorers to find out. The same is true of the deep space penetrated by the Hubble's massive lens. Both are intended to convince their audience of the greatness of the unknown. I'm convinced, especially after Elizabeth told us, when questioned by the audience as to the scale of these space things (as I am now calling them [no, actually, I've not yet tired of saying that]), that Earth, if portrayed in these images, would be such a tiny dot that it would be unnoticeable. Whoa! Who cares if the colors, orientation, lens flare and all that is made up? The scale alone boggles my mind.
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