Arthurian aliens in A Message From Mars. Photo courtesy of BFI Images
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Beware air pirates, be nice to Martians: lessons from the dawn of British sci-fi

Critics Notes by Mark Lawson.

In 1989, Martin Amis published a novel, London Fields, set ten years in the future in a world on the brink of a nuclear war. But the Berlin Wall fell as the book appeared, lessening the terror of millennium Armageddon, while another aspect of Amis’s 1999 – the restriction of mobile phones to a small super-cadre – also suggested an anti-Cassandra. While all art gambles on being overtaken by time, science fiction is most likely to lose the bet. Yet there is a fascination in predictive stories that have become historical period pieces, such as the two futuristic movies, more than a century old, screening in the BFI Southbank’s “The Birth of British Sci-Fi” event this month: Pirates of 1920 by David Aylott and A E Coleby, released nine years before its title date, and Wallett Waller’s A Message from Mars (1913).

Although, in the term “science fiction”, the second word qualifies the first, it’s tempting to tot up the success rate of guesses and Pirates of 1920 scores well. The silent, black-and-white short
imagines “air pirates” who use balloon-driven vessels to bomb ships, with the lofty brigands then sliding down ropes to take hostages. Within three years of the release date, there would be a world war in which the Germans used airships against ships, although this prophecy was not entirely the film-makers’ – H G Wells, the begetter of so much in this genre, had published a novel, The War in the Air, in 1908, anticipating the elevation of the battlefield.

The movie did show its own prescience, though with a longer perspective. The attackers from the earth’s atmosphere are a kind of hijacker and, in this sense, the film foresees a tactic of terrorists between the 1960s and, with a mass-suicidal-homicidal twist, 9/11. Modern viewers may also reflect that, with tighter aviation security in the 21st century, sea piracy and hostage-taking were revived as weapons of terror. The scenes in which the invaders threaten the captain eerily resemble those in a movie released more than a century later, Captain Phillips, with the exception that, whereas Paul Greengrass’s camera rarely stops moving, Aylott’s and Coleby’s hardly starts.

More substantial, at about an hour, A Message from Mars has also drawn on Wells, most obviously his 1897 Martian drama The War of the Worlds, although oddly combining that fantastical line with the social comedy of his earthbound books such as Kipps. Apart from a prologue and a coda set on Mars, where aliens dressed like Arthurian knights scrutinise events on earth through a goldfish bowl, the film takes place almost entirely in Edwardian London, where a Martian, having somehow broken the etiquette of the red planet, has been despatched to redeem himself by persuading Horace, an obnoxious, selfish boor, to be nicer to people.

In this element of an extraterrestrial on a mission of redemption, it combines the tenets of sci-fi and Christianity in an early example of a genre that would later include Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?; Chris de Burgh’s song “A Spaceman Came Travelling”; Steven Spielberg’s ET; L Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology; and, according to recent reports, some modern school nativity plays in which aliens and angels are apparently largely interchangeable.

Though few scientists now believe that, if life exists on Mars, it will wear chain mail, capes and veils and be prone to camp hand gestures, A Message from Mars proves – as does Pirates of 1920 – that crystal-ball fiction can still be worth watching once it’s a dot in the rear-view mirror. Both films will be shown at the BFI, as part of their Days of Fear and Wonder sci-fi season, on 7 December with a live piano accompaniment, and A Message from Mars will be available to stream from 12 December on the BFI Player and BBC Arts Online.

Curators’ eggs

In most sports, the 30th birthday is a sign that the best years are over. Some have suggested that the same measure might apply to the Turner Prize. Many of the earlier winners – Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst, Gilbert and George – and even one runner-up, Tracey Emin, have a name or an artwork known even to those with little interest in art. But recent recipients – Susan Philipsz, Martin Boyce – are more of what you might call curators’ eggs, their impact contained within gallery walls.

This is again the case with the 2014 winner, Duncan Campbell. The Turner’s high profile was created by media debate; it helped to have an image (Hirst’s shark, Gormley’s Angel of the North) that was easily reducible to headlines. Campbell’s winning entry is a 54-minute film reworking a 1950s French documentary, with sequences co-created with the choreographer Michael Clark. Few visitors to the Tate Britain exhibition (until 4 January 2015) can be expected to watch it in full.

Like Hollywood, the Turner favoured showbiz-savvy creators with a grabby pitch but struggles to get recognition for art-house films. Channel 4’s live coverage suffered from sound problems but even if it gets the microphones right next year, the Turner is having trouble being heard. There’s no obligation on artists to become popular but, having gone from a period in which they did to one in which they don’t, the trophy named after Mike Leigh’s latest protagonist is in a difficult transition. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution