Category Archives: science fiction

Afrofuturism in the UK’s Guardian newspaper and as a Future Tense Dec. 2015 event

My introduction to the term, Afrofuturism was in a March 11, 2015 posting by Jessica Bland for the Guardian in the Technology/Political Science section. It was written on the occasion of a then upcoming FutureFest event,

This is unapologetically connected to FutureFest, the festival Nesta (where I work) is holding this weekend in London Bridge. These thoughts represent the ideas that piqued my interest while curating talks and exhibits based on the thought experiment of a future African city-superpower. George Clinton, Spoek Mathambo, Tegan Bristow and Fabian-Carlos Guhl (from Ampion Venture Bus) will be speaking during the weekend. Thomas Aquilina is displaying photographs from his trip and the architects of the Lagos 2060 project will take part in a debate on whether their fiction can lead to a different kind of future.

In anticipation of the March 2015 FutureFest event, Bland had  written a roundup piece about “New sounds from South Africa and Nigeria’s urban science fiction [that] could change the future of technology and the city.” Here are some excerpts from her piece (Note: Links have been removed),

Strong stories or visions of the future stick around. The 1920s sci-fi fantasy of a jetpack commute still pops up in discussions about the future of technology, not to mention as an option on the Citymapper travel app. By co-opting or creating new visions of the future, it seems possible to influence the development of new products and services – from consumer tech to urban infrastructure. A new generation of African artists is taking over the mantle of Afrofuturist arts from a US-centred crowd. They could bring a welcome change to how technology is developed in the region, as well as a challenge to the dominance of imported plans for urban development.

Last Thursday’s London gig from Fantasma was sweaty and boisterous. It was also very different from the remix of Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control that brought front man Spoek Mathambo to the attention of a global audience a couple of years ago. Fantasma is a group of South African musicians with different backgrounds. Guitarist Bhekisenzo Cele started the gig with three of his own songs, introducing the traditional Zulu maskandi music that they went on to mix with shangaan electro, hiphop, punk, electronica and everything in between.

The gig had a buzz about it. But the performance was from a new collective trying things out; it wasn’t as genre-smashing as expected. And expectations ride high for Spoek. In 2011, he titled a collection from his back catalogue ‘Beyond Afrofuturism’. He took on, at least in name, a whole Afro-American cultural movement: embodied by musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and Drexciya. A previous post on this blog by Chardine Taylor-Stone describes the roots of Afrofuturism in science fiction that centres on space travel and human enhancement. But she goes on to say: “Afrofuturism also goes beyond spaceships, androids and aliens, and encompasses African mythology and cosmology with an aim to connect those from across the Black Diaspora to their forgotten African ancestry.” Spoek shares what he calls a cultural lineage with this movement. But he is not Afro-American. He also shares a cultural lineage with the sounds of South African musicians he grew up listening to.

Other forms of art are taking an increasingly activist role in the future of technology. Lydia Nicholas’s description of the relationship between Douglas Adam’s fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide and the real life development of the iPad shows how science fiction can effortlessly influence the development of new technology.

The science fiction collection Lagos 2060 is a more purposeful intervention. Published in 2013, it speculates about what it will be like to live in Lagos 100 years after Nigeria gained independence from the UK. It was born out of a creative writing workshop initiated by DADA books in Lagos. Foundation director of DADA, Ayodele Arigbabu, described the collection and other similar video and visual art work (in an email): “Far more than aesthetic indulgence, these renditions are a calibration of the changes deemed necessary in today’s political, technical and cultural infrastructure.”

Bland also explores a history of this movement,

Gaston Berger was the Senegalese founder of the academic journal Prospectiv in 1957. To many, he was the first futurist, or at least one of the first people to describe themselves as one. He founded promotes the practice of playing out the human consequences of today’s action. This is about avoiding a fatalistic approach to the future: about being proactive and provoking change, as much as anticipating it.

Berger’s early work spawned a generation, and then another and another, of professional futurists. They work in different ways and different places. Some are in government, enticing and frightening politicians with the prospect of a different transport system, healthcare sector or national security regime. Some are consultants to large companies, offering advice on the way that trends like 3D printing or flying robots will change their sector. An article from 1996 does a good job of summarising the principles of this movement: don’t act like an ostrich and ignore the future by putting your head in the sand; don’t act like a fireman and just respond to threats to your future; and don’t focus just on insurance against for the future.

Bland has written an interesting and sprawling piece, which in some way reflects the subject. Africa is a huge and sprawling continent.

Slate, a US online magazine, is hosting along with New America and Arizona State University a Future Tense event on Afrofuturism but this seems to be quite US-centric. From the Future Tense Afrofuturism event webpage on the Slate website (Note: Links have been removed),

Future Tense is hosting a conversation about Afrofuturism in New York City on December 3rd, 2015 from 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Afrofuturism emphasizes the intersection of black cultures with questions of imagination, liberation, and technology. Rooted in works like those of science fiction author Octavia Butler, avant-garde jazz legend Sun Ra, and George Clinton, Afrofuturism explores concepts of race, space and time in order to ask the existential question posed by critic Mark Dery: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately erased imagine possible futures?”

Will the alternative futures and realities Afrofuturism describes transform and reshape the concept of black identity? Join Future Tense for a discussion on Afrofuturism and its unique vantage on the challenges faced by black Americans and others throughout the African diaspora.

During the event, enjoy an Afrofuturist inspired drink from 67 Orange Street. Follow the discussion online using #Afrofuturism and by following @NewAmericaNYC and @FutureTenseNow.

Click here to RSVP. Space is limited so register now!

PARTICIPANTS

Michael Bennett
Principal Investigator, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University
@MGBennett

Ytasha Womack
Author, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture and Post Black: How A New Generation is Redefining African American Identity
@ytashawomack

Juliana Huxtable
DJ and Artist
@HUXTABLEJULIANA

Walé Oyéjidé
Designer and Creative Director, Ikire Jones
@IkireJones

Aisha Harris
Staff writer, Slate
@craftingmystyle

It seems we have one word, Afrofuturism, and two definitions. One where Africa is referenced and one where African-American experience is referenced.

For anyone curious about Nesta, where Jessica Bland works and the Future Fest host (from its Wikipedia entry),

Nesta (formerly NESTA, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) is an independent charity that works to increase the innovation capacity of the UK.

The organisation acts through a combination of practical programmes, investment, policy and research, and the formation of partnerships to promote innovation across a broad range of sectors.

That’s it for now.

Liquid metal taking shape

A North Carolina State University July 9, 2013 news release (also on EurekAlert) avoids a Terminator 2: Judgment Day movie reference (which I am making) in its description of building 3D structures out of liquid metal,

“It’s difficult to create structures out of liquids, because liquids want to bead up. But we’ve found that a liquid metal alloy of gallium and indium reacts to the oxygen in the air at room temperature to form a ‘skin’ that allows the liquid metal structures to retain their shapes,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the work.

The researchers developed multiple techniques for creating these structures, which can be used to connect electronic components in three dimensions. White it is relatively straightforward to pattern the metal “in plane” – meaning all on the same level – these liquid metal structures can also form shapes that reach up or down.

One technique involves stacking droplets of liquid metal on top of each other, much like a stack of oranges at the supermarket. The droplets adhere to one another, but retain their shape – they do not merge into a single, larger droplet. Video of the process is available here.

Another technique injects liquid metal into a polymer template, so that the metal takes on a specific shape. The template is then dissolved, leaving the bare, liquid metal in the desired shape. The researchers also developed techniques for creating liquid metal wires, which retain their shape even when held perpendicular to the substrate.

Dickey’s team is currently exploring how to further develop these techniques, as well as how to use them in various electronics applications and in conjunction with established 3-D printing technologies.

The lead researcher, Michael Dickey has produced an image of liquid metal drops in a 3D structure,

Researchers have developed three-dimensional structures out of liquid metal. Image: Michael Dickey.

Researchers have developed three-dimensional structures out of liquid metal. Image: Michael Dickey.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the published paper,

3D Printing of Free Standing Liquid Metal Microstructures by Collin Ladd,  Ju-Hee So, John Muth, Michael D. Dickey. Article first published online: 4 JUL 2013 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201301400

Copyright © 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with Terminator 2 and doesn’t understand why it was mentioned  in the context of this posting, here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia essay (Note: Links and footnotes have been removed),

The T-1000 is a fictional robotic assassin and the main antagonist in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Created by the series main antagonist Skynet, the T-1000 is a shapeshifter whose body is composed of a mimetic poly-alloy (liquid metal) body that allows it to assume the form of other objects or people of equal mass. [emphasis mine]

Physicists at CERN film Decay—their first zombie movie?

Decay, the movie, seems to have been released in late November 2012.  It is, according to the Nov. 1, 2012 preview article written by Rebecca Pahle for The Mary Sue website, a project developed by physics students working at CERN’s (European Particle Physics Laboratory) Large Hadron Collider facility.

There are a lot of zombie movies out there. But Decay is the only one filmed in CERN, a.k.a. the home of the Large Hadron Collider. The film is the brainchild (mmmm… brains) of Luke Thompson and Clara Nellist, both Ph.D. students in physics, who despite having no filmmaking experience decided that, dammit, they were going to make a film about exposure to the Higgs Boson particle turning people into zombies. (If that sounds critical, it’s unintentional—jumping in and just doing it is a time-honored method for indie film.)

Though Thompson and Nellist got permission to shoot their film in CERN, the just-released trailer makes it very clear that officials there in no way endorse it. (Which—of course they wouldn’t. But they let them shoot there! How cool is that?)

Here’s the movie trailer,


J. Bryan Lowder’s Dec. 12, 2012 article for Slate describes some of Lowder’s experiences as a science writing intern dealing with myths about science and the filmmaking team’s motivations (laughing at science horror myths),

Back when I was a science writing intern at a major U.S. lab, there was a short list of words we were cautioned never to use in our public articles. Radiation was at the top of that list, not because the lab produced it in dangerous amounts (actually, it produced less than exists normally in nature), but because when people read the word, they freak out. The public’s fear—and by extension, this lab’s fear of talking about—radiation is understandable, but it’s also unreasonable and reveals a disappointing ignorance of science. …

Burton DeWilde, a physics Ph.D. and Decay’s director of photography/editor (and a friend of mine), explained the genesis of the project in an email:

The idea of filming a zombie movie at CERN was originally conceived by Luke Thompson (writer-director) and Hugo Day (props master) while exploring the lab’s creepy labyrinth of underground maintenance tunnels. It was agreed that they would make an excellent setting for a horror film. From there, the story evolved into a cheeky riff on the black hole hysteria: “The LHC didn’t produce earth-devouring black holes after all—but have you considered brain-devouring zombies?” Concerns about the Higgs in particular and clichés of mad scientists were also mixed in. We took all these worries to a totally ridiculous place.

And Decay is totally ridiculous, in the best sense of the word. The 75-min, $3,500 movie is remarkably well-made, given the creative team’s lack of experience. It’s studded with all the gratuitous gore, cheap shocks, and absurd plot twists that zombie fans crave. Science nerds and those who love them will bask in its shameless use of sci-fi clichés like “the results are inconclusive at best,” and “my research is too important!”

You can view the whole movie by clicking the link to Lowder’s article where it is embedded, visiting this Dec. 11, 2012 posting on The Mary Sue website, or going to the Decay website.

Zombies are a very hot topic in popular culture these days as per this Nov. 12, 2012 posting on this website which mentions my presentation ‘Zombies, brains, collapsing boundaries, and entanglements’ at the S.NET 2012 (Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies) conference in Enschede, Holland.

BTW, Mary Sue is a term used to describe a female character who is perfect. From the Urban Dictionary definition,

  1. A female character who is so perfect that she is annoying. The name originated in a very short Star Trek story that mocked the sort of female characters who showed up in fanfiction. It usually refers to original female characters put into fanfiction, but can refer to any character. …
  2. An original character (fem.) in fanfic or an original story, usually on the internet, who is far superior to all other characters. She is typically beautiful, intelligent, kind, and in all other ways “perfect”. She usually serves as an important part in a pivotal plot element (ie: a prophecy) and becomes romantically involved with the author’s favourite character in the story. The internet fiction world runs rampant with these characters. …

Do go to the Urban Dictionary to reed the examples of ‘Mary Sue’ characters as they are very funny. The male equivalent may be called Marty Stu, Gary Stu, or Marty Sam.

Alchemy and the London SciFi Festival

London’s 11th Annual Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film started today, May 1 and continues until May 7, 2012 as I noted in my March 9, 2012 posting about the event. James Kingsland in an April 30, 2012 posting on the Guardian science blogs announces the winners in a Guardian newspaper contest to set themes for a 48-hour filmmaking challenge (part of the festival’s pre-programme) which took place the weekend of April 14, 2012,

This year there was an extra dimension to the challenge: readers of Guardian Science were given the chance to propose scientific themes for the filmmakers through a competition. There were around a hundred entries, some of them brilliant, some bizarre, many original.

Among my favourites from the far side of our readers’ imaginations were “Robotic Jesus disguised as iceberg sinks Titanic”, “Suicidal god in human form”, and “Acid was a gift from aliens”. Sadly none of these made the final cut.

Here are the winners and their ideas, in no particular order:

• A website to see into your future (Helen Worth)

• Death is no longer a certainty (Keith Stokes)

• Teleportation device ends privacy and property (Peter Dalloz)

• At the universe edge. A door ajar … (Tucker Stevens)

• Vaccine against mental illness. Recipients abandon religion (Katie Brown)

• We were born from the same … batch (Sophie Constant)

• Synthetic meat coincides with cosmetic surgery boom (Adam Smith)

• Two robots contemplate switching each other off (Haroon Saeed)

• Faster metabolism at cost of shorter life (Dan Smith)

• What if personality is an ancient parasite … (Adrian Rogerson)

• A virus that kills language (Alan Faller)

For those who do not live in or are not able to get to London for the festival, I’ve embedded a trailer for one of the films (not part of the 48-hour filmmaking challenge) that will be shown at the festival,

Here’s a description for the film, from the festival’s Blink of an Eye: Shorts Programme 1 webpage,

ALCHEMY & OTHER IMPERFECTIONS

(Dir. Zachary Rothman, Canada, 2011, 12mins)
A dark fable about a Man and Woman who have completely lost touch with the outside world.

This short film will be screened along with others included in Programme 1 on Thursday,  May 3, 2012 at 6:30 pm and on Saturday, May 6, 2012 at 2 pm.

Sarah Chow and science events in Vancouver (Canada)

Vancouver-based, Sarah S. Chow writes an eponymous science blog (thank you for the tweet Robyn Sussel) and her latest post, March 30, 2012 offers a listing of April 2012 science events being held in Vancouver (Canada). I’ve excerpted a small portion of her listings and I encourage you to take a look at the full list (there are close to 1/2 dozen more listings plus she may be adding to these as the month goes on) and to read her blog. Tonight,

Wednesday April 4, 2012 – 6pm

Nerd Nite (formerly known as Beer and Brains)

Hang out with the cool people for a change! Every first Wednesday of the month, scientists, science journalists and science communicators congregate at their favorite watering hole for some good, thought-provoking conversations. And of course, some awesome beer.
Location: Railway Club 579 Dunsmuir Street
Time: 6 pm

In a couple of weeks,

Thursday April 19, 2012 – 7 pm

Science Online Vancouver #SoVan

It started in New York City #SONYC, and now it’s coming here. Science Online Vancouver is a monthly discussion group led by a panel who are experts in the  topic of the month. This month: Where do you get your science?
Location: Science World
Time: 7 pm

Brain Talks

BrainTalks is a series of talks designed to invigorate your brain, and how you think about your brain! Neurologists, neuroradiologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and related professions, gather to discuss current leading edge topics on the mind. Speaker this week: Dr. Max Cynader [

Director of the Brain Research Centre and the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at Vancouver Coastal Health and the University of British Columbia (UBC) and he holds the Canada Research Chair in Brain Development and is Professor of Opthalmology (UBC)], whose research is focused on the neuronal and molecular mechanism of the sensory cortex.
Location: Vancouver General Hospital
Time: 5:30 pm – wine and cheese
6 pm – presentation

Events can get cancelled or rescheduled so please do check the links to the event websites for confirmation.

I did some further checking on Brain Talks and Science Online Vancouver.  Here’s the Brain Talks website/blog (excerpted from the home page),

… talks include:

  • dialogue around current topics in the news and popular press
  • up-to-date reviews of current literature in academic press
  • videos and/or film excerpts of relevant discoveries
  • CME [continuing medical education] credits for select talks

I also found the title for the upcoming talk by Dr. Max Cynader, Enhancing Brain Plasticity. (The March 22, 2012 talk was titled, Art and the Brain: How dance, music, sports, and storytelling may support critical cognitive development in children and youth.) They do request an RSVP although they have yet to provide the function online. More details about the talk and the ability to RSVP are coming here soon.

ScienceOnline which originally started out as a science blogger’s conference then morphed into a very (my Nov. 2, 2011 posting notes that they sold out their first block of tickets for the 2012 conference in roughly two minutes) successful ScienceOnline conference in North Carolina is rapidly becoming an international brand. The ScienceOnline Vancouver website, understandably, doesn’t provide a lot of information at this point. They do encourage you to sign up/register and become part of the community.

I was intrigued to note that the journal Nature is supporting this effort, from the ScienceOnline Vancouver home page,

ScienceOnline Vancouver is a local meeting of the ScienceOnlineNOW community and is co-presented by nature.com. The local co-organizers are Catherine Anderson, Sarah Chow, and Peter Newbury. ScienceOnlineVancouver.com built and hosted by the Open Science FederationExcept where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

I’m glad to see so many science-themed get togethers in the Vancouver region.

ETA April 5, 2012: The ScienceOnline Vancouver event may or may not be free on April 19, 2012. There’s no information about cost but I did find some more information about the inaugural event which features a panel  (from the April 19, 2012 event page),

  • Dr. Rosie Redfield – Named Nature’s most influential person of 2011, this associate professor of microbiology at UBC hit science fame through her blog RRResearch disputing NASA’s claim life exists in arsenic.
  • The local reporter will depend on availability but he/she will focus on science and work for a mainstream media organization.

Rosie Redfield and her blogs were last mentioned in my Dec. 29, 2012 posting, my annual roundup of Canadian science blogs.

See science fiction movies and/or make science fiction movies in London, UK

SciFi London Film Festival May 1-7, 2012 is running its fourth annual ‘make a science fiction film in 48 hours’ contest starting Saturday, April 14, 2012 at 10:30 in London, UK.  From the March 9, 2012 news item on the Guardian science blogs (Notes and Theories),

For the past four years the Sci-Fi-London film festival has run a 48-hour filmmaking challenge. More than 380 films have been entered into the competition, many of which have gone on to be shown at other film festivals and have been broadcast on TV.

This year teams will arrive at the Apollo Piccadilly cinema in London on Saturday 14 April at 10.30am where they will be given the title of the film they will make, some dialogue that one of the characters must say, and a list of props that must be seen in the film.

This time round there will be an optional extra dimension to the challenge: a scientific theme nominated by you. [emphasis mine] The theme could be nanotech, cloning, gene splicing … or something a little more “fringe”.

The teams will have until Monday morning to deliver their completed movie. A panel of judges will shortlist 10 films, which will then be screened at the 11th Annual Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, 1-7 May.

Here’s the prize,

Last year Vertigo offered a feature-film development deal as the main prize of the 48-hour challenge (the winners will complete their first feature later in 2012) and it’s putting up the same prize this year.

Sci-Fi London can be found here and specifics about the contest and how to register here. As for Vertigo Films, you can go here.

You may have noted that you can participate even if you don’t want to make a science fiction movie yourself by entering the Guardian’s competition for scientific themes. From the March 9, 2012 news item on the Guardian website,

… this time round there will be an optional extra dimension to the challenge: scientific themes nominated by you. The theme could focus on nanotech, cloning or genetic engineering … or something a little more unusual.

To win one of 20 pairs of tickets to the Sci-Fi-London film festival (1-7 May), fill in the fields below (go here for the form) and click “send”, then email your scientific theme to science@guardian.co.uk with “Sci-Fi Competition” in the subject line.

Your theme must be summarised in seven words or fewer. So, for example, “An experimental drug that allows the person who takes it to use 100% of their mind and thus become a perfect version of themselves” would be too prescriptive, but “A pill that supercharges the mind” would be fine.

A panel of judges will choose 20 winning themes, which might be comic, surreal, original or thought-provoking …

Good luck!