On this day in 1938, the BBC aired an adaptation of the 1920 play R.U.R., by Czech writer Karel Capek, the first science fiction program to be broadcasted on television. R.U.R. — which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots — told the story of artificial people called roboti who were created from synthetic organic matter to serve humans, but who ultimately rebel and wipe out our species. In addition to introducing what has now become a familiar trope in science fiction, it also brought as the word “robot”, from the Czech “robota”, which describes the forced labor performed by serfs (essentially slaves).
Capek had also written a novel titled “War with the Newts”, about humanity discovering and then enslaving a race of intelligent amphibious humanoids. He was thus among the first to explore a wide range of social and political issues that have since become familiar to audiences across the globe.
As the Information Age continues to yield exponentially more powerful computers and processors, the idea of artificial intelligence will become increasingly more relevant and serious in the coming decades.
But some thinkers saw this coming well in advance, namely American mathematician and inventor Marvin Minsky, who pass away earlier this week at the age of 88.
As the Christian Science Monitor reports, this otherwise obscure figure (outside of the scientific and academic community) was a major intellectual contributor to A.I., laying its conceptual, practical, and ethical groundwork. Continue reading →
Telepathy promises an intimate connection to other human beings. If isolation, cruelty, malice, violence and wars are fuelled by misunderstandings and communication failures, as many people believe, telepathy would seem to offer the cure.
But findings from affective neuroscience, social psychology and the new neuroscientific study of empathy suggest that tapping directly into other people’s thoughts would be a pretty bad idea. In the past decade or so, this research has revealed that we already have deep insights into what other people feel and think. We really do have a sixth sense, but it’s psychological rather than psychic, made up of an entirely natural and completely human blend of emotional intuition and clever reasoning.
The more we know about empathy and ordinary human mind-reading, the less it looks like a way to achieve world peace. Technologically assisted telepathy could exaggerate flaws in our moral thinking and saddle us with unbearable intimacy, encouraging us to tune out the suffering of the most vulnerable. Emotional-mindreading is no guarantee of kindness; it is also how psychopaths and bullies manipulate and torment their victims. This research suggests an entirely sensible, completely ordinary, not-at-all-clairvoyant prediction about the future: rather than a dreamy bliss of togetherness, artificial telepathy would be a nightmare.
Russia and Soviet filmmakers have long been among the innovative and pioneering in the world, producing groundbreaking advances in cinematography, editing, film theory, and more. So perhaps it is no surprise that the combination of its cinematic prowess with its equally accomplished scientific vision would lead to some amazing films
From developing the genre of mockumentaries, to inspiring Star Wars, here are seven Soviet-era science fiction films you should consider watching (Courtesy of The Guardian, where you can see the video clips and image stills).
Aelita (1924) Dir: Yakov Protazanov
Based on Tolstoy’s novel of the same name, Aelita is considered a classic not only of Soviet filmmaking, but of world cinema. It tells the story of an engineer, Los, who creates a spacecraft capable of flying to Mars.
Los sets out for the Red Planet in the company of Gusev, a Red Army soldier, and a sleuth called Kravtsov. On Mars, the trio encounters an alien humanoid civilisation. While Gusev plots a revolution, a love affair blossoms between Los and Aelita, the daughter of the Martian leader.
The novel is regarded as an original work of fiction with strong topical resonances. Alluding to the real-life rocket engine developer Iuzef Dominikovich, the book also features an ideological dimension,referencing the trans-humanist teachings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.
Cosmic Voyage (1935) Dir: Vasily Zhuravlev
Initial attempts at a moon landing end in failure. A rabbit launched into space perishes en route. A second rocket, this time with a cat on board, vanishes without a trace. The third, manned by a small party of scientists, proves a success. Finally, the moon is colonised by the USSR. And on the way back, they even find the cat, long presumed dead, alive and well.
This naive Soviet pop sci-fi flick makes for impressive viewing even today, and for good reason. It is this very film that gave rise to the now standard practice of employing real-life scientists as on-set consultants (with Christopher Nolan’sInterstellar being a recent example ).
Meteorites, The Universe, Road to the Stars, Planet of Tempests, The Moon, et al. (1947 – 1970) Dir: Pavel Klushantsev
A fan of the Soviet documentary-meets-sci-fi genre, it was director Pavel Klushantsev who pioneered this hybrid, combining elements of pure documentary with live action fantasy .
His films juxtapose talking heads documentary and laboratory footage with carefully choreographed scenes set on alien-inhabited planets. Klushantsev’s Planet of Tempests made such an impression on US filmmakers that it ended up spawning two American adaptations. The first of these, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, was produced in 1965 by Roger Corman; the second, actually an adapted version of Corman’s film, was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and released in 1968 under the title Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women.
According to a story that sometimes does the rounds in film circles, George Lucas, who regarded Klushantsev as the godfather of Star Wars, desperately wanted to meet the Soviet director, but ultimately the two sci-fi pioneers never crossed paths.
Solaris (1972) Dir: Andrey Tarkovsky
Tarkovsky’s film tells the story of Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who has travelled to the space station Solaris to evaluate whether the scientific mission being conducted there should continue. The scientists on board the station have been driven to the verge of madness, and soon Kelvin finds himself haunted by a manifestation of his beloved, who had committed suicide back on earth.
Needless to say, no overview of the Soviet sci-fi tradition would be complete without mention of Tarkovsky and his films Solaris and Stalker, both classifiable, to some extent, as science fiction. Like the rest of Tarkovsky’s filmography, these two works have received extensive analysis .Coming on the heels of the shelvedAndrei Rublev, long withheld from release by the Soviet government, Solaris enjoyed such a degree of success that Tarkovsky was effectively given carte blanche for any future projects.
American director Steven Soderbergh remade Solaris in 2002, with George Clooney as Kelvin . However, Soderbergh’s Solaris lacks the artistic and conceptual power of the original.
Pilot Pirx’s Inquest (1978) Dir: Marek Piestrak
This joint Soviet-Polish production revolves around a mission to Saturn. A big corporation succeeds in creating humanoid robots and, paying no heed to the skeptics, decides to put them into mass production. A crew of robots and humans – headed by a captain named Pirx – is sent out into space to launch two satellites into Saturn’s rings. True to the finest traditions of the genre, things don’t go quite to plan.
Even today, this film feels contemporary – and all because its Polish director,Marek Piestrak, strived to achieve maximum realism. Costumes and models were devised on the basis of existing American and Soviet prototypes. It’s electronic soundtrack, written by progressive Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, also feels very contemporary, and was an influence on The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up.
Per Astra ad Aspera (1981) Dir: Richard Viktorov/Nikolai Viktorov
The action of this film, whose Latin title translates as Through the Thorns to the Stars, is based on a screenplay by cult Soviet sci-fi writer Kir Bulychev and is set in deep space . A reconnaissance craft – named Pushkin in homage to Russia’s greatest poet – encounters a derelict starship. Inside is a humanoid woman with the inhuman abilities of teleportation and telekinesis.
Richard Viktorov directed the original 1981 version of this film. He died soon afterwards in 1983 and Viktorov’s son, Nikolai , released a new version in 2001, having remastered the sound and special effects and shortened the running time by cutting several set pieces laced with Soviet ideology.
Hard to be God (2013) Dir: Aleksei German Sr
On a planet mired in its own Middle Age, chaos, darkness and degradation reign. The situation is carefully monitored from Earth, and when it finally appears that a renaissance is imminent, Don Rumata Estorski is sent to the planet to investigate. He must remain a detached observer of events, but witnessing rabble-rousing and lawlessness amongst the local inhabitants, he breaks his neutrality and interferes in the process of an alien civilisation.