Private Eye: Literary Authors Now Turning to SF’s Robots for Subject Matter

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 18/04/2019 - 6:29am in

According to this fortnight’s Private Eye, the British literary authors Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro are turning to the world of robots and AI for their next books. A brief snippet on page 34 of the issue for 19th April – 2nd May 2019 runs

For middle-aged authors looking for a reboot, the trendiness of artificial intelligence and robots is proving a godsend.

In Ian McEwan’s just-out Machines Like Me, a couple acquire a male synthetic human and a love triangle duly develops ( a set-up quite similar to the main storyline of Channel 4’s sci-fi drama Humans, with the robot’s gender switched).

In her forthcoming Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson – unfazed by having missed last year’s Frankenstein anniversary – reworks Mary Shelley’s novel in a story featuring not only Victor Stein, a professor “leading the debate around AI”, but also a character who sells sex bots. Kazuo Ishiguro told the Oxford literary festival his next book will be about AI too… Who else? Rushdie? Amis? Jeffrey Archer? 

One of the complaints of the SF world back in the 1990s was that literary fiction, and writers like McEwan, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson and the rest of them were lifting ideas from Science Fiction to great critical acclaim, while the genre itself remained despised by literary critics and prizes. This seems to be yet another example.

Not all serious literary critics are dismissive of Science Fiction. The late J.G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guine managed to achieve mainstream critical appreciation, and some of the newspapers do give good review to SF books, like the Guardian and the I. And the years have passed since I heard the late Terry Pratchett speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Literary, telling the crowd that the Festival’s organisers seemed to look at him as if they expected him to give a talk on mending motorbikes. Brian Aldiss in his and Peter Wingrove’s history of SF, The Trillion  Year Spree, states that in the 1950s even pornography had a higher reputation among critics than Science Fiction. More recent critics and historians of the genre have pointed out that there never was quite the severe break between proper literature and Science Fiction in Britain as there was in America. Serious literary writers like Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess also wrote Science Fiction, as did C.S. Lewis and Conan Doyle. Nevertheless, I still get the impression that there is in certain literary quarters more than a little of the old literary disdain still remaining. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian Science Fiction, but she has still sneered at the genre as ‘talking squids in space’ apparently.

And looking at the plots of some of the books mentioned in the Eye article, I wondered how many of the literary types reading these pieces would be aware of similar works by some of the great genre SF writers. If you’re talking about romances between humans and robots, there’s Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, about a girl who has an affair with a robot, which is destroyed by jealous human males.  The robot scientist, Geoff Simons, mentions a series of SF tales about romances between people and robots, or the construction of sex robots, in his book Robots: The Quest for Living Machines (London: Cassell 1992) including Satisfaction Guaranteed (1951), by Isaac Asimov; Maria Bujanska’s Krwawa Maria (Bloody Mary), 1977, R. Forsyth’s ‘Silicon Valley of the Dolls’, 1979; The Pleasure Machines (1969); Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1974) and such as Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) and Sins of the Fleshapoids.

As for Frankenstein, Brian Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley’s classic should be regarded as the first real work of Science Fiction, as it was based on genuine science, as it was understood in the early 19th century. He also wrote a book inspired by Shelley, Frankenstein Unbound, which is split between Shelley’s time and a technological future. It was later filmed by the old producer of low-budget SF, Roger Corman.

Winterson has previous in taking themes from science/ science fiction. Way back in the 1990s, when everyone was getting very excited at discovering a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or ‘theory of everything’, she wrote a book, GUT Symmetries, about it and parallel world. She’s also written novels of feminist Magic Realism, following the feminist fairy tales of Angela Carter. But the Polish author, Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky, also wrote a series of tales about robots, The Cyberiad and Mortal Engines, set in a fairy tale universe in which robots were the dominant life form. Another of Lem’s books is a series of philosophical explorations of machine and human intelligence and nature from the point of view of a vast computer that has far surpassed the intellects of its human makers. Lem was a high-brow author, who, after winning various awards from the Science Fiction community, then went on to decry Science Fiction, so he personally shared the sneering view of some mainstream literary critics. However, his books are still well worth reading.

And any literary exploration of robots, AI and the human condition inevitably involves Asimov’s robots of the books I, Robot and the Caves of Steel, and his Three Laws of Robotics, as well as William Gibson and Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk’s a form of SF set in dystopian near futures, where humans are able to ‘jack into’ cyberspace, a Virtual Reality inside the Web, and where AIs have consciousness and some rights. The classics of this genre include Gibson’s Neuromancer, Count Zero, Burning Chrome and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  One of his novels, relevant to any literary discussion of humans and AI, was Idoru, about a man, who has an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Gibson was very hip with his worlds of urban decay and high-tech criminality mixed with the glamour of the super-rich and celebrities. Shortly after Idoru was published, one of the Japanese tech firms declared they had created the first, computer-generated rock star. There was a powerful impression, shared by Gibson himself, that the computer industry looked to his books for ideas without accepting that his books were also part of SF’s tradition of ‘literature as warning’. His futures had great AIs and cool Virtual Reality and hackers, but they also featured poverty, despair and a massive gap between rich and poor.

And then there’s the film Bladerunner, one of the great SF classics, and the problems it poses about humanity and human capacity for compassion within the narrative of the detective thriller. It’s another dystopian future, where animals are all but extinct and humanity has created a class of artificial slaves, replicants. These are indistinguishable from real humans, except through psychological testing. The final speech by the replicant leader, Roy Batty, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Set ships on fire off the shores of Orion’, written by actor Rutger Hauer, has itself become one of the classic speeches of cinema, and quoted and parodied by other SF writers.

In my opinion, whatever McEwan, Winterson and Ishiguro write about robots, genre writers will have got their first and done it better. And I wonder if the literary critics and award judges will recognise that when these books inevitably get put in for the Booker and other literary awards. And I also feel that when they are, these awards should be open to self-conscious genre writers. Because if the literary crowd can write about robots and win literary prizes for them, it’s only going to be snobbishness that keeps the genre SF writers from winning them too.  

New: The Journal of Sociotechnical Critique

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/04/2019 - 12:07am in

There’s a new, open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal focusing on philosophy of technology and related fields, with an emphasis on public engagement.

The Journal of Sociotechnical Critique (JSC) “seeks to support theoretically-engaged critical, public, and activist work at the intersections of philosophy of technology, internet studies, communications theory, library and information science, environmental ethics, and related fields.” It has just begun accepting submissions.

JSC will publish research articles, public scholarship (“critical and theoretically-grounded writing for a general audience”), and reports on “field philosophy, action research, direct action, engaged or participatory research, activist scholarship, policy work, consultancy, and work in and with industry.”

The journal’s editorial commitments, laid out here, make it somewhat distinctive. They include the following:

  • Digital media and online culture call for new, agile social-critical theory that should be published quickly and without paywalls in order to ensure that high-quality research that takes place within swiftly-changing technological landscapes is available while it is as relevant and lively as possible, and to as many readers as possible.
  • The proper response to theoretical positions may be direct engagement or action and, conversely… direct engagement or action can provide insight and understanding at a theoretical level.
  • Public engagement and direct action can be a proper part of scholarship and research; that, as social-critical scholars, working on implementations suggested by our scholarship is legitimate research activity.
  • Insofar as scholarship makes normative claims about policy, public opinion, or contemporary activities or beliefs, it is a legitimate part of scholarship to engage directly with the public… this is not a derivative or mere application of research, but is itself a productive scholarly act which increases knowledge, information, and impact just as does any other original research.

JSC’s editorial team consists of D.E. Wittkower (Old Dominion) as editor-in-chief, associate editors Adam Briggle (North Texas), Sky Croeser (Curtin), and Shannon Vallor (Santa Clara), and managing editor Kilsa Benjamin (Old Dominion). It is published by ODU Digital Commons. Its main page is here. You can also follow the journal on Facebook and Twitter.

Laura Owens – from the “Ten Paintings” series

The post New: The Journal of Sociotechnical Critique appeared first on Daily Nous.

Are you a happy researcher?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 30/03/2019 - 5:00am in

Are you feeling especially happy today? If you are following the Action for Happiness movement, like some of our team at SSRN does, we can probably guess why. March 20th marked the International Day of Happiness. People across the globe that day were collectively challenged to focus on what made them happy. Were you one of those people?

Maybe you’re practicing Mindful March along with our staff and maybe not. My question to our collective blog readers and researchers has much less to do with celebrating on March 20th (which I personally did with a loaf of homemade bread) and much more to do with the question of what makes you happy. Have you actively asked yourself what makes you happy recently? 

There is plenty of research discussing the science behind happiness. It affects us so deeply that even as a researcher you might not consider the real reasons behind you feelings. Feelings come and go so fleetingly and are easily influenced. For instance, I spent a full evening last week feeling irrationally sad because of the song I listened to in the car on the way home! Then there is the general question, the one we don’t ask ourselves often enough in a general sense “Am I happy?”

I ask you now, if you were to step back to March 20th, 2019 what would be the thing you focused on that day? What area of your life does that thing, or things, fall into? Is it part of your personal life or professional life? Maybe it is a hobby or a person you are especially grateful for.

In the past, psychologists have largely focused on how people deal with negative feelings. As we understand more about what we can do to make us feel happier overall we open a gateway to feeling more fulfilled. It may not be as simple in practice as it sounds, but it offers a place to start.

As we reach the end of Mindful March we’re very interested to hear from the researchers and scientists in our community. How do you understand the things that make you happy in your life? Do you actively influence your own feelings of happiness? Finally, how often do you focus on those things which do make you happy?

Now the super-grand question of them all- drumroll please- what aspects of researching, and the research process, make you happiest? 

Let us know in the comments! And if SSRN makes you happy, please let us know by leaving a review on your user homepage!

Leave a Review for SSRN


Inequality breeds stress and anxiety. No wonder so many Britons are suffering | Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 11/06/2018 - 12:56am in

In equal societies, citizens trust each other and contribute to their community. This goes into reverse in countries like ours

The gap between image and reality yawns ever wider. Our rich society is full of people presenting happy smiling faces both in person and online, but when the Mental Health Foundation commissioned a large survey last year, it found that 74% of adults were so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Almost a third had had suicidal thoughts and 16% had self-harmed at some time in their lives. The figures were higher for women than men, and substantially higher for young adults than for older age groups. And rather than getting better, the long-term trends in anxiety and mental illness are upwards.

For a society that believes happiness is a product of high incomes and consumption, these figures are baffling. However, studies of people who are most into our consumerist culture have found that they are the least happy, the most insecure and often suffer poor mental health.

Related: The psychological effects of inequality – Science Weekly podcast

Related: Rising inequality linked to drop in union membership

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David Brooks Tries to Eff the Ineffable Again

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/10/2016 - 4:34am in

A friend and I were discussing Brooks’ recent column, I thought I’d share my thoughts here. Full disc: I haven’t read Kronman’s book, only Brooks’ column.

Some good stuff in there. Love the focus on books and writers. (Though Brooks’ [and Kronman’s?] barely-concealed dog-whistle adulation for dead white guys’ books is both predictable and predictably infuriating…)

But this really fucking pissed me off — Kronman, approvingly quoted by Brooks:

“A life without the yearning to reach the everlasting and divine is no longer recognizably human.”

My response to that is: Fuck. You. My life is not “recognizably human”?

Obviously: there’s shitloads of stuff that’s impossible to eff, much less express explicitly using expository language. That’s why we have art! To express that stuff explicitly.

Spouting words like “everlasting,” “divine,” “eternal,” “enchanted,” and “God” does exactly nothing to extricate us from that inescapable human reality.

Those words are just shitty poetry, evading the very explicit expression that makes art spectacular in its expression of the ineffable. Which is better: “God,” or “Ozymandias”? Words like “god” and “spirit” have some value if they’re used metaphorically, poetically, but only some. Because it’s the universal in the particular that makes art magnificent. They’re trying to bypass the particular, and so as metaphors and poetry they’re just bad art.

I’m only halfway tongue-in-cheek when I say that bad art is the greatest sin. The Barney Show, with its obviously false “I love you, you love me, we’re all one big family,” trains people to wallow in false, facile humanity, rather than wrestling with the deep density of paradoxes that is the collective human experience. Ditto facile words like “enchantment.”

And the aspiration to “conquer death” just seems silly to me. Even my two best efforts in the direction — my wonderful daughters — have virtue and value to me purely in the here and now. I adore them. But once I’m dead, I won’t anymore. Sad.

I do like this and agree with it; it’s true for me: “if you didn’t throw yourself in some arduous way at the big questions of your moment, you’d live a meager life.”


1. I am again pretty put off by the superciliousness of this assertion. If somebody just lives a simple life, works, raises a family, dies, is that a “meager life”? Pretty fucking presumptuous.

2 None of those eff-ing words does anything for me in my efforts to wrestle with those big questions, arduously and rigorously. QTC.

Related posts:

  1. Are Conservatives Deluded About Their Happiness?
  2. David Brooks on McCain: Who’s Talking, Who’s Doing?
  3. Proofiness!
  4. Choosing a VP For All the Right Reason
  5. The Five Best Nonfiction Books

Are the Humanities More Digital than the Sciences?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/03/2016 - 11:33pm in



A panel discussion with Howard Hotson, Andrew Prescott, Dave De Roure and Heather Viles Are the Humanities More Digital than the Sciences? A panel discussion with Howard Hotson, Andrew Prescott, Dave De Roure and Heather Viles. Part of the Humanities and the Digital Age TORCH 2016 Headline Series. The presumption is often that the relationship between the humanities and sciences will be one-way, and that it will be the humanities learning from sciences. But what can sciences learn from the way that the humanities are using digital output for their research?

Too Valuable to Die?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 14/10/2015 - 9:16pm in

Silke Ackermann, Nigel Biggar and Liz Bruton debate the ethics of science and scientists going to war Silke Ackermann (Director, Museum of the History of Science) Liz Bruton (Co-curator, “Dear Harry”… Henry Moseley: A Scientist Lost to War) and Nigel Biggar (Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford) will discuss the ethics of scientists going to war in response to the current Museum of the History of Science exhibition exploring the life and legacy of talented English physicist Henry Moseley.

When Moseley was killed on the battlefield at Gallipoli in August 1915, newspapers on all sides of the conflict denounced his tragic death with one English newspaper headline proclaiming that Moseley was "too valuable to die". Moseley's death contributed to a changing attitude to scientists and science going to war with scientists and engineers being kept away from the frontline. Instead the work of scientists and engineers - research and expertise - is used to meet military goals with scientific research increasingly relying on military funding.

In this discussion, the speakers discuss the ethics of scientific research being used for military ends as well as whether scientists being held back from frontline service means others serve and die in their place.

Periodic Tales

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 14/10/2015 - 1:25am in


art, Science

Author Hugh Aldersey-Williams, historian of science Jo Hedesan and chemist Peter Battle discuss the ways in which the elements continue to inspire us today The chemical elements, the fundamental ingredients of all matter, have fascinated people for centuries. Their stories have been richly described in Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ bestselling book, Periodic Tales, which forms the basis for a major exhibition curated by Compton Verney Art Gallery.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is joined by historian of science Jo Hedesan (Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford) and chemist Peter Battle (Professor of Chemistry, University of Oxford) to discuss the ways in which the elements continue to inspire and fascinate us in an event supported by Compton Verney, the Department of Chemistry and TORCH.

Climate change is killing us. We must use the law to fight it | Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 24/06/2015 - 7:59pm in

The ‘Claim the Sky’ campaign aims to save lives by protecting the atmosphere as a global asset, with governments taking legal action against those who pollute it

How many deaths does climate change have to cause before someone takes responsibility? Our current use of fossil fuels has “potentially catastrophic effects for human health and human survival”, according to a major new report released on Tuesday by medical journal the Lancet and University College London. And it’s not as if we still have time before climate change starts to bite.

Related: Climate change threatens 50 years of progress in global health, study says

Related: The TTIP trade deal will throw equality before the law on the corporate bonfire | George Monbiot

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Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/05/2015 - 12:59am in

An interdisciplinary discussion of Kirsten Shepherd-Barr's book Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (Associate Professor of Modern Drama, University of Oxford) discusses her book Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett with Michael Billington (Theatre Critic, The Guardian), Morten Kringlebach (Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford) and Laura Marcus (Goldsmiths' Professor of English Literature).

About the book: Evolutionary theory made its stage debut as early as the 1840s, reflecting a scientific advancement that was fast changing the world. Tracing this development in dozens of mainstream European and American plays, as well as in circus, vaudeville, pantomime, and "missing link" performances, Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett reveals the deep, transformative entanglement among science, art, and culture in modern times.

The stage proved to be no mere handmaiden to evolutionary science, though, often resisting and altering the ideas at its core. Many dramatists cast suspicion on the arguments of evolutionary theory and rejected its claims, even as they entertained its thrilling possibilities. Engaging directly with the relation of science and culture, this book considers the influence of not only Darwin but also Lamarck, Chambers, Spencer, Wallace, Haeckel, de Vries, and other evolutionists on 150 years of theater. It shares significant new insights into the work of Ibsen, Shaw, Wilder, and Beckett, and writes female playwrights, such as Susan Glaspell and Elizabeth Baker, into the theatrical record, unpacking their dramatic explorations of biological determinism, gender essentialism, the maternal instinct, and the "cult of motherhood."

It is likely that more people encountered evolution at the theater than through any other art form in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Considering the liveliness and immediacy of the theater and its reliance on a diverse community of spectators and the power that entails, this book is a key text for grasping the extent of the public's adaptation to the new theory and the legacy of its representation on the perceived legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of scientific work.