Building Future Worlds…

inspirationIn the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.

But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.

alien-worldFor starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.

Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.

self-aware-colonyBut above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.

Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…

1. Near-Future/Far Future:
future-city3When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.

By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.

1984_John_HurtOther, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.

In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.

arrakis-duneAt the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.

Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.

foundation_coversInstead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.

For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.

coruscantStar Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.

The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.

And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…

2. Stellar or Interstellar:100,000starsHere is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature  of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?

Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.

Gaia_galaxyBut that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.

And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.

chasm_city_2Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.

In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…

3. High-Tech or Low-Tech:
Star_Trek_SpacedockWhat would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.

In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.

BAMA_3With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism.  But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.

In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.

65By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.

And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.

a_boy_and_his_dogAt the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of  commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.

At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.

pursuit_specialIn Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.

But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!

4. Aliens or Only Humans:
warofworldsaliensAnother very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.

For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.

Alien OrganismsAs case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.

In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators  who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.


Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.

In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.


The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.

Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.

verse_whitesunThe Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and  divisiveness are still very much a part of us.

But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.

B5_season2In  B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.

However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!

2001spaceodyssey128.jpgIn 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.

This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.

2001-monolith-alignmentAfter making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.

This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!

5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous:
Inner_city_by_aksuFinally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.

Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.

transhuman3Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.

And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.

IngsocIn the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.  If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.

invitro2Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:

Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.

But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi
Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.

After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.

Larry Niven_2004_Ringworld's Children_0This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.

In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.

And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.

These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.

In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!

Judgement Day Update: Super-Strong Robotic Muscle

robot-arm-wrestling-03-20-09In their quest to build better, smarter and faster machines, researchers are looking to human biology for inspiration. As has been clear for some time, anthropomorphic robot designs cannot be expected to do the work of a person or replace human rescue workers if they are composed of gears, pullies, and hydraulics. Not only would they be too slow, but they would be prone to breakage.

Because of this, researchers have been working looking to create artificial muscles, synthetics tissues that respond to electrical stimuli, are flexible, and able to carry several times their own weight – just like the real thing. Such muscles will not only give robots the ability to move and perform tasks with the same ambulatory range as a human, they are likely to be far stronger than the flesh and blood variety.

micro_robot_muscleAnd of late, there have been two key developments on this front which may make this vision come true. The first comes from the US Department of Energy ’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where a team of researchers have demonstrated a new type of robotic muscle that is 1,000 times more powerful than that of a human’s, and has the ability to catapult an item 50 times its own weight.

The artificial muscle was constructed using vanadium dioxide, a material known for its ability to rapidly change size and shape. Combined with chromium and fashioned with a silicone substrate, the team formed a V-shaped ribbon which formed a coil when released from the substrate. The coil when heated turned into a micro-catapult with the ability to hurl objects – in this case, a proximity sensor.

micro_robot_muscle2pngVanadium dioxide boasts several useful qualities for creating miniaturized artificial muscles and motors. An insulator at low temperatures, it abruptly becomes a conductor at 67° Celsius (152.6° F), a quality which makes it an energy efficient option for electronic devices. In addition, the vanadium dioxide crystals undergo a change in their physical form when warmed, contracting along one dimension while expanding along the other two.

Junqiao Wu, the team’s project leader, had this to say about their invention in a press statement:

Using a simple design and inorganic materials, we achieve superior performance in power density and speed over the motors and actuators now used in integrated micro-systems… With its combination of power and multi-functionality, our micro-muscle shows great potential for applications that require a high level of functionality integration in a small space.

In short, the concept is a big improvement over existing gears and motors that are currently employed in electronic systems. However, since it is on the scale of nanometers, it’s not exactly Terminator-compliant. However, it does provide some very interesting possibilities for machines of the future, especially where the functionality of micro-systems are concerned.

graphene_flexibleAnother development with the potential to create robotic muscles comes from Duke University, where a team of engineers have found a possible way to turn graphene into a stretchable, retractable material. For years now, the miracle properties of graphene have made it an attractive option for batteries, circuits, capacitors, and transistors.

However, graphene’s tendency to stick together once crumpled has had a somewhat limiting effect on its applications. But by attacking the material to a stretchy polymer film, the Duke researchers were able to crumple and then unfold the material, resulting in a properties that lend it to a broader range of applications- including artificial muscles.

robot_muscle1Before adhering the graphene to the rubber film, the researchers first pre-stretched the film to multiple times its original size. The graphene was then attached and, as the rubber film relaxed, the graphene layer compressed and crumpled, forming a pattern where tiny sections were detached. It was this pattern that allowed the graphene to “unfold” when the rubber layer was stretched out again.

The researchers say that by crumpling and stretching, it is possible to tune the graphene from being opaque to transparent, and different polymer films can result in different properties. These include a “soft” material that acts like an artificial muscle. When electricity is applied, the material expands, and when the electricity is cut off, it contracts; the degree of which depends on the amount of voltage used.

robot_muscle2Xuanhe Zhao, an Assistant Professor at the Pratt School of Engineering, explained the implications of this discovery:

New artificial muscles are enabling diverse technologies ranging from robotics and drug delivery to energy harvesting and storage. In particular, they promise to greatly improve the quality of life for millions of disabled people by providing affordable devices such as lightweight prostheses and full-page Braille displays.

Currently, artificial muscles in robots are mostly of the pneumatic variety, relying on pressurized air to function. However, few robots use them because they can’t be controlled as precisely as electric motors. It’s possible then, that future robots may use this new rubberized graphene and other carbon-based alternatives as a kind of muscle tissue that would more closely replicate their biological counterparts.

artificial-muscle-1This would not only would this be a boon for robotics, but (as Zhao notes) for amputees and prosthetics as well. Already, bionic devices are restoring ability and even sensation to accident victims, veterans and people who suffer from physical disabilities. By incorporating carbon-based, piezoelectric muscles, these prosthetics could function just like the real thing, but with greater strength and carrying capacity.

And of course, there is the potential for cybernetic enhancement, at least in the long-term. As soon as such technology becomes commercially available, even affordable, people will have the option of swapping out their regular flesh and blood muscles for something a little more “sophisticated” and high-performance. So in addition to killer robots, we might want to keep an eye out for deranged cyborg people!

And be sure to check out this video from the Berkley Lab showing the vanadium dioxide muscle in action:

Source:, (2)

“Our Favorite Cimenatic Robots”

Just came across this article in the Globe and Mail today and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s funny when a respectable publication like this one chooses to release something that I myself would have done, or did do, in small increments. In fact, many of the contenders on this list call to mind my little listing on Robots, Cyborgs and AIs which I did awhile back.

But dammit, they left out HAL and Robocop. That’s just plain wrong! Sure, they were trying to keep it to top 10 and felt the need to exclude cyborgs and supercomputers, and did have the good nature to apologize in advance for this, but still…

Here is the list as it appears in the article:

  1. The Terminator
  2. Droids from Star Wars (R2D2 and C3P0)
  3. Wall-E
  4. Replicants from Blade Runner
  5. Maria (Metropolis)
  6. Ash (Alien)
  7. The Iron Giant
  8. Gigolo (AI)
  9. The Stepford Wives
  10. Robby the Robot

Check out the full article here, complete with a gallery and some explanations of why these constitute “our” favorites 😉


The Future is Here: The World’s First Cyborg!

TerminatorWell, that’s one way to look at this bio-engineered jellyfish. Sure, it’s a long way from Terminators, Replicants and Cylons, but it just might constitute a step in that direction. Known as a medusoid, this jellyfish was created by growing a thin layer of rat heart muscle cells on top of a layer of elastic silicone. The end result is a creature that is a merger of living and non-living components and swims like an actual jellyfish.

This feat of bioengineering is the result of a collaboration between Harvard biophysicist Kit Parker and Caltech biotechnology researcher Janna Nawroth, who used the bell-shaped configuration of a moon jelly as their blueprint. Like the moon jelly, the cyborg version moves by rapidly moving its appendages, then drifts by opening itself up again. This is accomplished by applying an electrical current to the heart muscle, which contracts to close the body, while the silicone part springs the body back into a flat shape.

medusoidThe point of this project, according to Nawroth, was to show that lifeforms, beginning with the most basic, could be reverse engineered and rebuild using biological and synthetic components. What’s more, they intended to demonstrate that mechanical components could be made to mimic biological functions. Though this may seem like a modest accomplishment to some, it effectively shows that biotech machines can exist and behave like normal creatures, at least basic ones.

Score one for the biotech team! Combined with AI research, nanotechnology and mind-machine interfacing, this is all grist to the Singularity mill. If we can create machines that can mimic complex biological functions, then there’s very little keeping us from creating artificial lifeforms… like synthetic humans! And if machinery can merge with biological tissue, then cybernetic enhancements capable of accelerating human thought might be possible too. Hence why this latest development should be seen as significant, and even a little bit scary!

Via IO9

The Revelation Space Universe

Lighthuggers, Inhibitors, Ultras, Hyperpigs, Conjoiners Drives, Demarchists, Chasm City… Few science fiction authors have come up with as many weird and intriguing concepts as Alastair Reynolds. The author of the Revelation Space series, Pushing Ice, Blue Remembered Earth, Century Rain, House of Suns, Terminal World, and a slew of short stories and articles, Reynolds is not only a hard science fiction author but an actual scientist.

Yes, from 1991 to 2004, Reynolds worked as an astronomer for the European Space Research and Technology Center, which is part of the European Space Agency, in Noordwijk, Holland. So when it comes to matters of science and space – be it exploration, travel, or the physics thereof – this guy really knows what he’s talking about.

To start my review of his work off right, I’d like to cover his first full-length novel. Known as Revelation Space, this story became the basis for the universe of the same name and the setting of most of his books. It also advanced a lot of ideas and concepts which would inspire yours truly 😉

Revelation Space (2000):
The story opens with three separate but interrelated strands, though their connection is initially unclear. The first takes place on a planet known as Resurgam in 2551, where an archaeologist named Dr. Dan Sylveste is leading an expedition to uncover the remains of the Amarantin. This alien species, which were a winged-humoid race, existed for over 900,000 years on the planet before some cataclysmic event wiped them out.

The most recent discovery of the excavation team proves that the Amarantin were far more technologically developed than previously thought. Retiring to his den, Dan begins to commune with the beta-level simulation of his deceased father, Calvin Sylveste. Often, he consults his father, who died on Yellowstone, for advice in matters scientific and political. However, Dan soon learns that coup has taken place due to his obsession with uncovering the Amarantin, and a party shows up at the site to arrest him.

Cut to 2540 aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, a “Lighthugger” vessel that is the mainstay of the universe in this time (the name refers to the fact that it can fly to within an inch of the speed of light.) Here,Triumvir Ilia Volyova is awake while the other crew members are in reefersleep (cryogenic suspension). They are en route to the Epsilon Eridani system and the planet of Yellowstone to find Dan Sylveste, not knowing that he departed for Resurgam some 15 years previously.

Its crew of Ultras (modified spacers) is desperate to find Sylveste since their Captain is a victim of the Melding Plague – a nanovirus that has infected all of Yellowstone. Basically, they are seeking his services yet again since his last treatment did not seem to take. Ilia also plans to pick up a new gunner since their last one apparently went insane and had to be spaced, the only clue he left behind was the name “Sun Stealer”, which he wrote on a wall in his own blood.

Last, the scene switches to 2524 and the surface of Yellowstone, where professional assassin Ana Khouri is hired by a wealthy recluse known as The Mademoiselle. Apparently, she wants Dan Sylveste found and killed, and she knows the Nostalgia for Infinity will go to the ends of the universe to find him. As such, she orders Khouri to go into stasis and meet up with the crew 20 years later when they arrive in orbit.

Meanwhile, we learn a few things of importance. For one, the Nostalgia appears to have been infected by virus other than the one that’s got their Captain in cryo-sleep. This virus appears to be what drove the last gunner insane and is threatening to kill Ilia now. During a training exercise where they test their landing suits, another glitch results in the death of another crewman, leaving only the Triumvirs – Ilia, Hegazi, Sajake – and the Captain.

We also learn that the cargo hold of the ship is holding a large supply of Cache Weapons, what are apparently referred to as Hell-class, all of which appear to be a bunch of Doomsday devices. Ilia secured these weapons from sources unknown, but in time it is suggested that they are of Conjoiner manufacture – the same advanced faction that built the Nostalgia’s engines (aka. Conjoiner Drives).

Artist concept of Ana Khouri

And finally, we learn why Sylveste is on Resurgam and why the Mademoiselle wants him dead. As it turns out, the Sylveste family maintained a research institute on Yellowstone dedicated to the study of alien civilizations. Many extinct cultures were discovered by humanity as it spread into space, no living ones aside from two exceptions. The first were the Pattern Jugglers, a planet-wide sentient species that comprised massive kelp nets that seemed to preserve the neural patterns of anyone who walked into them. The second were known as the Shrouders, aliens that were presumed to exist within a bunch of anomalous space-time bubbles.

Sylveste became interested in these when a colleague of his became the first to survive contact with a “Shroud” but was left insane. After years of doing nothing but scrawl images on the floor, he spoke and told Sylveste that he actually made contact with an alien intelligence inside the Shroud. This area of space-time, he said, was known as “Revelation Space”. He told him further that they held information about a great mystery that would explain the deaths of all alien civilizations in the quadrant, and that he had to go to the Jugglers to get it. As preservers of memories, they held the secrets of many dead alien worlds in their massive neural nets.

Having completed all this, Sylveste finally flew into the Shroud and survived. However, his partner in the expedition, a female researcher, was lost and presumed dead. In truth, she survived, but just barely, and returned to Yellowstone where she became a recluse known as… wait for it… the Mademoiselle! Hence why she wants Sylveste dead, because she blames him for her accident and the fact that she is now forced to live in a containment apparatus.

Ah but there’s more! After he made contact with “Revelation Space”, Sylveste was told to go to Resurgam where he would find his answers. He did not know why, but it seemed the Amarantin were the final piece of the puzzle. Before that happened though, he was brought aboard the Nostalgia to help the Captain for the first time. And years later, his work would be interrupted when the colony rose up against him.

Hints are also given as to what is going on vis a vis the extinction and the virus aboard the Nostalgia. Essentially, eons and eons ago, the first intelligent races of the Galaxy met up and began a prolonged conflict known as the Dawn War. After millions of years of fighting, the remaining civilizations, exhausted and cynical about sentient life, combined their intelligences with machinery to create a series of specialized weapons. Collectively, they came to be known as the Inhibitors, a race of machine-like intelligences that sought out sentient life and exterminated it once it achieved a high level of technical development.

Sun Stealer by bartolomeusz

Meanwhile, on Resurgam, Sylveste is given a reprieve from house arrest to see the latest results of the excavation, which have proceeded in his absence. It seems that the crews turned up a massive underground city containing many ruins, and hints as to what happened. Featured over and over are an Amarantin idol which is reaching towards the sun. Hints are also given that Resurgam’s moon, Cerberus, was also particularly significant to the Amarantin people. After learning of all this, Sylveste proposes marriage to his new sweatheart and they prepare to have their marriage in the city ruins.

By 2566, Khouri is brought aboard as the ships new gunner and they arrive at Resurgam. However, before they make orbit, a nearly catastrophic situation occurs when one of the ship’s doomsday weapons suddenly becomes active and has to be released. It detonates off their bow and creates an artificial singularity which very nearly consumes their ship. Having just made it away, Ilia concludes that the virus is stepping up its game!

Once they make orbit, the crew establishes contact and demands Sylveste be turned over. To make their point, they stage a ruse where they pretend to level an outlying settlement, and the colony responds by handing Sylveste over. This they do by attacking him during his wedding and taking him and his wife prisoner. The crew fly down in their special suits to retrieve him and announce that they plan to bring him and his wife aboard. However, Sylveste turns the tables by saying his artificial eyes contain a pinhead antimatter device that will destroy their ship. He lists new terms, which include letting his wife go and taking him to Resurgam’s moon of Cerberus. In exchange, he promises to help their Captain any way he can.

As Sylveste and the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity approach Cerberus, Sylveste realizes the massive celestial body isn’t a planet at all—but rather, a massive space station. They fly inside and begin to be set upon by the devices defenses, but eventually make it down inside. Once in there, Sylveste realizes what it really is. Basically, the moon was built eons ago by the Inhibitors which served as a beacon to alert them of the emergence of a star faring intelligence. Once activated, it would signal the Inhibitors to launch their machines to the system so they could exterminate whichever species found them. Sylveste concludes that this is what happened to the Amarantin.

Aboard the Nostalgia, Ilia also is confronted by the truth when the virus threatens to finally take over the ship. Appearing on the ships main display, an Amarantin who identifies himself as “Sun Stealer” explains their purpose to her. Apparently, the Amarantin are the Shrouders! These bubbles in space time have been their protection against the Inhibitors for hundreds of thousands of years, and their means of drawing out new sentient races to find them and do their bidding. When Sylveste’s colleague passed into them, they realized their time had come, and as such, tried to manipulate him into discovering if the Inhibitors were still alive out there.

Unfortunately, this case of first contact went poorly. Not being able to recognize his neural patterns, the Amarantin nearly drove Sylveste’s friend completely mad with their message. Luckily for them, he was able to make sense of it in time and delivered it to Sylveste, who then came back to the Shroud where they were able to imprint a series of clues in his mind as well as a virus that would monitor him. These, they hoped would eventually lead him back to their homeworld and the moon of Cerebrus.  Their intent all along was to have someone else make contact with the Inhibitor machine, thus they could see if it was safe to emerge from hiding. If so, they planned to retake their homeworld. If not, it would be a different race who was exterminated and they would wait until the next came along.

However, that plan changed when Sylveste came aboard the Nostalgia for the first time and unknowingly planted the virus in the ship’s hardware. Hence why the gunner went mad and why its been threatening to take over the ship. Cut off from Sylveste, it was beginning to go mad. However, once he was aboard, it saw an opportunity to complete its mission. Having taken the helm, Sun Stealer now kept the ship in orbit around the moon and began reporting everything it saw back to the Amarantin Shroud.

Down on the station, Sylveste realizes that the beacon has become active and that he has been played. Rather than allow the Inhibitors to emerge, he detonates the bombs in his eyes to destroy the facility. Back on the ship, Ilia decides to unleash the Melding Plague that’s been consuming their Captain and let  Sun Stealer do battle with it. Sun Stealer loses and the ship begins transforming into a gothic nightmarish version of itself. But at least they’ve restored control of it to themselves. The story ends with the crew reuniting and setting course for Resurgam again.

Good Points and Bad:
Well, I don’t know if you could tell from my description, but the plot of this book was pretty damn complicated and mighty layered. And personally, I thought that was a good thing! It is not unusual for an author to have distinct points of view in a story that seem unrelated but inevitably come together, but Reynolds was really working overtime with this one. How and where the plots overlapped could produce headaches due to the sheer effort of keeping track of it all, but I for one felt it worked pretty well.

In addition, the inventions and futuristic concepts were a real mind-blower for me at the time. In fact, I specifically picked up this book in order to research modern sci-fi and get a dose of the latest hard science, and that’s exactly what I got. Beta-level simulations, Alpha constructs, nanotechnology, servitors, Lighthuggers, inertia, controlled singularities, and the like. It all called to mind numerous other classic sci-fi franchises, many of which Reynolds himself acknowledged a debt to.

For example, his Inhibitors sounded very much like the Firstborn of the Space Odyssey series. Here and there, you had aliens who were so advanced that they could download their consciousness into machinery that would preserve them for eternity, making for effective space travel in a universe that didn’t permit FTL. Reefersleep also called to mind cryogenic pods from Alien and other franchises. Cybernetic implants, augmentation and nanobots are all concepts one can find elsewhere too. Still, the way Reynolds combined these things together was quite masterful, and very much in keeping with the tradition of space opera.

And finally, I found the story downright intriguing. The concept of an ancient race that prevents the rise of space-faring sentient life because it knows from experience that such life will likely engage in prolonged war with other sentients seemed quite believable. One need only look at the process of human history to know that conflict is a defining feature, and that peace on a grand scale only seems to follow in the wake of terrible, exhausting wars. Consider Europe after two world wars, Japan after the Shogunate wars, or China after its Warring States period (and even after that!) Like it or not, peace and consensus are very often the result of war, war, and more war.

Okay, now for the weak stuff. As I said already, the plot can be convoluted. For the most part, this works in the story’s favor. However, something which comes up in other Reynold’s works as well, is his tendency to throw in too many plot twists, especially towards the end. Already we have a very complicated and layered story which really didn’t need any more curve balls, but some are thrown even as the other plot threads are culminating. In this story, the unnecessary twists involve last-minute revelations.

In Sylveste’s case, this happens just before he is captured by his own people and he takes the opportunity to unburden himself to his wife. He tells her that his father once had an alpha-level simulation of himself, as opposed to the beta that he frequently talks to. He gave this alpha to the Pattern Jugglers in exchange for the info they gave him. It is also revealed that Dan Sylveste is in fact a clone of his father. Hence his vanity and obsessive nature, they were retained from a father who wanted a duplicate of himself.

Last, there’s the revelation that the Captain of Nostalgia – John Brannigan – went into the Jugglers sea himself and used them to imprint his mind on Sajaki, one of the Triumvirs. His reasons had to do with the fact that he knew he needed to go into reefersleep until they found a cure for the Melding Plague. Unable to stand the idea of being out of it for so long, he decided to get the Jugglers to erase Sajaki’s mind and replace it with a copy of his own, that way he could be aware of everything that was going on while he was under. This twist seemed quite unnecessary too, as it really didn’t advance the plot any, just added another complication.

But overall, I was very pleased with this book and was sure to pick up its sequel. In fact, Revelation Space was the second Reynold’s book I had read at this point (the first was Century Rain) and I consider his writing to be a highly educational experience. In fact, much of his ideas and hard scientific basis served to inspire my own writing, particularly when it came to Source. So when it comes to authors I owe a debt to, he’s right up there! Stay tuned for more reviews of Reynolds and the Revelation Space Universe!

Cool Cyborgs (updated)!

8 Man:
Always good to start with a classic, don’t you think? Especially one that really doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In addition to being Japan’s first cyborg superhero, this 60’s anime character was also the inspiration for Robocop. You heard me right!

Apparently, the main character was a Detective who was murdered by a group of ruthless criminals, but whose body was retrieved by a scientist who conducted an experimental procedure to transfer his “life force” into a machine body. Having failed the previous seven times, his eights and successful attempt is aptly named “8 Man”.

But unlike Robocop, this cyborg can do some pretty freaky stuff! In addition to being heavily armored, he can run at incredible speeds and shape-shift into other people. His true identity is kept a secret from everyone except his old police chief and the professor who conducted his experiment.

But like Robocop, 8 Man chooses to go beyond his crime-fighting mandate to find his old girlfriend, best friend and attempt to rebuild his old life. His attempts are often marred by the fact that he is no longer human, but as they say, it’s the journey that counts!

Bionic Woman:
Sure, Steve Austin was pretty cool, but did he look this good? Hell no! And in the case of the Bionic Woman, the hero story was far less crude. Though the original series was little more than a spinoff of The Six Million Dollar Man (featuring Oscar Goldman as the scientist again), the re-imagined series was far more original and endearing.

In this version, the main character (again named Jaime Sommers) is a surrogate mother and bartender struggling to make ends meet. After a near fatal car accident, she is saved by an experimental procedure involving advanced prosthetics and implants (no, not those kind!). Afterwards, she goes to work for the people who performed her operation – the Berkut Group, whom he boyfriend works for.

Through her work, she is responsible for thwarting crimes and evil machinations, while trying to explore her role and the changes she’s endured. As with the original series, Jaime’s modifications include bionic legs, a bionic right arm, a bionic right ear, and a bionic eye like that of Steve Austin. In the updated series, she also gets a dose of nanomachines called “anthrocytes” which are capable of healing her body at a highly accelerated rate.

The Borg:
Now here is a race who’s name is the second half of Cyborg! No chance for misunderstandings here! And as all fans of Star Trek know, the Borg are extremely proud of what they are. A race of beings dedicated to the perfection of life by merging the organic with the synthetic. And of course, they are all networked to a hive mind known as “the collective.”

Native to the Delta Quadrant of the Star Trek universe, the Borg occupy thousands of systems and hundreds of races. No indication is ever given where they originated from or what their intentions are, beyond adding “the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to [their] own” in pursuit of “perfection”.

Is there a more perfect metaphor for runaway progress and the deification of technology? It’s not exactly a subtle commentary on the issue, but it does encapsulate the kinds of fear many people have when faced with a rapidly changing world that seems to be growing more complicated all the time. I imagine the Singularitarians don’t like the analogy much, but then again, Star Trek has been known to send mixed messages 😉

In the original series, the Cylons were lumbering, chrome covered robots that kind of resembled toasters. It was for this reason that they frequently got a shout out in the re-imagined by being referred to as such. However, the re-imagined versions were quantum leaps ahead, the result of bioengineering rather than conventional robotics.

Unlike the “skin jobs” (a reference to Blade Runner), Centurions and Cylon Raiders were only partially organic, consisting of organic brains inside machine bodies. Much the same is true of the Cylon Hybrids, the minds that operated their Basestar’s jump systems. In their case, their bodies are largely organic, but their minds are enhanced with advanced machinery and networked into their ship.

Because of this combination of organic and synthetic, Centurions and Raiders are capable of being “lobotomized”, which took place in the third season when their handlers became suspicious of their behavior. Ultimately, these three begins represented a key step in the Cylon’s evolution from mechanical to biological, which achieved perfection with the creation of the seven purely biological models.

A fictional race taken from Dr. Who, these cyborgs were another one of the good Doctor’s recurring enemies. But unlike their Dalek counterparts, they seemed to change with every appearance. A possible inspiration for the Borg, these being were as humans who chose to begin experiment more and more with artificial implants.

This eventually led them to become the cold, calculated and ruthlessly logical beings that are, with every emotion all but deleted from their minds. While they do maintain their human brains and some human organs, they possess little of their original humanity, which is why they don’t get along with us decent folk!

Another parallel they share with the Borg is their means of proliferation, which is to turn other organic beings into Cybermen (a process known as “cyber-conversion”). However, they remain few in number during the course of the series and therefore prefer to act covertly, conducting their schemes from hiding places and using human pawns or robots to act in their place until they need to appear. Quite unlike the Borg, who prefer to get right in there, blow shit up, and assimilate anything that’s left!

Darth Vader:
“He’s more machine than man… twisted and evil!” That’s not to say all people who are more machine than man are evil! But it is the working definition of “cyborg.” Having lost both arms and legs in lightsaber duels and much of his body severely burned, Darth Vader (nee Anakin Skywalker) had to be put in a protective suit that regulated his breathing and bodily functions… I don’t even want to think about that!

But there was an upside to all those enhancements. For one, he got James Earl Jones vocals and the most intimidating, badass exterior in the Galaxy! Hell, even his breathing sounded scary. And it didn’t encumber his use of the Force at all, as exemplified by his ability to crush throats and toss objects around at will. And the ghosts of many dead Jedi and Luke’s missing hand can attest to it not hampering his sword fighting skills either.

Ultimately, this suit proved to be his undoing when, in the course of betraying his evil master, most of its circuits were fried by the Emperor’s electrical bolts. He died shortly thereafter, redeemed and looking upon his son for the first time “with his own eyes.” Sniff… I hate this mushy stuff!

Motoko Kusanagi:
The star of Ghost in the Shell, the beautiful, deadly and artificially enhanced Motoko Kusanagi. Known by her fellow officers as “the Major”, Kusanagi is a member of Section 9, a counter-terrorism squad working for Japan’s National Public Safety Commission. As part of her commitment to her job, Kusanagi underwent cybernetic enhancements, marrying her human brain to the “shell” that is her new body.

Throughout the original manga, anime and cinematic versions, Kusanagi’s basic role is the same. She fights all kinds of criminal elements: kingpins, warlords, and cyber terrorists, but also uses these experiences to reflect on the larger issues and her fateful choice to become a cybernetic being. These issues include what it means to be human, what constitutes life, and the line between authentic and artificial.

In addition, she’s also a pretty vivacious and good-looking being! Though technically not flesh and blood, she still maintains a pretty active sex life, at least in some versions of the story. In others, her personal life is not dealt with, but there are still plenty of nude shots, provided exposed synthetic flesh can be counted as nudity 😉

Here we have another case of tragedy yielding the perfect union between man and machine. Alex Murphy, dedicated cop and family man, gets ruthlessly gunned down by a bunch of criminal thugs, only to be resurrected by a bunch of corporate thugs as a cop cyborg. Heavily armed, armored, and programmed to serve and protect, he became the Detroit Police Departments signature weapon in the war on crime.

But of course, things begin to go awry when Murphy’s memories and personality began to re-emerge. For one, there was the question of his wife and son, both of whom had been led to believe he was dead. Second, there was the psychological and emotional strain of knowing you could never be fully human again.

Alas, Murphy resolves the sacrifice of his identity and humanity by doing what he did best, kicking criminal ass and taking criminal names! These of course included crime lords, drug bosses, and the thugs who murdered him, but also the corporate crooks who created him and were plotting to take over Detroit. So aside from the sci-fi elements and human interest angles, there was also some social commentary in this franchise. Lots going on here!

Nexus Six Replicant:
“If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.” What is a machine when it has feelings, thoughts, and even memories?  Is it, as the Tyrell Corporation motto goes, “More human than human”?

Sure, some purists would say that a Nexus 6 isn’t technically a cyborg. But as I recall, the working definition of Cyborg is a merger of the cybernetic and organic. And as any fan of Blade Runner knows, Nexus 6’s are not so much built as grown, the product of biomedics rather than mechanics. And if that’s not good enough to get this one past the censors, screw em! Moving on…

Designed for service on the off-world colonies, every Replicant was designed to fill a certain role, ranging from military, to worker, to pleasure. In short, they could do the work of any human while simultaneously being denied the basic rights humans take for granted. However, since it was understood that they could become unruly after too much time, each unit was built with a four-year lifespan.

Inevitably, the Replicants of the movie came to Earth seeking a reprieve from their inevitable deaths. Their leader, Roy Batty, was especially obsessed with buying more time, since he himself was near the end of his lifespan. When told that there was nothing that could be done, he went a little beserk, but also came to appreciate life all the more in his last few moments.

T-800 Terminator:
“The Terminator’s an infiltration unit, part man, part machine. Underneath, it’s a hyper-alloy combat chassis – micro processor-controlled, fully armored. Very tough. But outside, it’s living human tissue – flesh, skin, hair, blood, grown for the cyborgs..” That’s how Kyle Reese, the warrior from the future, describes them. Arny’s version was a bit less… loquacious. “I’m a cybernetic organism. Living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.” Take your pick, they’re both right!

Designed to impersonate human beings, mainly so he could get close to them and kill them, the two Arny models were quite at home in the past. If you looked like this, would anyone really complain if you chose to walk the streets of LA naked? It’s LA man, anything goes! What’s more, Arny’s cyber strength and tough skeleton make him deadly and very survivable.

This proved quite the headache when one was sent back to kill Sarah Conner, but was quite a plus when one was later providing protection for her and her son! In the end, it took a hail of bullets, some well placed plastic explosives and a machine press to kill the first one. And the second one managed to survive an impalement, the loss of a limb, about a million bullets, and still managed to lay the smack down on a T-1000. Perhaps they should amend the name… Endurinators!

Thank you all! Stay tuned for the follow-up, Sexy Female Robots! I guess I’m just in a robot kind of mood 😉

Da Terminator!

Back in 1984, a budding director named James Cameron was working on two projects almost simultaneously, both of which would go on to become some of the most successful sci-fi franchises in history. These were the time-traveling cyber-thriller The Terminator and the long awaited sequel known as Aliens. And not only were they well received at the box office, both went on to become classics in their own right, earning a cult following and spawning even more sequels. Yep, the guy could write and direct back in the day, before success and fame went to his head and he got all… Titanicy! Fans of said movie might disagree, but I think it just went downhill from there! I mean, Avatar? C’mon people, that was just a rehashing of Titanic and Aliens with a whole lot of Pocahontas ripped off and plastered on.

But that’s neither here nor there (I’m so gonna trash that movie later!). Right now, I wanna talk about the movie that started it for James and turned Arny from a champion body builder and B-list actor into an A-list movie star (Which reminds me, at some point I got to review Conan, his other break-out hit!) And a warning, you can’t get into this movie without talking about Arny, a lot! So plenty of biopic info will be coming up throughout the course of this review, be warned! So without further ado, let’s get to reviewing this baddest of bad-boys!

In truth, Arny was first approached by the studio to play the role of Kyle Reese. However, after reading the script, he said he would rather play the role of the murdering cyborg. After meeting with Schwarzenegger, whom he had no intention of casting in the role, Cameron became convinced. And it worked! Anry’s presence, his bad-guy face, and his imposing demeanor sold people on the Terminator. Even his accent, which was still pretty thick, seemed believable coming from a synthetic human. And while it got mixed reviews at first because of its violence, many critics saw unmistakable quality in it, hailing its tense pace, its cool action, and its storyline. In time, these positive reviews would become the general consensus, and Cameron was inspired to make the sequel. T2 did better at the box office, but compared to The Terminator‘s modest budget and overall gross, the original’s performance was far more impressive. He would NOT be involved in the later movies, which was good for him. They did not hold a candle to his original creations!

The movie opens with a brief intro showing us the post-apocalyptic world of Judgement Day, explaining that there’s been a nuclear holocaust and that machines are waging a war on all those humans who still remain. Its just a taste of things to come, nothing long or drawn out. And then, we move to modern-day LA. There’s a big burst of light, and Arny standing naked in the street. He has a run in with some thugs, the leader of whom is Bill Paxton (or Hudson, as he was known in Aliens), and deprives them of their clothes. He even brutally kills one of them just to make his point: don’t mess with evil-Terminator Arny! Simultaneously, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn, Hicks from Aliens. Holy recycling actors Batman!) shows up and is going through the same motions. Like Arny, he is in a rush to find clothes, weapons, and the whereabouts on one Sarah Connor. Yet somehow, Reese seems to be having a harder time of it. Funny how being a cybernetic powerhouse who’s not afraid to brutally kill makes life easier! In fact, after visiting a gun store and making only one gaff about plasma cannons, Arny ups his body count to two! But seriously, what was up with that line: “phased plasma cannon in the 40 watt range”. Really? Wouldn’t a Terminator be programmed with what weapons were available in 1984; them detailed files Arny mentioned in the second movie? Ah well, comic relief before he blew the unsuspected store owner away, I guess.

We also get to see Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), who for all intents and purposes seems like a regular, run of the mill lady. Naturally, we are wondering why Arny is out to kill her, and what Reese wants with her. But one thing we are sure of, Arny DEFINITELY wants to kill her. The way he is tracking down and murdering anyone named Sarah Conner in the greater LA area would seem to indicate that. As for Reese, his intentions become abundantly clear when the three of them – him, Sarah and Arny – finally come together in a barroom shootout. I can attest to the fact that this scene is one of the most tense in the entire movie. Arny comes in, Kyle shoves his way through the crowd as soon as he sees him, Arny levels his gun at Sarah’s head, she is frozen with terror, and Reese brings his gun to bear. The sound is faint for much of this… but when Reese fires, the sound returns! BOOM, BOOM, BOOM… and Arny drops! Naturally, he doesn’t stay down, and Reese has to unload what’s left of his ammo into him before he can reveal his true purpose. He makes this abundantly clear when he bends down to grab hold of Sarah’s arm and says the classic line: “Come with me if you want to live!” Naturally, she does. And in the course of fleeing from Arny, Reese fills her in on the whole situation.

In short, on Aug. 29th, 1997, a nuclear holocaust will take the lives of 3 billion people, in an event known (appropriately) as Judgement Day. The culprit is a machine known as Skynet, an AI created by humans that turned on them and spawned an entire race of machines that were designed to hunt down and destroy all human life. They are known (also appropriately!) as Terminators. Most survivors were herded into camps for what Reese refers to as “orderly disposal”, echoes of the holocaust. But one man rallied them turned them into the Resistance. His name: John Connor, Sarah’s unborn son. Shortly before Reese traveled back in time, the Resistance had broken into the machine HQ and destroyed Skynet. Hence, the machines sent a Terminator back in time to kill John Conner before he ever existed. What makes this semi-believable is the fact that at first, Sarah doesn’t believe him and tries to flee. There’s none of this “you saved my life and your we have obvious chemistry… so sure, I’ll go with you” crap. But Reese’s insistence plus the sheer unbelievability of his story manages to convince her. Cyborgs created a time machine so they could travel back in time, from the post-apocalyptic future, and kill the woman who will give birth to the boy who will lead humanity to victory over them. Hell, you can’t make shit like that up! Unless you’re James Cameron… The fact that he’s protecting her while a homicidal Arny will stop at nothing to kill her might have been an added push.

What follows in some more tense scenes where Reese and Connor attempt to flee from the Arny bot. Both he and Reese are wounded in one exchange, forcing Arny to cut out one of his synthetic eyes and wear shades. The look was born! But then Reese and Sarah Conner are arrested, Reese is charged with kidnapping, and Sarah is told that he’s a psycho, and not to listen to him! The chief also tries to allay her fears with what immediately becomes some famous last words: “There are thirty cops in this building. You’re safe.” Arny of course find them, enters and gives HIS famous words to the clerk who tells him visiting hours are over: “I’ll be back!” And boy was he ever! After driving his car through the front doors, he whoops out the artillery and proceeds to murder seventeen officers. That’s ballsy for any bad guy, lord knows the only policemen who are allowed to die in an action movie are the ones who are three days to retirement! But in the carnage, Reese manages to escape and pulls Sarah Connor out. They both then double-time it out of town.

Then, with a little privacy and some trust established, we get to see the relationship that’s taking root between Reese and Connor. Cameron also takes this opportunity to give us additional glimpses of the future. Up until this point, this was done through Reese having flashbacks and nightmares. At this point, it takes the form of Reese conveying everything John Connor told him to share with her, which includes anecdotes about the war. This is important since she will give birth to the future commander of the resistance and he needs to be prepped! Some cool temporal paradox stuff happening here. But wait, it get’s better! Eventually, Reese confesses that he always loved Sarah – well, not so much her, but the idea of her. Her picture is something he’s kept, its a little worse for wear, but still manages to capture her determination and beauty (keep this in mind, it comes up later!). Then, they have sex, and Sarah gets pregnant with – drumroll! – the future John Connor! Yes, as it turns out, Reese is Connor’s father due to this same temporal paradox, whom he will meet and become the protege of in the future. So in addition to this being a post-apocalyptic, time-travelling sci-fi thriller, it comes complete with a big twist! And not just one…

Back to Arny, who must get creative in order to find Connor again. This he does by finding her mother and takes her call when she does the obligatory good daughter thing and calls just to let her know she’s all right. He then gets the address of the hotel where they’re staying. Luckily, Connor and Reese are on top of things. Like good soldiers, they were ready to mobilize, even did some shopping so they could build some homemade plastic explosives. Another car chase ensues, Reese gets severely wounded this time, and Arny gets unseated from his motor bike, hit by an 18-wheeler, and has more of his face ripped off. The look evolves! We also get famous one-liner number two when Arny commandeers the 18-wheeler. After tossing the driver, he turns to the passenger with a half-revealed cyborg face and says… “Get out!” Of course, the guy does! When a killer cyborg steps into your vehicle with half his face missing and tells you to move it, you don’t say no! Shortly thereafter, the 18-wheeler crashes and they think Arny is dead. But no! The fully revealed Terminator crawls from the flames (symbolism moment here, harking back to the intro!) and advances on them.

And of course, Reese sacrifices himself to blow the thing in two, but Sarah is forced to deliver the finishing blow by crushing it in an hydraulic press! But before she does, she gives her own big one-liner: “YOU’RE TERMINATED, MOTHERFUCKER!” Hey, Arny can’t get em all! The movie then cuts to several months later, with Sarah, now pregnant, driving through Mexico. She’s making a recording for her John, and a small boy comes and snaps her picture. Remember that photo Reese had of her, the one that made her fall in love with him? Yep, this is it! And as we will learn in the movie that’s to come, the remains of the Arny bot were recovered… the seeds of Skynet’s creation have been sowed. The paradox is complete! And Sarah drives off into a coming storm, which is both literal and metaphorical. Yep, good line to end it on. “There’s a storms coming,” says the Mexican man. “I know,” says Connor. Cue apocalyptic music and roll credits!

All throughout this movie, there is a tension that in undeniable. Whether its Reese’s painful flashbacks, the Terminators constant pursuit, or the fact that the police are pursuing them as well, there’s a pace and a tempo that never lets up. It’s downright uncomfortable, the feeling of danger and impending death always there. Though the sequel was arguably more fun and a lot more impressive in terms of effects, the original was a lot grittier and emotionally honest. In a way, it kinds of like Alien and its sequel, the former being packed full of terror and claustrophobia, the latter being a big-ass thriller that relied more on action. Unfortunate that Cameron was only involved in the creation of the latter, otherwise you could say there was a clear pattern. The original sets up the plot and has a deliberately harsh tone, the latter finishes it off and is entertaining in the process. And while the latter might have overshadowed the former in terms of box office gross and overall impact, the former remains the more critically acclaimed cult-hit because its arguably smarter, if less flashy. Not to mention that from top to bottom, the feel, music and direction of the original are faithful to its central themes. One really gets the feeling throughout that this is a movie about the apocalypse and a horrific war that is yet to come. Not only that, but the time travel stuff is intriguing and thoughtful. As Sarah says at one point to Reese: “You keep speaking about things I haven’t done yet, past tense!” She is abundantly clear on the fact that she’s not comfortable with how Reese and people from his time see her, as some kind of hero. But in the end, she has to find the strength to become what she needs to be, something which she passes on to John Connor, a sense of terrible purpose.

In any case, it made for a good movie. But the real points came in the form of the plot, which was a compelling story about fate and free-will. The future is happening because of what happens in the past. They are trying to prevent the machines from altering the future, but in the process, they end up creating it. Cool, and virtually seamless. Because, as I’m sure I said in my Terminator: Salvation review, the good guys not only ensured the birth of John Connor (and hence their eventual victory over the machines), they also ensured the existence of the machines in the first place. Funny how that works, temporal tampering has the power to give and the power to take away. The real genius of it, and the thing that always bakes my noodle, is the notion that the future we know is the result of all our actions. That might seem like fatalism, but its actually far more complex. Fate implies that the future is set, when in fact, things don’t happen in spite of what you do, but because of it. Oy, I just went cross-eyed! These plot twists also set up the plot for a sequel very nicely. Now that John Connor’s existence is assured, he must prepared for the future. At the same time, he and Sarah must see what they can do to prevent it. And of course, with the war still on the horizon and the rise of the machines still to come, we can bet our bottom dollar that they will make another attempt to kill Connor before they lose the war.

And like I said, this movie set Arny and Cameron up FOR LIFE. Cameron would go on to make Aliens before directing his big-budget action-packed sequel, and Arny would land role after role in the big action line-up of the 1980’s. Funny too how that worked out. Arny had all kinds of difficulty getting work at first because of his accent and, amazingly, his name! Director’s initially thought it was too long and hard to pronounce, and that his speech would always be a stumbling block. But thanks to The Terminator, Arny went on to be famous and all those agents and producers who doubted him were left eating crow! And of course, when it came time to make the sequel, Cameron would bring Arny back and give him a chance to reprise his role, this time as the good guy, which was in keeping with Arny’s true character. Linda Hamilton would be back too, reprising her role as Sarah Conner and raising the stakes by becoming the ultimate female bad-ass!

More on that in my review, T2! Like Arny, I too will be back! (Sorry, I had to!)

The Terminator:
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Plot: 9/10
Direction: 9/10
Total: 8.5/10