Prophets of Science Fiction is a documentary television program that aired on the Science Channel for a single, eight-episode season between 2011-12. Produced and hosted by Ridley Scott, each episode focused on a different writer of sci-fi, exploring their life and work and attempting to correlate the fictional science of their stories with the factual applications in the real world. Thanks to Netflix, i discovered this terrific program (which is also streaming on the Science Channel’s website). Frankly, i was pleasantly surprised to find the program suggested by Netflix, as their algorithm’s analysis of my viewing habits – Dexter, Breaking Bad, Star Trek, The Writer’s Room and the like – somehow comes up with picks like Benchwarmers and The Croods. As a fan of the genre, i’ve often been amazed at how concepts and constructs from works of the past have so clearly come to fruition in the present. Ideas like the flip-open communicators from Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future to Daniel F. Galouye’s total environment simulator, presented as works of fiction some 50 years ago, are not only real parts of the world we live in today but in many cases even more mind-bending than their speculative counterparts.
Unlike the hyperserialized programs that are the usual culprits of the binge-watching phenomenon, Prophets of Science Fiction does not take viewers on an emotionally-invested roller coaster ride with a cathartic ending that compels the audience to watch successive episodes. My experience with the show found me frequently nodding off before completing a single installment, but this was due more to queuing it up when i should have been going to sleep. Nevertheless, the complete 5-plus hour series did keep me coming back night after night for its blending of re-enactments, expert interviews and animated recreations centered on the worlds these imaginative writers created.
This is the episode that provided the hook to reel me in. A huge sucker for PKD, i read The Man in the High Castle years ago. That introduction to Dick’s surreal perspective and reality-questioning led me to discover his other works and truthfully expanded my appreciation for science fiction in general. Perhaps due to the frequency with which the constructs of these sci-fi writers from decades ago seem to be popping up in everyday life now, i particularly enjoy their stuff. So naturally when i came across this television show focused on exploring that very idea, well, how could i resist? In true binger form though, i began at the beginning of the series – despite the non-serialized nature of the program.
The episode opens with a series of questions any body marginally familiar with sci-fi tropes has been exposed to in their experience. These are the Big Ideas of science fiction. The existential stuff you come to beyond the whiz-bang technology and exotic settings.
What is reality?
Did the past you remember actually happen?
Can you exist in two realities at once?
Are you who you think you are?
In the 44 novels and 100+ short stories he’d written, Philip K. Dick asked put those questions to the characters in his dark, paranoid and technologically pervasive worlds. He sought through their actions and reactions answers to the questions that plagued him in real life. Certainly, i’ve wondered about such things before. If the popularity of his work is any indication, no small amount of others have as well. And because of Hollywood’s fascination with the author, groundbreaking films based on his work like Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall have cast these ideas out to even wider audiences.
The most amazing thing about Dick’s stories are that they’re written during a time computers were something only experimental laboratories had and the only ubiquitous thing about phones were the coiled cords they all shared. Despite this, he writes about worlds where connective technology has such a vast effect on society and culture that our digital reality becomes more salient than the truth.
To be fair, it is not much more amazing relatively than Shelley’s creation is to modern medical science like in episode one. But for me and my generation, to witness the development of communications technology into things like the Internet and cellphones, it is astounding how far ahead Dick imagined back in the 60s. It got me thinking though, perhaps that’s why writers and artists so often gain acclaim or notoriety posthumously – because it’s not until their visions are becoming part of reality naturally that people look back and marvel at how far ahead they saw.
One of the best things about the Prophets show is the detailed background information they explore about the writers themselves. As someone who likes to think of himself as a writer, it’s endlessly engaging to me to see how and what other writers invest into their work. Their philosophies, fears, feelings and even their personal interests. For example, Dick was a big believer in the work of analytical psychologist Carl Jung, and his characters sometimes describe things in Jungian terms.
Perhaps his most well-known work is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – notable in pop culture largely through the classic sci-fi film Blade Runner. Thematically similar to other stories that explore the nature of what is real, and what it even means to be real, the scenario depicted is fascinating to me especially in context of today’s achievements in artificial intelligence.
In the story, androids indistinguishable from humans – some of whom are not even aware that they aren’t human – struggle with the same hurdles of mortality and morality. Pretty heady stuff for a tale told in 1968. Now flash forward to today, and we’re starting to address issues related to the emergence of artificial intelligence that sound like headlines taken from The Onion. Like this one:
Admittedly, we’re straying into Asimov territory here and that’s not until episode five. If we back it up a bit though, “killer robots” aren’t even the most dangerous sort of AI. Just the most overt. One of the things that has people like researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute treading lightly these days is the idea of even innocuous AI turning deadly. For instance, imagine a superintelligent program designed to play chess. Like any smart program, it seeks to perform its duty the best and most efficient way. Now consider that this program realizes the only way it will not be able to fulfill its programming is if it is turned off. So it postulates what would cause that and decides “humans can turn me off.” So, if there’s no humans around…
…and that’s the sort of logical step some researchers warn could easily make life difficult for humans in an AI world. In light of that, i’m happy to report that of the several futurist news feeds i read, the issue of AI emotional/moral is often included in ongoing research. At the same time, i’m both fascinated and terrified that these are the issues of today vis-a-vis tomorrow.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? starts to ask these questions at the same time as HAL 9000 was giving Dave Bowman a hard time (something episode four will take a closer look at). To me, that dives at the heart of great science fiction: the question of what it means to be human. Without getting into my own philosophy on the nature and evolution of AI, i’ll leave it to Batman TAS which asks if these sorts of creations have “a soul of silicon, but a soul nonetheless.”
In the episode’s creepiest segment, android designer David Hanson describes “bio-inspired engineering.” This multi-disciplinary approach to design allows people like him to create exceedingly lifelike replicas (Replicants?) of humans. Within his workshop, festooned with pieces parts of androids like heads and hands covered in “frubber” (face-rubber designed to simulate flesh), Hanson demonstrated his favorite creation – a Philip K. Dick android. My first thought upon seeing the mechanical visage was that Dick would likely freak the hell out were he to come face-to-artificial-face with his own doppelganger, and not just because of the “uncanny valley.” Paranoid to begin with, the idea that he could be replaced by a facsimile would likely cause some sort of episode.
With his prophetic sci-fi cred established, the episode proceeds to delve into the man himself to reveal the source of his lifelong interest into the nature of memory and reality. The source for much of his inquisitiveness lies his relationship with a twin sister who died weeks after being born. However, throughout his life, Dick continues to have visions of her so vivid that he begins to question what it means to be human, in terms of what our brains <think> they know.
Taking this into consideration, his stories have a tragic element to them. His characters, who often ask what makes them who they or discover that what they knew was false, are his way of imagining a world where his sister is still alive. We’ll Remember It For You Wholesale, upon which the film(s) Total Recall were based, technology changes our perception of the truth. Maybe, underneath the paranoid laden fantasy, is a man who only wishes to live in a reality where his perceptions feel more real and less like a delusion – a convincing reality based on memory, whether real or not. Neurobiologist Andre Fenton, who describes the process and perception of memory, suggests that this isn’t so far fetched.
Although the episode went on to discuss several other stories, it did not mention my favorite Philip K. Dick stories The Penultimate Truth and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. In our current climate of 24-hour news, political mistrust and seemingly endless wars, the former spoke to me most clearly…and it had some time travel, too. Likewise, our culture fascination with fame coupled with the power of our digital lives makes the latter a chilling examination of how a virtual presence can sometimes be more important than a physical one. These would have been great topics to cover as well, but the episode focused primarily on his stories that were adapted to film, including A Scanner Darkly and the others i’ve mentioned.
The episode also discusses a profound moment in Dick’s life – documented artistically but underground comic artist R. Crumb. Answering a knock at his door from a woman passing out Christian literature door-to-door, Dick is struck by a pink beam of light while speaking with her. Afterwards, he experiences hallucinations and periodic visions that he perceives come from a trans-temporal intelligence. Sounds kooky, i know, but at one point it does result in taking preemptive action that saves his son’s life. And provides geeks like me with enjoyable reading material for years, to boot.
As i continued to watch this episode, an idea became increasingly clear in my mind, that Philip K. Dick and Gene Roddenberry are like the two sides of the proverbial coin. Roddenberry, for his part, represents that rare perspective in science fiction where technology has only served to better mankind and foster a free society. In start contrast, Dick’s vision of future technology is one in which it’s used to control and subvert humankind. Now, granted, it probably feels this way to people at all times in history, but in the here and now it seems like we’re really in the thick of this dichotomy. Maybe it’s because our technology is advancing so rapidly that literally every day there is new information about things i only dreamed about in my youth. Just the other day there was a breakthrough in teleportation research for crying out loud! But for every awe-inspiring tidbit of innovation we hear about, there is the Dickian part of me that wonders if we’ll someone lose our humanity in all of this. Or maybe it’s just the fear that everything we believed about what it really means to be human is changing, and these are just the growing pains. i’d like to think we’ll fall on the Roddenberry side of the fence on that one.
Either way, what blows my mind when it comes to sci-fi like Dick’s has always been that he posed these questions and described scenarios that were wholly unknown at the time. There was no Internet, no such term as virtual reality, no conceivable way to alter memories. Now we have all of those things, and even the more outlandish concepts like precognitive crime units like that in The Minority Report are beginning to emerge, at least through algorithmic means.
Can time travel and alternate realities be that far behind?
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Have you watched Prophets of Science Fiction yet? If not, i highly recommend heading to Netflix or sciencechannel.com and checking it out. Episode 3 focuses on H.G. Wells, who introduced us to concepts like time travel and eugenics and interstellar war for the first time. After that is Arthur C. Clarke, and my conversation with my favorite space lawyer provided some up-to-date info on some of his speculations that are now a reality. If you do hopefully check out Prophets of Science Fiction, i hope you also take the time to enjoy these writers’ stories as well!