Watch Me Moderate a Panel on Robots, AI, and Sci-Fi at Columbia University!

This was so much fun. The panel was titled “T-1000 to HAL 9000: How Realistic Are Hollywood’s Robots?”, and we got together NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, sci-fi writer Matt Kressel, Professor Peter Asaro, and Dan Abella, the director of the PKD Film Festival. The panel starts at 2:26:00 in the video (it should automatically start there).

 

Watch Me Moderate a Panel on Robots, AI, and Sci-Fi at Columbia University!

The Occult Triangle Lab Review: Ubik by Phillip K. Dick

ubik occult triangle lab chris mahonI first heard about this book when reading through Philip K. Dick’s biography, I Am Alive and You Are Dead, which took its title from one of the more chilling lines in Ubik. It seemed to have everything I could ever want: existential crises, meditations on eternity, entropy, and the human spirit, and a mind-bending journey through an illusory world created in the dying psyches of twelve people.

But Ubik reads more like a rushed draft and a splatter chart than “One of Time’s 100 Best English-language Novels,” as my edition claims. So many different rules and plot strands are set up (including Pat Conley’s time-reversion ability, Runciter’s manifestations, and the eponymous Ubik) that seem to hint at a single, mind-blowing explanation, but everything that is built up falls apart about 50 pages later. The effect isn’t, as The Guardian claims, a “squishy” novel that defies explanation and evokes the malleability of reality; the result is book that fails to function as a story, or even a comment on stories.

The front cover blurb from Rolling Stone sums up the disconnect, I think, between the people who see Ubik as an avant-garde masterpiece and people like me, who think it’s a goddamn mess: Phillip K. Dick is “The most brilliant SF mind on any planet.” It doesn’t say anything about being a good writer or storyteller. Books like Ubik can get away with being absolutely incoherent by claiming to deal with big ideas. For all its foibles and shortcomings, Ubik can still claim that its telling a sci-fi story that deals with telepathy, eternity, reality, and the nature of life and death,  counting on the sheer weight of those ideas to make it worthwhile.

This is a tough claim to assault because a lot of really brilliant experiments in literature and art fail. You can argue hypertext fiction and House of Leaves failed at their attempts at revolutionizing the format of the novel, but their attempt inspired other writers and maybe some readers to reassess what a story can do. The ideas and concepts they brought to the table, like non-linearity, ergodic literature, and multi-media storytelling, have value, just as Ubik has value in exploring the concepts of reality, life, and entropy. Some passages really stuck out to me:

“One invisible puff-puff whisk of economically priced Ubik banishes compulsive obsessive fears that the entire world is turning into clotted milk, worn-out tape recorders and obsolete iron-cage elevators, plus other, further, as-yet-unglimpsed manifestations of decay. 

This is the same looming horror at entropy that was embodied in “kipple” in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This passage sums up the apocalyptic, reality-destroying horror that waits for Joe Chip and his friends, evoked in the material decay of everything around them: milk, tape recorders, even elevators.

“But the old theory–didn’t Plato think that something survived the decline, something inner not able to decay? Maybe so, he thought. To be reborn again, as the Tibetan Book of the Dead says…Because in that case, we all can meet again. In, as in Winnie the Pooh, another part of the forest, where a boy and his bear will always be playing…a category, he though, imperishable. Like all of us. We will all wind up with Pooh, in a clearer, more durable new place.”

This reminds me of the poem Heaven by Patrick Phillips. It’s a surprisingly tender image of an afterlife, apart from all decay and the reality we know. It’s transcendental in the deepest sense of the word.

But none of it counterbalances the seemingly haphazard, half-baked, and frustrating plotting in the book. Good ideas might be able to salvage a badly written book in the eyes of critics and literary theorists, but no amount of avant-garde cred can make Ubik a passable read. The best experimental writers, the ones that deserve the highest praise, learn how to violate the rules of narrative and meaning within their stories and create a piece of fiction that has its own logic and its own intuitive way of reading it, like a dream.

Phillip K. Dick doesn’t accomplish this in Ubik. He sets up a world with a number of rules, but discards them one after another, until he discards everything. So there’s nothing to talk about and nothing to read in Ubik except its profound ideas and its profound failures. There’s no “vivid and continuous dream,” as John Gardner called it. So ironically enough, Ubik, a book about being immersed in a dream world that can’t be distinguished from reality, never tricked me into forgetting, even for a moment, that it was anything more than a bunch of words on a page, written by a man named Philip K. Dick.

The Occult Triangle Lab Review: Ubik by Phillip K. Dick

And Lo, I Started Working at Outer Places

Two weeks ago, I started writing for Outer Places, a website dedicated to science fiction and science. It’s been tremendously exciting to work with them, and it means I can continue funding my jetskiing, milk-drinking playboy superstar lifestyle here in New York by writing about some of the coolest news and scientific discoveries on the Internet. Why do I do it?

“‘Cause my life is dope and I do dope shit.”

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Pictured: my jetskiing, milk-drinking playboy superstar lifestyle.

I wanted to share some of the articles I’ve written so far for Outer Places, not because I’m shilling for OP now, but because I’m actually proud of (and excited by) a few of them. Ignore the clickbait-y titles.

Six Sci-Fi Masterpieces That Put Insane Detail Into Things You Didn’t Notice

This one I actually wrote a couple years ago to be a Cracked listicle, before Cracked stopped doing those. It deals with Neon Genesis: Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon, and Menton3’s Monocyte, along with Dune and Asimov’s short story Nightfall.

The Artist Behind the Death Star Talks About His Art & Life

This article came from a Reddit AMA today with Colin Cantwell, the man who designed the Millennium Falcon, Death Star, X-Wing, and a bunch of other starships in Star Wars. He also worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 and Walter Cronkite during the Apollo 11 moon landings.

A New Experiment Just Teleported a Particle and Pioneered the Quantum Internet

This one came from the University of Calgary, which apparently conducted research that may pave the way for long-distance communication using quantum entanglement. I snuck some references to Mass Effect 2 and Half-Life in there.

LIVESTREAM: Elon Musk Says We Need These Four Things to Colonize Mars

This was absolutely incredible. Today, Elon Musk got on a livestream and laid out plans to create a “self-sustaining city” on Mars, along with the four key concepts that need to be implemented to create an Interplanetary Travel System. What really struck me was that, during the question and answer period, Musk said that his two primary goals with the project were to keep human consciousness alive in the face of a planet-wide catastrophe (practical) and to create something to inspire us when we look toward our future (idealistic).

And for those of you who caught the debate last night, you all know who I’m voting for.

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