Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Line of the Known & Unknown - essay

Essay commissioned for the exhibition ‘The Infinite Line [The Search for the Unknown]', 
Tactic Gallery, Cork City: 9th-22nd May, 2014. 


In 1819, John Keats wrote these famous lines in his long narrative poem, ‘Lamia’:

                        Conquer all mystery by rule and line,
                        Empty the haunted air and gnomèd mine –
                        Unweave the rainbow, as it erstwhile made
                        The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Keats was, of course, referring in those last lines to that towering figure of science Isaac Newton and how, for him, the rainbow demonstrated the reflection and refraction of light through moisture in the atmosphere to reveal the full glory of the visible spectrum. For Keats, such a description of this natural phenomenon robbed it of its former mystery, reducing it to mere explanation. It should be said, of course, that Romanticism was, in many ways, a retreat from 18th century rationalism and the rise in elevation of the importance of science during that era. Romantics such as Keats built their founding philosophy on the notion that it was more important to write of the feeling generated by encountering nature in all its wonder rather than by simply setting out to measure it by “rule and line”. However, the Romantics, by raising our experience of nature to the level of pure emotion, robbed it, in turn, of its necessary ambiguity and sometimes harsh modalities.

John Keats

Perhaps it is most surprising then, that it was that pillar of Victorian taste, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who first recognized that such an ecstatic view of nature (or ‘the pathetic fallacy’ as the critic John Ruskin also spoke of) didn’t quite coincide with the reality that presented itself to our discerning eye. He was right to be disturbed in what he saw as “nature red in tooth and claw.” We could no longer view the natural world as being there to serve us: it is indifferent to what we think of it and functions by its own laws. Clearly, this shift in perspective caused great shock, as well as the intellectual necessity to engage with an awareness of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as it grew ever more prominent.

With the rise of modernism in the early 20th century artists made a clear and abrupt fracture with the past and some of the quaint notion discussed above, striving instead for an accuracy of perception, which the American poet Wallace Stevens described as an “accuracy with respect to the structure of reality”. While all modernists were preoccupied with this notion, the interpretation of what this meant was often quite varied and even divergent. For Ezra Pound, the unit of such a reality was the Image, a truer basis he believed for art to build itself upon over the neat rhetorical devices and tidiness of old current (Edwardian) forms. T.S. Eliot took this further with explorations of fractured psychological states, recorded in works (such as The Wasteland) that shift from one fragmentary experience to another, searching for some form of order in the confusion of experience. And for others, like Stevens (again), reality was the product of the imagination as it encounters and, in turn, shapes the world. Only with this form of imaginative and constant engagement, he argued, could the dynamic order of the universe be revealed. These are hardly notions of accuracy that a scientist would recognise, even those faced by the New Physics of General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics in the opening decades of the 20th century. The “rule and line” of art was still a somewhat different enterprise than that of the caliper and telescope.

Wallace Stevens

 But we may come to the question as artists: What are we being accurate toward in the end: the objective facts of the world, or our experience of being in that world? In recent times, we have come increasingly to think of accuracy as being synonymous with the precise, reproducible certainties of scientific truth, with Stephen Hawking stating lately that “science has made philosophy redundant”. One wonders what he thinks of the contribution of the arts to human knowledge. The great search, now, in science is  for what is popularly called a Theory of Everything. It is a deeply important undertaking and, should it ever be achieved, would be of unimaginable significance, both for science and society.

Having said that, should we not challenge such a grand – if not grandiose – term, the Theory of Everything. It seems to take a limited view of what we mean by that all encompassing word. Such an explanation would, in the end, simply be one of the material universe and the aspects of that universe described by physics alone. It wouldn’t help us decipher the genome, for example, or indeed, the untangle the nature of consciousness. As such, it would ultimately have very little to say about the experience of living; that deeply subjective narrative in which we live out each of our lives.

For me, science is not just a steady procession of unassailable facts, produced dispassionately by purely rational means. It is also a process of trial and error, instinct and hunches, driven often by profound curiosity. The story of the history of our understanding of light itself, demonstrates this point well. Perception is so crucial to living everyday life as we all know yet, when used more precisely, it can become also an instrument of scientific inquiry as well as artistic scrutiny, as the three artists in this exhibit demonstrate in very different ways. But we cannot have perception without light and our ideas about light has had a long and interesting history.

Ibn Al-Haytham

The standard version tells us that in antiquity, Plato among others, proposed what is called the ‘Emission Theory’, arguing that light travelled from the eye to the object it perceived in a direct line. We clearly now know this to be wrong. What may come as a surprise was how long Emission Theory persisted, but also that it wasn’t, in fact, that giant Newton (again) who first overthrew it, though this is taken as the standard narrative in the history of science. No, this notion of light was proposed six centuries earlier by the Persian scholar Ibn Al-Haytham (popularly known as Alhazen) who conducted a series of experiments on light while under house arrest, proving irrefutably that light travels in straight lines from the object of observation to the eye, demonstrating this fact by creating (most probably the first) camera obscura in his small room by placing a heavy black curtain across it and making a small aperture at its centre, the rooftops and spiking minarets of Cairo projected upside down onto the wall opposite. It is this last detail - upside-down - that proves the assertion. Alhazen also first explained refraction, reflection, spherical aberration and the magnifying power of lenses, though sadly little if his work and findings were disseminated in Europe, and Newton certainly wasn’t aware of his forerunner. This is not to reduce Newton’s claim also on these ideas and he was, indeed, the first to explain the spectrum of light that Keats found so anathema to his sensibility and feeling for the natural world. For me, this history alone becomes a fascination in itself. It reminds us that science doesn’t always proceed linearly and is, in the end, also a very human undertaking. In short, there is a story to science that goes beyond a mere ledger of facts and falsities.

And where then does art stand in such a schema? It’s hard to know what possible direct function it may provide to science, at least within the realms of its own methodology. Some would say, I’m sure, it has nothing to offer at all. And for art’s part, does science unweave the rainbow as Keats’ suggested and rob nature of its direct power over our imaginations? Can artists exploit the insights of science and yet bestow on it to the quality of imaginative encounter?

Cassandra Eustace 'What Lies Between Repeated Differences'

I think it is fair to argue that while science offers no criticism of the arts, it also offers no real meaningful place for it in its own enterprise and perhaps this is at the peril of potential hubris. It is certain in recent years, that there is a kind of slippage going on in  science towards an attitude of all-knowingness – or, at least a quest and belief to reach such a point in the future. However, it does sometimes seem that this quest is pursued at the expense of (and respect for) other modes of knowledge such as art, myth and experience itself, furtively moving  towards a general disenchantment through explanation, both in terms of the natural world and our place within it.

This then, inevitably leads to the question: what is arts relationship to science and can it have a meaningful discourse with it? I think we have to be clear here and say that the arts and the sciences serve different, though no less important, functions. Science’s job is to examine disparate phenomena and find a law or theory that shows how they are connected. This hypothesis is then tested and if proven true gives us an ‘objective’ truth. Art also tries to find patterns of connections and draw unexpected material together to form a coherent work, but it can never aspire to the empiricism of science, nor should it. In the end, a poem or any art-work can only persuade rather than prove. It captures something of the ‘subjective’ experience of living (even as it wrestles, at times, with abstraction), though by means that make such an experience recognisable or comprehensible to another person. We might borrow an important concept from science and call this a form of ‘resonance’.

Richard Forrest 'Truncated Tetrahedron'

I would suggest that art that engages with scientific ideas helps us to explore and see (in a sense) both the wonder and insight that science has provided us with and in the process we may humanise such ‘objective’ knowledge as we try weave it into the fabric of lived experience. Art is uniquely placed to help us to make sense of our relationship to it, as well as asking the question: how do you live in such a world with such knowledge? A poem, for example, can be said to exist in a fictional space. Yet, it is accurate of something. The truth of imagination is just as important as the bare nature of the facts. The places we create in the imagination feel just as real as the concrete places we inhabit in our lives, yet imaginative accuracy is judged, as such, by a different set of criteria than the scientific connotation of that word. It deals with the contradictory nature of our inner lives, not just the outer one.

Roseanne Lynch from 'Exposures 1-7'

And perhaps by creating work that draws on science, as in this exhibit, we – as artists in different forms – are attempting, through such an engagement, to bring these seemingly abstract and even distant ideas into some form of imaginative resonance, so that they too may form part of the fabric of our reality in the process; that such ‘ideas’ may also be experienced as well as understood. Science brings us new and deep knowledge of how the universe functions through theory and law, but as human beings we have a  deep desire and need to feel connected to both place and our place within it. It seems to me that science does not unweave the rainbow as Keats suggested all those years ago, but offers us both new knowledge and perspectives regarding nature that artists can examine and engage with at the level of the imagination as well as the cerebral cortex; and that in doing so, the two disciplines can create a meaningful exchange of perspectives and a balanced view of life, one that is accurate to the facts but also, crucially, felt.

The Infinite Line [A Search for the Unknown]

Maeve Lynch          http://www.maevelynch.com/     
Sophie Behal           http://www.sophiebehal.com/     

Cassandra Eustace http://crawfordexhibitions.com/exxit/?portfolio=cassandra-eustace 
Richard Forrest       http://www.richardforrest.info/
Roseanne Lynch     http://roseannelynch.wordpress.com/about/

Art Photo Credit:    Roseanne Lynch

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Here is a short film based on my poem 'Reykjavik' from my new collection On Light & Carbon.

A very special thanks to film-maker Bill Bulmer for all his hard work and creative insight in putting it together. I've always thought that putting poetry to imagess is an interesting, but worthwhile, challenge and I'm really delighted with the results.

So here it is then. Hope you enjoy it.

You can also find a higher quality, large screen format, version of the piece on Vimeo at the following link: Reykjavik.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Launch of On Light & Carbon

I just wanted to make a quick post to thank all those who made it along to my launch last week in the Teachers' Club, Dublin, as well as those who couldn't be there and sent kind messages.

Here are a few pictures from the evening!

Having a quick cig before starting when my cousin Owen O'Connor caught me on film - or I guess, pixels. A massive thanks to him for all the wonderful shots from the night.

Inside, I introduce Theo Dorgan. Naturally, I was extremely grateful to have him taking the time to read the collection and coming along to say some words about it.

Theo spoke with his usual wicked charm, not to mention his deeply lucid and sharp observations about the work. He made a better summary of it, and its themes, than I could have managed. I was truly honoured to have him there to launch the vessel.

After the fantastic intro, I read a selection of poems from the book.

One thank you I forgot to make on the night was to my great friend and artist Brian Walsh who conceived the cover design for this one; and to Mike Fortune-Wood for doing such a lovely job developing it!

Then there were copies to be signed, thankfully...

And we finished the evening - as we started it - with some beautiful music by my cousin Mick O'Brien on uileann pipes and his daughter, Ciara, on fiddle. It was a real pleasure to have them there and play so well.

And to end, a final pic of a happy poet!

Again, thanks to all who made it along on a chilly but clear November evening, and to those who couldn't but I know would've like to, if they could've made it.

So the book is launched and only now feels properly published. Which brings me to a final, massive, thank you to my publishers Adele Ward and Mike Fortune-Wood, of Ward Wood Publishing, for getting my words out there into the world.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Some new poems online...

This is just a quick post to draw your attention to some poems I've published recently online from my forthcoming collection, On Light & Carbon.

So, firstly, here are two shortish poems - including the title poem - that appeared in the Burning Bush II online journal a little earlier in the year. I'll have a few more in the next edition, due shortly, and it's well well worth checking out the other poets included.


Another very new and exciting online journal is The Galway Review. You'll find a more substantial selection of five poems from the book on their website. Again, you'll discover some really excellent poets and prose writers on the site.


Hope you enjoy the poems, folks, if you're so inclined to read them, and I'm sure a few more will creep out into the cyber-world before publication day.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Articles and Interviews

I've been a very lazy blogger indeed this last year or more. In my defense, I've been working hard on writing my second collection and feel I have just crawled from my cave, blinking into the daylight! I very much hope to step things up and post more as I approach the publication of said second collection, On Light & Carbon in October.

In the meantime, here are some links to various articles and interview I've done over the last 18 months or so, mostly on the theme of poetry and science, but also on poetry and Irish Culture.

So here they are. My sincere thanks to all the folk who thought it worth their while to ask me to participate in these (hopefully) interesting exchanges!

An interview with Jho Harris about my my novellas and poetry as well as a reading from me from In the Library of Lost Objects. It can can be found at Podcast.ie. ‘Voices From Ireland Series’. 

My poem ‘Rock Ammonite’ features on the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Poetry & Science website. You’ll find a commentary by me on the poem as well as a short article on the relationship between poetry and science in my work. 

My short article on ‘The Poetry of Science’ appeared in Poetry Ireland News ahead of the ‘Science Meets Poetry’ event at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF), the largest science conference in Europe, which was held in Dublin from 11th-15th July, 2012. 


This one is an interview with poet, fellow-physics graduate and blogger Kate Dempsey about the writing process, the role of science in my poetry and the sometimes fraught process of trying to get published. I also talks to Kate about working towards completing my second collection. 

Here is a Q&A I did with Mel Ulm for his blog 'The Reading Life'. This conversation, in general, reflects on poetry, Irish culture and history. It's at: 

And finally, an interview I did with fellow-author, Sue Guiney, for her wonderful blog, Writing Life, just as my first collection was published. Heady days, indeed.. Both Sue and I have written in different disciplines, so we talk about that, among other things!


Nice to have all these in one place, I guess.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Light & Carbon - My 'Next Big Thing'

So ‘The Next Big Thing’ is a chain-letter of sorts, though hopefully one worth reading, where one writer asks another to answer some questions on their current project. The questions are clearly designed for prose-writing folk as everyone knows that the next big thing will most probably not be a book of poetry! That said, I’m very happy to take part and my thanks to Colin Bell for passing the baton to me. Colin discussed his forthcoming novel Stephen Dearsley’s Summer of Love, in his blog last week. It’s both very enter-taining and insightful and has certainly piqued my interest in the novel, which I really look forward to reading. You can find what Colin had to say about it at: 

Now for my answers!

1) What is the working title of your next book?
The working title, for the last two years, has been On Light & Carbon. I should say that my first collection had a different title until about a month before it went to print, so things can change! In this case I’m pretty sure this title is a good summary of the concerns of the collection and will be on the cover.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
In a way, by finishing my first collection, which had roughly taken fifteen years to write due to some missteps and misadventures along the way. I recognised, once it was completed, that I had been locked into the sensibility of that book since my late twenties, so I was certain that my next collection would be different, both in terms of imagery and tone. I started this book as I turned forty and naturally that had a bearing. One thing I really like in poetry is the power of the concrete and lucid image. In the new book I employ this strategy again, though I hope the new poems are a little less lyrical and have a more philosophical edge. My first collection drew quite heavily from science – particularly from the natural world with a number of poems about insects, for example – alongside more personal material. While this book does something broadly similar, this time I've tried to push deeper into the science (and bring the reader with me, hopefully) exploring the physics of light, in its many wondrous guises, as well as the carbon of the title: the basis for all life.  Really, what I’m trying to do is connect science to life in some way – and vice versa. It’s also about the role of art and the artist in all this.

3) What genre does your book fall under?
We don’t tend to talk of poetry in terms of genre, though that’s not to say that there aren’t very different traditions and schools within poetry. I hope my work falls somewhere between the metaphysical and the lyrical.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of the characters in the movie rendition?
Well, this is a tricky one for poetry, isn’t it! It’s almost like asking who I would I like to see play myself! That said, there are a number of portraits in the collection. I’m most proud of the one about the 11th Century (in what we call now the Common Era) Islamic scientist Ibn al-Haytham, popularly known as Alhazen, who wrote his masterwork on optics while under house-arrest. In real terms, he was the first person to employ the scientific method. And all this happened six centuries before Newton, I should point out. I’d love to see that story told more fully. I’d cast the brilliant actor Saïd Taghmaoui (first seen in La Haine) to play Alhazen. But to twist the question into a more meaningful one: who would I like to read the audio book? John Hurt or Ralph Fiennes would do very nicely!

5) What is a one-line synopsis of your book?
To try to show the deepest aspect of our humanity and curiosity against the canvas and backdrop  that science has provided us with.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agent?
Neither. An agent who took on a poet would have to be one who had taken a vow of poverty. In my experience they are not the kind of people attracted to that particular business. Then again, the absence of agents is perhaps what keeps poetry poor and pure. The book will be published by Ward Wood Publishing (without a go-between) in September 2013.

7) How long did it take you to write a first draft of the manuscript?
Well, I feel I’m nearly there, but a book isn’t finished till it goes to the printer. The book was written in three distinct phases so I could say I had a first draft after about a year, but so much has been cut and added since then it doesn’t seem like a meaningful answer. To get to the point of having what I’d call a good ‘working draft’ has taken about two and half years. By my standards that’s been very quick! Partly this has been down to employing a new approach to writing poetry. I tried (though didn’t always conform) to the idea of writing a decent draft of a poem in one day. This seemed to help keep the general intent behind a piece in a clearer focus, as well as leaving room for unexpected shifts of perspective. That said, writing this way later leads to lots of finessing and rewriting and there is one very long piece based around archaeological artefacts that took months to write... and then more months to revise!

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I’m not sure. There are a number of poets who are scientists or have a background in science. I really admire the work of undoubtedly the most famous of these in Miroslav Holub, though I think I write about science in a very different way, and from a very different tradition. Perhaps a bigger influence would be the work of the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella – particularly his poetry from the  early sixties to the mid-seventies. I hope, in some way, that I have emulated the movement between abstract thought and iron-cast images that you find in his collections such as Downstream and Nightwalker & other poems. I’ve always loved his work, though its presence is felt more in this collection than my first. Having said that, I’d be loathe to even suggest I’m in the same league as the great man.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Partly it was the tenor of the debate around science and religion of recent years. It seems to me that we are creeping towards a notion that science is the only form of reliable knowledge, with Stephen Hawking stating  recently that “science has made philosophy redundant”. I think this is a far more complex and interesting question than such statements suggest, so I wanted to explore the different ways we comprehend the world and put them together to create a bigger picture of ourselves – whether it be through science, art, myth or personal experience.  

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Well, you will encounter such figures as August Kekulé who is said to have discovered the structure of benzene (the base of all organic life, not just petroleum) in a dream. Then there is the curious figure of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch merchant draper who was one of the key pioneers of the optical microscope. The fact he was a draper isn’t incidental as they were one of the first trades to exploit lenses, here using them to examine the quality of stitching in fabric. Having realised that using two of these lenses would massively increase magnification, van Leeuwenhoek used his new instrument to first peer into water, naturally enough. So excited was he by what he’d seen, he then looked at his own urine and excrement. Never has a trip to the privy been so giddily anticipated, I’ll wager!

                                                      August Kekulé

Having done my best to convince you to check out my collection when it appears, I’m delighted to introduce two fine writers who I have chosen to tag and who will post next Wednesday about their latest work. They are the poet Nessa O’Mahony and fictioner Valerie Sirr. Here’s a little more information about them both.

Nessa O’Mahony was born and lives in Dublin. Her poetry has appeared in a number of Irish, UK, and North American periodicals, has been translated into several European languages. She won the National Women’s Poetry Competition in 1997 and was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Prize and Hennessy Literature Awards. Her second poetry collection, Trapping a Ghost, was published by bluechrome publishing in 2005. A verse novel, In Sight of Home, was published by Salmon Poetry in May 2009. She was awarded an Irish Arts Council literature bursary in 2004. She completed a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Wales, Bangor, in 2007. She was also artist in residence at the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies at University College Dublin and Assistant Editor of UK literary journal Orbis. http://nessaomahony.blogspot.ie/

Valerie Sirr has published short fiction and flash fiction in Ireland, UK, US, Australia and Asia. Publications include The Irish Times, The Sunday Tribune, The New Writer, The Stinging Fly. Some poems are forthcoming in anthologies from Revival Press (Ireland) and Poetry Lostock (UK). Awards include 2007 Hennessy New Irish Writer Award, two Arts Council of Ireland bursaries and other national and international literature prizes, most recently a flash fiction award (2011) from The New Writer Magazine (UK), judged by British poet and writer Catherine Smith. She holds an M. Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. She teaches creative writing and blogs on writing at: www.valeriesirr.wordpress.com. She hopes to publish her short story collection soon.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Intelligent Artifice

I wrote the following article shortly after I'd written a science fiction screenplay (never made alas) in the philosophical tradition of that genre. The piece was to be published in Film Ireland, but for purely logistical reasons had to be cut, so never saw the light of day. It goes some way to explaining my interest in the genre. So, here it goes:


Intelligent Artifice
Science Fiction and the search for the immaterial

In his book of essays, The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that the famous scene in Don Quixote where Quixote attempts to fight the windmills with his sword, is the first expression in literature of man’s discomfort with his own technology. The Age of Reason had arrived and with it the greatest explosion of technological innovation since the Upper Paleolithic. The universe had become a clockwork, a gargantuan machine governed by fixed and immutable laws and God was, in the end, a logician. When Quixote raises his sword he is waving it as his own insignificance in the shadow of such a world.

Film, more than any other art form, owes its very existence to the advancement of the technological and from the beginning film-makers have had a preoccupation with the dual nature of the medium as the mechanical eye that mirrors the eye of direct experience. It’s no surprise then that the first moving image recorded by the Lumiere brothers was of a locomotive – one of the most potent symbols of the industrial – entering the station at La Ciotat. The shadowplay of light on the cave wall had become something precise and reproducible.

Science Fiction as a genre is, by its very nature, dedicated to the exploration of scientific concepts and their consequences to human life and the life of human society. It’s surprising to find, though, that for a genre so preoccupied by the scientific and the symbols of science the message of science fiction films so often comes out in favour of the imprecise and contradictory world of human emotion over the cold exactitudes of scientific reductionism. Few films within the genre can be seen as pure celebration of scientific discovery (or possible future discoveries) and those that do – such as Contact or 2001 – seem to call for an expanded view of science that takes into account the peculiarities of human experience and its search for extra meaning beyond the measurable and seen. In short, they attempt to reconstitute a context in which scientific knowledge exists in that which is beyond science.

Although science fiction as a rule is not committed to revealing science as it stands but as it might be in the future, more often than not futurist dramas say more about the time they were conceived than they do about the future they predict. From this point of view, Fritz Lang’s seminal masterpiece Metropolis can be seen as a quasi-religious appraisal of the plight of the worker in a mechanized world at a time when the Trade Union movement was growing in power. In the central figure of Maria, Lang presents a symbol of the harmony between the “brain and the hand”, a balancing principle regulating the relationship between the industrialist and his workforce. Of course, the industrialist Fredersen attempts to destroy Maria’s message by replacing her with a robot designed to ferment worker unrest – a clear comment on Communism – but in the end he is reconciled to Maria’s cause through the marriage of his son (his conscience) to Maria.

Although Metropolis had appeared in 1926 science fiction film-making in the proper sense only emerged in the 1950s and then largely as a response to the lingering memory of  the atom bomb and its legacy of fear played out in the politics of the Cold War. In Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) the alien visitor Klaatu warns that humanity’s entry into the atomic age poses a threat to the whole universe. The film’s cautionary, though optimistic, message is also echoed in the Edenic parable Forbidden Planet (1956) were Dr Morbius, confronted with the vast superiority of a now extinct alien civilization, believes that the human race is not ready for such knowledge. In a clever (if not very dramatic) Freudian twist, the film argues that it is our primitive instinct or “unconscious monster” that makes such knowledge perilous. It’s probably the correct conclusion but in reality society rarely withholds its technology for fear of it being abused.

Another rich period for science fiction film-making was the 1970s when a number of films where produced which spoke directly to the issues of the time. In Douglas Thumbull’s ecological drama Silent Running (1971) the Earth’s forests have disappeared and the only remaining vegetation exists on spaceships floating quietly through the void of space. When Bruce Dern’s character Freeman Lowell is ordered to destroy his cargo he refuses and in an act of desperation kills his shipmates and leaves – in one of the most poignant images found in science fiction – two robots Huey and Dewey to tend to the garden as it drifts away into the darkness. Soylent Green (1973), though marred by a wooden performance from Charlton Heston, is another interesting meditation on the problem of over-population and the ecological and social decay resulting from it.

If the notion of a mechanical universe asks a question of philosophy and religion, a mechanized society asks a question of everyone who lives in it. And the ultimate expression of the mechanization of human society is the totalitarian state. In Michael Radford’s suitable grim retelling of Orwell’s 1984 (1984) we are presented with a kind of retro-futurism, Oceania most closely resembling war-time Britain but one were fascism has prevailed over democracy. History is the key to the present as the opening credits declare: “He who controls the Past controls the Future. He who controls the Present controls the Past.”

Under the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother John Hurt’s character, Winston Smith, attempts to conduct a sexual relationship in secret, an act banned as a “thought and sex crime” by the State. Like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, also made in 1984, the film explores the limits of human resistance within such a society and finds – in an outcome not dictated to by the demands of Hollywood – that everyone has a breaking point, the film’s bleak message summarised in the devastatingly simple refrain uttered by Winston about his lover: “Under the spreading chestnut tree/ I sold you and you sold me.” 

Another film that mines dystopian themes, though this time in a completely minimalist futuristic setting, is George Lucas’s excellent and underrated first feature THX1138 (1971). In a twist on the notion of mechanical societies being based entirely on materialistic principles, the leader of this unnamed underground city speaks to the citizens – who are denoted merely by a serial number – via confessional booths from behind a Christ-like image instructing them to “work hard, be more productive, prevent accidents, be happy.” Of course, in a world where everything is regulated and drugs are administered to keep the population permanently sedated, there is no such thing as happiness only perhaps hope. The closing scene where THX1138 (Robert Duvall) escapes from the city and emerges into the idyllic landscape above is a truly lyrical finale to a film that makes no concessions to the terrible nature of such a vision.

Perhaps though the most audacious variation on the subject has been the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix with the idea that the ultimate form of subjugation is to not know that you are subjugated – to believe that you are free when you are not. As Morpheus tells Neo, “[you were] born into a prison that you cannot smell, or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.” And metaphorically the most interesting prisons are the ones we cannot see. You can't help but feeling that this prison might be that of material gain above all other values.

The Matrix also expresses one of our deepest fears about our own technology: that it has become so advanced that it can begin to think and out-think us, that our machines may, in the end, make machines of us. Or as Davis Cronenberg would see it in films such as Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999) our machines are destined to outgrow us and it is the future of mankind to merge in some way with technology by way of some kind of biomechanical interface, and if our computers outsmart us so be it – Darwinian evolution would simply have entered a new and exciting conclusion, though one that may ultimately spell our own extinction.

The most striking symbol of the machine, though, is one that is indistinguishable from us: the android. And the question must be asked: is there anything that truly separates us from such an intelligent machine?

In many ways the image of the android gives rise to our deepest suspicion and fear. In The Terminator (1984), James Cameron gives us a cyborg that embodies our worst nightmare: a machine that is almost indestructible, unwavering in its mission to destroy and totally lacking in empathy. This also serves as a good description of the alien species in Ridley Scott’s landmark film Alien (1979) and perhaps the alien is terrifying precisely because it embodies such machine-like qualities coupled with a kind of brute Darwinian ferocity.  

Alien, of course, also has its own android in Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer on the Nostromo spacecraft. Ash represents another version of our disquiet about intelligent machines: he may look and act like us, but he is by design an extension of corporate enterprise and will always choose what is best for the company, or state, over his fellow workers. In an interesting inversion of this idea the android in Alien Resurrection (1997) Call (Winona Ryder) is programmed to care and is revealed to be an android precisely because of her unwavering empathy. As Ripley points out: “No human is that humane.”

Although the idea of artificial intelligence may be seen as another instance were science fiction might anticipate the scientific outcome, the genre’s ongoing fascination with androids may be have more to with their metaphorical charge as representation of ourselves in a post industrial world, than they do about possible scientific advancements. The power of the film Bladerunner (1982) is not that replicants such as Roy (Rutger Hauer) are androids but that they are androids coming into awareness of their own mortality marking and, as such, making a key transition from something merely mechanical to something that resembles life. When Roy confronts his maker Tyrell he says what we might all say given the chance: “I want more life, father.” And if Roy has come into knowledge of fear he also demonstrates in his death-speech (written as it turns out by Hauer himself) that he has also experienced the very human emotion of awe.

Science fiction, like films in any genre, is often guilty of producing trite and formulaic narratives appealing more to the marketability of the genre than the vast possibilities it offers. At its best though, science fiction has produced some of the most intellectually stimulating stories of any kind about the present nature of our lives as well as the future possibilities they occupy in the imagination. If science fiction is on some level fascinated by the windmills of Cervantes novel, it is also like the book’s central character searching for the meaning beyond that landscape. Like the Monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Solaris - the intelliegent planet that presents us with our own deepest desires, in Tarkovsky’s film of the same title - science fiction often describes an encounter between the known and the unknowable, between what is seen and what is beyond the visible. It may not attempt like science to offer final solutions to its questions, but in their place it often delivers enduring visions of what might be true of the past, the present as well as the future of our society.