Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Reverse Engineering Tim Powers, Do Androids dream like Philip K. Dick? and a Furby Conspiracy...

I've recently finished Tim Powers' latest novel Three Days to Never (Morrow, August, 2006), and no sooner do I read the last few words and scramble to encompassthe book for my current employer's review newsletter (This is what I wrote:
Powers is the master of the fabulist thriller; his novels are a lattice-work of historical research, esoteric theories, and crisp dialogue. His latest includes (but is not limited to) Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, secret societies, the Israeli secret service, quantum physics, psychic espionage, ghosts, the Kabbalah, and time-travel.
When his grandmother dies suddenly, Frank Marrity and his daughter are drawn into a dangerous web of alliances and betrayals in pursuit of a machine that Einstein may have built that is infinitely more destructive than the Atomic bomb. Powers has written an adventure of second chances, and the lengths to which a father will go to in protecting his child. )

--with the 100 word limitation that was stopping me from blathering on about the book and my personal relationship with Powers' writing--than I was pointed to this New York Times article (of course, all copyright due the NYT and the author):

A Strange Loss of Face, More Than Embarrassing

LOS ANGELES, June 23 — Philip K. Dick has gone missing, and now Hollywood finds itself an android short.

An actual android.

This famed science fiction writer, whose work was the source for many a Hollywood blockbuster, from "Blade Runner" to "Minority Report," has been dead since 1982. Last year an admiring doctoral student and evident computer whiz, David Hanson, built a life-size facsimile of Mr. Dick, using the latest artificial intelligence technology, robotics and a skinlike substance he calls "frubber."

The android, which looked just like the author and was able to conduct rudimentary conversations about Mr. Dick's work and ideas, was at the cutting edge of robotic technology, able to make eye contact and believable facial expressions.

The robot made several public appearances last year, including at the Comic Con in San Diego, where he (it?) was on a panel for the coming movie, "A Scanner Darkly," which is based on a Dick novel.

Indeed, Warner Independent Pictures, which on July 7 is releasing the film, an experimental, animated thriller directed by Richard Linklater, had intended to send the robot on a promotional tour to promote the film.

That is, until its head went missing.

"We thought we might have him do a junket, we would have pitched him to Letterman," said Laura Kim, a senior executive at Warner Independent, the art-house arm of Warner Brothers. "I don't know if they would have had him on, but it would have been fun and interesting and perfect for the film."

What happened to the android is a mystery, one that is more than mildly intriguing to fans who knew Mr. Dick as a futurist who advocated freedom and compassion for robots in an evolving world, and that has been debated in the technology press.

Less intrigued, rather more like depressed, is Mr. Hanson, the robot maker who left the head on an America West flight from Dallas to Las Vegas in December. En route to San Francisco, Mr. Hanson, 36, had to change planes in Las Vegas, something he hadn't expected.

He had been traveling for weeks, pulling all-nighters in a race between his work as a roboticist (he also made a much-discussed robotic head of Einstein); as the founder of a fledgling company, Hanson Robotics; and his doctoral work. But unlike his creation, Mr. Hanson is, apparently, distressingly human.

"They woke me up, I got my laptop from under my seat, and being dazed, I just forgot that I had the robot in there," said Mr. Hanson, referring to the head in a black, American Tourister roller bag, left in the overhead compartment.

After landing in San Francisco, he notified the airline, whose officials apparently found the head in Las Vegas, packed it in a box and sent it on the next flight to San Francisco. Mysteriously, it never arrived.

"It's hard to know where they went wrong," said Mr. Hanson. "Did it go on to another city? Did it get mistagged? Did it end up in a warehouse? What happened?" He still doesn't know, though he is in touch with America West every few weeks in a vain quest for answers.

The rest of the android's body was traveling separately, and arrived at San Francisco without incident.

The robot was only coincidentally tied to the film, an unusual project that looks much like a graphic novel come to life: it uses live-action photography overlaid with advanced animation.

The movie, a cautionary tale about drug use, stars an animated Keanu Reeves as an undercover police officer who is ordered to start spying on his friends, played by Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. When he is directed to begin surveillance on himself, he finds himself in a paranoid web, where people's true loyalties become impossible to decode.

Over time, Mr. Dick — who himself struggled with drug abuse — has become a cultural hero in science fiction circles, known for futuristic novels and stories that pose many of the moral and philosophical dilemmas that come with advancing technology.

And Hollywood has had its own love affair with the writer, successfully basing huge franchise movies on his work, including "Blade Runner," with Harrison Ford, and "Total Recall" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as smaller films like "Impostor" and "Paycheck."

For Mr. Hanson the missing android is an open sore, straining his relations with Mr. Dick's foundation and the author's two surviving daughters, who provided access to much of Mr. Dick's nonpublished materials, which were downloaded into the android's brain. Sorry, database.

It took Mr. Hanson and a team of other experts six months to build the robot, and required $25,000 from student loans and investors. He also regards it as an artist might a masterpiece, one of a kind and invaluable in its own right.

The film's promotion might have been an opportunity to educate a wider public about Mr. Hanson's — and Mr. Dick's — preoccupations regarding the limits of technology, and the dangers. The robot, Mr. Hanson said, referring to the author by his initials, "realizes science fiction, it transitions it from fiction to reality, to some extent."

"It implies that transition," he continued. "And it's supposed to provoke one to consider issues that P.K.D. was considering."

However satisfying to those with a sense of irony, Mr. Hanson is not comforted by the idea of his homage to Mr. Dick on a jaunt somewhere or, more likely, stuck in storage.

"It's almost like it has some free spirit to it," he said. "A lot of people have said that it's almost like a P.K.D. narrative, like one of those absurd twists that would occur in a P.K.D. novel. But emotionally it doesn't feel that way to me."

In Hollywood, though, executives have found a way to turn the loss to their advantage. Noting the oddity of the story, Ms. Kim said of the android: "He was perfect for the film. Now he's disappeared and that's perfect for the film too."

Talk about conspiracy fodder. And strangely appropriate for a post-Tim Powers Novel State of Mind... For now we discuss Three Days to Never; a little later, we discuss the Furby Conspiracy...

I hadn't read a novel by Powers in close to 7 years or so... And I'd forgotten what happens to me after the process.

See, I've figured out Mr. Powers' game; or, if we want to use Area 51 terminology, I've figured out what runs this UFO, I just can't figure out how to make it fly...

Stick with me.

My process: I read a Powers novel, say the wonderfully urban-fabulism that is Last Call, that involves (for starters) Arthurian mythology, chaos theory, Bugsy Siegal and the early history of Las Vegas, Egyptian Magic and Tarot lore. I find correlations with my own peculiar interest in the occult sciences, and myth and legend, but can't quite place where Powers deviates from what Kage Baker so succinctly calls the Shadow of History --where actual history allows for movement and manipulation of events, contrary to several cardinal no-nos of Time Travel Paradoxes-- like Siegal's real reason for creating Vegas, or the origin of the Tarot (does it really go back as far as Egypt?); I then begin to scour books for what I know nudged Powers away from fact and into the realm of fantasy conjecture.

I've been turned onto so many fringe (but not too wild) ideas and writers because of Mr. Powers that a simple "thanks for completely distorting my non-fiction reading habits," might not be taken the right way.

So to whit: Three Days to Never.
It's technically not a fantasy; neither is it hard SF. But it smoothly crosses the lines many times, and I feel that Powers is pursuing a line of thinking that calls into question modern science's tendency to disregard the work done by ancient societies (early Chinese, Arabic, Meso-American, for example), and practicioners of magical systems (Astrology, Alchemy, Kabbalism, etc.), and explores the possibility that they understood the quantum nature of the universe--albeit in an allegorical way; so what if they didn't have the equations all worked out?

Three Days to Never retains its internal logic about the state of reality (eg. 11 dimensional space-time and the reasonable thought that one of those could be what is termed 'the ghost realm.'); I know that Einstein and Chaplin were friends; I know that Einstein was haunted by the ultimate shape of Reality (was Time really an illusion?)--he had endless discussions with the Logician/mathematician Kurt Godel about it; I know Einstein did have an illegitimate daughter who vanished off of history's radar in her 20's (Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds briefly refers to her); I know the Nazi's were obsessed with occult research during WWII (the Indiana Jones movies were not far off)... I know all this, yet I read Powers' novel and was caught up in the sense that I couldn't tell what was fact and what was made up, implied, conjectured, invented...

That's thats what make Tim Powers so amazing; his novels skirt frustratingly near accepted, documented, reality, and the wildly implausible (like ghosts and gods and djinns and destiny and vampires and magic) all at once. He does his research. Most famously, his research for Anubis Gates involved one of the most comprehensive studies of a congested society, Henry Mayhew's London Labor and the Poor, which gave Powers ample ammo to create a London brimming with cultural aberrations, gaps in the chaos that allowed for odd belief systems to overcome the destitute, for the ramshackle nature of London in the early 1800's to house secret cults and societies, and outlandish murder and events (like say, werewolves, an Egyptian sorcerer, and a time-lost English professor).
Each novel is an example of that tightrope act. And each novel is better than the dreck that Dan Brown churned out (it feels good to say that, finally). My hatred of the phenomenon that is the Da Vinci Code came flying back while I was reading Three Days to Never; When I read Brown's novel, I could pin-pont the 5 books he'd used as reference (I'm sure Powers could place them too). Brown's characters were cardboard, his narrative was like a butchered travel book (here we have the Louvre, did you know...)... and that schmuck sold millions!
And here we have Mr. Powers, who reaches beyond Brown's safe conjecture (If Kazantakis did it in the 70's with The Last Temptation of Christ, and THEN a movie was made of it, it's safe), in every novel and YET half his novels are STILL Out of Print (With Apologies to Babbage Press' Print on Demand efforts to bring back the delightful pirate- Voodoo treasure that is On Stranger Tides (published originally in the early 80's, no less: Can we say "Pirates of the Caribbean ripped of Powers"?); but really: The Stress of Her Regard, The Fault Lines cycle: Last Call (in print), Expiration Date, Earthquake Weather...).

I digress.
I plan a more coherent review of Three Days to Never (more than 100 words, and no digressions), in the near future. I must address the Philip K. Dick connection.

Well, it's no secret that Mr. Powers (and James Blaylock and K. W. Jeter) were proteges, drinking buddies, whathaveyou, of Mr. Dick. All three have been elbow-deep in writing, with varying degrees of 'success', if one is to measure success purely in book sales; in the opinion of many all three are more than capable storytellers and their novels (most of which are out of print as I write) were way ahead of their time. I can only imagine what kind of education being a friend of PKD near the end of his life conveyed; an education at once technical as it was moral and spiritual--a blessing and a burden I think...

So here's this NYT article, and my brush with the Powers technique (so brilliantly Wiki'ed here). And I can't help but think "Powers'll find a way to weave this into his next novel..." Then I think about what it must be like for a facscimile of a friend a) existing, and b) being stolen/lost. Must make one think about how accurate PKD's speculations have become...

Then I tell Sarah and Steve about the article and Sarah come up with the diabolical-- Furby Conspiracy....
(for the sake of reading, I'll post the details next...)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi! Love you blog articles.
A passionate fan for years so I started my own blog :-)