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YLEM Journal: Artists Using Science & Technology
Jules Verne & Beyond

by Loren Means, Editor
Vol. 27, No. 8, July/August 2007
YLEM, San Francisco, USA, 2007
15 pp., illus. 9 b/w.

Reviewed by Dr Eugenia Fratzeskou (London)


YLEM is an international organisation of artists, curators, writers, scientists, educators and art enthusiasts, that has been established in 1981 before ISEA began. The mission of YLEM is to "explore the intersection of the arts and sciences" and "to bring the humanising and unifying forces of art" to science and technology. YLEM has enabled artists to engage with science and technology in imaginative and pioneering ways outside the limitations of academia and the art-world, and cultivated the appreciation for such artworks. The YLEM members include pioneers of computer art, whose influence is evident in art education and the broader context. The YLEM website presents the history of YLEM and an impressive array of initiatives.

The particular issue focuses on Jules Verne’s work, following the centennial (2005) of his death (1828-1905) and the renewed interest in his novels by literary scholars, science fiction writers and film-makers. Loren Mean’s editorial introduction includes an informative review of World Weavers: Globalisation, Science Fiction, and the Cybernetic Revolution (edited by W.K. Yuen, G. Westfahl and A.K. Chan, Hong Kong University Press). The issue contains Ryder W. Miller’s article on Verne, two interviews with science fiction authors Bruce Balfour and Elizabeth Bear (conducted/edited by Means), and a short introduction to the upcoming YLEM Forum on sculptor Bruce Beasley.

This issue offers an extensive and balanced account of the ways in which science fiction has evolved in relation to the scientific and technological advancements (particularly AI/AL and cybernetics), the growth of urbanism and the changing socio-political conditions. Challenging insights and interesting questions emerge on the much-debated relationships between those domains. Means discusses how international and hard science fiction novels are marginalised because of the domination of "English-language fantasy" and the "American entertainment industry" (p. 2). Means presents the highlights of World Weavers, the most telling of which include T.Tatsumi’s essay on Kubrick’s 2001 film, for grasping the tropes of the "classic" science fiction of "outer space" and the "inner space of the New Wave science fiction" and, moreover, how cyberspace has emerged through the "transcultural clash" between "iconographic" and "ideographic imagination" (pp. 3, 14). Other highlights include the loss of individualism in the cyberspace and global "megacities" (p. 3).

Miller offers a stimulating and comprehensive account of Verne’s contribution to science fiction. It is interesting to follow Miller’s argument on why Verne is considered the founder of modern hard science fiction, rather than Wells, Shelley and Poe. Verne was fascinated by the scientific endeavour of his time and acquired the scientific knowledge that enabled him to respond to the intellectual challenges of science and to predict some modern technological advancements. Verne engages with new scientific and technological inventions, explanations and possibilities, enabling the reader to become an explorer and a learner. Furthermore, Verne asks questions that concern the potential social consequences of the development of technology, such as, its use for warfare.

Interesting comparisons can be made between Means, Miller, Balfour and Bear’s arguments. Apart from the quality of a writer’s engagement with science, the relationship and genres of fantasy and science fiction can be determined by the degree, type and purpose of their "cognitive estrangement" (D. Suvin’s term, p.5). Those genres may present a different perspective on ourselves and the changing world, as well as propose new worlds. Science fiction engages with the upcoming fields of technological innovation instead of simply presenting fantastical worlds. Nevertheless, it is not enough to predict technological and scientific developments and envision the future. Apart from exploration-based, science fiction may be also adventure-based using problem-solving and strategic logic, introducing alienation and subversion for enabling social critique through posing important challenging questions and new ways of thinking. It may be thus, possible to gain an understanding of our changing society and ourselves, while avoiding escapism and an exclusive focus on futurism.

Interestingly, Balfour’s interview reveals the changing relationship of science fiction novels and films to computer games. The early graphic adventure games have been based on problem-solving and role-playing for finding codes and breaking into secure databases. Nevertheless, the emphasis is placed on iconography in the latest computer games (shooter-type). It would have been stimulating to include a larger section in the journal that deals with those issues.

The particular issue would have benefited from including a special section on how artists have been engaging with all those fields (science fiction, cybernetics, AI/AL, computer games, globalisation etc.) and their relationships. That section may have included artists’ statements, critical essays, interviews and good quality reproductions of their work.



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