This short story appears in the current issue of Nature. You can read it here for a limited time: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7414/full/489170a.html
Over the summer I visited the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, a small town by Lake Constance in Southern Germany. The museum was small but well laid out. I’m not going to discuss here what I saw in there as I use that sort of thing in stories, but it was all interesting stuff. All in all a fascinating visit, marred only at the end by something that is all too common now when visiting technical museums. Something that annoys me more and more, something that reduces me to standing in the middle of some room loudly asking:
Why is there an art exhibition?
Why, every time I visit the a museum showing steam engines, industry, aeroplanes, cars, anything vaguely scientific, do I have to have an art exhibition thrust upon me? Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not that I don’t enjoy art galleries, I have even written about them here on occasion. No, what irritates me is the patronising assumption that whilst I’m looking at a history of how things were made, I also need to be culturally educated in some way by second rate artists who couldn’t get their work displayed anywhere else.
Worse, there will be a sign up explaining to me that there is a link between science and art, and this is going to be demonstrated by some painter’s abstract representation of machinery they probably don’t even understand. This annoys me for two reasons. Firstly, you don’t need an artist to show you the link: the form of just about every machine transcends its function – there is a beauty in the shape of those Zeppelins that is owed to more than just aeronautical design. Why not point that out, rather than forcing me to walk through a selection of badly executed paintings before I rejoin the exhibition I came to see? Secondly, if the link between science and art must be expressed, why, on leaving an exhibition of sculpture or ceramic design, do I never see a small display explaining how the internal combustion engine works? Don’t supposedly arty types need educating too?
I am not arguing for a moment there is no link between science and art. Of course there is, although every so often I hear a report on the TV or radio discussing a new artist who is producing revolutionary work combining the two. Is this supposed to be news? I know lots of people who have been doing just that for years.
Haven’t the BBC heard of Science Fiction?
I’ve never spoken at an event before where they were turning people away at the door… however, I strongly suspect that this enthusiasm was more down to a wish to see Dr Kerstin Dautenhahn‘s robots than anything to do with me.
What an interesting event, too. Organised by Sci-Fi London, and taking place in the Royal Society, the evening began with Dr Dautenhahn giving a twenty minute talk about her own research. Afterwards, Tom Hunter led a discussion contrasting real world and science fictional robots. Dr Dautenhahn was keen to stress that robots were neither he nor she but quite definitely it. Whatever human traits people saw in a robots were those they brought themselves. Contrast this with the general Science Fictional robot which is a human clad in metal. There are exceptions, of course. Asimov made great play of blurring the distinction, and, as Tom Hunter kindly pointed out, I did the same in my own short story “Teaching the War Robot to Dance”.
But back to the real robots…
One of the stars of the show was KASPAR, designed to study human robot interaction. (I had an interesting discussion with a roboticist before the event about the importance of studying how people approach each other. If robots are to be accepted, they can’t simply zoom up behind people) KASPAR has been used to work with children with autism: apparently, the children can find it easier to interact with than real people. The plans for KASPAR are available for anyone to view, you can build a copy for around £1000. I’ve put some pictures of the other robots on my Facebook page.
Oh, and did you know that one of the staircases in the Royal Society was designed by Albert Speer? Honestly. Nazis, autism, robots and Tom Hunter. You don’t get this breadth of coverage on other blogs.
I came across Friedländer in Michael Frayn’s novel Headlong (which comes thoroughly recommended).
Max J. Friedländer , 1867-1958, was a German art historian who, according to Frayn, warned against the “vanity of attempting to describe pictures in detail”. Friedländer recommends “the strictest economy of words”, limiting oneself to “aphoristic remarks, put together unsystematically”. The advice struck a chord with me on reading the book, and, as I discovered on subsequently searching the web, it seems to have struck a chord with others.
The advice reminds me of the eyeball kick, mentioned by the the Turkey City Lexicon, amongst other guides:
That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.”
It wasn’t always thus. Chesterton opened one of his Father Brown stories to excellent effect with paragraphs of atmospheric description of dark and sinister pine forests, but this is old fashioned writing in the days of big budget movies, especially for those of us working in the SF field. You’re never going to get the reader to imagine the same spectacle as they can be seen on the big screen, but you can arrest them with the small details (It’s years since I read Schindler’s List, but the image that to always comes to my mind from that book is not the barbed wire or the soldiers, but the little girl in the red coat).
Personally, I don’t like passages describing scenery, I like to keep such things to a minimum, but maybe that’s a matter of taste.
Or maybe not. You’d be surprised how much description a reader fills in for themselves. Think of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. About the only description Austen gives is that he is tall. The rest is left to the reader’s imagination.