Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Cavemen, Explosions and Psychothyretics:

The Future History of Art

By Bob Billing
©2002, Bob Billing


When humans first moved into caves, they began to decorate the walls. It's reasonable to guess that they were responding to a deep-seated desire to represent what they saw around them, to practice make-believe about good hunting. And perhaps they simply wanted something nice to look at. What they did was largely dictated by what they could do; by the pigments they could find and the natural fibres that made the first artists' brushes.

Every artist since has faced the same challenges. The limitations of technique define what can be done, and the audiences decide what they will accept. Audiences can be capricious. For example, Spike Milligan's classic comedy series The Goon Show, which ran on British radio from soon after the end of the Second World War and went on for several decades, regularly used the comic explosion as a plot device. One character, ususally the hapless Bluebottle, would do something that involved a large quantity of dynamite, and towards the end of the show there would be a thunderous explosion from which the character would stagger shouting, "You dirty rotten swine, you've deaded me!" This went down remarkably well with British audiences despite their having recently emerged from the blitzkrieg in which large sections of cities had been bombed out of existence by the Luftwaffe. However when decades later terrorist bombing, aimed at killing and injuring civilians rather than destroying property, became a regular feature of British life the explosion became less funny as a plot device and very few shows now make use of it.

Every new technology, as it has been developed, has found an artistic application. The Venetians learned how to make clear glass and their artists made some of the most stunning glassware in history. Developing metallurgy allowed us to make the grand piano. Aniline dyes handed the dressmakers gloriously coloured fabrics. Fast photographic emulsions made possible the creation of the cinema. Television gave us-- well, perhaps there have been a few failures.

What comes next? I think, as a science fiction writer, that future artistic history will develop in the same general way, but future technology will enable artists to do greater and more spectacular works.

This is a theme which many writers have already used. Douglas Adams, in the second series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, used a chorus of off-key robots. They were supposed to be singing the praises of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, or rather its complaints department. But since nothing the corporation built ever worked properly their singing never quite came together, with disastrously comic results. Stanislaw Lem, in The Cyberiad, describes Trurl's attempts to build an electronic poet, a machine that can simulate the muse. However, the machine proved impossible to turn off as it made such impassioned pleas in flawless verse that nobody had the heart to pull the plug. Even deaf technicians were defeated as the machine could mime.

The sky is most definitely not the limit. As writers of speculative fiction, we can dream about new, and more powerful, technologies to put into the hands of the artists we conjure up as characters. In Run from the Stars, (still looking for a publisher) I refer briefly to Arcturian Grand Opera. While performing out-of-doors, the cast is assisted by light shows, pyrotechnics, and synchronized spaceships overhead. Tolkien added a dash of magic to the fireworks in The Lord of the Rings.

There is still much more to be done. What about entirely magical performances, where actors and set alike are conjured out of nothing by a director-mage? Can we imagine robot court jesters, performers whose skin can display moving, three-dimensional pictures or whole planets used as canvases? Asimov has already looked at the last of these. In Buy Jupiter aliens paint an advertising slogan on the unfortunate gas giant.

Finally I'd like to look at one idea I'm developing myself for the novel I'm working on at the moment. This is the direct connection of the viewer's brain to a computer programmed by the artist. The work of art is then presented to the viewer as a lucid, realistic dream through which the audience can move at will. The artist simply creates the game world and defines its rules: for example, nobody gets killed, magic works if you can afford to pay for it, and there are wise guides who will help you through the game. I've called the technique psychothyresis from the Greek psyche, the soul and thyra, a gateway. Literally it is a gateway between the soul and the artistic creation. However, it allows a great deal of audience participation. It’s possible to buy a gun and shoot the computer generated characters, or decimate the wildlife, if that's what you want to do. It's also possible to dive off a thousand-foot cliff into a rock-fanged sea, only to have the safety mechanism trip in the last second before impact. The player then splashes gently into lukewarm cocoa dotted with giant marshmallows. But within the artist's game world you can cheat and lie, help or harm, kill or make love as you choose. Nothing is real, nobody actually gets hurt. Or do they?

Within the psychothyretic world is there any such thing as a moral imperative? Are any actions right or wrong? The point of the story is to challenge the whole idea of morality, to ask unanswerable questions. And in doing that to make the jump from "Thou shalt not kill" to "Don't murder people because..." In other words, to take the readers out of themselves and enable them to turn around and see into their own souls. Perhaps if we could understand the why behind right and wrong we'd be better and wiser people.

Which, in a sense, is what artists have always been trying to show us.