Issue 5: Old Boys and Blade Runners, Polyglot Skype, Sino-Gore Gaming, and Egyptian Comic Culture (December, 2014)


(1) Of Old Boys and Blade Runners: Park Chan-Wook Rumored to Direct SF Thriller “Second Son”

(2) In An Alien Tongue: Polyglot Skype And An Update on Machine Translation

(3) Sino-Gore Gaming: Retro Game Lets You Slay Monsters From Asian Culture

(4) “Pass By Tomorrow” and Egyptian SF Comic Culture

(5) Happy Holidays From SF Around the World!

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Of Old Boys and Blade Runners: Park Chan-Wook Rumored to Direct SF Thriller “Second Son”

Back in the 1990s, before digital distribution of film really took off, the only way for Torontonians to see most Asian films was to make a pilgrimage to Chinatown, where a few sidewalk vendors and pop-up stores around Dundas and Spadina would satisfy your jones for the latest in Hong Kong crime dramas, Japanese avant garde movies, and Korean blood-fests with bootleg DVDs.

(Cultural clarification: Yes, you could get Japanese and Korean films. Vietnamese too. Like many Chinatowns, the one in downtown Toronto long ago became a kind of amalgamated Asian-town, although Chinese culture still predominates there and other Asian enclaves, like Bloor Street’s Koreatown, have popped up elsewhere.)

Chinatown in Toronto. Photo (c) 2008 Nas Hedron.

Chinatown in Toronto. Photo (c) 2008 Nas Hedron borrowed from my free album over here.

It was there that I first encountered Park Chan-wook, through movies like J.S.A. and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Not long after, he burst onto the stage at Cannes, taking the Grand Jury prize with Oldboy. Then, in 2013, he made his crossover debut in Hollywood with Stokerstarring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode–which received mixed reviews.

Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-wook

Now, according to Variety, it seems he may be taking on a science fiction thriller called Second Born, based on a script that brought newcomer David Jagernauth second place at Scriptapalooza in 2010.

Coverage of the script puts it in the genre territory of Blade Runner and Strange Days. The coverage is available in PDF format here. The summary includes the following:

In the future, scientists are able to download the human mind onto a device no larger than a finger. This backup brain, called a Memex, digitally records every thought, experience, and dream consciousness itself and is often referred to as the soul of a person.

A Memex can be removed at death and placed in a digital world as a holograph or it can be transferred to a different living body. This has led to innocent people being kidnapped and sold on the black-market for their flesh. Special Agent THANE MERRICK (35), investigates these illegal rebirths.

One night his boss, Director CHRISTOF ZEKI (70’s), calls Merrick to investigate the murder of Chief Justice LAURA DAMATO (65). Merrick follows a few clues but cannot find the killer as he has been “reborn” into several different people’s flesh. When Damato is reborn in her clone body, Merrick suspects the new Chief Justice is not who she claims
to be. However Merrick’s supervisor, Deputy Director VANNEVAR KOCH (44), will not let him pursue his hunch.

Merrick secretly continues his investigation, but as soon as he gets close to the truth, Merrick is murdered. He wakes up with his Memex in a stranger’s body. Merrick discovers he has been saved by a mysterious man wearing a mirrored mask
known only as DOPPELGANGER.

There are enough shades of William Gibson and Richard Morgan in there (not to mention my own forays into the fiction of uploading in Luck and Death at the Edge of the World, Felon and the Judas Kiss, and Los Angeles Honey) to tempt me, even without the director of Oldboy being on board. There’s a long road between here and the finished film, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out.

Jagernauth discusses the origins of the script (among other things) in the video below.  Below that is an interview with Park Chan-wook recorded at a showing of Stoker.

In An Alien Tongue: Polyglot Skype And An Update on Machine Translation

The issue of translation is necessarily one of the core concerns of any genuinely international culture and, of course, is well represented amongst SF tropes like Star Trek’s universal translator. We’ve touched on it before (SFATW Issue #2, “In An Alien Tongue: SF and Translation“), and I’m sure we will again.

In this issue’s update on the issue, telecommunications company Skype throws its into hat into the machine translation ring.  As the company’s Big Blog post, “Skype Translator Preview–An Exciting Journey to a New Chapter in Communication,” says:

Today, we are excited to announce the first phase of the Skype Translator preview program. The preview program will kick-off with two spoken languages, Spanish and English, and 40+ instant messaging languages will be available to Skype customers who have signed-up via the Skype Translator sign-up page and are using Windows 8.1 on the desktop or device.

Skype brings people together to make progress on what matters to them. Skype Translator will open up endless possibilities for people around the world to connect, communicate and collaborate; people will no longer be hindered by geography and language.

From the Skype post “Skype Translator–How it Works.”

From the Skype post “Skype Translator–How it Works.”

Elsewhere, in a piece titled “Skype Translator–How it Works,” Skype has posted some (fairly general) details about the translator’s functioning:

Machine Learning is the capability of software learning from training data examples, and Skype Translator is built on a robust Machine Learning platform. By learning from the training data during this preview stage, along with all of its nuances, the software can learn to better recognize and translate the diversity of topics, accents and language variation of actual Skype Translator users.

Skype Translator’s machine learning protocols train and optimize speech recognition (SR) and automatic machine translation (MT) tasks, acting as the glue that holds these elements together. This “glue” transforms the recognized text to facilitate translation. This process includes the removal of disfluencies (i.e. ‘ahs’ and ‘umms’ as well as re-phrasings), division of the text into sentences, as well as addition of punctuation and capitalization.

The training data for speech recognition and machine translation comes from a variety of sources, including translated web pages, videos with captions, as well as previously translated and transcribed one-on-one conversations. Skype Translator records conversations in order to analyze the scripts and train the system to better learn each language. We have also had many people donate data from previous conversations, which we also analyze and use to create training material for the statistical models that teach the Speech Recognition and Machine Translation engines how to map the incoming audio stream to text, and then the text to another language. Skype Translator participants are all clearly notified as the call begins that their conversation will be recorded and used to improve the quality of Microsoft’s translation and voice recognition services.

After the data is prepared and entered into the machine learning system, the machine learning software builds a statistical model of the words in these conversations, and their context. When you say something, the software can find something similar in its statistical model, and apply the previously learned transformation from audio to text and from text into the foreign language.

You can view a demo in the video below.

Sino-Gore Gaming: Retro Game Lets You Slay Monsters From Asian Culture

Well, it seems like you can’t turn around in the speculative fiction world these days without bumping up against Asian genre culture. In perhaps the most meta instance of this phenomenon, Games in Asia reports on the success of the Chinese Zombie War games, in which ghouls from Asian genre films are recycled as the antagonists in Asian genre games.

Malaysia’s Tomato Animation was one of the few Asian game companies to make use of this often overlooked supernatural phenomenom back in 2011, when it released its hit game Chinese Zombie War.

“We knew we couldn’t compete with big game companies, so we decided to focus on the Asian market. That’s one of the reasons why we chose Chinese vampires,” explains Nas Rahmat, speaking for the studio.

The action game features you venturing down dark paths filled with ghosts and ghouls, battling jiangshi [Chinese vampires] among other beasties. Visually, it’s got some pretty awesome 3D modeling and animations – probably some of the best I’ve seen out of Southeast Asia – and proves to be a fun time slapping talismans onto vampiric heads.

Images from the Chinese Zombie War Games.

Images from the Chinese Zombie War Games.

Chinese Zombie War was successful–one of the top five apps in China–so naturally it’s spawned a sequel, Chinese Zombie War Demon Arise.  A major update to the games is due in May 2015, and an animated series is planned to follow.

Take a tour through the world of the games in the video below.

Pass By Tomorrow and Egyptian SF Comic Culture

In Issue #3 of SFATW we looked at Arabic Science Fiction and its potential role in real-world innovation (SFATW, Issue #3 “Yasser Bahjatt and Arabic Science Fiction“).  A quick look around indicates that genre culture in the Arabic world is likely to be an ongoing topic.

This issue we witness the birth of a new futuristic comic in Egypt, Pass By Tomorrow.  As Eihab Boraie reports in a recent article in Cairo Scene, comic culture is well established in Egyptian life:

Long before there were PlayStations, the internet or smart phones, Egyptians young and old used to bury their noses in comics books as an escape from the cacophony of the Cairene life. With the rise of technology, the passions for comic books faded but were not forgotten. Determined to bring back this medium to cultural light is Sherif Adel with Egypt’s newest Arabic satirical Sci Fi comic book series, Pass By Tomorrow.

The publisher's web site.

Darth Vader and Doctor Doom inhabit the publisher’s web site.

Adel told Boraie about the roots of Pass By Tomorrow:

“I was inspired by little novellas that were famous in 90s called Malaf el-Mustaqbal (Future Files) by Dr. Nabil Farouq,” he explains. The Future Files debuted in 1984 and ran until 2009 releasing 160 titles in that period and solidifying itself as the only Egyptian Sci Fi offering on the scene. Set in 2000, the not-so realistic, but always imaginative series followed the tales of the fictional Egyptian Scientific Intelligence Agency. According to Adel, “They got me into science fiction and painted a very positive and optimistic view about Egypt, where organised and forward thinking Egyptians were called upon to save the world hundreds of times.”

Inspired by the series, Adel set out to create his own vision of the future filled with all the humour of present day Egypt. “How I imagined the future is that it would still be a bit like it is now. Disorganised with crazy things happening all the time and from that picture I wanted to add funny satirical ideas about how Egyptians would deal within it,” describes Adel. Adel’s writing and illustrations manage to walk a fine, albeit funny, line in predicting how Egyptians would deal with an alien invasion through the eyes of series’ main character, Fahmy. Without giving too much away, Adel hints “that aliens are coming to Egypt, and while the world’s media is baffled as to why Egypt… Egyptian media spreads the news that it is because Egyptians are the most intelligent.“ With clever writing and wonderful illustrations, Adel achieves at creating a space-time wormhole between today’s reality and the twist-filled futuristic world he has created.

We wish Adel–and Egyptian comic book fans–the best of luck with Pass By Tomorrow.

For anyone who wants to keep up with the comic, the publisher’s web site is here and the Pass By Tomorrow Facebook page is here.

Happy Holidays From SF Around the World!

To everyone out there–no matter which holiday you celebrate, if any at all–happy holiday season from SF Around the World!

Around here it’s time to kick back and watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the 1966 version, of course) and Die Hard.

See you on the other side of the new year

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