What Is a “Blerd?” Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #56 Discusses Nerd Culture and Race with The Second City’s Anthony LeBlanc

The Interim Executive Producer of The Second City joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss the scope of black nerd-dom: what nerdy properties provide to those who feel "othered," using sci-fi to talk about race, Black Panther and other heroes, afrofuturism, black anime fans, Star Trek, Key & Peele, Get Out vs. Us, and more.

A few articles you might enjoy:

Some relevant videos and podcasts:

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Rick and Morty as Absurdist Humor, Yet Legitimate Sci-Fi with Family Drama (Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #54)

Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt address the 4-season 2013 Adult Swim show, which currently has a 94% critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What kind of humor is it, and how are we supposed to take its sci-fi and family drama elements? While its concepts start as parody, with an anything-goes style of animation, they're creative and grounded enough to actually contribute to multiple genres. How smart is the show, exactly? And its fans? Is Rick a super hero, or maybe essentially Dr. Who? What might this very serialized sit-com look like in longevity?

We also touch on other adult cartoons like South Park, Solar Opposites, The Simpsons, Family Guy, plus Community, Scrubs, and more.

Hear the interview we refer to with the show's creators. Watch the video we mention about its directors. Visit the Rick and Morty wiki for episode descriptions and other things.

Some articles that we bring up or otherwise fueled our discussion include:

Also, do you want a Plumbus?

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

When Astronomer Johannes Kepler Wrote the First Work of Science Fiction, The Dream (1609)

The point at which we date the birth of any genre is apt to shift depending on how we define it. When did science fiction begin? Many cite early masters of the form like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as its progenitors. Others reach back to Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein as the genesis of the form. Some few know The Blazing World, a 1666 work of fiction by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who called her book a “hermaphroditic text.” According to the judgment of such experts as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, sci-fi began even earlier, with a novel called Somnium (“The Dream”), written by none other than German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. Maria Popova explains at Brain Pickings:

In 1609, Johannes Kepler finished the first work of genuine science fiction — that is, imaginative storytelling in which sensical science is a major plot device. Somnium, or The Dream, is the fictional account of a young astronomer who voyages to the Moon. Rich in both scientific ingenuity and symbolic play, it is at once a masterwork of the literary imagination and an invaluable scientific document, all the more impressive for the fact that it was written before Galileo pointed the first spyglass at the sky and before Kepler himself had ever looked through a telescope.

The work was not published until 1634, four years after Kepler’s death, by his son Ludwig, though “it had been Kepler’s intent to personally supervise the publication of his manuscript,” writes Gale E. Christianson. His final, posthumous work began as a dissertation in 1593 that addressed the question Copernicus asked years earlier: “How would the phenomena occurring in the heavens appear to an observer stationed on the moon?” Kepler had first come “under the thrall of the heliocentric model,” Popova writes, “as a student at the Lutheran University of Tübingen half a century after Copernicus published his theory.”

Kepler’s thesis was “promptly vetoed” by his professors, but he continued to work on the ideas, and corresponded with Galileo 30 years before the Italian astronomer defended his own heliocentric theory. “Sixteen years later and far from Tübingen, he completed an expanded version,” says Andrew Boyd in the introduction to a radio program about the book. “Recast in a dreamlike framework, Kepler felt free to probe ideas about the moon that he otherwise couldn’t.” Not content with cold abstraction, Kepler imagined space travel, of a kind, and peopled his moon with aliens.

And what an imagination! Inhabitants weren’t mere recreations of terrestrial life, but entirely new forms of life adapted to lunar extremes. Large. Tough-skinned. They evoked visions of dinosaurs. Some used boats, implying not just life but intelligent, non-human life. Imagine how shocking that must have been at the time.

Even more shocking to authorities were the means Kepler used in his text to reveal knowledge about the heavens and travel to the moon: beings he called “daemons” (a Latin word for benign nature spirits before Christianity hijacked the term), who communicated first with the hero’s mother, a witch practiced in casting spells.

The similarities between Kepler’s protagonist, Duracotus, and Kepler himself (such as a period of study under Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe) led the church to suspect the book was thinly veiled autobiographical occultism. Rumors circulated, and Kepler’s mother was arrested for witchcraft and subjected to territio verbalis (detailed descriptions of the tortures that awaited her, along with presentations of the various devices).  It took Kepler five years to free her and prevent her execution.

Kepler’s story is tragic in many ways, for the losses he suffered throughout his life, including his son and his first wife to smallpox. But his perseverance left behind one of the most fascinating works of early science fiction—published hundreds of years before the genre is supposed to have begun. Despite the fantastical nature of his work, “he really believed,” says Sagan in the short clip from Cosmos above, “that one day human beings would launch celestial ships with sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, filled with explorers who, he said, would not fear the vastness of space.”

Astronomy had little connection with the material world in the early 17th century. “With Kepler came the idea that a physical force moves the planets in their orbits,” as well as an imaginative way to explore scientific ideas no one would be able to verify for decades, or even centuries. Hear Somnium read at the top of the post and learn more about Kepler’s fascinating life and achievements at Brain Pickings.

Related Content:

Mary Shelley’s Handwritten Manuscript of Frankenstein: This Is “Ground Zero of Science Fiction,” Says William Gibson

Stream 47 Hours of Classic Sci-Fi Novels & Stories: Asimov, Wells, Orwell, Verne, Lovecraft & More

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Free Science Fiction Classics Available on the Web (Updated)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Twilight Zone Morality Tales: A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast Discussion (#52)

Something's strange... Is it a dream? If it's a morality tale with a twist ending, you're probably in the Twilight Zone. Your hosts Brian Hirt, Erica Spyres, and Mark Linsenmayer, plus guest Ken Gerber (Brian's brother) are in it this week, discussing the thrice revived TV series. Does the 1959-1963 show hold up? What makes for a good TZ episode, and does Jordan Peele's latest iteration capture the spirit? We talk about episodes new and old, the 1983 film, plus comparisons to Black Mirror and David Lynch.

The classic episodes we focus most on (and might spoil, so you should go watch them) are It's a Good Life, Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?, What You Need, The Howling Man, Perchance to Dream, and Nick of Time. The others Ken recommended for us are The Obsolete Man and The Masks. Mark complains about Walking Distance.

In the new series, season 1, we do spoil Blurry Man and praise (but don't spoil) Replay. We don't spoil season two at all, but recommend Try, Try and Meet in the Middle and pan Ovation and 8.

Some articles we looked at include:

A good video on the background of the show is "American Masters Rod Serling: Submitted for your Approval," and you can find detailed discussions of many episodes on The Twilight Zone Podcast. Ken recommends The Twilight Zone Companion. Oh, and Chris Hardwick really likes TZ.

If you enjoyed this episodes, you might like our previous discussion with Ken on time travel.

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This week, we continue for more than half an hour, further discussing the Twilight Zone with Ken, which includes a look at the 1985-1989 series.

This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Get a First Glimpse of Foundation, the New TV Series Being Adapted from Isaac Asimov’s Iconic Series of Novels

Five years ago we told you about the plans to create a mini-series out of Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi series Foundation, while also pointing you in the direction of the 1973 BBC radio dramatization. Back in 2015, Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher, was attached and HBO was set to produce. And then we all forgot about it. (Well I did, anyway.)

Fast forward into the COVID tsunami of this week and AppleTV just dropped the first trailer for the series. Nolan is out and David Goyer is in as showrunner. Goyer loves his pulp, and wrote or co-wrote the Blade trilogy, the Dark Knight trilogy, Dark City, and a lot of the recent DC Universe films. Also on board as executive producer is Robyn Asimov, Isaac’s daughter.




Production had started in Ireland on the series, but it closed up shop in March due to COVID-19. We have no idea how much of the 10-episode first season was shot, which might explain a preponderance of footage in the above trailer of people walking down corridors, walking into rooms, and staring out of windows, along with purely CGI establishing shots of spaceships and a black hole straight out of Interstellar.

On the other hand, we get a glimpse of Jared Harris (Mad Men, Chernobyl) as Hari Seldon, a mathematician who has developed a theory called “psychohistory” that allows him to see the future. And he does not like what he sees--empires collapsing, and a long dark age of 30,000 years. There’s also his protege called Gaal, played here by newcomer Lou Llobell; Lee Pace (Halt and Catch Fire) plays Brother Day, the emperor; and Leah Harvey plays Salvor, the warden of Terminus, where Seldon and Gaal are exiled. (Spoiler alert...we think.)

Two large questions to ask right now: will this ever get finished? And do we really need Foundation, or has its time passed?

For the first, AppleTV has put a date of 2021 for the hopeful premiere, but all the arts are on hold now. We might be looking at films that are even more CGI than they are now, shot totally on greenscreen in large socially distant studios, and assembled by a gigantic crew of remote animators. (Ireland is down to less than 10 cases of COVID-19 per day, so who knows.)

The second is more a matter of taste and a case of who’s adapting the books. Goyer’s filmography shows he’s much more of an action guy, and Asimov was more of an intellectual. We might see something between the international trade tariff skullduggery of The Phantom Menace and some Game of Thrones court intrigue.

The discussion on Metafilter certainly deserves a look, as it brings up issues like Asimov’s history of sexual harassment, the idea of Grand Old White Men of Sci-Fi, and a need to keep prestige television churning out product. And, of course, there’s a discussion of how much we might need some of Asimov’s optimism.

Asimov’s Foundation series was influenced by Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and we are certainly thinking about empires falling right now, especially as we can hear Nero’s fiddle off in the distance, getting louder every day.

Related Content:

Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future of Civilization–and Recommends Ways to Ensure That It Survives (1978)

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Witty, Erudite Atheist’s Guide to the World’s Most Famous Book

Isaac Asimov Laments the “Cult of Ignorance” in the United States: A Short, Scathing Essay from 1980

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

This Is What The Matrix Looks Like Without CGI: A Special Effects Breakdown

Those of us who saw the The Matrix in the theater felt we were witness to the beginning of a new era of cinematically and philosophically ambitious action movies. Whether that era delivered on its promise — and indeed, whether The Matrix's own sequels delivered on the franchise's promise — remains a matter of debate. More than twenty years later, the film's black-leather-and-sunglasses aesthetic may date it, but its visual effects somehow don't. The Fame Focus video above takes a close look at two examples of how the creators of The Matrix combined traditional, "practical" techniques with then-state-of-the-art digital technology in a way that kept the result from going as stale as, in the movies, "state-of-the-art digital technology" usually has a way of guaranteeing.

By now we've all seen revealed the mechanics of "bullet time," an effect that astonished The Matrix's early audiences by seeming nearly to freeze time for dramatic camera movements (and to make visible the eponymous projectiles, of which the film included a great many). They lined up a bunch of still cameras along a predetermined path, then had each of the cameras take a shot, one-by-one, in the span of a split second.




But as we see in the video, getting convincing results out of such a groundbreaking process — which required smoothing out the unsteady "footage" captured by the individual cameras and perfectly aligning it with a computer-generated background modeled on a real-life setting, among other tasks — must have been even more difficult than inventing the process itself. The manual labor that went into The Matrix series' high-tech veneer comes across even more in the behind-the-scenes video below:

In the third installment, 2003's The Matrix Revolutions, Keanu Reeves' Neo and Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith duke it out in the pouring rain as what seem like hundreds of clones of Smith look on. Viewers today may assume Weaving was filmed and then copy-pasted over and over again, but in fact these shots involve no digital effects to speak of. The team actually built 150 realistic dummies of Weaving as Smith, all operated by 80 human extras themselves wearing intricately detailed silicon-rubber Smith masks. The logistics of such a one-off endeavor sound painfully complex, but the physicality of the sequence speaks for itself. With the next Matrix film, the first since Revolutions, due out next year, fans must be hoping the ideas of the Platonically techno-dystopian story the Wachowskis started telling in 1999 will be properly continued, and in a way that makes full use of recent advances in digital effects. But those of us who appreciate the enduring power of traditional effects should hope the film's makers are also getting their hands dirty.

Related Content:

The Philosophy of The Matrix: From Plato and Descartes, to Eastern Philosophy

The Matrix: What Went Into The Mix

Philip K. Dick Theorizes The Matrix in 1977, Declares That We Live in “A Computer-Programmed Reality”

Daniel Dennett and Cornel West Decode the Philosophy of The Matrix

Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopian Office Movies: What The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty, Office Space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Common

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Original Star Wars Trilogy Adapted into a 14-Hour Radio Drama by NPR (1981-1996)

When it opened in 1977, Star Wars revived the old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure film. Within a few years, National Public Radio made a bet that it could do the same for the radio drama. Though still well within living memory, the "golden age of radio" in America had ended decades earlier, and with it the shows that once filled the airwaves with stories of every kind. Radio dramas seemed extinct, but then, before George Lucas' space opera turned blockbuster, so had movie serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The episodic nature of such source material resonated with the similarly episodic nature of classic radio drama, and that must have brought within the realm of possibility a bold and near-scandalous proposition: to re-make Star Wars for NPR.

The idea came from a student at the University of California, who suggested it to USC School of the Performing arts dean and radio-drama enthusiast Richard Toscan. There could have been no institution better-placed to take on such a project. Since Toscan had already produced dramas on the school's NPR-affiliated radio station KUSC, he made an ideal collaborator in the network's effort to breathe new life into its dramatic programming.




And as Lucas' alma mater, USC inspired in him a certain generosity: Lucas sold KUSC Star Wars' radio rights, along with use of the film's music and sound effects, for one dollar. Founded just a decade earlier, NPR still lacked the experience and resources to handle such an ambitious project itself, and so entered into a co-production deal with the BBC, which had never let radio drama go into eclipse.




When the Star Wars radio drama was first broadcast in the spring of 1981, fans of the movie would have heard a mixture of the familiar (including the voices of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO) and the unfamiliar. With science-fiction novelist Brian Daley brought on to add or restore scenes to the script of the original dialogue-light feature film, the story stretches out to thirteen episodes for a total runtime of six hours. The series thus stands as an early example of the expansion of the Star Wars universe that, in all kinds of media, has continued apace ever since. An Empire Strikes Back radio drama followed in 1983, with Return of the Jedi following, after prolonged development challenges, in 1996.

You can hear all fourteen hours of these original Star Wars trilogy radio dramas at the Internet Archive (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi), or on a Youtube playlist with fan edits combining the originally discrete episodes into continuous listening experiences. NPR's gamble on adapting a Hollywood hit paid off: the first Star Wars radio drama drew 750,000 new listeners, many from the youthful demographic the network had hoped to capture. It was the biggest science-fiction event on American radio since Orson Welles scared the country with his adaptation of H.G. Welles' The War of the Worlds more than 40 years earlier — a broadcast produced by John Houseman, who in his capacity as USC's artistic directory in the 1970s, encouraged Toscan to bring radio drama back. In recent years, NPR's audience has continued to age while the Star Wars franchise has in theaters, on television and elsewhere, gone from strength to strength. Has the time come for radio to use the Force once again?

Related Content:

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Dimension X: The 1950s SciFi Radio Show That Dramatized Stories by Asimov, Bradbury, Vonnegut & More

The Complete Star Wars “Filmumentary”: A 6-Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Documentary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Commentary

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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