science fiction


science fiction
   The term science fiction (hereafter SF) was coined in the 1930s, but definitions of the genre encompass many earlier works. Though SF can be considered a subset of the fantastic along with horror and fantasy fiction, it can be distinguished from these by its emphasis on science, both fact and, especially, speculation. Whether a particular SF story is set in the future of Earth or on some distant planet, it typically depicts a world that is scientifically and technologically advanced from the perspective of the period in which the story itself was created. However, some argue that speculation may be more fundamental to the SF tradition than science per se; that is, scientific speculation may be incidental to any specific story being told, a matter of background and setting rather than thematic or narrative focus. Consequently, SF’s speculative tradition encompasses works that deal with a wide range of issues, including technological, social, or metaphysical matters as well as scientific. In all these cases, SF works comment on the known world through extrapolation from present conditions to future developments. As a genre definition, this is, clearly, a wide net, but whatever the subject matter, SF deals with a world that is “discontinuous from the one we know” and one in which that discontinuity stems from natural, rather than supernatural, causes within the world of the fiction.
   SF is one of the most studied genres. A full exegesis of its cross-media history, themes, subgenres, and major figures is far too great a task for this entry. Thus, a quick overview of SF’s historical development will introduce aspects of the genre most relevant for a consideration of STANLEY KUBRICK’s work, specifically the theme of the “dystopia. ” For those interested in learning more, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, is highly recommended; much of what follows is a redaction of historical arguments made in that text. Nicholls argues that while there are numerous far-flung literary precedents, the genre did not really coalesce until the late 19th century. Nonetheless, those precedents are worth noting, including works depicting a utopian future celebrating the potential of scientific progress, such as Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1627–1629), and satires of such notions, like Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (1759) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Early in the 19th century, such writers as Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe wrote gothic romances that were informed, to a degree, by contemporary scientific progress, in particular such pseudosciences as mesmerism and alchemy (titles include the former’s Frankenstein, 1818, and the latter’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” 1845, and “The Masque of the Red Death,” 1842). Jules Verne’s novels, however, were much closer to our contemporary conception of the genre, and among his Extraordinary Journeys series are such familiar and noteworthy titles as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1863), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). Perhaps the single most important figure in the genre’s development, however, was H. G. Wells, whose work was inspired chiefly by socialism and Darwinian evolution. In The War of the Worlds (1898),Wells introduced the concept of the invasion of Earth by malevolent aliens. Other works, such as The Time Machine (1895) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), presented a distinctive combination of scientific speculation and fantasy that became a basic template for the genre. The 1880s and ’90s saw an explosion of SF writing by Wells’s contemporaries, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888). The advent of pulp fiction magazines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries encouraged the development of the cruder pulp SF tradition (including the “space opera,” adventure stories set in outer space), in contrast to the philosophically informed speculation of Wells. Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories magazine, founded in 1926, represented a crucial step toward the establishment of SF as a distinct and separate body of literary norms, while doing little to improve the genre’s standing as serious literature. By the mid-’20s, then, a marked split can be seen between mainstream SF (written by mainstream authors dabbling in the genre, such as Stevenson), and genre SF (written within a clearly delineated tradition with its own conventions and audience). this distinction did not, however, prevent numerous “serious” writers from trying their hand at the genre, resulting in such trenchant works of politically- and sociologically-oriented speculation as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). Late-20th-century authors who have, dabbled similarly in speculative fiction include Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. By the mid-20th century, there was a plethora of important writers specializing in SF, including Isaac Asimov,Alfred Bester, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, ARTHUR C. CLARKE, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, and Frederik Pohl. Each began his career writing for SF pulp magazines, and went on to publish some of the most canonical examples of the genre. Such titles as Asimov’s Foundation series, Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1950), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1951), Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953), Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1961), and Herbert’s Dune (1965) remain influential. These authors and others like them benefited from the rise of the post–World War II paperbackbook market, as numerous publishing houses instituted SF imprints. The ambitions of such authors were likewise encouraged by the establishment in the 1950s and 1960s of a handful of new SF magazines emphasizing literary style and satirical social and political content. Following this, and in the wake of the above writers, a tradition of stylistically and thematically ambitious SF fiction has flourished, including such practitioners as J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Samuel R. Delaney, Doris Lessing, Norman Spinrad, William Gibson, Greg Bear, Neal Stephenson, and Iain M. Banks. SF as a literary genre has become established and widely recognized, and continues to encompass pulpy adventure fiction as well as the more “respectable” work of the aforementioned creators.
   In fact, SF has primarily been a written genre, but following from its early-20th-century burst in popularity, SF has appeared in every form of popular media. Fantasy and SF have been central to comic strips and books since, at least,Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–1911); indeed, the superhero tradition that dominates comic book publishing has integral SF components (as in Superman, 1939–present). The first SF radio serials appeared in 1929, and included such popular programs as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Flash Gordon, and Space Patrol, as well as anthology series which often featured adaptations of popular SF novels and stories. Indeed, perhaps the single most significant event in audio SF was the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Television (which quickly replaced radio as a popular home entertainment form in the United States) has featured SF fare from the very beginning (Captain Video, 1949–1956). Even during phases in which SF all but disappeared from cinema screens, SF television remained popular, and has included such programs as The Outer Limits (1963–1965), Dr. Who (1963–1989), Star Trek (1966–1969), The Prisoner (1967–1968), The Six-Million-Dollar Man (1973– 1978), Space 1999 (1975–1978), Battlestar Galactica (1978–1980), Blake’s Seven (1978–1981), Max Headroom (1987–1988), and The X-Files (1993–present). In this book, however, the history of SF film is most pertinent. The opportunities for spectacle offered by SF made it a natural genre for the cinema, and Georges Méliès took advantage of this in his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. Feature-length SF films followed later in the silent era, most notably the German film Metropolis (1926). Directed by Fritz Lang, Metropolis featured serious social and philosophic content (comparable to Wells, if less sophisticated), and lavish set design that has remained an influence on mise-en-scène in SF cinema. However simplistic its narrative may now seem, Metropolis depicted the first cinematic SF dystopia (a theme that will be explored later in relation to Kubrick). Through the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood studios developed a wide variety of SF fare, including both SF serials for children (the most popular of which was Flash Gordon, 1936, 1938, and 1940), and (relatively) prestigious adaptations of literary titles, such as Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), and Things to Come (1936, based on Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come). After a lull in the 1940s, SF cinema returned with a vengeance in the 1950s, largely in the shadow of the atomic bomb and the cold war. Alien invasion themes dominated SF of this period, whether in the form of all-out, UFO-powered warfare on the human race—as in It Came from Outer Space (1953) and The War of the Worlds (1953), among others—or through more covert means, such as the replacement of humans by identical alien counterparts. This plot device, often argued to be a reflection U. S. fears of communist infiltration, can be found in Invaders from Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The domination of SF cinema by cold war fears in this period can be extended to SF/horror hybrids that took as their subjects horrifying mutations wrought by radiation, often the result of atomic explosions; Gojira (1954; released in the United States as Godzilla with added footage in 1956) is the classic example, and it is telling that Japan, in particular, has produced an enormous number of films built around similar premises. The seeming imminence of atomic holocaust fueled The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), as well as more “serious,” realistic treatments of this theme, including On the Beach (1959) and Fail-Safe (1964), while DR. STRANGELOVE, OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOPWORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) presents a comic version of the same.
   While space travel had been important in the premises of space operas like Flash Gordon, the efforts of Earth’s scientists and militaries to conquer outer space formed the central subject matter of a number of SF films in the 1950s, including Destination Moon (1951) and When Worlds Collide (1951); space travel was also central to films like Forbidden Planet (1956). By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, SF largely turned to more terrestrial concerns, speculating on the consequences for Earth societies of technology, student uprisings, overpopulation, censorship, and the like. Some commentators have attributed this to the social upheaval of the period, but it can also be directly tied to the success of Planet of the Apes (1968), a film that revisited themes of nuclear holocaust within a narrative context derived from both SF and social problem pictures. As a result, Apes came closer than almost any other picture of its period to achieving a parallel to the serious postwar SF of authors like Asimov, Heinlein, or Bradbury. SF films of this period that manifest a similar orientation toward social themes include Charly (1968), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969), George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1970), Soylent Green (1973), The Terminal Man (1974), and Rollerball (1975). These films, all set on Earth, tended to adopt a realist visual style that was consistent with the widespread influence of documentary realism on Hollywood genre filmmaking in this period. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) stands in some contrast to this, with its stately pace and emphasis on spectacle, such as the psychedelic Stargate sequence. That film set new parameters for the depiction of space opera; a similar sense of pacing and moments of visual near-abstraction demonstrate that film’s impact on significant passages of such later productions as STEVEN SPIELBERG’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Superman (1978), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). The film 2001 is similarly domestic in its concerns, though these are largely metaphysical rather than social; the same cannot be said of late-1970s SF.
   A large-scale move away from realist style and social issues in SF cinema proceeds largely from the enormous box-office success of Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), a space opera heavily in debt to 1930s SF serials. The self-conscious return to classical Hollywood style and subject matter set the stage for much subsequent SF film, including remakes of such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Thing (1982), and Invaders from Mars (1986), and escapist fare like Flash Gordon (1980), Spielberg’s E. T. : The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990). Recent SF blockbusters in this lighter vein include Demolition Man (1993), Independence Day (1996), and Men in Black (1997). Nonetheless, a subtler, darker blending of action-oriented SF and speculative commentary can be seen in films of 1980s–1990s SF, including George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy (1979, 1981, 1985), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995). Scott’s films, in particular, did much to reshape visual style in SF cinema, and indeed were a formative influence on the work of such “cyberpunk” novelists as William Gibson. More recently, the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix (1999), which borrows from both cyberpunk literature and Hong Kong action films, promises to wield a comparable impact on Hollywood SF filmmaking.
   SF film is hardly limited to the Hollywood mainstream, however. A small but significant tradition of art house SF cinema should be noted, beginning with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), and continuing through Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky (1982), Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Eliseo Subiela’s Man Facing Southeast (1986), and Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen and City of Lost Children (1991 and 1995, respectively). 2001 itself can be characterized as an art film produced and distributed by a major studio; recent films that pose similar categorical difficulties include David Lynch’s Dune (1984),Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), and several films by David Cronenberg, including Scanners (1980), Videodrome (1982), The Fly (1986), Crash (1996), and eXistenZ (1999). A. I. :ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001) is interstitial in all kinds of ways, giving rise to questions of authorial attribution (Kubrick? Spielberg?) and audience expectation (blockbuster? art film?). If nothing else, however, it can be noted for an emphasis on spectacle, on unprecedented and eye-popping sights, such as been largely absent in SF since the 1970s. If some of the earliest examples of SF can be called utopian, containing depictions of future worlds in which society has progressed to a state of perfection, the flipside to this, dystopian SF, has an equally rich history, including the likes of 1984, Brave New World, and most of Dick’s novels. Dystopia, of course, is the reverse of utopia, and “denotes that class of hypothetical societies containing images of worlds worse than our own,” in the words of Clute and Nicholls. Dystopian fiction has flourished throughout the history of SF, from the late 19th century forward. Much dystopian SF from the turn of the 20th century into the 1940s centered on the damaging potential of particular sets of political or social theories, including such works as Jack London’s critique of unfettered capitalism, The Iron Heel (1907), and Ayn Rand’s attack on socialism, Anthem (1938). Whatever the particular political philosophy an author inveighs against, one consistent dystopian theme concerns the subjugation of the individual to a society founded on a malevolent, inhuman belief system. Often, technology becomes a crucial means by which this is effected, a tool enabling one social group to oppress another more effectively—through surveillance devices, for example, as in 1984 and Brave New World. Just as often, dystopian SF reacts to technological advances per se, through stories of humanity’s increasing dependence on, and slavery to, machines. In this sense, Dr. Strangelove can be categorized as dystopian SF. In that film, a nuclear apocalypse is partly a consequence of the “safeguards” built into advanced American military procedures and technologies, in conjunction with a futuristic Russian “deterrent” that in fact brings about the end of civilization. Though dystopian SF often presents similar horrific events coming to pass, its rhetorical thrust is to suggest that a change in direction is urgently needed. Dr. Strangelove, by contrast, is infinitely more cynical; the film is both SF and comedy, and its satirical perspective on the government, science, and the military suggests that the fate humanity suffers in the film is virtually inevitable. Dr. Strangelove can thus be read as a dystopia proceeding from the ascendance of the military-industrial complex. Finally, Dr. Strangelove is one of the few instances in the genre (along with contemporaries like Fail-Safe) that centers entirely on the apocalyptic event itself. Far more common are those cases in which a holocaust represents a turning point for society, and the fiction centers on humanity’s reaction to events, either immediately following the event (Things to Come, Independence Day), or in a distant future (Planet of the Apes, The Road Warrior).
   2001:A Space Odyssey, though one of the canonical SF films, and one that draws on numerous recurring themes of the genre (human versus machine, alien intelligences, evolution, and so on), presents a far subtler dystopian vision. Film dystopias often portray worlds that are quite visibly on the wane; consider the suggestions of stagnation and decay in the set designs of Brazil and Blade Runner. In other instances, such as Metropolis, extravagantly stylized, futuristic set design may be contrasted to equally exaggerated, oppressive environments in which the downtrodden lurk, that disjunction being a central means by which such works illustrate their themes. The film 2001, though, depicts a consistently squeaky-clean, bright, thoroughly futuristic environment, a mise-en-scène more familiar from the utopias of Things to Come or Star Trek. Kubrick’s innovative “techno-dystopian” vision influenced such later films as THX 1138 and Logan’s Run (1976).
   For indeed, there is no question that 2001’s future is dystopian. However extensively 2001 depicts space travel, its concerns are terrestrial and largely related to Kubrick’s continuing concern with the deleterious effects of technology. Even its metaphysics relate to inner space as much as outer,much as in the work of Olaf Stapledon and Stanislaw Lem. In 2001, such concerns are addressed through a vision of the future in which, as author Vivian Sobchack puts it, humankind’s progress has turned to regress. Kubrick, she argues, does not deny the aesthetics of technology, but certainly those aesthetics, as presented in 2001, constitute a denial of humanity. Kubrick’s depiction of the future, then, is pointedly antiseptic: the sets are dominated by visual abstraction and cool colors. From the food to the communication systems to the logistics of space travel, the strange and unfamiliar is mixed with the uniform and banal. As Joseph Morgenstern wrote, in 2001 space has been “conquered” (à la 1950s SF space-travel films), but also “commercialized and . . . domesticated. ” Indeed, while Kubrick creates a potent sense of awe regarding space travel in the section taking place onboard the Discovery (and after), the price paid for this technological sophistication is at the heart of his concerns. The Discovery, Sobchack writes, “barely tolerates and ultimately rejects human existence. ”The ship is vast, yet claustrophobic: there is no privacy, no way to escape the observation (and intervention) of HAL-9000, the on-board computer. As in much classic dystopian literature and film, technology dominates human life and interaction, and so becomes malevolent.
   As has often been remarked, part of what makes HAL so memorable is that this computer appears to experience more recognizable, potent human emotions than any of the human characters. The astronauts are bland and passive until forced to deal with the HAL problem. The dialogue is emphatically banal throughout this section, seen perhaps most strikingly in the figure of Dr. Floyd in the moon segment. As Sobchack points out, in a film that runs 138 minutes, there is only 43 minutes of dialogue; one might, then, reasonably expect what little dialogue there is to be laced with profundity. Instead, when the dialogue comes, it is nearly drained of meaning, largely 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (Kubrick estate) a series of hollow, rote exchanges that are entirely inadequate to what is being depicted, a disjunction that creates an acute sense of irony. This is parallel to the use of military terminology in Dr. Strangelove, and indeed, to concerns with the limitations of language in other Kubrick films. It is also essential to Kubrick’s analysis of human progress in the world of 2001, wherein developments in technology have not been accompanied by greater intellectual, emotional, or spiritual understanding. Indeed, part of his dystopian argument may well be that this lopsidedness is inevitable; the transition from prehistory to “future history” creates the sense of a trade-off, progress in one arena matched by regress in others. With technological advances, humans become less human, less even than the technology itself, a point reinforced, in a deeply Kubrickian irony, by HAL’s emotionalism. A profoundly dark film, 2001 ends on a note of hopefulness, with the Starchild representing the possibility of some restoration of that which has been lost. This concern with dehumanization continues into Kubrick’s next and last SF film, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), based on Anthony Burgess’s novel. That film, set in the near future, presents a far more obvious, recognizable dystopia, in both the abstract stylization of settings like the Korova Milk Bar and the houses the droogs invade, and the dilapidation of the council housing–type buildings where Alex and his gang live (pointing to class conflicts not unlike those depicted in Metropolis). Moreover, thematically, the film arguably draws on a classic SF theme; the authors of the Clockwork Orange entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction claim that the film is a Frankensteinian allegory, a warning that it is dangerous to unmake a monster by depriving it of free will. Again, technology is the enemy, though the source and impact of the horror is social. The central claim seems related to that made in 2001: that so-called progress may threaten the soul. If this is so,Alex is the yang to the Starchild’s yin, the personification of that which is dark, brutal, and horrific within ourselves. To deny Alex, Kubrick and Burgess imply, is to deny ourselves; likewise, to rob Alex of free thought and will is to imperil our own. However monstrous Alex’s actions, he remains our de facto hero, and the true object of Kubrick’s scorn is the oppressive, quasifascist government and its brainwashing scientists. The result is an idiosyncratic take on the kinds of criticism that Orwell and Huxley leveled at bureaucracy, but in the context of a more focused, relentless vision of human darkness and morality. At the end of his life, Kubrick returned to the genre, reportedly intending to follow EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) with his long-nurtured A. I. project. Upon his death, that filming of A. I. devolved onto Steven Spielberg, with whom Kubrick had discussed the film at length. A. I. deals, in part, with some familiar Kubrickian concerns, such as the blurring of distinctions between human and mechanical capacities for emotion. Like THE SHINING (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut, A. I. is an investigation into familial emotional ties. However, while Spielberg can be complimented for his facility in achieving a Kubrickian effect in much of the film, it remains a mystery what Kubrick would have done with it in the end.
   Regardless, Kubrick’s contributions to SF filmmaking are unsurpassed; few major filmmakers returned to the genre with Kubrick’s frequency, and fewer still had a comparable impact on SF and its history. None have bested him.
   References
   ■ Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995);
   ■ Sobchack, Vivian, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (New York: Ungar, 1987).
   P. B. R.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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