Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

Star Trek: Was Gene Roddenberry Influenced by Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ Novels

March 20, 2020

This is just a bit of SF fan speculation before I start writing about the really serious stuff. I’ve just finished reading Isaac Asimov’s Pirates of the Asteroids. First published in 1952, this is the second of five novels about David ‘Lucky’ Starr, Space Ranger. In  it, Starr goes after the Space Pirates, who killed his parents and left him to die when he was four. He tries to infiltrate their organisation by stowing away aboard a remote-controlled ship that’s deliberately sent into the asteroids to be attacked and boarded by the pirates. He’s captured, forced to fight for his life in a duel fought with the compressed air push guns NASA developed to help astronauts maneuver during spacewalks. After fighting off an attempt on his life by his opponent, Starr is taken by the pirates to the asteroid lair of a reclusive, elderly man, one of a number who have bought their own asteroids as retirement homes. The elderly man, Hansen, helps him to escape, and the pair fly back to Ceres to meet Starr’s old friends and mentors from the Science Academy. Starr and his diminutive Martian friend, Bigman, decide to return to the old hermit’s asteroid, despite it having disappeared from its predicted position according to Starr’s orbital calculations in the meantime. Searching for it, they find a pirate base. Starr is captured, his radio disabled, and literally catapulted into space to die and the pirates plan to attack his spaceship, left in the capable hands of Bigman. Starr and Bigman escape, travel back to Ceres, which they find has been attacked by the pirates in the meantime, and the hermit, Hansen, captured. Meanwhile Earth’s enemies, the Sirians, have taken over Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede. Starr reasons that the pirates are operating in cahoots with them to conquer the solar system, and that the pirates are taking Hansen there. He heads off in hot pursuit, seeking not just to stop the pirates and their leader before they reach Ganymede, but thereby also prevent a devastating war between Earth and Sirius.

In many ways, it’s typical of the kind of SF written at the time. It’s simple fun, aimed at a juvenile and adolescent readership. Instead of using real profanity, the characters swear ‘By space’ and shout ‘Galloping Galaxies’ when surprised or shocked. It also seems typical of some SF of its time in that it’s anti-war. The same attitude is in the SF fiction written by Captain W.E. Johns, the author of the classic ‘Biggles’ books. Johns wrote a series of novels, such as Kings of Space, Now to the Stars, about a lad, Rex, and his friends, including a scientist mentor, who make contact with the civilisation behind the UFOs. These are a race of friendly, humanoid aliens from Mars and the asteroid belt, who befriend our heroes. Nevertheless, there is also an evil villain, who has to be defeated by the heroes. It’s a very long time since I read them, but one thing a I do remember very clearly is the anti-war message expressed by one the characters. The scientist and the other Earthmen are discussing war and the urge for conquest. The scientist mentions how Alexander the Great cried when he reached the borders of India, because there were no more countries left to conquer. The characters agree that such megalomaniac warriors are responsible for all the needless carnage in human history, and we’d be better off without them. This is the voice of a generation that lived through and fought two World Wars and had seen the horror of real conflict. They weren’t pacifists by any means, but they hated war. It’s been said that the people least likely to start a war are those who’ve actually fought in one. I don’t know if Asimov ever did, but he had the same attitude of many of those, who had. It’s in marked contrast with the aggressive militarism of Heinlein and Starship Troopers, and the ‘chickenhawks’ in George W. Bush’s administration way back at the beginning of this century. Bush and his neocon advisers were very keen to start wars in the Middle East, despite having done everything they could to make sure they were well out of it. Bush famously dodged national service in Vietnam. As has the latest incumbent of the White House, Donald Trump.

But what I found interesting was the similarity of some the elements in the book with Star Trek. Roddenberry, Trek’s creator, was influenced by another SF book, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, as well as the ‘Hornblower’ novels. The latter is shown very clearly in Kirk’s character. But I suspect he was also influenced by Asimov as well in details like the Vulcan Science Council, subspace radio and the energy shields protecting Star Trek’s space ships. The Science Council seems to be the chief organ of government on Spock’s homeworld of Vulcan. Which makes sense, as Vulcans are coldly logical and rational, specialising in science, maths and philosophy. But in Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ books, Earth’s Science Council is also a vital organ of government, exercising police powers across the Terrestrial Empire somewhat parallel to the admiralty.

Communications across space are through sub-etheric radio. This recalls the sub-etha radio in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and shows that Adams probably read Asimov as well. In Star Trek, space communications are through ‘sub-space radio’. The idea of FTL communications isn’t unique to Asimov. In Blish’s Cities in Flight novels, the spacefaring cities communicate through normal radio and the Dirac telephone. The ansible, another FTL communication device, appears in Ursula K. Le Guine’s 1970s novel, The Dispossessed. What is striking here is the similarity of terms: ‘sub-etheric’ and ‘sub-space’. These are similar names to describe a very similar concept.

Star Trek’s space ships were also protected by force fields, termed shields, from micrometeorites and the ray weapons and torpedoes of attacking aliens, like Klingons, Romulans, Orion pirates and other riff-raff. The spacecraft in Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ books are protected by histeresis shields. Histeresis is a scientific term to describe the lag in materials of the effects of an electromagnetic field, if I recall my ‘O’ level Physics correctly. Roddenberry seems to have taken over this concept and imported it into Trek, dropping the ‘histeresis’ bit. And from Trek it entered Star Wars and Science Fiction generally. The idea is absent in the recent SF series, The Expanse. This is set in the 23rd century, when humanity has expanded into space. The Solar System is divided into three political powers/ groups: the Earth, now a united planet under the government of the United Nations, the Mars Congressional Republic, and the Belt, which is a UN protectorate. The Martians have gained their independence from Earth only after a war, while the Belt is seething with disaffection against UN/Martian control and exploitation. The political situation is thus teetering on the brink of system-wide war, breaking out into instances of active conflict. The ships don’t possess shields, so that bullets and projectiles launched by rail guns smash straight through them, and the crews have to dodge them and hope that when they are hit, it doesn’t strike anything vital. The Expanse is very much hard SF, and I suspect the absence of shields is not just the result of a desire to produce proper, scientifically plausible SF, but also a reaction to force fields, which have become something of an SF cliche.

But returning to Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ novels, it does seem to me that Roddenberry was influenced by them when creating Star Trek’s universe alongside other SF novels,  just as Adams may have been when he wrote Hitch-Hiker. Asimov’s best known for his ‘Robot’ and ‘Foundation’ novels, which have also been highly influential. But it looks like these other books also exercised a much less obvious, though equally pervasive influence through Roddenberry’s Trek.

A Tale of Piracy, Murder and Revenge in the Far Future

March 15, 2020

Alastair Reynolds, Revenger (London: Orion 2016).

And now for a bit of good Science Fiction. Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, asked me to write a review of Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger a couple of months ago. Well, it’s taken me a little bit of time to get round to it, but here it is.

Reynolds has a doctorate in astronomer and was a scientist for the European Space Agency before becoming a full-time writer. He specialises in hard SF, the type of Science Fiction written by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. This is based, more or less, in known science, although obviously this can be stretched to a greater or lesser degree. Hard SF tends of avoid Faster Than Light Travel and concentrates on creating worlds and futures that are scientifically plausible, given the present state of knowledge.

Revenger, however, is set in the very far future when the Earth and the other planets have long been broken up to create a plethora of habitable, artificial space environments like the space colonies advocated by the late Dr. Gerald O’Neill’s L5 Society and other space colonisation groups. There are about 20,000 such worlds, collectively referred to as ‘the congregation’. The Earth is no longer even a memory, and the Solar System has been subject to successive waves of colonisation, known as occupations. The present period in which the book is set is the twelfth. These occupations have spanned lasted thousands of years, with vast periods in between, so that the Solar System is very ancient indeed. And not all the colonising civilisations that have risen and fallen have been human.

Some of these lost civilisations were extremely advanced, far more so than the present state of humanity. They have vanished, but stashed pieces of their technology in the baubles, tiny artificial worlds sealed off from the rest of the universe. Although tiny, these have their own artificial gravity provided by swallowers located in their centres. Chemical rockets and ion engines are known and used, but the chief method of flight between the worlds of the congregation is the Solar Sail. This is limited to sublight speed and the inhabitants of the Solar System are themselves unable to reach the other cultures of the ‘Swirly’, as the Galaxy is called. Nevertheless, there is evidence that some of the ancient ships with which the Congregation was settled came from outside the Solar System, and there are a number of alien species from outside doing business there. Chief among these are the Clackers, who act as humanity’s bankers, and who have a mysterious, intense interest in the ancient discs used as currency. There is also a trade in the lost technologies contained in the baubles with ships, whose crews specialise in raiding them for their wonders.

The book’s the story of Arafura ‘Fura’ Ness, a rich young woman, and her quest to rescue her sister, Adrana, and avenge her murdered crewmates after the ship she and her sister join is attacked by the pirate queen, Bosa Sennen. The sisters come from a rich family that has fallen on hard times. Determined to restore the fortunes of their widowed father, they sign on as bone readers with one such ship plundering the baubles, Monetta’s Mourn under Captain Rackamore. The bones are a strange communication device, ancient alien skulls containing mysterious circuitry, or fragments of them, into which an especially sensitive human can jack to send and pick up messages from other vessels. There are also more conventional forms of communication like 20th century radio and television. After their ship has successfully plundered one bauble, it is attacked by Sennen. Ness is hidden from Sennen by the previous bone reader, a young woman driven mad by the bones. This woman and Adrana are taken by Sennen, who needs new bonereaders. She ruthlessly tortures and kills the other crewmembers, before departing the wrecked ship.

Ness and another woman, Prozor, manage to survive and make their way back to civilisation. Ness is ambushed by an agent for her father in a bar, and taken back to her home on Mazarile, where she is drugged and kept as a virtual prisoner. With the aid of her robot, Paladin, she escapes, rejoins Prozor, and the two make plans to join a suitable ship they can use to rescue Adrana and destroy Sennen and her evil crew.

Although set in the far future, the congregation and its worlds are nevertheless based on real scientific speculation. They’re a Dyson cloud/ swarm – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the precise term. It’s a form of Dyson sphere. The physicist Freeman Dyson suggested that advanced, space-travelling civilisations would break up the planets of their solar systems and use the material to build solid spheres around their suns in order to harness all the stars’ light and energy, with the civilisations then living on the inside of the spheres. However, there are problems with such a concept. For example, the gravity generated by centrifugal force would be stronger at the Sphere’s equator, and disappear at the poles, making these areas difficult for civilisations to occupy. Larry Niven dealt with this problem by suggesting that they would only build an inhabited ring around the star, hence his masterpiece, Ringworld. Dyson, however, believed that such spheres would not be solid, and would in fact be composed of a cloud of tiny worldlets arranged in suitable orbits. This is the idea that Reynolds has used as the basis for this book.

As advanced as technology is in Revenger – limbs can be removed, replaced and traded quickly and painlessly in shops like items in a pawnbrokers – the society of the congregation is very much like that of 19th century Europe. Their doesn’t appear to be any system of public, state education, so that many people are unable to read, and the sisters are initially somewhat resented because of their moneyed background. The sexes are equal in this future, with women and men performing the same jobs. But the Ness sisters’ father is a recognisable Victorian patriarch determined to do whatever he can to hold on to his daughters. The technology has changed so that the ships are driven by the light from the Sun rather than the terrestrial wind, but they’re still sailing ships. And the baubles with their treasures locked away are the interplanetary equivalents of desert islands and their buried treasure. The book therefore reads almost like something Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, would have written after an evening drinking with Jules Verne and the two knew about quantum physics, solar sails and Dyson Spheres. Reynolds is good at creating credible future worlds, and the Congregation and its worldlets are very convincingly depicted as places where people live and work. 

While not everyone likes or reads SF, and this may not be to every SF fan’s taste, it is a good, rattling yarn which successfully marries far future Science Fiction with 19th century pirate fiction. So avast, ye planet-lubbers, and hoist the mainsail to catch the wind from the Sun!























Radio 4 Next Monday on Possible Extraterrestrial Life

March 11, 2020

Next Monday, 16th March 2020, at 11.00 AM, Radio 4’s Out of the Ordinary is covering the subject of what aliens are probably like. The programme, ‘Aliens Are the Size of Polar Bears (Probably), has this brief description in the Radio Times:

Jolyon Jenkins concludes his series by hearing from astronomer Fergus Simpson, who predicts that if aliens exist they will be living on small, dim planets in small populations, have big bodies and be technologically backward.

This looks like a different take on the question of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Way back in the 1990s some of the astronomers involved in the hunt for it, such as SETI’s Seth Shostak, considered that aliens, if they exist, would probably be small, the size of Labradors. It’s also been an assumption of the search for intelligent aliens that the universe is old enough for alien civilisations to have arisen many times over, colonising space. Simpson’s suggestion that the aliens, if they’re out there, are probably technologically backwards, sounds like a solution to the Fermi Paradox. This was first proposed by the Italian-American physicist, Enrico Fermi, and runs: if the universe is old enough to have produced intelligent aliens, then why haven’t we found any? There are several solutions to the problem. One is that they don’t actually exist. Others are that space travel may be difficult, or that aliens don’t feel any need to expand into space. Or that advanced, technological civilisations destroy themselves in catastrophes like nuclear wars before they move outward across the Galaxy. Another solution is that they’re there, but keeping very quiet in case there are other, malign intelligences out there intent on their extermination.

This last solution is explored by the SF writer Alistair Reynolds in his novels Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap. In this trilogy, humanity has expanded into space, only to be threatened by an ancient extraterrestrial menace – the Inhibitors. This is a machine culture that exists solely to destroy spacetravelling civilisations. Their reason is that millions of years ago, the Galaxy suffered a prolonged series of devastating wars as different species moved out into the Galaxy to claim territory from their rivals. In order to prevent further such wars occurring, the Inhibitors embarked on a long-term campaign of eradicating such civilisations. They aren’t enemies of intelligent life per se. Indeed, the whole policy is in order to protect such life, provided it remains confined to its home planet or solar system. But once it moves out into interstellar space, it becomes a target for eradication. And the Inhibitors themselves are quiet, dormant and so undetectable, until they discover their next prey, and wake up.

If aliens do live on small, dim planets, then they’d be difficult to discover with present astronomical techniques. Planets are too small for telescopes to detect normally, as they’re lost in the glare of their star, although some may later be seen through extremely high-power telescopes using very advanced optical techniques. And the planets that have been the easiest to discover are large worlds orbiting close to their suns. They’ve been detected because their gravitational pull has caused their stars to wobble as they orbit around them. Small planets further out would exert less force, and so caused smaller wobbles that may be difficult to detect. And if they’re technologically backwards, we would not be able to detect signs of their industrial and other activities, like radio or television transmissions, for example. If spacefaring civilisations do exist, at least close to us, then we should have detected signs of them by now. There was a paper in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society suggesting that a light sail used within 30 light years of Earth would produce so much gamma radiation that we would be able to detect it. The fact that we haven’t may mean that such civilisations don’t exist. Simpson’s suggestion for the possible nature of extraterrestrial life is therefore one solution to the problem of the Fermi Paradox.

Collection of Science Fiction Stories Tackling Racism

January 18, 2020

Allen De Graeff, ed., Human And Other Beings (New York: Collier Books 1963).

Science Fiction, it has been observed, is more often about the times in which it was written than about the future. Quite often it’s been the ‘literature of warning’, in which the author has extrapolated what they feel to be an ominous trend in the present to show its possibilities for the future if left unchecked. Thus H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine presented a nightmarish far future in which capitalist elites and the working class had diverged into two separate species. The Eloi – descendants of the elite – were small, dreamy creatures, with no industry of their own. They were the food animals instead of the Morlocks, descendants of the working class, who had been forced into lives of underground toil by the late Victorian and Edwardian class system. Other SF stories have tackled the problems of overpopulation – John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, the catastrophic over-reliance on mechanisation for, well, just about everything – E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, or the horrifying potential of genetic engineering and mass psychological conditioning, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and so on. I borrowed this colllection of SF stories from a friend. It’s interesting because it uses the theme of contact with alien and other non-human intelligences to criticise and denounce the very real, present issue of racism. The book’s blurb begins with the quotation ‘”Everything that diminishes human dignity is evil,”‘, and continues

With this timeless truth as his theme, Editor Allen DeGraeff has collected a group of superbly told science fiction tales that support it with horror or humor. Other planets, other centuries, living beings of shapes and colors other than “human” are the imaginative ingredients. Shock, surprise, and sympathy are the emotions they act upon.

  • Would you join the Anti-Martian League? Or, like Sam Rosen, would you fight it?
  • Would the gentle Adaptoman – four arms, two brains, three eyes-arouse your hostility if he worked in your office?
  • Could you live as a Professional in a world of Categoried Classes if there were also people known as Wipers, Greasers, and Figgers?
  • Would you marry an Android, a person physically just like you, but artificially “Made in the U.S.A.”?
  • Would you mock or make a friend of Narli, the charming fur-bearing exchange professor from Mars?
  • Could you serve with a soldier Surrogate, a human being reclaimed from the dead with biological techniques of the future?

In settings ranging from the Second Battle of Saturn to Earth 2003 and shining blue-green globe Shaksembender, these authors portray the ideas of human dignity.

The authors, whose work is collected in the volume include some of SF great masters – Ray Bradbury, William Tenn, Leigh Brackett, Frederick Pohl, both alone and with his frequent collaborator, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley and Eric Frank Russell.

The stories were written at a time when the Civil Rights movement was gaining power, although still bitterly opposed by a viciously racist, conservative state apparatus and politicians. A number of other SF writers were also using the genre to denounce racism. Sometimes that was through metaphor, such as in Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’. This tale’s titular heroine is a young woman genetically engineered from cats. She is a member of an oppressed servile class of similarly genetically engineered animals. These creatures are denied all rights by their human masters, and humanely killed by euthanasia is they are unable to perform their functions. Through telepathic contact with another such creature, a dove of immense intelligence and wisdom, C’Mell is able to persuade a human board of inquiry to grant her people human rights. Other SF writers tackled racism directly, such as Harry Harrison in his 1963 story, ‘Mute Milton’. This was his angry reaction to a comment by a redneck southern sheriff’s response to the news that Martin Luther King was highly respected in Sweden and Scandinavia, and had been awarded the Nobel prize. The sheriff responded that King might be popular in Norway, but back in his town he would be ‘just one more n***er’. Harrison’s story is about a Black American college professor, who comes to a southern town on his way to another university to present his invention: a radio that runs on gravity. A stranger to the racial repression of the Deep South, he falls into conversation in a bar with a wanted civil rights activist while waiting for his bus out of town. The Black activist tells him what it’s really like to be Black in the South. The sheriff and his goons burst into the bar looking for the activist. He escapes out the back. The sheriff and his men shoot, but miss him and shoot the professor instead. When one of the goons tells the sheriff that they’ve killed an innocent man, he just shrugs it off as ‘another n***er’.

Racism has since gone on to be a major topic of much SF. It’s been explored, for example, in Star Trek, both recently and in the original 60’s series. It also inspired Brian Aldiss 1970s short story, ‘Working in the Spaceship Yards’, published in Punch. This was about a man with a Black friend having to come to terms with his own feelings about androids as they started working alongside them in the spaceship yards of the title, and going out with human women. It’s a satire on the racial politics of the day, when many White Brits were, as now, concerned about Black and Asian immigrants taking their jobs. And specifically anti-Black racism was tackled in an episode of Dr. Who written by award-winning Black children’s writer, Mallory Blackman. In this tale the Doctor and her friends travel back to the American Deep South to make sure Rosa Parks makes her epochal bus journey against the machinations of White racist from the future determined to stop Blacks ever gaining their freedom.

Not everyone is satisfied with the metaphorical treatment of racism pursued by some SF. I can remember arguing with a friend at college about Star Trek, and how the series explored racial tension and prejudice through Mr Spock. Despite being half-human, Spock was still an outsider, distrusted by many of his human crewmates. My friend believed instead that the series should have been more explicit and specifically explored anti-Black racism. More recently there has been the rise of Black SF writers, who use their work to address issues of race and the Black experience. An anthology of their work was published back in the 1990s as Dark Matters, a pun on the dark matter of astronomy, that is supposed to give the universe its missing mass.

Even if not explicit, the metaphorical approach allows writers to say what otherwise may not be said, as in the former Soviet Union. There, writers such as the Strugatsky brothers used the ‘Aesopian’ mode – SF as fable – to attack conditions in the Communist state, which would have been subject to censorship and severe punishment if said openly. Over in the capitalist world, the political situation was much freer, but there were still limits to what could be portrayed. Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss, between Kirk and Lt. Uhuru in the episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, but the network faced deep opposition from broadcasters in the Deep South. An indirect treatment also allows people to think about or accept ideas, which they would have rejected through a more straightforward treatment of the subject. Some readers may have been more receptive to anti-racist ideas if presented in the form of aliens than through an explicit treatment of colour prejudice against Blacks and other races.

This anthology, then, promises to be very interesting reading both through the tales themselves, and what they have to say about the times in which they were written. Times in which Science Fiction was joining the other voices denouncing racism and demanding equality and freedom for all, human and non-human. 




















Nonviolent Protest Groups Placed on Anti-Terrorism List

January 18, 2020

Last week it was revealed by the Groaniad that the environmentalist group, Extinction Rebellion, had been put on a list of extremist organisations, whose sympathisers should be treated by the Prevent programme. Extinction Rebellion are, in my view, a royal pain, whose disruptive antics are more likely to make them lose popular support but they certainly aren’t violent and do keep within the law. For example, in one of their protests in Bristol last autumn, they stopped the traffic for short periods and then let some cars through before stopping the traffic again. It was a nuisance, which is what the group intended, and no doubt infuriating to those inconvenienced by it. But they kept within the law. They therefore don’t deserve to be put on an anti-terrorism watch list with real violent extremist organisations like Islamist and White fascist terror groups such as the banned neo-Nazi group, National Action.

But Extinction Rebellion aren’t the only nonviolent protest group to be put on this wretched list. Zelo Street put up a piece yesterday revealing that the list also includes Greenpeace, the campaigners against sea pollution, Sea Shepherd, PETA, Stop the Badger Cull, Stop the War, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, CND, various anti-Fascist and anti-racist groups, as well as an anti-police surveillance group, campaigners against airport expansion, and Communist and Socialist parties.

I can sort of understand why Greenpeace is on the list. They also organise protests and peaceful occupations, and I remember how, during the ‘Save the Whale’ campaign, their ship, the Rainbow Warrior, used to come between whalers and their prey. I also remember how, in the 1980s, the French secret service bombed it when it was in port in New Zealand, because the evil peaceful hippies had dared to protest against their nuclear tests in the Pacific. From this, and their inclusion on this wretched list, it seems they’re more likely to be victims of state violence than the perpetrators of violence themselves.

Greenpeace’s John Sauven said

Tarring environmental campaigners and terrorist organisations with the same brush is not going to help fight terrorism … It will only harm the reputation of hard-working police officers … How can we possibly teach children about the devastation caused by the climate emergency while at the same implying that those trying to stop it are extremists?

And Prevent’s independent reviewer, Alex Carlile, said:

The Prevent strategy is meant to deal with violent extremism, with terrorism, and XR are not violent terrorists. They are disruptive campaigners”.

Zelo Street commented that this was all very 1960s establishment paranoia. Which it is. You wonder if the list also includes anyone, who gave the list’s compilers a funny look once. And whether they’re going to follow the example of Constable Savage in the Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch and arrest gentlemen of colour for wandering around during the hours of darkness wearing a loud shirt. This is a joke, but the list represents are real danger. It criminalises any kind of protest, even when its peaceful. About a decade ago, for example, Stop the War held a protest in Bristol city centre. They were out there with their banners and trestle tables, chanting and speaking. Their material, for what I could see where I was, simply pointed out that the invasion of Iraq had claimed 200,000 lives. They were on the pavement, as I recall, didn’t disrupt the traffic and didn’t start a fight with anyone.

As for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, this is a knee-jerk attempt to link pro-Palestinian activism with terrorism. But wanting the Palestinians to be given their own land or to enjoy equal rights with Israelis in a modern, ethnically and religious diverse and tolerant state, does not equate with sympathy for terrorism or terrorism itself. Tony Greenstein, Asa Winstanley and Jackie Walker are also pro-Palestinian activists. But as far as I know, they’re all peaceful, nonviolent people. Walker’s a granny in her early 60’s, for heaven’s sake. They’re all far more likely to be the victims of violence than ever initiate it. In fact, Tony was physically assaulted in an unprovoked attack by an irate Israeli, while one woman from one of the pro-Israel organisations was caught on camera saying how she thought she could ‘take’ Jackie.

I realise the Stop the Badger Cull people have also physically tried to stop the government killing badgers, but this is again disruption, not violence. And one of those against the cull is Brian May, astrophysicist and rock legend. Apart from producing some of the most awesome music with Freddy Mercury and the rest of Queen, and appearing on pop science programmes with Dara O’Brien showing people round the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, he has not, not ever, been involved in political violence.

This shows you how ludicrous the list is. But it’s also deeply sinister, as by recommending that supporters of these organisations as well as real terrorist groups should be dealt with by Prevent, it defines them as a kind of thoughtcrime. Their members are to be rounded up and reeducated. Which is itself the attitude and method of suppression of totalitarian states.

Zelo Street pointed the finger for this monstrous shambles at Priti Patel. As current Home Secretary, she’s ultimately responsible for it. The Street wanted to know whether she knew about it and when? And if she didn’t, what’s she doing holding the job? But there’s been no answer so far. And a police spokesperson said it was unhelpful and misleading to suggest the nonviolent groups on the list had been smeared.

The Street said it was time for Patel to get her house in order, but warned its readers not to bet on it. No, you shouldn’t. This is an attempt to criminalise non-violent protest against capitalism and the actions of the authorities and British state. It’s the same attitude that informed the British secret state’s attempts to disrupt and destroy similar and sometimes the same protest movements in the 70s and 80s, like CND. And it will get worse. A few years ago Counterpunch published a piece reporting that the American armed services and police were expecting violent outbreaks and domestic terrorism in the 2030s as the poverty caused by neoliberalism increased. They were therefore devising new methods of militarised policing to combat this. We can expect similar repressive measures over this side of the Atlantic as well.

This list is a real threat to freedom of conscience, peaceful protest and action. And the ultimate responsibility for it is the Tories. Who have always been on the side of big business against the rest of society, and particularly the poor and disadvantaged.

They’re criminalising those, who seek peaceful means to fight back.

Weird Science: Plants as Interplanetary Communication Devices

January 9, 2020

Science Fiction has been described as the literature of ideas, and one of the most bizarre ideas is that grass is an artificial computing device. This strange notion appears in Clifford Simak’s 1965 novel, All Flesh Is Grass. This is about a small American town that finds itself completely enclosed beneath a forcefield. The town is on a nexus linking our world and its counterpart in a parallel universe. Investigating the force field and the strange disappearance years earlier of a mentally handicapped lad, the hero finds himself transported to this alternative Earth, where he meets the missing boy, now grown up. He also encounters a group of mysterious travellers from yet another universe, who have come to the world simply to listen to music and dance. Returning to our Earth, he finds that the force field has been put around the town by intelligent extradimensional aliens. There is a series of alternative Earths, who have come together to form some kind of interdimensional federation. These wise, enlightened beings wish to help humanity. They are skilled physicians, and show their good intentions by healing the town’s sick free of charge. It’s revealed that grass is some kind of intelligently engineered device, which was used by an alien race for information storage thousands of years ago.

As with many of the stranger ideas in literature, whether Science Fiction or not, you wonder where the idea came from. Some clue is perhaps given in the 1973 Erich Von Daniken book In Search of Ancient Gods: My Pictorial Evidence for the Impossible. Beginning on page 192, the world’s most notorious author on ancient astronauts discusses how two American scientists suggested that plants could be extraterrestrial communication devices. He writes

So far all attempts to capture signals from the cosmos with the aid of electromagnetic waves have failed. Dr George Lawrence of the Ecola Institute in San Bernardino, California, hit on a fantastic new way to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences. Lawrence wondered if plants connected to an electronic control system would be suitable for communication with the universe. It is known that plants possess electrodynamic properties, indeed their capacity to assimilate tests and react in a binary way like a computer is sensational. Lawrence closely observed the semiconductive and general electromotive capacities of plants. He asked himself the following questions as part of his programme:

  1. Can plants be integrated with electronic apparatuses in such a way that they yield usable data?
  2. Can plants be trained to react to specific objects or events?
  3. Is the assumption that plants have the capacity for exception perception provable?
  4. Which of the 350,000 kinds of plants is most suited for the test. (p. 192)

Von Daniken then goes on to describe how plants respond to electric stimulation, and how Dr Clyde Backster, an expert in lie detectors, observed similar responses in 1969 during experiments in which he believed his test plants responded telepathically, at first to himself lighting a match, and then to a bucket of shrimps being plunged into boiling water. This response became known, apparently, as the Backster effect. Von Daniken continues

Dr Lawrence next tried to use plants for electromagnetic contact with the cosmos. A series of experiments, christened Project Cyclops, was organised over a distance of seven miles in the Mojave Desert, near Las Vegas. On 29 October 1971 at the same fraction of a second the measuring sets attached to the plants registered heightened curves which were transferred to the tape by an amplifier. What was going on? Was something underground stimulating the plants? Were there torrents of lava, earthquakes, magnetic influences? New sets were made, the plants were protected in lead boxes and Faradaic cages. The result was the same! Observed over a long period of time, curves and notes showed a certain synchronicity. The plants seemed to be communicating. Plants cannot think: they can only react. Every conceivable kind of magnetic wavelength was tried. At the moment of the different reactions, nothing could be heard. Could the process be connected with the fixed stars, with quasars or radiation? A new series of experiments clearly showed that the cause came from the cosmos. Radioastronomers with their gigantic antenna could pick up nothing, but plants showed violent reactions. Obviously a wavelength that functioned biologically was involved. This brought the experimenters into a territory whose existence has been suspected, but which is not measurable so far – telepathy. A biological contact took place in a way unexplained to date, but during the detour via the cells it became measurable. Dr George Lawrence said on the subject:

Obviously biological interstellar communication is nothing new. We have only 215 astronomic observatories in the world, but about a million of the biological type, although we call them by other names such as churches, temples and mosques. A biological system (mankind) communicates (prays) to a far distant higher being. Biological understanding is also the order of the day in the animal kingdom; we have only to think of dogs and cats which find their way home again by instinct. A fascinating feature of the experiments in the desert is the realisation that these biological contacts with the cosmos are connected with the speed of light.

The suspicion is growing stronger that the plants are called up by someone in the constellation Epsilon Bootes at a hundred times the speed of light. That is also why radioastronomers could not register the transmissions. Why use a big drum when a kettledrum is available? Perhaps we have investigated interstellar contacts with the wrong instruments, the wrong wavelengths and the wrong spectrum until now. (p.194-5).

This is clearly very fringe science, if not actually pseudoscience of the type likely to get Richard Dawkins grinding his teeth. It also merges into a kind of New Age pantheism, in which the cosmos itself may be some kind of God or supreme intelligence. It’s all very different from what I was taught in secondary school that grass was a monocotolydon. That means, it only has one leaf. I also note that the experiments started in 1971, some six years after Simak published his novel. But scientists and novelists were discussing plant intelligence from the 1950s onwards, including the idea that they could feel pain. It’s now been found that plants do communicate biochemically, and there was an article in the papers last week stating that they do feel pain. Perhaps Lawrence’s ideas, or ideas similar to them, were being discussed several years before Lawrence conducted his experiments, and influenced Simak when he wrote his book.

Astronomer Vladimir Firsoff’s Argument for Space Exploration as a Positive Alternative to War

December 2, 2019

Vladimir Firsoff was a British astronomer and the author of a series of books, not just on space and spaceflight, but also on skiing and travel. He was a staunch advocate of space exploration. At the end of his 1964 book, Exploring the Planets (London: Sidgwick & Jackson) he presents a rather unusual argument for it. He criticises the scepticism of leading astronomers of his time towards space exploration. This was after the Astronomer Royal of the time had declared that the possibility of building a vehicle that could leave the Earth’s atmosphere and enter space was ‘utter bilge’. He points out that the technology involved presented few problems, but that ordinary people had been influenced by the astronomers’ scepticism, and that there are more pressing problems on Earth. Against this he argued that humanity needed danger, excitement and sacrifice, the emotional stimulation that came from war. Space exploration could provide this and so serve as a positive alternative, a beneficial channel for these deep psychological needs. Firsoff wrote

The traditional planetary astronomy has exhausted its resources. No significant advance is possible without escape beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The orbital observatories to come will reveal much that is now hidden about the other planets. Space travel is a short historical step ahead. The basic technical problems have been solved, and the consummation of this ancient dream is only a matter of a little effort, experiment and technical refinement. When Bleriot flew the Channel the Atlantic had already been spanned by air lines. And so today we have already landed on Mars – even Triton and Pluto have been reached.

But do we really like to have our dreams come true?

Possibly that happy extrovert the technologist has no misgivings. He sees the Solar System as an enlargement of his scope of action, and has even suggested preceding a descent on Mars by dropping a few bombs, “to study the surface” (this suggestion was widely reported in the press). Yet the astronomer does not relish the prospect of leaving his ivory tower to become a man of action. He is troubled by this unfamiliar part, and a small voice at the back of his mind whispers insidiously that his cherished theories and predictions may, after all, be false. The dislike of space travel is psychologically complex, but there is no mistaking its intensity among the profession.

The general public shares these enthusiasms  and apprehensions, more often than not without any clear reasons why. The Press (with a very capital P) feeds them with predigested mental pulp about what those ‘wonderful people’ the scientists have said or done (and not all scientists are 12 feet tall). At the same time the scientist is a ‘clever man’, and the ‘clever man’ is traditionally either a crank or a scoundrel, and why not both? Whatever we do not understand we must hate.

Of such promptings the fabric of public opinion is woven into varied patterns.

“Space flight is too expensive. We can’t afford it”… “What is the point of putting a man on the Moon? It is only a lifeless desert.”… “We must feed the backward nations, finance cancer research” (= in practice “buy a new TV set and a new care”)…

Wars are even more expensive and hugely destructive, and cars kill more people than cancer and famine put together.

And yet before 1939 Britain ruled half the world, her coffers were stuffed with gold, she also had 5 million on the dole, slums, an inadequate system of education, poverty and dejection. Came a long and terrible war, a fearful squandering of resources, the Empire was lost, and in the end of it it all the people “had never had it so good”, which for all the facility of such catch-phrases is basically true. Not in Britain alone either-look at West Germany, look at the U.S.S.R.! One half of the country devastated, cities razed to the ground, 30 million dead. BHut in Russia, too, the “people had never had it so good”.

In terms of ‘sound economics’ this does not make any sense. 

The reason is simply: ‘sound economics’ is a fraud, because Man is not an economic animal, or is so only to an extent. He needs danger, struggle, sacrifice, fear, loss, even death, to release his dormant energies, to find true companionship, and-oddly-to attain the transient condition of happiness … among or after the storm.

That German soldier who had scribbled on the wall of his hut: “Nie wieder Krieg heisst nie wieder Sieg, heisst nie wieder frei, heisst Sklaverie” (No more war means no more victory, means never free, means slavery) was a simple soul and he may have survived long enough to regret his enthusiasms among the horrors that followed. Yet the idea, distorted as it was, contained a germ of truth. For heroic endeavour, which the past enshrined as martial valour, is as much a necessity as food and drink. We must have something great to live for.

Hitler’s ‘endeavour’ was diabolical in conception and in final count idiotic, but it cannot be denied that it released prodigious energies both in Germany and among her opponents, and we are still living on the proceeds of this psychological capital.

What we need is a noble uplifting endeavour, and even if we cannot all take direct part in it, we can yet share in it through the newspapers, radio and television, as we did, say, in the epic rescue operation during the Langede mining disaster. It became a presence, everybody’s business-and I doubt if it paid in terms of £ s.d…

You will have guessed what I am going to say.

Mankind needs space flight. Let us have space ships instead of bombers, orbital stations instead of ‘nuclear devices’. The glory of this great venture could do away with war, juvenile delinquency and bank raids. It could be cheap at the price.

It is a fallacy to imagine that money spend on developing spaceflight is lost to the nation; it is only redistributed within it, and it is much better to redistribute it in the form of real wages than in unemployment relief. Besides, real wealth is not in a ledger; it is the work and the willingness to do it.

Yet if we go into space, let us do so humbly, in the spirit of cosmic piety. We know very little. We are face to face with the great unknown and gave no right to assume that we are alone in the Solar System.

No bombs on Mars, please.

For all that they are well meant and were probably true at the time, his arguments are now very dated. I think now that the majority of astronomers are probably enthusiasts for space flight and space exploration, although not all of them by any means are advocates for crewed space exploration. The Hubble Space Telescope and its successors have opened up vast and exciting new vistas and new discoveries on the universe. But astronomers are still using and building conventional observatories on Earth. Despite the vast sums given to the space programme during the ‘Space Race’, it did not solve the problems of crime or juvenile delinquency. And it was resented because of the exclusion of women and people of colour. Martin Luther King led a march of his Poor Peoples’ Party to the NASA launch site to protest against the way money was being wasted, as he saw it, on sending White men to the Moon instead of lifting the poor – mainly Black, but certainly including Whites – out of poverty. And as well as being enthused and inspired by the Moon landings, people also grew bored. Hence the early cancellation of the programme.

And people also have a right to better healthcare, an end to famine and a cure for cancer. Just as it’s also not wrong for them to want better TVs and cars.

But this isn’t an either/or situation. Some of the technology used in the development of space travel and research has also led to breakthroughs in other areas of science and medicine. Satellites, for example, are now used so much in weather forecasting that they’re simply accepted as part of the meteorologists’ tools.

But I agree with Firsoff in that space is an arena for positive adventure, struggle and heroism, and that it should be humanity’s proper outlet for these urges, rather than war and aggression. I think the problem is that space travel has yet to take off really, and involve the larger numbers of people in the exploration and colonisation space needed to make it have an obvious, conspicuous impact on everyone’s lives. There is massive public interest in space and space exploration, as shown by Prof. Brian Cox’s TV series and touring show, but I think that to have the impact Virsoff wanted people would have to feel that space was being opened up to ordinary people, or at least a wider section of the population than the elite scientists and engineers that now enjoy the privilege of ascending into Low Earth Orbit. And that means bases on the Moon, Mars and elsewhere, and the industrialisation of space.

But I think with the interest shown in the commercial exploitation of space by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, that might be coming. And I certainly hope, with Firsoff, that this does provide a proper avenue for the human need for danger and adventure, rather than more war and violence.

Hooray! BBC War of the Worlds Adaptation Begins on Sunday

November 13, 2019

At last! The BBC is set to screen its adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic SF novel, The War of the Worlds, on Sunday 17th November 2019 on BBC 1 at 9.00 pm. The blurb for it on page 64 of the Radio Times runs

Dramatisation of the HG Wells’s classic Sci-Fi tale, set in Edwardian England. Lovers Amy and George are among the first to notice when a mysterious capsule lands on Horsell Common near Woking in Surrey. Some thing it is an asteroid, but then it starts to shudder and move.

The additional article about the drama on page 63 by Alison Graham says of it

There’s an angry red planet, burning with fury, and its murderous emissary is falling to Earth, ready to destroy life as we know it by landing directly on, er, Woking. Blameless Woking in Surrey, the heart of the Home Counties. Surely it can’t be a twisted dislike of middle-class southerners that powers this gigantic beast?

The HG Wells sci-fi classic is dusted off in a thumping adaptation, with Rafe Spall as journalist George and his “wife” Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), who have scandalised the town by living together unwed. She’s very progressive, considering this is Edwardian England, having a degree and a job as an assistant to an astronomer, Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle). 

But one night there’s a shattering noise, strange clouds fill the air and soon an unspeakable foe stalks the land, killing at will. Woking will never be the same again.

The I wrote a little piece about the adaptation yesterday, but instead of talking about the plot concentrated instead on the changes to the female lead, who is barely mentioned in the book, and that the astronomer, Ogilvy, is now gay. Peter Harness, who has adapted it, said that this made the story more interesting as Amy and Ogilvy were both outsiders. It’s definitely an attempt to make it more contemporary. Amy’s character obviously has been changed in order to introduce a strong female lead, and I suspect the decision to make her a scientist follows the campaign to get more women into science and engineering. As for the pair’s domestic arrangements, this seems partly based on some of the ideas circulating in very radical circles at the time – that marriage was a burden to women, and should be abolished and free love practised instead – and Wells’ own promiscuity. The decision to make Ogilvy gay also seems to me to be an attempt to make the story more contemporary. Or it might simply be following the lead of Dr Who, which has had a series of gay characters since its revival.

Regardless of the precise reasons for the changes, it looks excellent. It’s also been a long time in coming. It was due to be released last October and I wondered if it was ever going to be released at all. Now it seems it will, and I’m looking forward to it.

Prof Simon on the Technology of Blade Runner that Exists Today

November 7, 2019

This is another fascinating video from Professor Simon Holland. As I said in an earlier blog piece, November 2019 is the date Ridley Scott’s SF classic Blade Runner is set, based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Prof Simon here examines some of the technology that has now been developed, which is similar to that of the movie. This includes robots, flying cars and ‘a polaroid which allows you to see round corners’.

He begins with robots, stating that most of them have been developed by the pornography industry. These are the Real Dolls, androids which have been designed to look like real women. There’s a few photographs of these, shown with their owners or manufacturers. Mercifully, both have their clothes on. But some have also been developed by the military, and these, Prof Simon says, comparing them to Blade Runner’s replicants, are scarier. The robots shown at this point are the humanoid – roughly – and quadrupedal machines developed by the American firm, Boston Dynamics. A gun-toting humanoid robot shows its shooting skills in a range out in the deserts. Despite being repeatedly struck and pushed over by a man with a hockey stick, the robot manages to hit its target. When the pistol it’s using runs out of ammo, they throw it a rifle, which it catches with both hands and then proceeds to use. Another humanoid robot is shown carefully walking along a stony path simulating rough terrain, while one is also shown trying to pick up a box while another man with a hockey stick knocks the box away and tries to knock the robot over.  The quadrupedal robots include the Big Dog machine and related robots, which got their name because they look somewhat like headless mechanical dogs. Big Dog was designed for carrying equipment, and one is shown with four saddlebags walking around trying not to be forced over. Two lines of similar machines are shown pulling a truck.

The ‘polaroid that sees round corners’ is also shown, and it appears to be a mobile app. He also shows photographs of a number of flying cars that have been developed. As for the taxis on demand that appear in the movie, he quips that he’ll just call Uber.

But he also raises the important point about why our expectations of the future are inaccurate. He argues that it’s because we’ve forgotten how very different the world was back in the 1960s when the book was written. This is shown through another set of photographs of the fashion of the period, though I think they come more from the 1970s. Certain the pic of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John from Saturday Night Fever does. He goes on to point out how we have technology that was unknown when he was growing up – computers are everywhere and cursive handwriting a thing of the past. We evolve into the future, rather than making quantum leaps into it. He also cheerfully observes that he shares a Blade Runner obsession with his younger, near-lookalike, Adam Savage.

At the end of the video he examines an interesting photo he’s been sent by a viewer. This is a photo of the Earth from space, with a mark that looks like a UFO. But it isn’t. Unlike today’s digital cameras, those used by the astronauts used photosensitive film, which could get marked and spoiled by dust. This is what’s happened to the photo here.

Prof Simon is a genial, entertaining host, and it’s fascinating that some of the technology featured in Blade Runner is being developed. Scientists and engineers have been working on the flying cars since the 1990s, and one of the tech firms has said that they intend to put them into service as flying taxis next year. This seems unlikely. Critics have pointed out that the noise generated by their engines would be colossal, making their use very unpopular. Living in a city in which they were in general operation would be like living in an airport. The SF artist and book illustrator, Jim Burns, also comments on one of his paintings, which show such cars in use, that there are prohibitive safety aspects. What about accidents? Nobody would like to be around when it starts raining bits of aircar and body parts.

The robots we’ve developed are different from Blade Runner’s replicants, which are artificial, genetically engineered creatures, and therefore biological rather than simply technological. We’re nowhere near creating anything that complex. The military robots instead remind me of the machines from Robocop and the ABC Warrior from the ’90s movie, Judge Dredd, in which Megacity 1’s toughest lawman was played by Sylvester Stallone, as well as the robots in Chappie, which came out a few years ago. Despite the very impressive sophistication of these machines, however, they mercifully aren’t as intelligent as humans. This means we don’t have to worry about the world of 2000 AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’ or the Terminator movies becoming reality quite yet. But even so, watching these machines walk, move and shoot is disturbing, demonstrating their lethal potential and efficiency as fighting machines. Looking at them, I think the fears many scientists and members of the lay public have about them as a potential threat to the human race are justified.

Review of Book on New Atheist Myths Now Up on Magonia Review Blog

November 1, 2019

The Magonia Review of Books blog is one of the online successors to the small press UFO journal, Magonia, published from the 1980s to the early part of this century. The Magonians took the psycho-social view of encounters with alien entities. This holds that they are essentially internal, psychological events which draw on folklore and the imagery of space and Science Fiction. Following the ideas of the French astronomer and computer scientist, Jacques Vallee, and the American journalist, John Keel, they also believed that UFO and other entity encounters were also part of the same phenomenon that had created fairies and other supernatural beings and events in the past. The magazine thus examined other, contemporary forms of vision and belief, such as the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. It also reviewed books dealing with wide range of religious and paranormal topics. These included not just UFOs, but also the rise of apocalyptic religious faith in America, conspiracy theories, ghosts and vampires, cryptozoology and the Near Death Experience, for example. Although the magazine is no longer in print, the Magonia Review of Books continues reviewing books, and sometimes films, on the paranormal and is part of a group of other blogs, which archive articles from the magazine and its predecessor, the Merseyside UFO Bulletin (MUFOB), as well as news of other books on the subject.

I’ve had a number of articles published in Magonia and reviews on the Review of Books. The blog has just put my review of Nathan Johnstone’s The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion (Palgrave MacMillan 2018).  The book is a critical attack on the abuse of history by New Atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on to attack religion. He shows that the retail extremely inaccurate accounts of historical atrocities like the witch hunts and persecution of heretics by the Christian church and the savage anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union in order to condemn religion on the one hand, and try to show that atheism was not responsible for the atrocities committed in its name on the other. At the same time he is alarmed by the extremely vitriolic language used by Dawkins and co. about the religious. He draws comparisons between it and the language used to justify persecution in the past to warn that it too could have brutal consequences despite its authors’ commitment to humanity and free speech.

The article is at: if you wish to read it at the Magonia Review site. I’ve also been asked to reblog it below. Here it is.

Nathan Johnstone. The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion. Palgrave Macmillan 2018.

The New Atheists is a term coined to described the group of militant atheists that emerged after the shock of 9/11. Comprising the biologist Richard Dawkins, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, the philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and A.C. Grayling, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the astronomer Victor Stenger, and others, they are known for their particularly bitter invective against all forms of religion. The above claim to stand for reason and science against irrationality and unreason. But while they are especially protective of science, and who gets to speak for it or use its findings, they are cavalier regarding theology and the humanities, including history.
Johnstone is appalled by this attitude. Instead of respecting history and its scholarship, he compares Dawkins, Harris et al to hunter-gatherers. They are not interested in exploring history, but rather using it as a grab-bag of examples of atrocities committed by the religious. In so doing they ignore what historians really say about the events and periods they cite, and retail myth as history. These he regards as a kind of ‘Black Legend’ of theism, using the term invented in the early twentieth century by the Spanish historian Julian Juderas to describe a type of anti-Spanish, anti-Roman Catholic polemic. He states his book is intended to be just a defence of history, and takes no stance on the issue of the existence of God. From his use of ‘we’ in certain points to describe atheists and Humanists, it could be concluded that Johnstone is one of the many of the latter, who are appalled by the New Atheists’ venom.
One such religious doubter was the broadcaster John Humphries,  the author of the defence of agnosticism, In God We Doubt. Humphries stated in the blurb for the book that he considered himself an agnostic before moving to atheism. Then he read one of the New Atheist texts and was so shocked by it he went back to being an agnostic. The group first made its debut several years ago now, and although New Atheism has lost some of its initial interest and support, they’re still around.
Hence Johnstone’s decision to publish this book. While Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published almost a decade ago, the New Atheists are still very much around. They and their followers are still on the internet, and their books on the shelves at Waterstones. Dawkins published his recent work of atheist polemics, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide a few weeks ago at the beginning of October 2019. He accompanied its publication with an appearance at Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he was speaking about why everyone should turn atheist.
The events and the atrocities cited by the New Atheists as demonstrations of the intrinsic evil of religion are many, including the Inquisitions, the witch-hunts, anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the subjugation of women, colonialism, the slave trade and the genocide of the Indians, to which they also add human sacrifice, child abuse, censorship, sexual repression and resistance to science. These are too many to tackle in one book, and it confines itself instead to attacking and refuting New Atheist claims about the witch-hunts, the medieval persecution of heretics, and the question of whether Hitler was ever really Christian and the supposed Christian origins of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
The book also tackles historical movements and figures, that the New Atheists have claimed as atheist heroes and forerunners – the ancient Greek Atomists and two opponents of the witch-hunts, Dietrich Flade and Friedrich Spee. It then moves on to examine Sam Harris’ endorsement of torture in the case of Islamist terrorists and atheist persecution in the former Soviet Union before considering the similarity of some New Atheist attitudes to that of religious believers. It concludes with an attack on the dangerous rhetoric of the New Atheists which vilifies and demonises religious believers, rhetoric which could easily provoke persecution, even if its authors themselves are humane men who don’t advocate it.
Johnstone traces these atheist myths back to their nineteenth and pre-nineteenth century origins, and some of the books cited by the New Atheists as the sources for their own writings. One of the most influential of these is Charles MacKay’s 1843 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In many instances he shows them to be using very dated, and now refuted texts. With some of the modern works they also draw on, examination shows that often they ignore the authors’ own conclusions, which may differ considerably, or even be the complete opposite of their own.
In the case of the witch-hunts, Johnstone traces the oft-quoted figure of over nine million victims to an early nineteenth century German author, Gottfried Christian Voigt, who extrapolated it from the murder of the thirty witches executed in his home town of Quedlinburg from 1569 to 1683. He assumed this was typical of all areas throughout the period of the witch-hunts. The figure was picked up by the radical neo-Pagan and feminist movements of the 1970s. But it’s false. The real figure, he claims, was 50,000. And its intensity varied considerably from place to place and over time. The Portuguese Inquisition, for example, only killed one witch c. 1627. In other places, the inquisitors were conscientious in giving the accused a fair trial. Convictions for witchcraft were overturned and evidence was taken to prove the accused’s innocence as well as guilt. The Roman Inquisition also demanded the accused to provide a list of their enemies, as their testimony would obviously be suspect.
In regions where the discussion of witchcraft had resulted in the mass trial and execution of the innocent, the religious authorities imposed silence about the subject. Johnstone rebuts the statement of some Christian apologists that the Church was only complicit in these atrocities, not responsible for them. But he shows that they were an anomaly. Nearly all societies have believed in the existence of witches throughout history, but the period of witch-hunting was very limited. The problem therefore is not that religion and belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to persecution, but how to explain that it doesn’t.
He shows that the Church moved from a position of initial scepticism towards full scale belief over a period of centuries. The witch-hunts arose when maleficium – black magic – became linked to heresy, and so became a kind of treason. As an example of how secular and political motives were also involved in the denunciations and trials, rather than just pure religious hatred, he cites the case of the priest Urbain Grandier. Grandier’s case was the basis for Aldous Huxley’s novel, The Devils of Loudoun, which was filmed by Ken Russell as The Devils. Here it appears the motives for the trial were political, as Grandier had been an opponent of the French minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Johnstone also considers that as secular societies have also persecuted those they consider to be politically or morally deviant there exists in humanity a need to persecute. This means finding and identifying an anti-group, directly opposed to conventional society, whose existence and opposition demonstrates the value of that society.
The medieval persecution of heretics may also have been due to a number of causes and not simply due to the malign attitudes of religious believers. There was a period of nearly 700 years between the execution of the Roman heretic, Priscillian, in the fourth century and the revival of persecution the early eleventh. This arose in the context of the emergence and development of states and the expansion of papal and royal power, which involved church and crown extending their power over local communities. At the same time, the papacy attempted reforming the church, at first in response to popular demand. However, it was then faced with the problem of clamping down on some of the popular reform movements when they threatened to run out of its control.
As the case of the Waldensians shows, the line between orthodoxy and heresy could be an extremely fine one. Johnstone also raises the question here of whether one of the most notorious medieval heretical groups, the Cathars, ever existed at all. It is possible that their existence is an illusion created by the categories of heresies the inquisitors had inherited from the Church Fathers. These were forced onto a group of local communities in the Languedoc, where popular piety centred around the Good Men and Women. These were highly respected members of the community, who were believed to live exemplary Christian lives. They were therefore due proper respect, which to the inquisitors looked like heretical veneration.
Hitler’s Christianity is also highly debatable. The little reliable testimony states that he was indeed Roman Catholic, but doesn’t provide any evidence of a deep faith. He certainly at times claimed he was a Christian and was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs. But an examination of some of these quotes shows that they were uttered as a rebuttal to others, who stated that their Christian beliefs meant that they could not support Nazism. This raises the question of whether they were anything more than a rhetorical gesture. There is evidence that Hitler was an atheist with a particular hatred of Christianity. This is mostly drawn from his Table Talk, and specifically the English edition produced by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The atheist polemicist, Richard Carrier, has shown that it is derived from a French language version, whose author significantly altered some of the quotes to insert an atheist meaning where none was present in the original. However, Carrier only identified a handful of such quotes, leaving forty requiring further investigation. Thus the question remains undecided.
Johnstone also examine the Nazi persecution of the Jews from the point of view of the theorists of political religion. These consider that humans are innately religious, but that once secularisation has broken the hold of supernatural religion, the objects of veneration changes to institutions like the state, free market capitalism, the New Man, Communism and so on. Those who follow this line differ in the extent to which they believe that the Nazis were influenced by religion. Some view it as a hydra, whose many heads stood for Christianity, but also Paganism in the case of Himmler and the SS. But underneath, the source of the real religious cult was the race, the nation and Hitler himself. If these theorists are correct, then Nazism may have been the result, not of a continued persecuting Christianity, but of secularisation.
He also considers the controversial view of the German historian, Richard Steigmann-Gall, whose The Holy Reich considered that the Nazis really were sincere in their Christianity. This has been criticised because some of the Nazis it examines as examples of Nazi Christian piety, like Rudolf Hess, were minor figures in the regime, against vehement anti-Christians like Alfred Rosenberg. He also shows how the peculiar views of the German Christians, the Nazi Christian sect demanding a new, Aryan Christianity, where Christ was blond and blue-eyed, and the Old Testament was to be expunged from the canon, were similar to certain trends within early twentieth century liberal Protestantism. But the German historian’s point in writing the book was not simply to put culpability for the Nazis’ horrors on Christianity. He wanted to attack the comfortable distance conventional society places between itself and the Nazis, in order to reassure people that they couldn’t have committed such crimes because the Nazis were different. His point was that they weren’t. They were instead uncomfortably normal.
The New Atheists celebrate the ancient Greek Atomists because their theories that matter is made up of tiny irreducible particles, first put forward by the philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, seem so similar to modern atomic theory. These ancient philosophers believed that these alone were responsible for the creation of a number of different worlds and the creatures that inhabited them by chance.
Some of these were forms that were incapable of surviving alone, and so died out. Thus, they appear to foreshadow Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. New Atheist writers bitterly attack Aristotle, whose own rival theories of matter and physics gained ascendancy until Atomism was revived in the seventeenth century. The natural philosophers behind its revival are credited with being atheists, even though many of them were Christians and one, Pierre Gassendi, a Roman Catholic priest. Their Christianity is thus seen as nominal. One also takes the extreme view that Galileo’s prosecution was due to his embrace of the atomic theory, rather than his argument that the Earth moved around the Sun.
But scholars have shown that the ancient atomic theory grew out of particular debates in ancient Greece about the fundamental nature of matter, and cannot be removed from that context. They were very different to modern atomic theory. At the same time, they also held beliefs that are to us nonsense as science. For example, they believed that the early creatures produced by atoms were fed by the Earth with a milk-like substance. They also believed in the fixity of species. Even where they did believe in evolution, in the case of humanity, this was more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Aristotle’s views won out over theirs not because of religious narrow-mindedness or ignorance, but because Aristotle’s had great explanatory power.
The scientists, who revived it in the seventeenth century, including Boyle and Newton, were sincere Christians. They believed that atoms created objects through divine agency because the ancient Greek explanation – it was all chance without a theory of momentum – genuinely couldn’t explain how this could occur without God. As for Galileo, the historian who first suggested this extreme and largely discredited view, believed that he was a victim of papal politics, and that there had also been a party within the Vatican and the Church, which supported his theories.
Discussing the two witch-hunters celebrated by the New Atheists as atheist, or at least, Sceptical heroes, the book shows that this was not the case. Dietrich Flade seems to have been accused because he had fallen out with an ecclesiastical rival, Zandt, for being too lenient on the accused witches. But he also appears to have been protected by the church authorities until the accusations of witchcraft by accused witches became too many to ignore.
The other Sceptical hero, Friedrich Spee, was a Jesuit priest, who became convinced of the innocence of those accused of witchcraft through attending so many to the stake. He then wrote a book condemning the trials, the Cautio Crimenalis. But he was no sceptic. He believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, but considered it rare. The use of torture was wrong, as it was leading to false confessions and false denunciations of others, which could not be retracted for fear of further torture. Thus the souls of the innocent were damned for this sin. But while good Christians were being burned as witches, many of the witch-hunters themselves were in league with Satan. They used the hunts and baseless accusations to destroy decent Christian society and charity.
But if the New Atheists are keen to ascribe a wide number of historical atrocities to religion without recognising the presence of other, social and political factors, they deny any such crimes can be attributed to atheism. Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in God, and so cannot be responsible for inspiring horrific acts. Johnstone states that in one sense, this is true, but it is also a question about the nature of the good life and the good society that must be constructed in the absence of a belief in God. And these become positive ideologies that are responsible for horrific crimes.
Johnstone goes on from this to attack Hector Avelos’ statement that the Soviet persecution of the Church was only a form of anti-clericalism, which all societies must go through. Johnstone rebuts this by describing the process and extent of Soviet persecution, from the separation of church and state in 1917 to the imposition of atheism by force. Churches and monasteries were closed and religious objects seized and desecrated, religious believers arrested, sent to the gulags or massacred. These persecutions occurred in cycles, and there were times, such as during the War, when a rapprochement was made with the Orthodox Church. But these periods of toleration were always temporary and established for entirely pragmatic and utilitarian purposes.
The goal was always the creation of an atheist state, and they were always followed, until the fall of Communism, by renewed persecution. The wartime rapprochement with the Church was purely to gain the support of believers for the campaign against the invading Nazis. It was also to establish state control through the church on Orthodox communities that had survived, or reappeared in border areas under Nazi occupation. Finally, the attack on the clergy, church buildings and religious objects and even collectivisation itself were done with the deliberate intention of undermining religious ritual and practice, which was considered the core of Orthodox life and worship.
Sam Harris has become particularly notorious for his suggestion that atheists should be trusted to torture terrorist suspects because of their superior rationality and morality compared to theists. Harris believed it was justified in the case of al-Qaeda suspects in order to prevent further attacks. But here Johnstone shows his logic was profoundly flawed. Torture was not introduced into medieval judicial practice in the twelfth century through bloodthirsty and sadistic ignorance. Rather it was intended as a reasonable alternative to the ordeal. Human reason, and the acquisition of evidence, was going to be sufficient to prove guilt or innocence without relying on supposed divine intervention. But the standards of evidence required were very high, and in the case of a crime like witchcraft, almost impossible without a confession.
The use of torture was initially strictly limited and highly regulated, but the sense of crisis produced by witchcraft resulted in the inquisitors abandoning these restraints. Similarly, Harris’ fear of terror attacks leads him to move from reasonable suspects, who may well be guilty, to those who are simply members of terrorist organisations. They are fitting subjects for torture because although they may be innocent of a particular offence, through their membership of a terrorist organisation or adherence to Islamist beliefs, they must be guilty of something. Finally, Harris also seems to see Islamism as synonymous with Islam, so that all Muslims everywhere are seen as enemies of the secular Western order. This is exactly the same logic as that which motivated the witch-hunts, in which witches were seen as the implacable enemies of Christian society, and so exempt from the mercy and humane treatment extended to other types of criminal.
From this Johnstone then goes on to consider how the New Atheists’ image of atheism and the process of abandoning belief in God resembles religious attitudes. Their belief that atheism must be guarded against the dangers of falling back into religious belief mirrors Christian fears of the temptation to false belief, such as those of the Protestant reformers towards the persistence of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, their ideas of abandoning God and so attaining the truth resembles the Christian process of conversion and membership of the elect. And the vitriol directed at the religious for continuing to believe in God despite repeated demonstrations of His nonexistence resembles the inquisitors’ attitude to heretics. Heresy differs from error in that the heretic refuses to be corrected, and so must be compelled to recant by force.
The book also shows the dangers inherent in some New Atheist rhetoric about religious believers. This runs in contrast to much New Atheist writing, which is genuinely progressive and expresses real sympathy with the marginalised and oppressed, and which advocates trying to see the world through their eyes. But no such sympathy is granted religious believers. They are described as children, who may not sit at the same table as adults. Or else, following the logic of religion as a virus, proposed by Dawkins, they are described as diseased, who do not realise that they have been infected and even love their condition.
Bringing children up religious is condemned as child abuse. A.C. Grayling is shown to have a utilitarian attitude in his own advocacy of secularisation. He first states that he supports it for creating multiculturalism, but then contradicts himself by stating that he looks forward to it undermining religion. This was the same attitude the Soviets initially adopted towards religion. When it didn’t disappear as they expected, they resorted to force. Peter Boghossian wants atheist ‘street epistemologists’ – the atheist version of religious street preachers – to attack believers’ religious beliefs in public. They are to take every opportunity, including following them into church, in order to initiate ‘Socratic’ discussions that will lead them to questioning their faith.
Johnstone states that this is an implicit denial of theists’ right to conduct their private business in public without atheist interference. It’s in line with the New Atheist demands that religion be driven from the public sphere, into the churches, or better yet, the home. The metaphor of disease and infection suggests that what is needed is for religious believers to be rounded up against their will and forcibly cured. It’s the same metaphor the Nazis used in their persecution of their victims.
He quotes the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who is dismayed when he hears atheists describing religion as a mental disease from which believers should be forcibly treated. As for the statement that religious upbringing equals child abuse, the seriousness of this charge raises the question of how seriously the New Atheists actually see it. If Dawkins and co. really believe that it is, then their lack of demand for state intervention to protect children from indoctrination, as they see it, from the parents shows that they don’t treat child abuse seriously.
The New Atheist rhetoric actually breaks with their concrete recommendations for what should be done to disavow believers of their religious views, which are actually quite mild. This is what Johnstone calls the ‘cavalierism of the unfinished thought’. They may not recommend coercion and persecution, but their rhetoric implies it. Johnstone states that he has discussed only one of several competing strands in New Atheist thinking and that there are others available. He concludes with the consideration that there isn’t a single atheism but a multiplicity of atheisms, all with differing responses to religious belief. Some of them will be comparably mild, but most will involve some kind of frustration at religion’s persistence. He recommends that atheists should identify which type of atheist they are, in order to avoid the violent intolerance inherent in New Atheist rhetoric. This agrees with his statement at the beginning of the book, where he hopes it will lead to an atheist response to religion which is properly informed by history and which genuinely respects religious believers.
The book is likely to be widely attacked by the New Atheists and their followers. Some of its conclusions Johnstone admits are controversial, such as the view that the Cathars never existed, or that the persecution of heretics was an integral part of the forging of the medieval state. But historians and sociologists of religion repeatedly show that in the persecutions and atrocities in which religion has been involved, religion is largely not the only, or in some cases even the most important reason. Johnstone’s views on witchcraft is supported by much contemporary popular and academic treatments. His statement that the figure of over nine million victims of the witch-hunt is grossly exaggerated is shared by Lois Martin in her The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials 2002). The Harvard professor, Jeffrey Burton Russell in his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1972) also shows how Christian attitudes towards witchcraft passed from the scepticism of the Canon Episcopi to belief as the responsibility for its persecution passed from the bishops to the Holy Office.
Early law codes treated maleficium – black or harmful magic – purely as a civil offence against persons or property. It became a religious crime with the development of the belief that witches attended sabbats where they parodied the Christian Eucharist and worshiped Satan. A paper describing the scrupulous legality and legal provisions for the accused’s defence in the Roman Inquisition can be found in the Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe IV: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankerloo and Stuart Clarke eds., (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press 2002). Other writers on religion have noted the similarity between the late medieval and early modern witch-hunts and paranoid fears about Freemasons, Jews and Communists in later centuries, including the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and McCarthyism. They thus see it as one manifestation of the wider ‘myth of the organised conspiracy’. See Richard Cavendish, ‘Christianity’, in Richard Cavendish, ed., Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Orbis 1980) 156-69 (168-9).
The Soviet persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church is described by Rev. Timothy Ware in his The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin 1963). Ludmilla Alexeyeva also describes the Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church, along with other religions and national and political groups and movements in her Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Connecticutt: Wesleyan University Press 1985). R.N. Carew Hunt’s The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1950) shows how leading Communists like Lenin believed atheism was an integral part of Communism and the Soviet state with a series of quotations from them. An example of Lenin’s demand for an aggressive atheism is his speech, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968). 653-60.
It is also entirely reasonable to talk about religious elements and attitudes within certain forms of atheism and secular ideologies. Peter Rogerson in many of his well-reasoned articles in Magonia pointed out how similar some of the sceptics’ attacks on superstition and the supernatural were to narratives of religious conversion. His attitude is shared with some academic sociologists, historians and political theorists. Peter Yinger’s section on ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in The Religious Quest: A Reader, edited by Whitfield Foy (London: Open University Press 1978) 537-554, has articles on the ‘Religious Aspects of Postivism’, p. 544, ‘Faith in Science’, 546, ‘Religious Aspects of Marxism’, p. 547, ‘Totalitarian Messianism’ 549, and ‘Psychoanalysis as a Modern Faith’, 551. For some scholars, the similarities of some secular ideologies to religion is so strong, that they have termed them quasi-religions.
While some atheists resent atheism being described as religion, this term is meant to avoid such objections. It is not intended to describe them literally as religions, but only as ideologies that have some of the qualities of religion. See John E. Smith’s Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Macmillan 1994). New Atheism also mimics religion in that several of the New Atheists have written statements of the atheist position and edited anthologies of atheist writings. These are A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book and Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. The title of Grayling’s book is clearly a reference to the Bible. As I recall, it caused some controversy amongst atheists when it was published, as many of them complained that atheism was too individual and sceptical to have a definitive, foundational text. In their view, Grayling’s book showed the type of mindset they wanted to escape when they left religion.
The fears of the terrible potential consequences of New Atheist rhetoric despite the avowed intentions of its authors is well founded and timely. There have been sharp complaints about some of the vitriolic rhetoric used to attack particular politicians in debates about Brexit which has resulted in assault and harassment. At the same it was reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked after the publication of Boris Johnson’s column in which he described women wearing the burqa as looking like letterboxes. Neither religion, nor secularism and atheism should be immune from criticism. But Johnstone is right in that it should be correctly historically informed and careful in the language used. Otherwise the consequences could be terrible, regardless of the authors’ own humane feelings and sympathies.