Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

SF Art: Planet of the Knob Heads

January 15, 2018

There are some stories whose titles alone bring joy and pleasure. One of these is the Jack Vance fantasy novel, Servants of the Wankh, which for some strange reason had another title when it was published over here in Blighty. Another is ‘Planet of the Knob Heads’, which a friend told me about years ago as an example of a story with an unintentionally hilarious title. I found it a little while ago in one of the pulp magazines in the SF section of one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham. Unfortunately, when I came back to look for it later, that section had moved around and the stock had grown, so I’d lost it. But it’s there somewhere, so who knows, I might be able to find it again sometime in the future.

This is the art for it, which I found at the Sciencefictiongallery site over on Tumblr.

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Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones Defends the Size of Trump’s Penis

January 12, 2018

Okay, I apologise for the crude nature of this post, but it’s weirdly fascinating and gives a bizarre insight into the mindset, not just of Alex Jones, but of much of the Republican party in America.

In this clip from Secular Talk, host Kyle Kulinski talks about a compilation video one of his viewers sent in, of the various times Alex Jones, the mad conspiracy theorist behind the Infowars internet show, defends Trump from the accusation that his manhood is of less than impressive size.

As Kryten said of Rimmer in Red Dwarf, ‘Oh for a world class psychiatrist!’

This all started with Ted Cruz telling the crowd during the campaigning for the Republican nomination that Trump had tiny hands, and that this meant that certain other areas of his anatomy were also correspondingly small. Mind you, Trump had just claimed that Cruz’s father was responsible for the assassination of J.F.K., which is actually a far worse accusation. My guess is that most people watching Cruz make the accusation probably took it for what it was – a particular low, ad hominem attack, and nothing more. But it’s clearly got under Jones’ skin. Hence the ranting in the video about how well-endowed Trump is, against the lies put out by the media.

Kulinski goes on to discuss how Jones has turned from a critic of the establishment, to its most fervent propagandist through his support of Trump. He likes Trump. It’s as if Trump has cast a voodoo spell over him, as Kulinski describes it. When Obama was president, Jones declared that he was responsible for all manner of conspiracies. Now Trump’s in the Oval Office, the president isn’t responsible for any of those. It’s always the people around him.

He points out just how much of an establishment shill Trump is. He’s doing exactly what his backers in Wall Street and big business want, and is impoverishing ordinary Americans for their corporate profit. He’s the enemy of the middle Class. But to Jones Trump can do no wrong.

Kulinski also discusses some of the other lunatic statements that Jones has made. Jones went on the Joe Rogan Show, where he raved about interdimensional demons and aliens, and claimed that there was a war going on in the political elite between paedophiles and real men, ‘who eat steaks, drink whisky and like women’. Kulinski makes the point of how ridiculous this is as the standard for judging who’s one of the good guys. It means that various truly repulsive Republicans, who have backed every war launched by the presidents, are good guys, merely because they’re heterosexual and have those tastes in food and drink. He also goes on to point out how Jones’ conspiracy theories are demonstrably wrong. Like Jones’ claim that Obama was going to declare a state of emergency, and have everyone rounded up and imprisoned in FEMA camps. Well, Obama’s been and gone, and it never happened. Even worse was Jones’ statement that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged at the pretext for taking Americans’ guns away. He doesn’t mention it here, but this did result in grieving parents being accused by Jones’ viewers of being ‘crisis actors’, and that their children weren’t really shot and killed. Kulinski points out that the legislation that was proposed in the aftermath of the massacre to prevent further outrages like it were a ban on certain types of automatic weapons, magazines of a particular size, and uniform background checks. But the ban on automatic weapons and magazines never got through, because the Republicans blocked it. As for the background checks, this was passed, but was watered down to the point where there are a million loopholes in it. So if Sandy Hook was staged as a ploy to deprive Americans of their firearms, it hasn’t worked.

In fact, Jones’ rants say something about the psychology of part of the Republican base, and the visceral fear of castration that some of them seem to have, associated with socialism, liberalism and feminism. The Republican party stands for a very traditional conception of the sex roles, in which men are expected to be aggressively masculine. The gun culture is part of this. Much of the rhetoric by the Alt Right is about how alpha male they are, compared to all the beta male cucks in mainstream society and the left. When Trump was campaigning for the presidency, Jones did a broadcast about how ‘alpha’ Trump was, and how he’d been having ‘transcendent’ conversations with him. Which, in addition to these comments defending the size of Trump’s genitals, add a kind of homoerotic undercurrent to his attitude to Trump.

Several of Jones’ rants are about the threat to masculinity and biological gender posed by feminism, the UN, and the gay rights movement. In one rant, he declared that the gay rights movement was ‘a transhumanist space cult’ dedicated to removing biological gender and turning us all into genderless cyborgs. Which I’ve no doubt surprised an awful lot of gay people. He also claimed that UN doctors were going to come to cut men’s testicles off. One of the internet news commenters sent up this raging paranoia in one of their vlogs, stating that no, Obama was not going to have them castrated and put in FEMA camps, where they would be forced to carry around greased up lesbians.

Jones’ rants about the size of Trump’s manhood are ridiculous, but they do show the real insecurities about masculinity in the Republican party and the Alt Right. Jones and others like him really do see liberalism and feminism as emasculating movements, which can only be combated by powerful, aggressive alpha males. Hence their support for Trump, and the bitter anti-feminism within the Republican party itself. And not all of those, who hold such views are men. One of those, who has vociferously attacked feminism, and denied that women should have the right to vote is Anne Coulter. And Kulinski makes the point that these genital obsessions have also been played out in the theatre of international relations. Like when he told Kim Jong Un that his nuclear button was bigger. Trump’s concern, and those of his supporters, to show how ‘alpha male’ he is, aren’t just ridiculous, they’re an active danger to the safety of the entire world. As are the stupid conspiracy theories about aliens, paedophiles and FEMA camps promoted by Jones and his Infowars team.

Roger Dean and Nemesis the Warlock’s Gooney Birds

January 11, 2018

Long time readers of 2000 AD may remember the Gooney Birds. These were vast, predatory metal birds evolved from Concorde, that appeared in the second Nemesis the Warlock story, ‘Killerwatt’, back in Prog 178, when one of them attacked a train carrying the strip’s villain, Torquemada, as it passed overland.

Looking through the Sciencefictiongallery tumblr site, which shows pieces of classic and not so classic SF art, I came across this similar piccie by Roger Dean on the page for the 5th February 2014.

It isn’t quite the same thing. Dean’s picture is of a Blackbird spy plane, rather than Concorde, but the idea’s the same. The crowd at 2000 AD took some of their inspiration from the popular culture around them, including pop music. It was why the revived Dan Dare was made to look rather like Ziggy Stardust. The two earliest Nemesis the Warlock stories, ‘Terror Tube’ and ‘Killerwatt’, were published as part of a ‘Comic Rock’ series of strips, which were explicitly inspired by the pop music of the time. In the case of ‘Terror Tube’, this was the Jam’s ‘Going Underground’. In fact, the story had its origin in Mills and O’Neill wishing to stick two fingers up to the comic’s editor, Kevin Gosnell. Gosnell had censored a chase scene in the ‘Robusters’ strip on the grounds that it was too long. So when he was away on holiday, Mills and O’Neill created a story, ‘Terror Tube’, that was just one long chase. As the strip itself acknowledged in its titles, the second Nemesis story, ‘Killerwatt’, was suggested by the album ‘Killerwatts’.

Roger Dean is known for the superb artwork he did for various record sleeves. So you’re left wondering whether Dean’s depiction of the Blackbird spy plane as swooping bird of prey served as the inspiration for the Gooney Birds in the Nemesis the Warlock story, or if it was just an idea that was going around at the time, and which different artists had independently. Either way, ‘Killerwatt’ and its predecessor, ‘Terror Tube’, blew my teenage mind with their depiction of a ravaged, far-future Earth, populated by weird creatures and under the malign heel of Torquemada and Terminators. They provided a solid basis for the Nemesis the Warlock strip proper when this later appeared, and helped to make it one of 2000 AD’s most popular strips.

Torquemada: 2000 AD’s ‘Ultimate Fascist’ and a Prediction of the Rise of the Brextremists, Kippers and Trump

December 31, 2017

As you’ve probably gather from reading my previous posts about art robot Kevin O’Neill, I was and am a big fan of the ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ strip that ran in 2000 AD from 1980 through the 1990s. The villain of the piece was Torquemada, the former chief of the Tube police on an Earth thousands of years in the future. Outraged by the interbreeding between humans and their alien subjects, Torquemada overthrew the last, debauched emperor, founding an order of viciously genocidal knights, the Terminators. The construction of the linked White and Black Hole bypasses, giving Earth instant access to the Galaxy, also created terrible temporal catastrophes, resulting in creatures from even further into the future appearing in the present. These included the terrible gooney birds, giant predatory Concorde aircraft, which fed on the trains and anything else that travelled over Earth’s devastated surface. Torquemada and his Terminators blamed these disasters on aliens, killed human scientists and engineers, leading humanity into a new Dark Age. The Human race retreated underground, where the Terminators told them they would be safe from the terrible aliens threatening them. Terra was renamed ‘Termight’ – ‘Mighty Terra’, though Mills also gave it the name because the underground society resembled a massive termites’ nest. And Torquemada set up a corrupt, Fascistic, quasi-feudal society, which also included Orwellian elements from the classic 1984.

Pitched against Torquemada was the hero, Nemesis, an alien warlock. Horned and hooved, with magical powers, he resembled the Devil, and at one point, in conversation with his mad, cruel uncle Baal, he explicitly states that his powers are satanic. Nemesis is also the head of Credo, a human resistance movement dedicated to overthrowing Torquemada and restoring freedom and interspecies tolerance to Earth. Also resisting humanity’s aggressive expansion and extermination of other intelligent races were the Cabal, an alliance of various alien worlds.

The strip was possibly one of the weirdest 2000 AD had run, and was too weird for editor Kevin Gosnell, who hated it. But it was massively popular, at one point even rivalling the mighty Judge Dredd. Torquemada became British comics’ most popular villain, winning that category in the Eagle Award four years in a row. He was so popular that in the end I heard that they stopped submitting or accepting the character, in order to let others have a chance.

Torquemada speaks on the radio, in the strip that launched the character and Nemesis, ‘Going Underground’.

Looking back, I have mixed feelings about the strip. I still like it, but I’m not entirely comfortable with a hero, who has explicitly satanic characteristics, nor the villains, who are very much in the style of medieval Christian crusaders. Mills and O’Neill had had the misfortune to suffer brutal Roman Catholic education, and Mills states that where he grew up, everyone involved in the Roman Catholic establishment was corrupt. Everyone. They poured everything they hated about the bigotry and cruelty they had seen and experienced into the strip.

From a historians’ perspective, it’s not actually fair on the Roman Catholic church. Yes, medieval Christianity persecuted Jews, heretics and witches, and warred against Islam. But the great age of witch-hunting was in the 17th century, and cut across faith boundaries. Prof. Ronald Hutton, a History lecturer at Bristol Uni, who has studied the history of witchcraft and its modern revival – see his book Triumph of the Moon – has pointed out that the German Protestant states killed more witches than the Roman Catholics. And those accused of witchcraft in Italy had far better legal protection in the 16th century than those in Henry VIII’s England. You had a right to a lawyer and proper legal representation. If you couldn’t afford one, the court would appoint one for you. Torture was either outlawed, or very strictly regulated. There was a period of 50 years when the Holy Office was actually shut, because there were so few heretics and witches to hunt down.

As for the equation between medieval Roman Catholicism and Fascism, a graduate student, who taught medieval studies got annoyed at this glib stereotype. it kept being repeated by their students, and was historically wrong. This student came from a Protestant background, but was more or less a secular atheist, although one who appreciated the best of medieval Christian literature.

Underneath the personal experiences of Mills and O’Neill, the strip’s depiction of a future feudal society was also influenced by Protestant anti-Catholic polemic, and the theories of the 19th century French liberal, anti-Christian writer, Charles Michelet. It was Michelet, who first proposed that the witch-hunts were an attempt by patriarchal Christianity to wipe out an indigenous, matriarchal folk paganism. It’s a view that has strongly influenced feminist ecopaganism, although academic scholars like Hutton, and very many pagans have now rejected it as historically untrue.

The robes and masks worn by the Terminators recalled not only those worn by Spanish Catholic penitents during the Easter Day processions, but also the Klan, who are an Protestant organisation, which hates Roman Catholics as well Jews and Blacks.

There’s also the influence of John Wyndham’s classic SF novel, The Chrysalids. This is set in Labrador centuries in the future, after a nuclear war has devastated much of the world, except for a few isolated spots of civilisation. Society has regressed to that of 17th century Puritanism. The survivors are waging a war to restore and maintain the original form of their crops, animals and themselves. Mutants, including humans, are examined and destroyed at birth. As with the Terminators, their clothing is embroidered with religious symbols. In this case a cross. Just as Torquemada denounces aliens as ‘deviants’, so do the leaders of this puritanical regime describe human mutants. And like the pro-alien humans in Nemesis, a woman bearing a mutant child is suspected and punished for her perceived sexual deviancy.

In fact, the underlying anti-religious, anti-Christian elements in the strip didn’t bother me at the time. Mike and myself went to an Anglican church school here in Bristol, though the teaching staff also included people from other Christian denominations such as Methodism and Roman Catholicism. They had a real horror of sectarian bigotry and violence, sharpened by the war in Northern Ireland, and were keenly aware that Christians had done terrible things in the name of religion. I can remember hearing a poem on this subject, The Devil Carried a Crucifix, regularly being recited at school assembly, and the headmaster and school chaplain preaching explicitly against bigotry. At the same time, racial prejudice was also condemned. I can remember one poem, which denounced the colour bar in one of its lines, repeatedly turning up in the end of year services held at the church to which the school was attached.

I also have Roman Catholic relatives and neighbours, who were great people. They were committed to their face, but also bitterly opposed to sectarian bigotry and violence. And the Roman Catholic clergy serving my bit of Bristol were decent men and women, though some of those in other areas were much more sectarian. I’ve Protestant friends, who went on to study RE at a Roman Catholic college. Their experience was not Mills’ and O’Neill’s, though I also had relatives, who were estranged from the Church because they had suffered the same kind of strict, and violently repressive Roman Catholic education that they had.

But Torquemada and the Terminators were far from being a veiled comment on atrocities committed by medieval Roman Catholicism. Torquemada modelled himself on Tomas de Torquemada, the leader of the Spanish Inquisition, whose bloody work he so much admired. But he also explicitly styled himself as the supreme Fascist. By fostering humanity’s hatred of aliens, he hoped to unite the human race so that they didn’t fight each other over differences in colour. But the character was also supposed to be the reincarnation of every persecuting bigot in European and American history. In one story, Torquemada becomes seriously ill, breaking out in vast, festering boils, because Nemesis’ lost son, Thoth, has used the tunnels dug by the Tube engineers to channel away the destructive energies of the White and Black Hole bypasses, to travel backwards in time to kill Torquemada’s previous incarnations. These include Adolf Hitler, natch, one of the notoriously murderous American cavalry officers, responsible for the butchery of innocent indigenous Americans in the Indian Wars, and finally Torquemada himself. Torquemada therefore travelled back in time to confront his former incarnation, and save himself from Thoth.

This was followed by another story, in which Torquemada himself travelled forward to the 20th century. Infected with time energy, Torquemada caused temporal disruptions and catastrophes in the London of the present. He found himself a job as a rack-renting landlord, before founding a Fascist political party. Using Brits’ fears that these disasters were caused by aliens, he became a successful politician and was elected to Number 10.

And one of Torque’s previous incarnations, recovered by Brother Mikron, his pet superscientist, using advanced technological hypnotic regression, was very familiar to British readers with an awareness of the history of Fascism in their country.

Torquemada as Hitler, and very Mosley-esque British Far Right politician. From Prog 524, 30th May 1987.

In the above page, Brother Mikron recovers Torquemada’s past incarnation as Hitler, but only after encountering a later incarnation, in which Torquemada was Sir Edwin Munday, the British prime minister, and leader of the New Empire Party. Munday/Torquemada goes off an a rant on public television, shouting

‘I’ll solve the youth problem! We’ll make our children respectable again! – with compulsory short back and sides! The return of National Service! Order and discipline’.

His name clearly recalls that of the far right, anti-immigration Monday Club in the Tory party, which was at the centre of continuing scandals during the 70s and 80s over the racism of some of its members, the most notorious of whom was Thatcher’s cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit. As a member of the aristocracy, Munday also draws on Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists and later Fascist movements.

Mosley unfurling his Fascist banner in the ’30s.

The rhetoric about youth is also very much that of the Tories around Maggie Thatcher, who really didn’t like long-haired liberals, hippies, punks and the other youth movements, who had sprung up at the time. They were calling for the return of National Service to stop the rise in youth crime and delinquency.

And this is now very much the attitude of the Kippers and Brextremists over here, who really do hanker after the old days of the British Empire, with all its pomp and authoritarianism. The last thing that incarnation of Torquemada says is

‘We’ll make our country great again!’

This is also based on the rhetoric of the Tories at the time, in which Thatcher was credited with turning around Britain’s decline and restoring her to her glory. In the general election that year, the Tory party election broadcasts showed old footage of Spitfires and Hurricanes racing around the sky shooting down Nazi planes, while an overexcited actor exclaimed ‘It’s great – to be great again!’

No, she didn’t make us great. She wrecked our economy and welfare state, and sold everything off to foreign firms, all the while ranting hypocritically about how she represented true British patriotism.

But it also recalls Trump’s rhetoric last year, during his election campaign. When he announced ‘We’ll make America great again!’ And he’s gone on to use the same neoliberalism as Reagan, Thatcher, and successive Democrat and New Labour leaders, backed with racist rhetoric and legislation supported by White supremacists.

Torquemada was one of 2000 AD’s greatest comments on sectarian bigotry and racism, with Torquemada as its very explicit symbol. Even after three decades, it’s central message about the nature of Fascism, imperialism and colonialism, and the western hankering for its return, remains acutely relevant.

Art Robot O’Neill’s Twisted Take on Christmas

December 29, 2017

Kevin O’Neill is one of the great British comic artists, who came out of 2000 AD in the 1970s. His grotesque and nightmarish depictions of aliens, mutants and robots have been delighting and traumatising readers for decades. With writer Pat Mills, he created the Nemesis the Warlock strip, and has drawn the art for a number of classic comics, including Marshal Law and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The last has been turned into a film with Sean Connery as Alan Quatermaine. This weird vision of the Christmas season is the wrap-around cover for 2000 AD 398, for the 29th December 1984. As you can see, it shows a monstrous Santa Claus, a chimney with jaw pursuing a flying Christmas turkey, snowmen fighting, and two houses trying to burn each other down with their chimneys. Oh yes, and the mechanical reindeer that’s part of Santa’s sleigh looks anything but jolly. Though he is red-nosed.

O’Neill’s artwork was considered so grotesque and revolting that it was banned by the Comics Code. The Comics Code were an unelected body of censors set up following the scare about Horror comics that devastated the industry in the 1950s. They were charged with making sure that American comics were good, wholesome fun, and were suitable for children. I can remember Mike telling me that American comics at the time worked to be suitable for a child of seven to read. It was supposed to be a voluntary code, meaning that its decision were not legally binding, and there were comics published far outside, and often deliberately against their control: the underground comics, like Robert Crumb, and the independents, like Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, the Code had a near total grip dictating what comics could or could not publish. If a comic did not have their seal of approval, then the vast majority of newsagents and mainstream retailers simply wouldn’t sell it.

This whole system collapsed in the 1980s, as a new generation of fans objected to censorship and being told what they could or could not read in their favourite literature. The result was the emergence of adult comics ‘for mature readers’, like Marshal Law. But this was not before there were a few casualties. O’Neill was one of them.

He was the artist for a story in DC’s Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore, who had also been one of the script robots working on 2000 AD. In the story, the Corps visit a planet which has been overrun by demons. The Code rejected it.

Moore rang them up, and asked if they would pass it if he made a few suggested changes. No, they told him. He tried again, suggesting taking out another incident in the strip. No, they still wouldn’t pass it. So Moore asked him what was wrong with the strip, that they didn’t want to pass it.

‘O’Neill’s artwork’, the faceless censors replied. ‘It is totally unsuitable for children’.

In the end, I think DC did go ahead and publish the story, but it appeared without the Comics Code approval badge on its cover.

I really like O’Neill’s art, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it is grotesque and disturbing. I can remember reading an interview with another British comics great, Dave Gibbons, who drew the Rogue Trooper strip in 2000 AD, where he said that a fan had told him at a comics convention that O’Neill’s artwork gave him nightmares. He could only dispel these by looking at Gibbons’ smooth art.

2000 AD later paid homage to the incident in one of their anniversary issues, where Tharg walked around various characters and art and script droids in his head. O’Neill is depicted as a crazed, stunted brat drinking at of a can marked ‘Bile’. During their brief conversation, Tharg describes O’Neill’s ban by the Comics Code as his great accolade.

It says something about American culture at the time that O’Neill’s art was considered too grim and upsetting for children across the Pond, but he had been published in 2000 AD for years and was one of the comic’s cult artists.

As for the nightmarish vision of Christmas, this strangely harks back to the type of humour the Victorians themselves like to put on their Christmas cards. There was a brief piece about Christmas cards on the One Show about a week ago, where they mentioned that the first Christmas cards showed scenes of anthropomorphised Christmas food or other items hunting each other over a wintry background. Art robot O’Neill’s weird, crazed interpretation of the festive season harks back to that, although its direct inspiration was probably the iconoclastic punk ethos that ran through 2000 AD.

Here’s the two pictures. Enjoy, and don’t have nightmares!

Share and Enjoy! The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Predicted the Tutorbot

December 28, 2017

‘Share and enjoy’ is the company motto of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, a massive robotics conglomerate best known for its incompetence and shoddy workmanship in Douglas Adams’ Science Fiction classic, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The company and its products are so substandard, that its complaints division now occupies the major landmasses of three whole planets.

And while, according to Adams, the great Encyclopedia Galactica defined a robot as a machine designed to do the work of a man, the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as ‘your plastic pal who’s fun to be with’.

And we’re coming closer to that reality every day. Yesterday and today, BBC 2 have been running a short documentary series, Six Robots and Us, in which six families and other groups of people take care of six robots designed to help them with their particular problems. One of these is Fitbot, a robotic fitness instructor, which was given to a group of people trying to get fit. In tonight’s episode, the people of a shop take custody of Shopbot, are robotic store worker, to see how they get on. And there are two children with learning difficulties, one of whom is autistic, who are given Tutorbot, to see if it can help them overcome their difficulties at school.

Douglas Adams predicted something very similar in the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy way back in the ’70s-80s. In the second series of the radio version of Hitch-Hiker, there’s a device called an autoteach, a kind of computer teacher. It gives the student facts, and then starts asking questions to get the student to think through the issues. If the student gets an answer right, they get to press a button on the autoteach, which stimulates their pleasure centres. And at the end of the lesson, after the students has laughed and screamed with pleasure when they get the answers right, the autoteach asks them to press the other button. This give the autoteach itself a dose of pure pleasure, so that part of the story ends with the autoteach laughing like a maniac.

Ok, so Tutorbot, with its humanoid shape isn’t quite like that, and it doesn’t electronically stimulate the pleasure centres, mercifully. But the idea’s more or less the same: an intelligent machine to teach children.

As for the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy defined them as ‘a bunch of mindless jerks, who will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.’

I didn’t see all of yesterday’s edition, because I went to bed early due to this cold. The next programme is on tonight, 28th December 2017, at 8.30. Aside from the cold, what went through my mind while watching the programme was all the jokes in Hitch-Hiker about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

Here’s a clip from YouTube from the 80s TV version of Hitch-Hiker, where the Book talks about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and robots.

Paintings of British Spaceplane MUSTARD

December 28, 2017

This is awesome. It’s another couple of piccies from the SF art page, 70sscifiart, and it’s one of the entries for the 18th June 2017. They’re illustrations from a book on space about the MUSTARD spaceplane, a reusable space vehicle designed in 1964 by the British Aerospace Corporation. The scientists and engineers, who designed it realised that it was wasteful and expensive to build rockets that would last only for a single mission, before being mostly discarded.

Their solution, MUSTARD, effectively consists of three spaceplanes linked together. There’s the main craft, which flies into space, and two supporting planes, which serve to provide fuel to the main craft, helping it reach orbital velocity. When their fuel was used up, they broke away from the main plane, and flew back to Earth.

I first came across the MUSTARD project in an issue of the space/ science fiction magazine New Voyager back in the early 80s. This described the project, and interviewed some of the scientists and engineers involved. I think the problem with it is that it was probably far too far ahead of its time. I can remember reading that they estimated that the vehicle would start breaking even after 50 journeys. Now, looking at the economics of the space shuttle, that’s probably acceptable today. The only way the Space Shuttle remained competitive compared to the other launch vehicles developed by the Russians, the Europeans, India, China and Japan is because its subsidized by the American government. If you left it to market forces, it’d be uncompetitive. It’s another example of the way market forces are absolutely wonderful, but only so long as they don’t hurt big business and the ‘national interest’.

There were also probably political reasons for its cancellation as well. Britain at the time was also developing its own space rocket, Black Arrow, which successfully launched a satellite into space in 1975, to date the only British satellite that’s been launched by a British rocket. At the time Britain was involved in a European project to build a space rocket, with various stages built by the French, British and Germans. All of the other stages were failures with the exception of the British, and the project eventually fell apart. The civil servants in charge of British space research did not feel that there was a sufficient market to support an independent British rocket launcher, and instead decided that we’d piggy-back on the Americans.

The French, on the other hand, persevered, and developed their massive successful Ariane rocket, which is actually much more economical and performs better than the US space shuttle did. Which shows how farsighted the French can be when it comes to developing new technologies. Unlike our politicos, who seem to want to get everything cheap from someone else.

Tragically, the space shuttle was beset with problems, which resulted in a series of horrific catastrophes. The best known of these is probably the Challenger disaster, which led to the programme being suspended for years while the Shuttle was being examined and redesigned. Then there was that terrible incident a few years ago where the Shuttle exploded just when it was re-entering the atmosphere, breaking up over the US. This has led to the Shuttle being cancelled, and America reliant for manned spaceflight on the Russians.

I don’t doubt that the design for MUSTARD was sound, and it would have been way ahead of the other competing spacecraft if it had been built. Unfortunately, economics, politics and the will to do it weren’t there.

Cats in Space!

December 28, 2017

No, not the Muppets’ ‘Pigs in Space’, nor the 70s Disney film The Cat from Outer Space, but SF paintings of moggies going where no moggy has gone before. It’s from the SF art site on Tumblr, 70sscifiart. And I dare say that some of them may well have been inspired by the Disney film, or came along to ride the Disney bandwagon after the film came out. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of cat fans, including SF authors and artists like Cordwainer Smith. In one of his stories, The Game of Cat and Dragon, the first human pioneers into interstellar space use humans cybernetically linked to cats to operate the defence systems combating the alien monsters that lurk in the darkness between the stars. Cats are used because they’re the topmost, ruthless predators. But Smith liked cats anyway, and they appear in many of his stories.

This is for all the cat people out there. Enjoy!

RT Shows Clip of Triple Suns Seen in China

December 28, 2017

This is a bit of fun and Fortean weirdness to cheer people up after the gloom and chaos of the seasonal weather and the continuing Tory destruction of the NHS, the economy, and everything decent in our society. A couple of days ago, RT put up this very short video of the triple suns seen in the sky over Hailun City. The blurb for the video states that it mesmerised the residents, and appeared at about half eight in the morning.

It’s an illusion, of course, which the RT blurb duly mentions. I think these type of illusions are called Sundogs, or parhelion. The large, middle sun is the real sun, whose light is refracted by ice or water crystals in the Earth’s atmosphere, thus creating the illusion that there are two smaller suns either side of it. It’s been seen several times in history. I think one appearance is recorded in one of the medieval chronicles for the 12/13th centuries, where three suns were seen by the people of one particular county in England.

I have read attempts to explain the strange creatures seen by the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel as sundogs. When these appeared in the sky before him, they were travelling in strange vehicles like wheels, which also had other wheels revolving within them. This doesn’t actually sound like a sundog to me, and I think the incident is far better explained as a visionary experience. Of course, the UFO crowd have also tried to claim that what Ezekiel saw were really visiting extraterrestrials in their spaceships, following the theories of Von Daniken and the like. I really don’t believe that explanation either. Von Daniken’s ideas have been massively influential in promoting the ‘ancient astronaut’ hypothesis – that Earth has been visited throughout its history by aliens. But it’s also been extensively critiqued itself. Von Daniken got much of his facts wrong, and misinterpreted the archaeological and anthropological evidence he used to support his ideas.

But whatever your view of visiting aliens and UFOs, I think we can all enjoy this strange and weirdly beautiful spectacle.

A Soviet Space Santa

December 24, 2017

After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union became an officially atheist state. Christmas as a state holiday was banned, and religion was very strongly repressed and persecuted. The trappings of the holiday was, however, kept but transferred instead to New Year, so you had a ‘New Year’s Tree’ and so forth.

This is another fascinating pic from 70sscifiart. It shows a Soviet ‘New Year’ Santa looking out at one of the Salyut space stations, which the Russians were then using to smash the records for the longest stays in orbit by humans. It shows both the seasonal greetings and the pride the Russians had, and still have, in the achievements of their space programme.

70sscifiart is on Tumblr at http://70sscifiart.tumblr.com/. Go there for more vintage space art.