Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

Astronomer Percival Lowell’s View of a Peaceful Mars

October 20, 2021

Percival Lowell is the American astronomer most associated with the notorious and unfortunately entirely illusory Martian canals. The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli first saw what he called canali in the 19th century, but the Italian can mean both ‘canals’ and ‘channels’. Lowell also believed that they were canals dug by a global Martian civilisation, who used them to bring water from the poles to irrigate their desert planet. For them to achieve this, the highly advanced Martians had finally succeeded in banning war. I found this quotation from the great astronomer in Patrick Moore’s and David A. Hardy’s The New Challenge of the Stars (London: Mitchell Beazley in association with Sidgwick and Jackson Limited 1977), with the authors’ own comments looking forward to a similarly peaceful human colonisation of the Red Planet.

Perhaps we may look back to the words of Percival Lowell, written in 1906. He may have been wrong in his interpretation of the so-called Martian canals, but at least he put forward an idealistic view of the attitude of his ‘Martians’, whom, he believed, had outlawed warfare and had united in order to make the est of their arid world. There could be no conflict upon Mars. In Lowell’s words: ‘War is a survival among us from savage times, and affects now chiefly the boyish and unthinking element of the nation. The wisest realize that there are better ways of practising heroism and more certain ends of ensuring the survival of the fittest. It is something people outgrow.’ Let us hope that we, too, have outgrown it before we set up the first place on the red deserts of Mars.(P. 18).

Okay, the Social Darwinism is grotty, but of its time. And unfortunately humanity has not outgrown its capacity for violence and war, with the 20th century one of the worst periods. But it is an inspiring vision. The late, great comedian Bill Hicks used to end his gigs with a similar vision: If the world spent on peace all the money it now spends on arms, we could end hunger. Not one person would starve, and colonise space in peace forever.

That day can’t come too soon.

Arthur C. Clarke Helped to Bring the Benefits of Space and High Technology to the Developing World

October 18, 2021

Last week there was a bit of controversy between William Shatner and Prince William. As the man behind Captain Kirk went with a party of others to the High Frontier aboard Jeff Bezos’ SpaceX, the prince declared that such space tourism was a waste and a threat to the environment. I think here the prince was thinking about the extremely rich and their private jets, and the damage that the carbon emissions from mass aircraft travel are doing to the environment. I respect the prince’s commitment to the environment and the Earthshot prize he launched last night, but believe that on this issue he’s profoundly wrong.

If space tourism was only about letting extremely right people go into space aboard highly polluting spacecraft, as it seems the prince believes, then I’d certainly be inclined to agree with him. But it isn’t. Way back at the beginning of this century I gave a paper at a British Interplanetary Society symposium on the popular commercialisation of space. Many of the papers were about space tourism. The one that real down a real storm, far better than my own, was from a young chap who suggested that space was the ideal venue for sports that would be impossible on Earth. Because of the complete absence of gravity, you could play something like Harry Potter’s Quidditch for real.

The hope with space tourism is that it will help open up the High Frontier to further space commercialisation. This includes lowering launch costs so that eventually they’ll become affordable and people will be able to move into space to live and work, building true communities up there. And with that comes the hope that industry will move there as well, thus relieving some of the environmental pressures down here on Earth. Gerard O’Neill, who put forward concrete plans and designs for these colonies, believed that this would be one of the benefits of space colonisation and industrialisation. For one thing, the industrialisation of space may be able to provide clean, green energy instead of the carbon emitting fossil fuel power stations that we now use. Solar energy is abundant in space, and it has been suggested that this could be collected using vast solar arrays, which would then beam the power to Earth as microwaves.

The late, great SF writer Arthur C. Clarke was a very strong advocate of space colonisation and industrialisation. An optimist about humanity’s future in space and the benefits of high technology, Clarke not only argued for it but also tried to help make it a reality. Space and other forms of high technology offer considerable benefits to the Developing World, which is one of the reasons India has invested relatively large amounts in its space programme. And so has Clarke’s adopted country of Sri Lanka, with the assistance of the Space Prophet himself. I found this passage describing the work of such a centre, named after Clarke, in Sri Lanka in Brian Aldiss’ and David Wingrove’s history of Science Fiction, Trillion Year Spree.

“Clarke is, moreover, actively engaged in bringing about that better world of which he writes. From his base in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he has become directly (and financially) involved in a scheme to transfer modern high-technology to the developing countries of the Third World.

The Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies, sited at the University of Moratuwa, outside Colombo, embraces numerous high-tech disciplines, including computers and alternate energy sources, with plans to expand into the areas of robotics and space technologies. The main emphasis, however, is on developing a cheap communications system tailored to the agricultural needs of the Third World.

Such a project harnesses expensive space technologies in a way which answers those critics who have argued that it is immoral to waste funds on the romantic gesture of spaceflight when problems of poverty, illness and hunger remain in the world. That advanced technology would eventually benefit all of Mankind has always been Clarke’s belief-perhaps naive, but visionaries often function more effectively for a touch of naivety about them. One has to admire this benevolent, aspiring side of Clarke; it is the other side of the coin to L Ron Hubbard.” (P. 402, my emphasis).

It has never been a simple case of space exploration going ahead at the expense of human suffering here on Earth. Space tourism, at present confined to the extremely wealth like Shatner, is part of a wider campaign to open up the High Frontier so that humanity as a whole will benefit.

And the late comedian Bill Hicks also used to look forward to an optimistic future of world peace and the colonisation of space. He used to end his gigs with his own vision. If we spent used the money the world currently spends on arms for peace instead, we could end world hunger. Not one person would starve. And we could colonise the universe, in peace, forever.

It’s an inspiring vision. As another Star Trek captain would say:

Make it so!’

And here’s a bit of fun I found on YouTube. It’s a video of a man in Star Trek costume, playing the theme to the original series on the Theremin. Engage!

Keef Stalin Tells Press He Has the Same Nickname as Recreational Drug

October 11, 2021

This piece over at Mike’s blog has given me a not inconsiderable amount of amusement, as John Major may have said. Stalin was visiting a Kellogg’s factory when he decided to tell his audience that when he was young he had the nickname ‘Special K’. He was supposedly called it because the ‘K’ stood for ‘Kier’ and he was special. He obviously thought this story would impressed the assembled workers, as it’s the name of one of their breakfast cereals. One which was always being advertised as helping you watch your weight. However, as your super soaraway, poisonous rag, the Scum, reminded their readers, it’s also the nickname for ketamine, a horse tranquilliser also used recreationally by the drugs crowd. I got the impression that its side-effects included nightmares and paranoia. The psychologist John Lilley was on it. Lilley was the scientist, who first researched dolphin intelligence and investigated the use of the sensory isolation tank, going on inward voyages into the contents of his mind in it while also stoned on the drug. The horror film Altered States is based on him. Thanks to the drug, Lilley became paranoid and convinced alien computer civilisations were out in space conspiring against humanity. If Stalin was on the drug, it would explain so much, like the mass purges and the anti-Semitism against the ‘wrong kind of Jews’. You know, the type of Jews who don’t believe that Israel is the crowning achievement of Jewish history and that it’s wrong to persecute the Palestinians. Mind you, it doesn’t seem he would have been so far gone to start getting worried about a personal vendetta against him by all the computers out there.

However, faced with ridicule from Scum’s article, Stalin has doubled back and said he only made it up on the spur of the moment because he was caught off guard. Which is an admission that he lied. Well, it’s small one compared to all those he’s previously told.

The episode should be an object lesson to Starmer. He had a piece published in it last week, clearly trying to ingratiate himself with its readers just as Tony Blair managed to win over Dirty Rupe nearly a quarter of a century ago.

But the Scum is Tory through and through, and it doesn’t matter what you do if you’re on the left, they still aren’t going to respect you, and will turn and bite as soon as they get the opportunity.

Anton Petrov Explains New Advances in Artificial Cells

October 9, 2021

Anton Petrov is a science vlogger on YouTube. Always greetings his viewers with ‘Hello, wonderful person’, he mostly talks about recent advances in space exploration and astronomy. But occasionally he branches out into the other sciences. In this fascinating video, he talks about a recent development in the creation of artificial cells. These are tiny objects that mimic some of the functions of real cells. This new advance is the creation of a process that mimics the energy transfer within real, biological cells. He talks about how artificial cells are formed. They’re microscopically small with a tiny hole. This may allow them to be used as a method for delivering medicines more efficiently into the body. It may also allow them to be used a artificial white blood cells, in which they capture bacteria and viruses through the holes and keep them there.

Of course, we’re a very long way away from that level of technology, but it all reminds me of the artificial humans and animals – replicants – in Ridley Scott’s SF classic Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s also similar to the original robots in Karel Capek’s seminal SF play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. This was the play which introduced the word robot to the English language. It’s Czech for ‘hard work’ or ‘drudgery’. It was also one of the first to portray a robotic revolt. The robots in the play are more like Scott’s replicants than modern robots. They are formed from an artificial substance which mimics biology, so that part of the process in the manufacture of the robots are mills spinning miles of artificial nerves.

A recent item on robots on one of the Beeb’s programmes – it may have been The One Show said that it might be a thousand years before we can create something like a replicant. But watching this video, I do wonder.

Black History Month Website Forced to Delete Article Describing Whites as ‘Genetically Defective Mutants’

October 6, 2021

October is Black History Month, set up to educate people, and particularly Blacks, about their history and achievements. And already the controversy has started. The Lotus Eaters put up a piece yesterday commenting on a report in Telegraph that the Black History Month website, which is not run by the government although it contains ads from various state organisations, had taken down a piece denigrating Whites that had been up for three years.

Posted in 2018, the article quoted American Frances Cress Welsing, who claimed that White people originally evolved as genetically defective mutants, who were driven out of Africa by the indigenous Blacks. Settling in Europe, their lack of melanin made them more immoral and their innate racism caused them to create White supremacy. It was only after an investigation by the Torygraph that this was taken down.

Clearly, this is pure hate and as evolutionary palaeoanthropology, it’s utter bilge. Sargon of Gasbag in his video commenting about it states that white skin evolved in northwest Europe 7,000 years ago to allow Europeans to absorb enough of the vitamins humans need from sunlight in the cold, overcast climate of northern Europe. I think the biology’s correct, but I’m not sure about the location or timescale on the grounds that many of the peoples of the Near East, like Turks, Arabs and Iranians can have White complexions. There have even been blondes in Syria and the Caucasus. But it is true that humans lost their initially dark complexions as they adapted to the European climate when they first entered the continent 60,000 or so years ago.

Welsing’s anti-White rant is typical of a Black ideology, Melanism, that’s been around for decades. Roughly speaking, Melanism states that Black people are physically, intellectually and spiritually superior to Whites because they possess a greater amount of the pigment melanin, which not only produces the darker skin colour, but is also found in the brain. There have been a number of Black writers promoting this anti-White nonsense, some of whom have been officially judged racist. Way back in the ’90s, biologist and snail expert Steve Jones met a group of British melanists in his series on genetics, In The Blood.

Welsing’s description of Whites as ‘genetically defective mutants’ is of kind with the weird views on the origins of Whites of the Nation of Islam, although far less bonkers. The Nation of Islam believe that Whites were created by the evil Mekkan scientist Shaitan 70,000 years ago in order to destroy the purity of the Black race. The Nation of Islam itself has precious little to do with real Islam. It’s based around the worship of W.D. Fard, a Syrian, who migrated to the US in the 1920s and who was worshipped as God. Its present leader, Louis Farrakhan, is extremely anti-Semitic and blames Jews for the slave trade. He also claims that a UFO landed while he was meditating on a Mexican mountain back in the ’80s-90s, and took him to a ‘mother wheel’ in space, where he was told that Fard, Jesus and other religious figures, who of course were all Black, are alive and well on Venus and directing the war against Whites. The Nation of Islam are also Black separatists, who want their own, Blacks-only state carved out of America. There’s been controversy about them in Britain. Back in 1980s Bernie Grant invited Farrakhan to come to Britain, despite the fact that Farrakhan despises the welfare state. Grant tried to excuse himself by saying that he regarded Farrakhan as an ‘elder statesman’ and didn’t endorse all his views.

The Nation of Islam, as far as I know, isn’t involved with Black History Month, or at least, not in any official capacity. But there clearly is a danger in that some of the organisations that want to be involved clearly do have very racist views. These should no more be tolerated than White Fascists.

Russians Now Shooting Film in Space – And I Predicted It!

October 6, 2021

Arthur C. Clarke was nicknamed ‘the space prophet’ because in the late 1940s he wrote an article for a radio magazine predicting communications satellites. He also wrote another later piece, with the title ‘How I Lost a $Billion in My Spare Time’ or something like that lamenting the fact that he lost millions by not copyrighting the idea. I had a similar experience last night when I saw on the news a piece about the Russians shooting a film aboard the International Space Station. Starring Yulia Persilda and directed by Klim Shlipenko, the film is about a doctor, who travels to the ISS in order to save one of the astronauts.

Years ago I presented a paper at a symposium of the British Interplanetary Society on the popular commercialisation of space. I suggested that one way to stimulate further interest in space exploration and development was to shoot a movie up there. The amount paid to some of Hollywood’s most popular actors, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, is almost that to cover the costs of launching a person into space. Arnie was paid $7 million for one of his movies, and it cost one of the first commercial space tourists, someone like Dennis Tito, $16 million to go into space aboard the Russian proton rockets. It therefore seemed to me to be entirely economical to send a film crew to the station, provided that only a limited number went. Say the star and a director/cameraman. I gather that Shlipenko’s crew numbers seven, which is larger than I had in mind, but still far from a cast of thousands.

My idea was printed in the BIS’ Journal, and I’ll try and dig that out at some point to show that I’m not spinning a yarn. And in the meantime, if any space company wants to take me on as a consultant or some other job, you can contact me here.

And best wishes to William Shatner, who today also ventures into the final frontier.

Shatner, as any fule kno, played Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek series. ITV news reported yesterday that he too was heading into space aboard a rocket at the grand age of 90. I haven’t watched the recent iterations of Star Trek since Deep Space 9 ended, but the original series was definitely one of my fave programmes when I was a kid. It helped stimulate my interest in space and astronomy, as it did many thousands of others. And Star Trek’s portrayal of a world without racism, where women enjoy equality and poverty, starvation, crime and unemployment are things of the past is still inspiring. So I salute him as he makes his personal voyage into the Black.

And here’s the intro to the original series that started it all off in the early ’60s, which I found on dinadangdong’s channel on YouTube.

Belfield Attacks Facial Recognition Systems as Part of the Emerging Surveillance Society

September 30, 2021

I’ve put up several pieces already this week commenting on and critiquing some of the videos put up by mad internet radio host Alex Belfield. Belfield is very much a man of the right, who rails against ‘namby-pamby pinko liberal Guardian-reading lefty-twirlies’ and entitled ‘whippersnappers’ in just about every one of his videos. I very much do not share his political views, especially when he demands the privatisation of the NHS. But sometimes he says something with which I agree and believe to be absolutely correct.

This is one of them. In his piece below, Belfield expresses his concerns about the police’s announcement that they will be increasing the use of computer facial recognition systems. Belfield’s worried about the privacy issue here. He points out that it will be used to track you on the motorway, and that it is also being used in some of the cashless stores now being trialled. In these stores, you are watched by the CCTV cameras and the machines make note of your purchases. You walk out of the store without handing over cash, but simply use your card to pay. As Belfield points out, the police can use the information from facial recognition systems and CCTV footage to reconstruct your day, including where you went and what you bought. And it’s not just adults being targeted. Critics have attacked plans to introduce CCTV surveillance in schools.

These are real, pressing issues that have been around for a long time. Back in the late 90s at the beginnings of Blair’s reign I read a book I’d taken out of the library which criticised the use of CCTV cameras and the electronic bourse. This was supposed to be the new form of cashless payment. Everyone would have a card which contained their biometric details and money, which would be used to pay for everything from groceries to trips on the bus. Tory Tony Blair was very much interested in forcing a biometric ID card on us all. The book and organisations such as Privacy International argued that this would lead to a surveillance state. A recent edition of Panorama, ‘Are You Worried Yet, Human?’, examined dangerous developments in AI. These included computer systems that could pilot jets remotely so that they performed better than when they were flown by human pilots. But most of the programme concentrated on the threat posed by computer surveillance. The Chinese are building computer systems and centres to gather data so that their citizens are constantly monitored. The programme spoke to Chinese dissidents who had been arrested and detained using such computer-collected footage.

This is exactly the type of totalitarian society depicted in Science Fiction dystopias. The first season titles of the classic BBC SF series, Blake’s 7, started with a CCTV camera followed by a black-suited soldier, faced hidden by helmet visor and gas mask. This was a trooper of the Federation, the totalitarian galactic empire against which Blake and his crew of former criminals fought. Comics legend Alan Moore has expressed his own worries about CCTV surveillance. He has said in interviews that he deliberately put them in the Fascist Britain he depicted in V For Vendetta in order to scare readers. What worries him is that these cameras have now become completely accepted. Moore’s an anarchist, but Tory Niall Ferguson has said the same thing. He recalls coming back from China and being shocked to find CCTV surveillance being used here, but ignored and accepted by everyone.

Belfield says that these systems and cashless electronic payment are being used to track us, and to keep records of what we’ve bought by companies so they can sell us stuff. That’s only part of the story. Another reason the electronic payment is being pushed instead of cash is so that governments can use it to track what we’re purchasing and seeing if we’re doing anything illegal. Privacy International was dedicated to combating such threats to our liberty. But I’m not aware that this is anything more than the viewpoints of a small number of individuals at present. Blair was prevented from introducing biometric ID cards, but the increased use of facial recognition systems and the push towards cashless payment suggests that the people who were calling for its introduction 20 years or so ago really haven’t gone away.

Belfield is absolutely right to point out that this is a threat to our liberty. It’s just a shame that he is one of the small number of people who are doing so.

Alexander Bogdanov, Soviet SF Writer and Originator of Fully Automated Luxury Communism

September 18, 2021

One of my friends gave me a copy of A.M. Gittlitz’s I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism, for which I’m really grateful. It’s fascinating! Posadism is a weird Trotskyite sect, founded by Posadas, the nom-de-guerre of Homero Cristalli, an Argentinian Marxist. They were hardline Marxists, joining other Communist and Trotskyite guerrillas fighting a war against capitalism and Fascist oppression across Latin America and Cuba. From what I remember from an article about them in the Fortean Times, they also looked forward to an apocalyptic nuclear war that would destroy the capitalist nations and allow the workers of the world to seize power. This is frightening, as any such war would have destroyed the planet or at least killed countless billions and sent the survivors hurtling back into the Stone Age. Unfortunately, it was also shared by Chairman Mao, who really couldn’t believe why Khrushchev hadn’t launched a nuclear attack on America during the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev was certainly no angel. During Stalin’s reign he was responsible for organising purges of dissidents in Ukraine and when in power led a brutal crackdown on religion that sent thousands of people of faith, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, shamanists to the gulags. He was also responsible for creating the system of curtained shops which served only members of the Communist party. But in refusing to start a nuclear war, Khrushchev helped save the world and showed himself a far better man than Mao.

But Posadas also had some other, rather more eccentric views. He believed in establishing contact with intelligent aliens and also believed dolphins were another intelligent species with whom we should establish real, meaningful contact and understanding. A college friend of mine told me that they wanted to make contact with aliens because of their belief in the inevitable victory of Marxism. If there were alien civilisations, they reasoned, they would have achieved true, Marxist socialism and could therefore help us do the same. It sound completely bonkers, but they took their views on dolphin intelligence from the scientist and psychologist John Lilley. Many others shared their views. I have a feeling that dolphins feature in several of Larry Niven’s novels as intelligent creatures with whom humans have a relationship as equal species. To help them interact with us, they have been given artificial arms and mobile pods containing the water they need to support them.

There was a brief resurgence of Posadism on the Net in 2016, and the book contains amongst its illustrations a number of memes posted by them. One contrasts the despair and defeatism of capitalism and the mainstream socialist parties with Posadism. It features a grey alien looking on accompanied with slogans like ‘Solidarity with the space comrades’ – not ‘space brothers’, note, like the old-fashioned UFO contactees talked about, but Marxist aliens determined to overthrow capitalism. Other slogans included ‘It’s Communism, Jim, but not a we know it’, clearly a parody of the famous line from Star Trek, ‘It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it’. And there’s also a parody of one of the famous sayings of the Space Prophet himself, Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The Posadist meme reworked this as ‘Dialectical Materialism so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.’ They are also in favour of fully automated luxury communism. This is the doctrine, embraced by Yannis Varoufakis amongst others, that mechanisation will make most workers redundant. To prevent the immense harm this will do, the only choice will be for the state to take over industry and run it so that everyone has free access to goods and services. This got reworked in one of the Posadist memes as ‘Fully automated luxury gay communism.’ I have to say this sounds distinctly unappealing. Not because I’m opposed to gay rights, but because it sounds like only gays will be allowed into the new utopia. I hope if it comes, it will benefit everyone, whatever their sexuality.

In fact the idea of fully automated luxury communism and alien contact goes back a long way in Marxist history. Alexander Bogdanov, an early rival to Marx, wrote an SF novel, Red Star. Inspired by Tsiolkovsky, the Russian rocket pioneer, and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, this was about a revolutionary from the 1905 anti-Tsarist uprising, who is abducted to Mars. Martian society is advanced both technologically and socially. All the factories are automated, so that goods are plentiful and money is obsolete, as everyone has access to all the goods and services they need or want. As a result, Martians share their possessions. What work remains is entirely voluntary, but done idealistically for the good of society. This includes young Martians donating blood to increase the lives of the elderly. (see page 5 of the above book).

As the Bard says in The Tempest ‘Oh brave new world that hath such people in it!’

Posadas was an eccentric with some extremely dangerous views, but some of his ideas aren’t so daft. If mechanisation proceeds, then I feel that fully automated luxury communism, or something very like it, will have to come into existence. It’s the only humane alternative to the grind mass poverty and despair depicted in dystopian SF stories like 2000 AD’s ‘Judge Dredd’, where 95 per cent of the population of Megacity 1 is unemployed and films like Elysium, where the world’s masses live in shanty towns, workers are exploited and disposable, and the rich live in luxury orbital colonies.

And serious scientists are still looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, following American astronomer Frank Drake and scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan. Interestingly, the book states that Sagan, a Humanist and left-wing activist, denied being a Marxist. But he and his wife Anne Druyan smuggled copies of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, so that Soviet citizens could read its real, suppressed history. I think most SETI scientists believe that real aliens would probably be so different from us that their political and institutions may well be inapplicable to us. Nevertheless advocates of SETI believe that aliens may nevertheless be able to give us vital scientific information, including the cure of disease and how to extend our lifespan. It probably won’t be Marxism, but if the aliens do have something like it or Fascism, then these ideologies will become popular on Earth after contact.

Communist aliens sounds like a ridiculous idea, but until we make contact, we won’t know if there are or aren’t any.

As for the Martian society of Red Star, the absence of a money economy, the abolition of scarcity and work as a purely voluntary activity sound very much like the Federation in Star Trek. Thanks to contact with the Vulcans and other aliens, humans had overcome racism, poverty and starvation. People didn’t need to work, but they did so in order to better themselves. It should be said, though, that the series never openly advocated socialism. It simply said that ‘the economics of the future are different’ and implied that both capitalism and socialism had been transcended. Nevertheless, the parallels are so close that the far right, like Sargon of Gasbag and his fellow Lotus Eaters, have been moaning that Star Trek’s communist. I doubt it, not least because the actress who plays Seven Of Nine is married to a Republican politico. I think Star Trek is broadly liberal and presents an inspiring utopian society. One of the complaints about Star Trek: Picard is that it has now abandoned this utopian optimism in favour of portraying the Federation as a standard SF dystopia and that it’s liberal slant has become too shrill and intolerant at the expense of good stories, plots and characterisation. Utopias are unattainable, but we need them to inspire us, to show us that ‘another world is possible’ and that, in the words of The Style Council, ‘you don’t have to take this crap/ You don’t have to sit back and relax’. Or work yourselves to death to increase the profits of already bloated big business elites.

Apart from this, the book is also a fascinating look at the history of Marxism in Argentina and Latin America, and I intend to review on this blog when I finish it.

As for aliens, well, I’d rather we made contact with benign Space Comrades than the little Grey buggers that haunt our nightmares of UFOs, abductions and malign conspiracies at the moment.

And yes, the title very definitely is taken from the poster of a UFO hanging in Fox Mulder’s office in the X-Files.

Cartoonist Kayfabe on the US Army’s Guide to Cartooning

September 7, 2021

Face front, true believers, as Stan ‘the Man’ Lee used to say at Marvel. Here’s a bit of fun I found on the Cartoonist Kayfabe channel on YouTube. In it, comics creators Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg look at a little curiosity from the past. Back in the middle of World War II, the US army produced a booklet intended to teach squaddies the basics of cartooning.

The booklet was part of a series of such manuals intended to teach basic craft skills to wounded and shell-shocked troopers when they were recovering in hospital. It was also to give them skills that would help them find a job when they were finally demobilised. These booklets weren’t long. They were deliberately made short enough so that a trooper could have one in a pocket or in his kit bag. Other manuals in the series included leatherwork, knot-making and carpentry.

Although short, the booklet does cover all the basics of cartooning, such as proportion, perspectives, drawing action, the need to observe the wrinkles in clothes and so on, including tips on drawing noses and ears. Unfortunately, it also contains a section on ‘racial symbols’ – basically drawing national stereotypes, which includes two racist caricatures. One of these is of a Jew, which is especially distasteful given the nature of the regimes the US and its allies were fighting at the time.

The booklet’s own artwork is very fine and is stylistically similar to many of the great comics’ artists who were emerging at the time. The two speculate whether it was done by Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus, a metaphor about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, or Stan Lee. Although both were in the army at the time, both were actually occupied on other projects. In the case of Lee, it was working on pamphlets about the VD. The pair also note that the booklet doesn’t say anything about sequential storytelling. It’s intended to teach single panel cartooning, the type published in newspapers at the time and which was massively popular.

I’ve got a feeling it was US army course on cartooning that produced the great American SF novelist, Harry Harrison. I think he trained as a cartoonist and started working in comics and from there found his way into writing SF short stories and novels. Harrison is probably best known for his comic SF novel, The Stainless Steel Rat, about a reformed criminal, ‘Slippery’ Jim diGriz, who works for a galactic detective bureau staffed with similar ex-crims to catch the villains, tyrants, murderers and general menaces to society that the ordinary police can’t. One of his other novels is Bill the Galactic Hero, which is a satire on the army and militarism, as well as spoofing Asimov and some of the other leading SF authors of the time. It was written, along with a number of other novels by various SF writers, as a reply to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and its glorification of war and the armed forces. In the book, the captains of the space navy aren’t the six-foot good-looking guys that appear in the films. Those are all actors. They’re members of the galactic aristocracy, and so are terribly inbred with low IQs. The aliens they are fighting against aren’t the aggressors as portrayed in the army’s propaganda, but are an otherwise peaceful race, the victims of human attack. When Bill finally meets one, who explains this to him shortly before it escapes, he asks it why they’re fighting them then. The alien replies that it doesn’t know, but ‘we think you like it’. When Bill is finally allowed some leave, he travels down to the nearest planet with a group of other squaddies. One of them is a man, who has had half of his face shot away and replaced with cybernetics. Another man wires himself into a saline drip that feeds him a mixture of alcohol and glucose so he can be flat out unconscious drunk for the duration. And at the end of the book Bill meets the Biblical Cain, here described as the first soldier, who gives him tips on how to be successful and survive as a squaddie.

Bill the Galactic Hero isn’t biting satire. It’s tone, like the Stainless Steel Rat, is largely light. But that doesn’t stop it making some very serious points about the lunacy of the armed forces and the hell of war amongst the jokes. I think it’s significant that Harrison had served in the war, while Heinlein was rejected as unfit for active service. It’s been said that the people who are least likely to start a war are those, who have actually fought in one.

And if Harrison did come into literature through the US’ army training on cartooning, there’s an irony in that it launched the career of one of SF’s great satirists of the military, along with just about everything else.

Quinn Looks at the Rave Reviews for Dune

September 5, 2021

Here’s a bit of fun to kick off Sunday. Quinn, the man behind the aptly named ‘Quinn’s Ideas’, is a Black American SF/comics writer and creator. He has a taste in classic SF tales of star-spanning galactic empires extending over centuries and millennia, intelligent stories that are part of the tradition of SF as ‘the literature of ideas’. Books like Asimov’s Foundation series, Dan Simmon’s Hyperion and especially, Frank Herbert’s Dune. Dune has now been adapted by Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director behind Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. Dune opens in America the end of October. I think it might the 20th, but I’m not sure. However, the critics have seen it, and the reviews are in. They rave about it!

Quinn wonders if his audience can tell that he can hardly contain his excitement. Well, it is noticeable. He’s almost shaking with joy and expectation. The critics have loved the film, including the musical score by Hans Zimmer. Amongst the praise, one critics compares it to the moment audiences first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. This is high praise indeed! 2001 has dated, but it still one of the great SF films of all time. I was a junior school kid when I first saw Star War, and it completely blew me away. Michael Frayn, the literature professor and broadcaster, said in an interview about his favourite movies that he saw it, and the first moments immediately seized and amazed you. This was the moment the star destroyer appeared in pursuit of the princess Leia’s rebel ship. It appeared and grew and continued growing.

Quinn hopes the film lives up to this hype, as he wants it to be remembered as the cinematic version of Dune, not the 1980s David Lynch version. This took liberties with the book. One of these was the portrayal of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. He was presented as a stupid, screaming madman. As Quinn says, the Dune miniseries was much better, although it had a much lower budget and the costumes were ridiculous. I have to differ from him here. I do agree with him that the Dune miniseries is an excellent adaptation, especially in the portrayal of the Baron. He’s closer to the character in the book, camp, but intelligent, subtle and cunning. I don’t know about the book, but the miniseries made him a kind of Shakespearean villain. He hated the Atreides because of the way that House looked down upon his family for generations. It recalled the line from King Lear where Edmund rants about how he is marginalised and excluded because he is a bastard, and so excluded from the throne. The Baron in the miniseries also versifies, celebrating his coming victories in rhyming couplets or haikus. Where I disagree is that I don’t think the costumes are ridiculous. I think the costume designer took his inspiration partly from 16th century Europe, shown in the uniform of the emperor’s Sardaukar shock troops, and also east Asia. The Harkonnen armour looks very much like it was inspired by Japanese samurai. Of course, it’s space age version of sixteenth century and Japanese armour and fashions. The costume of the guild ambassadors with their curiously curved headgear looks like it was inspired by some of the weird hats in Moebius, such as the one worn by his hero Arzach. I do, however, dislike the Fremen costume. I realise this is supposed to be clothes worn by harassed, persecuted desert-dwellers, but it’s tough rough and crude. The traditional clothes worn by modern desert peoples, like the Bedouin, are of much better quality even though these peoples may also be poor. I also found the miniseries’ version of the still suits, which collects the characters waste fluids from sweat, urine and faeces, and reprocesses them into drinkable water so that they can survive in the desert, disappointing. But then I don’t think they could ever match up to the stylish suits in the David Lynch movie.

I’m really looking forward to the new Dune movie, and hope to see it at the movies here, lockdown permitting. The trailers look superb and selected critics, including Quinn himself, were invited to special screenings of the first ten minutes of the movie. This massively impressed them. I’m a fan of both David Lynch’s Dune, which I consider to be a flawed masterpiece, and the miniseries. But I really hope Villeneuve’s version lives up to the hype. As Quinn’s commenters point out, what impresses the critics and the ordinary person in the auditorium are two different things. Blade Runner 2049 impressed the critics, but audience were much less impressed. It may be the same with his Dune, though I sincerely hope not. Any way, here’s the video he posted, so judge for yourself from his comments.