Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

SF Short Film: Robots of Brixton

May 18, 2018

This is an interesting piece of what BeyoncĂ© would call ‘Afrofuturism’ from the Dust channel on YouTube. Dust specialise in putting up short SF films, like the one above. This film, directed by Kibwe Tavares, imagines a kind of future Brixton, where all, or nearly all the people living there are robots. The film’s hero, a robot with Afro-Caribbean features, walks through the area, before relaxing with a robot friend, by toking what appears to be the robotic version of a bong.

A riot then breaks out, and robot riot police appear to crush it. This is intercut with scenes from the 1981 riots in Brixton, over which is dubbed a voice talking or reciting a piece about ending oppression. The film ends with shots of bodies on the ground, then and in this robotic present. And the quotation from Marx on a black screen: ‘History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce’.

People of all races like and produce SF, and there are a number of very well respected Black SF writers, most notably Samuel R. Delaney, who’s been going since the 1960s and ’70s, and Olivia Butler, the author of Clay’s Ark and the Parable of the Sower. A few years ago a volume of SF by Black authors was published with the title Dark Matter, the title also referring to the all the invisible cosmic stuff that’s adding missing mass to the universe. Also in the 1990s over this side of the pond there appeared a book, written by a Black author, about an all-Black mission to save a space colony by turning them Black. This was to save them from a plague which affected only Whites. I can’t say I was impression by this piece, as it seemed to me to be as imperialistic as the White ideologies of civilising Blacks by giving them European civilisation. This seems to be less controversial, though still dealing with a sensitive subject. It is also part of the character of much SF since it first appeared in the 19th century as ‘the literature of warning’.


Franco-Russian SF Series about Manned Mission to Mars on BBC4 Next Thursday

May 8, 2018

Next week’s Radio Times also says that a new SF series also begins on BBC4 next Thursday, 17th May. It’s a French-Russian co-production about a manned mission to the Red Planet, and the first two episodes are being shown at 9.00.. It’s called Missions, and the blurb for it in the magazine runs thus

1/10 Ulysses
Sci-Fi drama about the first manned mission to Mars, which faces a ciris just as they’re about to land, threatening to fracture an already mercurial crew.
2/10 Mars
A sub-team seeks salvage to save the stricken craft, but the trio’s discovery of a body means a surprisingly harsh reception on their return. French and Russian with subtitles.

The other piece about it on page 94 by David Crawford also gives the following information on it:

Two tech billionaires are locked in a race to send humans on a mission to Mars. Sound familiar? This French space series may be topical, but its low-budget, character driven treatment harks back to 1970s sci-fi.

The crew of the Ulysses, funded by Swiss billionaire William Meyer, are approaching the Red Planet after ten months in space. They’re a bit of a ragtag bunch for such a long and high-stakes mission, with an accompanying psychologist.

It’s a bit contrived, but when things start to go wrong and there’s an intriguing discovery, the claustrophobic setting and dysfunctional crew ratchet up the tension.

Both France and Russia are space-faring nations with a very long history of brilliant SF, so this could be very good, despite the low budget. Let’s hope so, at any rate.

New Series Next Tuesday on the History of Science Fiction

May 8, 2018

According to the Radio Times there’s a new series on the history of Science Fiction beginning on BBC 4 next Tuesday, 15th May 2018 at 8.00 pm. Entitled Tomorrow’s Worlds: the Unearthly History of Science Fiction, it’s a four part series, the first of which is on space. The blurb for it says

Historian Dominic Sandbrook begins his exploration of one of the most innovative and imaginative of all genres with the topic that has perhaps intrigued its creative minds most: what lies beyond our planet. Contributors include William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Zoe Saldan and Neil Gaiman. (p.77).

Physics Textbook on Cosmology and Gravitation

March 15, 2018

M.V. Berry, Principles of Cosmology and Gravitation (Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing 1989).

Yesterday came the news of the death of the great British physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking at the age of 76. Hawking had suffered for most of his adult life from motor neurone disease, since he was diagnosed with it in his early 20s. He was given only three years to live, but instead managed to live out a very full lifespan working on his theories of the origin of the universe and Black Holes. He was a great ambassador for science. His book, A Brief History of Time, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1980s, although he admitted that it was probably a book few finished. And he showed that it was still possible for a disabled person to do cutting edge research, provided they had the necessary technical and medical support. In his case, it was his wheelchair and the machine that allowed him to speak, first of all by keying in the words, then by twitching just a single muscle. Some of the praise seemed a bit too fulsome to me. Like when they started saying that he was the greatest scientist since Newton and Einstein. I don’t think he was. And Hawking on his own didn’t unlock the secrets of universe or Black Holes, as the Beeb’s presenters also claimed. As for his great sense of humour, well, it existed, as his appearance on shows like The Simpsons demonstrated, but my memory of it is marred by him turning up with the TV critic, Victor Lewis Smith, telling fart jokes and laughing on the 1990s series, Inside Victor Lewis Smith. But it really was inspiring to see how he was a great hero to the ‘A’ level students at a science fair yesterday, and how he had inspired them to become interested in science.

One of the complaints Richard Dawkins has made about popular science programmes is that they’re too ‘dumbed-down’. He points out that they have to have lots of explosions, and they mustn’t include equations, in case that scares people off. There’s a lot with which I don’t agree with Dawkins. I’m not an atheist, and have argued on this blog against him and the other militant atheists. But he is right here. Scientists writing the popular science books have said that they’ve been told by their publishers to leave equations out, because every equation in a book damages sales.

I think this is the wrong attitude to have. It’s why I’ve put up this piece about the above book by M.V. Berry. It’s an undergraduate physics textbook, which does contain the fundamental mathematical equations for this area of physics. Its contents include

1. Introduction

2. Cosmography
2.1 What the universe contains
2.2 The cosmic distance hierarchy and the determination of galactic densities
2.2.1 Parallax
2.2.2 Distance from velocity measurements
2.2.3 Distance from apparent luminosity
2.2.4 Weighing galaxies
2.3 The red shift and the expansion of the universe.

3. Physical base of general relativity
3.1 The need for relativistic ideas and a theory of gravitation.
3.2 Difficulties with Newtonian mechanics: gravity
3.3. Difficulties with Newtonian mechanics: inertial frames and absolute space.
3.4 Inadequacy of special relativity.
3.5 Mach’s principle, and gravitational waves.
3.6 Einstein’s principle of equivalence.

4 Curved spacetime and the physical mathematics of general relativity.
4.1 Particle Paths and the separation between events
4.2 Geodesics
4.3 Curved spaces
4.4 Curvature and gravitation.

5 General relativity near massive objects
5.1 Spacetime near an isolated mass.
5.2 Around the world with clocks.
5.3 Precession of the perihelion of Mercury
5.4 Deflection of light
5.5 Radar echoes from planets
5.6 Black Holes

6 Cosmic Kinematics
6.1 Spacetime for the smoothed-out universe
6.2 Red shifts and horizons
6.3 Apparent luminosity
6.4 Galactic densities and the darkness of the night sky.
6.5 Number counts

7 Cosmic dynamics
7.1 Gravitation and the cosmic fluid
7.2 Histories of model universes
7.3 The steady state theory
7.4 Cosmologies in which the strength of gravity varies

8 In the beginning
8.1 Cosmic black-body radiation.
8.2 Condensation of galaxies
8.3 Ylem.

Appendix A: Labelling astronomical objects
Appendix B: Theorema Egregium
Solutions to odd-numbered problems
Useful numbers.

there’s also a bibliography and index.

I’m not claiming to understand the equations. I struggled at both my ‘O’ level maths and physics, and what I know about science and astronomy I learned mostly through popular science books. But in the mid-1990s I wanted to see at least some of the equations scientists used in their explorations and modelling of the universe. One of the popular science books I was reading said at the time that this book was at the level that people with ‘A’ level maths could understand, and this didn’t seem quite so much a jump from my basic maths skills. So I ordered it. I’m afraid I can’t say that I’ve read it properly, despite the fact that I keep meaning to. Some of the equations are just too much for me, but I can follow the explanations in the text. I’m putting this notice of the book up here, in case there are any budding Stephen or Stephanie Hawkingses out there, who want to go a bit further than the pop-sci explanations, and see for themselves what the maths behind it all is like.

The Beeb also said in their eulogy for the great man, that Hawking hoped that the people reading his A Brief History of Time would come away with one point, even if they hadn’t finished it: that the universe is governed by rational law. Actually, this ideas isn’t unique to Hawking by a very, very long way. It actually comes from the Middle Ages, and is the assumption that makes science possible. Hawking was an agnostic, I believe, and many scientists are atheists. But this assumption that the universe is governed by rational laws ultimately comes from Christian theology. The founds of modern science in the Renaissance pointed to the passages in the Bible, in which God’s Wisdom creates the universes and establishes the boundaries and courses of natural phenomena, like the tides and stars. And the anarchist of science, Feuerabend, pointed out that the assumption that the laws of the universe all form a consistent whole come from Christian doctrine, quoting the 13th century theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas: ‘We must believe that the laws of the universe are one, because God is one.’

Hawking has passed away, but it’s clear that he has inspired many more people to become interested in this rather arcane branch of the sciences. I hope this continues, despite the Tories’ attack on education and science and research for its own sake.

Radio 4 Programme on Douglas Adams, and New Series of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

February 27, 2018

This Saturday, 3rd March 2018, Radio 4 are broadcasting a programme on Douglas Adams and his ideas for the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on papers at Cambridge University. The programme’s part of their Archive Hour series, at 8.00 O’clock in the evening. The blurb for it on page 119 of the Radio Times reads

John Lloyd explores a collection of Douglas Adams’ private papers written as the latter’s ideas for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy took shape.

There’s a bit more about the programme on the previous page, 118, which runs

Don’t Panic! It’s the Douglas Adams Papers

As part of the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the first broadcast on Radio 4 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a new series begins on Radio 4 on Thursday. It includes unused material held at Cambridge University by author Douglas Adams, and Adams’ papers are the basis of his friend and collaborator John Lloyd’s tribute this evening. The tribute inevitably hinges on Adams’ famous inability to write. He “got stuck”. But the results of his anguish impressed such fans as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, both of whom appear. A priceless homage to a comedy genius.

And there’s a two-page feature on him on pages 114 & 115.

The new series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is on Radio 4 at 6.30, on Thursday 8th March. The new series’ entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase, and the listing for it in the Radio Times runs

Simon Jones returns as Arthur Dent in a new sci-fi comedy tale based on Dirk Maggs’ novel And Another Thing, with additional material by creator Douglas Adams. It sees Arthur and the rest in an adventure involving Viking Gods and Irish confidence tricksters-not to mention the first glimpse of the Eccentrica Gallumbits.

I don’t think I’ll be listening to it, as I went off Hitchhiker and Adams way back in the 1990s. I loved the first two books, but their quality steadily went down, and I’ve had no desire to read the Dirk Gently stories or anything else Adams’ wrote. And I also wasn’t impressed by the way Adams got very sniffy in an interview on the radio with Paxman, when Paxo told him he wrote science fiction, ‘but it was good’, and Adams denied that he did. Hitchhiker clearly is SF, but it seems Adams either didn’t respect the genre due to literary snobbishness, or simply didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an SF writer. I can also remember him on another radio programme back in the 1990s telling an audience of schoolchildren that he was a ‘wordsmith’. I’m sure that’s true, in the sense that Adams was genuinely concerned with making sure his work was exactly right, but it still sounds more than a little pretentious and conceited when the uses the term to describe himself.

Woohoo! Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams Is Coming Back!

February 24, 2018

More good news for fans of mature SF. The bad news is that the new set of programmes, which continue from last year, is on Channel 4 at 10 O’clock in the evening, bang opposite the X-Files, which is on channel at the same time. Grrr! Better set your videos, peeps.

The new set of programmes begins with ‘The Father Thing’. The blurb for this on page 67 of the Radio Times runs

The sci-fi anthology series inspired by Philip K. Dick’s short stories returns. In this episode, the world is under attack as aliens quietly invade people’s homes young hero Charlie must make difficult decisions to protect his mother on the human race.

Another small article about it on page 65 states

The sci-fi anthology returns with a version of Philip K. Dick’s The Father Thing. That was published in 1954, the same year as the serialisation of the novel that inspired the movie version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers-and it you’ve seen that, or just know the premise of it, you can skip this.

Jack Gore and Greg Kinnear are both excellent as ayoung boy and his dad, shadowed by the threat of marital strife until the kid starts to have more serious concerns.

A possible theme about children fearing the loss of a divorcing parent never coalesces. Instead, as the boy’s mates get involved, we veer into a half-cocked Stranger Things homage. A well-performed, nicle shot dud.

I’ve noticed that one of the perennial themes in Dick’s work is that the hero is always in a rocky marriage, and the wife, or one of the female characters, is always bitch queen from hell, to use the words of Arnie Rimmer. Dick’s was married several times, but he comes across as something of a misgynist.

Despite the Radio Time’s critic’s sniffs, The Father Thing is one of the pieces that’s been republished recently, and I look forward to seeing it. But we’ll decide whether it’s a dud or not, thank you.

Elon Musk’s Launch of Sports Car into Space, and Fear Factory’s Version of ‘Cars’

February 10, 2018

And now for something a bit lighter.

This week, Elon Musk’s Space-X company launched a sports car into space, complete with a dummy pilot. This was supposedly inspired by David Bowie’s Starman, and Iggy Pop’s The Passenger. You probably saw the pictures in the paper.

What it reminded me most strongly of, however, was the video for Fear Factory’s version of the Gary Numan hit, Cars. Fear Factory are an American Heavy Metal/Industrial band, and Numan himself appears in the video as a driver of a car in space.

The video includes scenes of the band driving through a futuristic network of brightly tunnels, while alphanumerics scroll down the screen, which is clearly inspired by The Matrix trilogy. Then Numan himself drives at speed through a city. He’s also driving a car in space and collides with a satellite. This is then followed by the scenes of a crash, and the lead singer walking towards an upturned car from which a woman and the firemen are fleeing. It ends with a shot of the other wrecked car in space floating away.

And in between the lead singer inserts one of the band’s CDs into the car’s player, and there’s a creepy kid in the back, who looks just like he came out of Village of the Damned.

Take a look at the video, and see the similarities between it and Musk’s venture. He really should have had this on his playlist, as well as Bowie and Iggy Pop.

Opening Scene of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

January 22, 2018

And now for something a bit positive and optimistic, before I start blogging about the grim, serious stuff later. I found the opening scene to last year’s Luc Besson SF film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets over on YouTube. Besson was the director of the SF epic, The Fifth Element way back in the 1990s. This clip from Valerian shows the development of something, which looks remarkably like the International Space Station, into a massive, orbital space complex. I like it because it shows a succession of human nations coming through the airlocks, followed by a variety of alien races, to greet each other in peace and friendship. The musical backing is David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, appropriately enough, though the scenes of people and aliens shaking hands in welcome reminds me more of the line from Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’: ‘I see friends shakin’ hands, sayin’ ‘How do you do?” This was used at the end of the BBC TV version of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy back in the 1980s.

As for people meeting and becoming friends with alien races, that was one of the elements that made Star Trek so popular. It showed that, despite our current problems, humanity would survive, flourish and go on to explore the universe. And that meant all humanity, with people of different races, Black, Asian, and Russians from the other side of the-then current ideological divide, and aliens, like Spock. Gene Roddenberry in his vision for the show stated that he didn’t want there to be an alien race we couldn’t possible deal with. And so in The Next Generation they created the Borg, which originally humanity couldn’t deal with. You either fought them, ran away, or were assimilated.

Alien invasion, or some other insidious threat from beyond the stars is a staple of SF, and has been ever since H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. But there’s another aspect to humanity’s fascination with aliens which counterbalances this. That apart from enemies, we will also make new friends. It’s the driving psychological motive behind the various UFO contactee encounters in the 1950s, when people claimed that they’d been taken aboard alien spacecraft by benevolent space brothers, to be given a message of peace and cosmic brotherhood. And it’s also why there have been any number of SF stories and paintings set in space bars, like the Cantina sequence in Star Wars.

And in this clip here, I particularly like the bit where the human shaking hands with one of the aliens is left with slime on his hand. It’s just a bit gross, but it is funny.

I wanted to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets when it came out last year, but unfortunately circumstances got in the way. I heard that it flopped. One reason for this, apparently, was because it came from a French comic strip, which no-one in America had ever heard of. I’m not sure if that’s the reason, and sometimes perfectly good films fall flat at the box office for no discernible reason at all, except that they didn’t appeal at that moment. Anyway, I want to get hold of it on DVD so that I can judge for myself whether it’s any good, rather than just take what the critics said.

The Painter of Cyberspace: The Art of Jurgen Ziewe

January 20, 2018

Earlier this week there was a piece in the press announcing that the Turner Prize Committee had decided to go public early about which artworks and artist they were considering. I have strong feeling, like many people, about the Turner Prize. Many of the works seem simply designed to shock, with nothing more substantial underneath. Those that aren’t, are simply banal. It’s highbrow kitsch, which says nothing while claiming that it actually does. And I think modern fine art has reached a dead end. it’s anti-art, which constantly raves about Duchamps’ urinal nailed to a piece of canvas. Duchamps did it to make the point that whatever the artist claimed to be art, was art. It’s over a century old, and the joke’s well past it’s sell-by date. It was always an adolescent, childish prank anyway. To some of these art experts, it’s a hallowed artistic statement that must not be blasphemed in any way. You remember those Chinese guys, who were arrested when they jumped up and down on Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’? The same two were planning to urinate in Duchamps’ urinal. Which I feel is in keeping with the piece itself, but the mere thought horrified the keepers of official art.

The real artistic boundaries are being pushed, in my opinion, not by the fine artists, or at least, not by those fine artists currently pushed by the very small clique that defines what ‘official’ art is, like Nicholas Serota. Rather, they’re being pushed by commercial artists and film makers, often inspired by the worlds of Fantasy and SF, using computer graphics. One of the foremost of these, in my opinion, is the German artist Jurgen Ziewe. Ziewe lives over here, and has an English wife. And we are fortunate to have such a talented artist. I do wonder what will happen to other talented EU migrants like him after Brexit, who can’t stay in this country because they aren’t married. We’re going to lose a lot of very talented people.

Ziewe uses computer graphics, including Virtual models of humans and objects, and fractals, to create prismatic, Virtual, interior worlds full of robots, strange creatures, synthetic humans, fairies, wizards, witches, priestesses and temples. He started out making cards showing dolphins under cosmic skies. He’s a very spiritual guy, in a New Age-y sense, and his work is inspired by concepts from Theosophy and C.G. Jung. Here’s some of the picture from Nigel Suckling’s book about his art, New Territories: The Computer Visions of Jurgen Ziewe (Paper Tiger, 1997).

The Fairy Queen

Picnic In Cyberspace

Journey of a Virtual Traveller

Apart from Ziewe, other artists working in film and television have also been using the concepts of computer graphics. One of the features of the BBC TV version of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that most impressed me in the late ’70s or early 1980s were the, ahem, computer graphics for the pieces of information provided by the Book. In fact, they were hand drawn, because the computers at the time simply weren’t up to the task of creating pictures that detailed. But the art produced as ‘computer graphics’, was superb, and those, who watched the show were deeply impressed. As an example, here’s a piece from YouTube of the Book describing Vogon poetry.

Further examples can be seen in pop videos. Like this one from the American electro-pop band, Information Society, which uses scrolling alphanumerics to suggest passage through cyberspace in a computer game, made for their track, ‘The Prize’.

Other artistic explorations of medically or cybernetically enhanced vision can be seen in the films Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick and the last of trilogy, entitled simply Riddick. Richard Riddick, the anti-hero in these movies, is a violent criminal, a murderer, who somehow ends up doing the right thing. While in slam for his crimes, he paid the prison doctor 20 menthol cigarettes to have his eyes surgically altered, ‘polished’, so that he could see in the dark. In these flicks, we so bits of the action through his eyes. The scene in Pitch Black, where he sees the predatory aliens pouring out of their underground lairs after the marooned crew of a crashed colony spacecraft, is awesomely beautiful. This is the trailer for the movie.

And this is the trailer for The Chronicles of Riddick.

In this movie, the Necromongers use visioners, cybernetically adapted humans, to seek and visually examine areas that are difficult or impossible for normal human eyes to see clearly. And the brief scenes, in which the audience is shown what they see, are also stunning.

But this is low, commercial art, and so unlikely to find any praise by the High Art people, no matter how popular it is, or how technically sophisticated and visually inspired. The best comment on this kind of artistic snobbery comes from the American SF/Fantasy artist and book illustrator, Bob Eggleton.

Being a commercial artist is itself a kind of pigeonhole in the art world, but it is not a label that troubles him. ‘Commercialism for the sake of commercialism is not a sin. What I hate is commercialism packaged as fine art. That’s what Abstract Expressionism about, you’re buying into a trend much of the time. There’s nothing wrong with any kind of art, provided the artist believes in what they’re doing.’

From Nigel Suckling, with introduction by Gregory Benford, Alien Horizons: The Fantastic Art of Bob Eggleton (Paper Tiger, 1995) page 83.

And the YBAs, such as Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin and Chris Offili, were very commercial, as was Salvador Dali long before them. This was pointed out on a programme on the great surrealist on Radio 4 several years ago by Malcolm MacLaren, the genius – well, he obviously thought he was – behind the Sex Pistols.

And here’s Eggleton’s picture of Great Cthulhu, painted for Weird Tales magazine, for all the Lovecraft fans out there.

I realised I’ve digressed a little way from the central topic of this post, the fantastic computer art of Jurgen Ziewe. But these are related issues, showing the way computers, robots, space and high technology – the stuff of Science Fiction – is pushing artistic boundaries in ways that the official fine art of Conceptualism really isn’t doing. I’m also exploring a few ideas here for a much longer article, or series of articles, I intend to do on this sometime.

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.