Posts Tagged ‘Dan Dare’

Torygraph Journo’s Book on Interstellar Travel Through Artificial Black Holes

August 10, 2017

The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe through Black Holes, Adrian Berry (London: Jonathan Cape 1977).

No, not the Iron Sky, which was a Finnish Science Fiction film that came out a few years ago, in which the Nazis secretly colonized the Moon, and fight an interplanetary war with an America governed by a female president, who bears a certain similarity to Sarah Palin. This is the Iron Sun, a book in which Telegraph journalist Adrian Berry explains his theory that it should be possible to explore space using artificial Black Holes to travel faster than light. Berry was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Senior Member of the British Interplanetary Society, and a member of the National Space Institute of America. According to the potted biography on the back flap of the dust jacket, he also covered two of the Moon Landings from Cape Kennedy and Houston. Along with this book, he also wrote The Next Ten Thousand Years and The Great Leap.

The latter book was published in the 1990s, and is also about interstellar travel and exploration. It’s a good book, though marred by Berry’s Libertarian politics. Towards the end of the book, he devotes an entire chapter to argue for Von Hayek’s daft and destructive economic ideas. So did a number of other space and extreme technology groups at the time. The transhumanists, the crazy people, who want to transform themselves into cyborgs, explore the Galaxy, and ultimately achieve immortality by uploading themselves into computers, were also very much into Von Hayek and Libertarianism. I have a feeling that this has gone by the way now. A friend of mine, who was also into it, told me a year or so ago that the Austrian economist is rather passe now. One of the leaders of the movement has said that Hayekian economics was just something they were into at the time, and they’re now distancing themselves from him, so that his ideas aren’t synonymous with the movement as a whole.

In this book, after taking the reader through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and explaining what Black Holes are, Berry then advances his book’s central idea. This is that humanity will be able to use a fleet of automated Buzzard ramjets as cosmic bulldozers to create an artificial Black Hole of a particular size one light year from Earth. The Buzzard ramjet was a type of spaceship devised in the 1970s. Instead of taking its fuel with it into space, like conventional rockets and spacecraft, the ramjet would scoop up the necessary hydrogen for its nuclear fusion engines from the surrounding interstellar medium, in the same way that a high-performance ram jet sucks in the air it needs to reach supersonic velocities from the Earth’s atmosphere. It was an immensely popular idea amongst space scientists, SF fans and advocates of the human colonization of space, as it appeared a practical way of creating a spacecraft that could reach the very high speeds approaching that of light needed to cross space to the nearest stars within a few years, or tens of years, rather than centuries and millennia.

Berry believed that strong electromagnetic fields could be used to collect and push the necessary hydrogen atom ahead of the spacecraft. Once in place, the hydrogen and other gaseous material would be forced together into a single mass, until it was so large that it collapsed under its own gravity, forming a Black Hole.

It was Carl Sagan, who first suggested the possibility of using Black Holes as cosmic subways to travel across the universe faster than the speed of light. Einstein, Rosen and other scientists hypothesized that the gravity inside Black Holes was so massive, that not only did it crush matter out of existence, but it also created a wormhole through space and time to, well, elsewhere. An object, including a spaceship, could enter a Black Hole to travel through the wormhole, to exit from a White Hole somewhere else in the universe, or even in a different universe altogether.

The Black Hole would be built a light year away, as this would be a safe but accessible distance. The construction ships would be automated as they would not be able to pull back once construction of the Black Hole was underway, and would be allowed to fall into it.

Berry admits there is one problem with his scheme: no-one knows how far away, nor in what direction, the resulting wormhole would extend. He therefore argues that the first astronauts to use the new wormhole would also have their own fleet of construction vessels, in order to build another Black Hole at their destination, which would create the White Hole needed for them to return to the Solar System. The process would take about forty years.

He explains the details of his proposal in a fictitious interview. There’s also an epilogue, and three appendices, in which he gives further information on Black Holes, including the navigable apertures created by Black Holes of varying sizes.

It says something for the optimism about the future of spaceflight in the 1970s that Berry considers that we should have the capability to do all this sometime around 2050. The 1970s were the decade when it seemed almost anything was possible after the Moon Landings, and astronomers and writers like Sir Patrick Moore seriously predicted that by now we’d have bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, holidays in space, orbital habitats at the L5 points, as suggested by Gerald O’Neill, and would be gradually expanding into the rest of the Solar System.

If only that had happened!

Despite the formation of public groups, like the Mars Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, for the colonization of space, humans so far seem stuck in Low Earth Orbit. There have been plans over the past few years for crewed missions to return to the Moon, and to Mars, but these haven’t materialized. NASA is planning an expedition to the Red Planet in the 2030s, but I’m really not confident about that every happening. And if it’s a struggle for us to get to Mars, sixty or seventy years after the Moon Landings, it’s going to be impossible for us to build a Black Hole.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of building a viable Buzzard ramjet. After the idea was proposed, someone worked out that the interstellar medium was so rarified that the vehicle would need a ramscoop 3,000 miles long to collect all the gas it would need. I’m not sure if this makes it completely impossible – after all, firms like the Hanson Trust back in the 1980s tried selling themselves to the general public with commercials telling the world that they made enough plastic chairs to go round the Earth so many times. And it might be possible to develop superlight materials for the scoop so that it would not be impossibly heavy. Such a material would similar to the mylar suggested for the solar sails for the Starwisp mission. This is a suggested mission to send a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri in a journey lasting thirty years or so. And the construction of a space elevator, which would have to be of a light material strong enough to take the weight of cable cars and carry them tens of thousands of mile into space out of the Earth’s gravity well seems to me to present even greater problems. But even if a ramscoop of that size isn’t impossible, it would be very, very difficult and extremely expensive.

Not all scientists are convinced that it should be possible to use wormholes in this manner anyway. Philip’s Astronomy Encyclopedia state that one particular type of Black Hole, rotating Kerr Black Holes, which don’t have the singularity that eventually destroys all the matter passing through it, ‘have fascinating implications for hypothetical space travel to other universes’. (‘Black Holes, p. 57). However, the entry for ‘Wormholes’ states that, although they’re predicted by Einstein, ‘such wormholes cannot exist in reality, since the occurrence of white holes is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics.’ (p. 440). On the other hand, Russian physicists have shown that it’s possible to create a wormhole a few light years in extent, though this would take more energy than is currently available in the universe.

I hope that it may one day be possible to construct such wormhole subway routes through the cosmos, as suggested by Sagan. I also wonder if the book may also have influenced comic writer Pat Mills in the creation of the Black Hole and White Hole bypasses for Termight – Earth thousands of years in the future – in the Nemesis the Warlock Strip in 2000 AD. This was an artificial Black Hole and its White Hole counterpart, constructed by Earth’s engineers to provide instantaneous access to space. ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ appeared about 1979, and while it’s definitely Science Fantasy, Mills actually did some reading in science as research for the comic. He said in an interview nearly four decades ago that he shocked the comic’s management because he bought a whole stack of books on science and then invoiced the comic company for them as research. He was annoyed that the attitude to comics at the time was so low, that the idea of doing basic research for them was looked upon with horror. Ah, how things changed after Frank Bellamy and ‘Dan Dare’. Bellamy’s studio for Britain’s greatest space hero, with the exception of Judge Dredd, included a model maker and researchers. Unfortunately, this was all cut away as an unnecessary expense when the Eagle changed hands. Sales had fallen, and the comic was then making a loss. Hence the decision to cut down the number of staff in the studio. But it does show the initial commitment to quality of strip’s creators, and Dare and Bellamy’s superb artwork are still admired as one of the greatest pieces of British comic art and literature.

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Steampunk Car – and the Real Victorian Vehicle that Inspired It?

May 28, 2017

On Friday I put up a post about the Science Fiction sub-genre of Steampunk, and some of the real Victorian inventions that have inspired it, and which even today seem like things from the imagination of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Steampunk takes its imagination from 19th century Science Fiction writers like Wells and Verne, and pioneering scientists, such as Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine. It imagines what might have happened, if the Victorians had developed space travel, time machines and a true information age. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling depicted a Victorian Britain, which had indeed entered a steam-driven, mechanical computer age following the construction of Babbage’s machine in their 1990 book, The Difference Engine.

This week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 is going to be discussing Britain’s serious lack of engineers, and ask how more young people can be persuaded to take up the subject.

It’s a complex issue, but I suggested in my piece that one way might be to harness the interest in Victorian-style SF hardware that exists amongst the fans of the genre. I also noted that you could possibly combine this with an appeal to the petrolheads, whose hobbies are restoring and working on cars and motorbikes, by getting people interested in the real, steam-driven motor vehicles that were developed during the 19th century on the way to the invention of the modern car.

There are steampunk conventions in Britain, America and other parts of the world. The other year, Phil Jupitus presented a programme on it on Radio 4. The members of the genre wear Victorian-style clothes, weapons, and pseudo-scientific devices inspired by the esoteric technology of this age that never was. And some of them have made their own, steampunk road vehicles. This is a very brief clip of one such car I found on YouTube, which had been lovingly made by a fan of the genre.

The blurb about it on YouTube merely describes Steampunk as a genre, but doesn’t say anything about the car itself. But the metal semicircle arcing over the vehicle suggests that it was partly inspired by a real Victorian invention, the velocipede designed by Richard Hemmings of Connecticutt, in 1869 (below). Hemmings said that his five year old son could propel a similar machine of about 5 feet ‘at a good pace’.

From Jeremy Sumner, ‘How Pedal, Steam and Petrol Put Horse Power Off the Roads’, in John Mortimer, ed., The Engineer: Highlights of 120 Years (London: Morgan-Grampian Ltd 1976) 124.

Looking through this book, which is a glossy, commemorative edition of the magazine, is fascinating for anyone with an interest in the history of technology, and carries a treasure-trove of inspiring ideas for enthusiasts of the genre. There are real life steam carriages and buses, a mid-Victorian mechanical traffic signals, an amphibious paddle steamer, a Zeppelin, and a petrol-driven tractor from 1916, which ran on caterpillar tracks. There are also designs for great towers in London to rival France’s Eiffel Tower, including one which would have been 1,240 feet tall. And instead of the Chunnel, Britain and France would have been linked by a truly colossal bridge.

I intend to post a piece about the book and its astounding and inspiring inventions later. I’ve no doubt that many of the people building vehicles and other gadgets based on their own interest in this particular genre, probably have an interest in science and engineering anyway. But the fact that people are trying to recreate and create science fictional Victorian cars and other machines shows that the steam punk genre does possess the power to inspire people with an interest in science and invention. Just as, no doubts, early generations were drawn to space and astronomy through the adventures of Dan Dare.

Zarjaz! Documentary about 2000 AD!

September 25, 2016

Borag Thungg, Earthlets! As the Mighty Tharg used to say. I found over at Moria, the Science Fiction Film and Television database, a review of the 2014 documentary Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD, directed by Paul Goodwin, and made by Stanton Media/Deviant Films. The film tells the story of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, and the crew of recidivist cultural deviants, who responsible, amongst other offences, for bringing the world Judge Dredd, Mega-City 1’s toughest lawman. Among those speaking in the movie are the mighty comics creators Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, Brian Bolland, Neil Gaiman, Carlos Ezquerra, John Wagner, Dave Gibbon, Bryan Talbot, Alan Grant, Grant Morrison, Cam Kennedy and Karl Urban, who played Dredd in the movie of the same name a few years ago.

The Moria review sets the origins of the comic in the context of Britain in the late 70s and early 80s, when Margaret Thatcher was in power, unemployment was at three million and the National Front was on the march. 2000 AD appeared following the cancellation of Action, a previous comic that had been banned after parents’ concerns that it was too violent. The team assembled to produce the new comic were partly drawn from those responsible for Action, like Mills, and the new comic definitely had a subversive edge. It was partly reacting against the old Fleetway children’s comics, whose stories were very safe. It takes its title from a series of unrelated bizarre stories, ‘Tharg’s Future Shocks’. As I recall, the strip in which these stories were first announced set the tone by showing a jaded, spoiled sprog, defiantly unimpressed with the previous offerings from British comics, who is then taken by Tharg to see the terrible and dangerous visions that the Future Shock strips will introduce. This is too much for the enfant terrible, and the traumatised brat is led away to received much-needed medical care, while Tharg urges them to ‘treat him gently’. An example of the strong subversive theme running through the comic is Dredd himself. Dredd was deliberately intended to be something of an ambivalent hero, a parody of Fascistic US policing. The Moria review notes that the more extreme Dredd became, the more popular he was, to the point where Carlos Ezquerra didn’t want to continue drawing the character after producing the original design. This probably shouldn’t be too surprising, as Ezquerra had as his inspiration for Dredd’s uniform that of Franco’s Fascists with their helmets and shoulder pads, though the review doesn’t mention this. John Wagner, Dredd’s creator, was always insistent that the character should never take off his helmet and show his face, as he was the symbol of the faceless police state.

The review discusses 2000 AD’s role as the first British comic to credit the artists and writers, and how this led to a brain drain as their leading creators were then lured off by the big American comic firms like Vertigo. I don’t think 2000 AD were quite the first. I think a few years before then the war comic, Battle, had also started to credit the people creating the strips. It also covers the magazine’s drop in quality and popularity in the 1990s, and then it’s revival under Matt Smith. It notes that all of the creators interviewed saw the comic as edgy, subversive and individualistic. This is certainly born out by some of the comments made in the movie’s trailer, which is also included in the review. This features the various writers and illustrators remarking on the comic and what they intended to achieve with it. Several of them, such as one by Pat Mills, are along the lines that the comics company really didn’t know what was about to hit them.

I don’t think they did. 2000 AD was never as controversial as Action, but nevertheless there were concerns occasionally that the comic was too violent. It did, however, produce some of the greatest comic strips that are still going thirty years later, like the ABC Warriors, Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock, Strontium Dog, The Ballad of Halo Jones, and, of course, Judge Dredd. The future’s ultimate cop was hailed at the time by the space fact magazine, New Voyager, as the Dan Dare for the 1980s. High praise indeed!

The review also talks about the three films or so have that were released based on the comic. These include the two Judge Dredd films, Judge Dredd, which appeared in the 1990s with Sylvester Stallone playing Dredd; and Dredd, which came out a couple of years ago, with Karl Urban in the title role. They also include Richard Stanley’s Hardware, which was taken uncredited from Shok!, a short story told by Dredd’s mechanical friend, Walter the Wobot. 2000 AD took the film’s producers to court in plagiarism case, and won. The film’s producers were forced to credit the 2000 AD strip, though I think Stanley still maintains that he didn’t steal the idea from 2000 AD. Of the two Dredd films, the first is considered a disaster, while the second was a hit with both audiences and the strip’s creators, who praise the movie in the film. Stanley’s Hardware is also a classic of low budget SF film-making, and has rightly received wide praise. It was made in 1989, but still looks good a quarter of a century and more later, and its relatively high quality of design and production makes it appear that it had a bigger budget than it actually had. Stanley’s career as a cinema director I think ended after he was sacked from directing the 1990s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. This was at least partly the result of the utterly bizarre behaviour of Marlon Brando, who took the part of Moreau. There’s also a film about the making of that movie, which shows just how bonkers and extremely difficult to work with Brando was, to the point where filming at time degenerated something close to farce. it’s a pity, as Stanley was and is a talented film-maker with fresh, interesting concepts. If things were ideal, he and 2000 AD would ideally make their peace, and he should produce a film based on some of the comics’ other strips. But this ain’t an ideal world, and so that very definitely won’t happen.

I don’t know if the documentary is available on YouTube, and I don’t recall having seen it on the shelves of HMV, but it might be worth checking out your local comics shop, like Forbidden Planet.

The Moria review can be read at: http://moria.co.nz/sciencefiction/future-shock-the-story-of-2000ad-2014.htm

Thatcher in Cartoons: Maggie as The Mekon

April 26, 2015

Private Eye included a selection of their covers and cartoons of the former Leaderene in their edition marking the Finchley Fascist’s death two years ago in 2013. One of them was a panel from the ‘Dan Dire’ strip parodying Dan Dare and other SF serials, which ran in the magazine from 1987 onwards. The panel came from the issue marking her tenth anniversary in power in May 1989. It portrays her as the Mekon, or in this instance, the Maggon, declaring ‘We are a megalomaniac!’, whilst around her the weird creatures of the Tory legions complain about having had to put up with her over several billion years.

I’ve posted a number of pieces recently about comics and social satire, including Strontium Dog, Judge Dredd and the ABC Warriors from 2000 AD. 2000 AD also tried for a time to revive Dan Dare for the Punk and Glam Rock generation, but it didn’t work out. Nevertheless, Frank Hampson and the Rev. Marcus Morris’ creation remains one of the great, classic British SF heroes. And this is a suitable, if backhanded compliment to the character’s enduring legacy, as well as the pernicious evil of the former Prime Minister.

Maggie Mekon

A few years before, I recall 2000 AD had also run a spoof strip parodying the early, Golden Age SF serial heroes, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the form of Dash Descent, drawn by the great Kevin O’Neill. This paid a kind of homage to these square-jawed space heroes from the 1930s, while joking about their shoddy special effects and contrived cliff-hangers. Unlike ‘Dan Dire’, this SF parody was purely for fun, and didn’t have the barbed political and social undercurrents that informed some of the other strips.

Vox Political: Arts Just for the Toffs?

January 24, 2015

Mike over at Vox Political has a thought-provoking article on anti-working class bias in the arts. It follows James Blunt’s attack this week on Chris Bryant MP, in which Blunt accused the politicians of ‘classism’ and bias towards those from a privileged background. The article begins:

How many of you were on James Blunt’s side in his very public spat with Chris Bryant MP?
And now that Julie Walters has weighed in, saying Mr Bryant was right? What do you think now?

The Labour MP had claimed British culture was dominated by stars like Blunt and Eddie Redmayne, who benefited from a privileged background. Blunt took offence and they had a highly-publicised row about it.

But top actress Julie Walters agrees. Quoted in The Guardian‘s Weekend magazine, she said: “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today. I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now. Kids write to me all the time and I think: I don’t know what to tell you.”

As Mike’s articles says, the actress and comedian is worried that the education and training required to get into drama is now too expensive for people from working class backgrounds.

Also in agreement is the great British comics creator, Pat Mills. Among the many comic strips produced by Mills and the other writers and artists with whom he worked, was ‘Charley’s War’, which ran in the war comic Battle. The hero was working class, British tommy thrown into the chaos and horror of the First World War. Unlike many other war strips, which showed plucky British heroes sticking it to the Hun, and returning home with nary a scratch on them in time for tea, ‘Charley’s War’ was grimly realistic. It was a profoundly anti-war strip, and has rightly been hailed as the best British comic strip. Mills states that the strip, however, is still resented by some because its hero was working-class, its creators came from working class backgrounds, and were strongly anti-establishment. He raises the question of whether such as strip would be possible today.

Barker Book

Mills and the 1970’s Comics Revolution

Mills has been working in comics since the 1970s. The comics he wrote for and helped create include Battle, Action, and 2000 AD. His wife is also comics artist, and he himself wrote for the girl’s comics. Many of Battle’s strips, apart from ‘Charley’s War’, gave unflinching portrayals of war and its horrors, such as that other Battle favourite, Darkie’s Mob. Action was banned following concerns about its violence. While most of the strips were largely based on the film and TV of the day, like Jaws (‘Hookjaw’), Dirty Harry (‘One-Eye Jack’) and so on, it also ran ‘Kids Rule UK’, about a violently dystopian future, in which law and order had broken down and society was dominated by violent teenage gangs. Mills and the other reprobates from the comics rumpus-room had intended it to reflect the youth culture of the times. It was originally going to be called ‘Boots’, after the footwear produced by Dr Martens, beloved of teenage tearaways and skinhead bovver boys. To stress how contemporary it was, the title was to include the year. So you’d have ‘Boots ’77’, which next year would change to ‘Boots ’78’. Action and its violence were too much for the authorities, and the strip effectively banned. Mills and co decided that from now on, all the violence should be in the interests of law and order. And as a response, they created the Fascist cop, Judge Dredd, who has been laying down in the law in Megacity 1 against perps, muties, Sovs, evil dictators and the undead Dark Judges ever since.

He helped spark a comics revolution. Martin Barker in his book, Comics, Ideology, Power and the Critics points to the way comics like Action and Battle transformed British comics. They introduced greater realism and psychological complexity, even ambiguity. Barker’s book is about how working class literature, from the cheap novels produced for ‘the democracy’ in the Victorian period, through the penny dreadfuls to today’s children’s comics, have always been intensely controversial. Amongst the most notorious were the horror comics, which were held to be corrupting Britain’s youth, and girls’ comics. These have been attacked by both feminists and non-feminists. Feminists have accused them of inculcating into girls traditional values, and sacrificing female friendship and solidarity and putting men first. Non-feminists have attacked them for encouraging girls to abandon traditional female occupations, like sewing and knitting. Barker showed that neither side was right. Given the pressure from both sides of the gender issue, I wonder if the creators of the comics ever felt like giving up. It certainly seemed that whatever they did, it would be wrong. I’m not actually surprised that in the end girls’ comics collapsed, and were replaced by the equally controversial girl’s magazines.

Dan Dare and the British Class System

If you want to see how much of a revolution in class terms ‘Charley’s War’ represented, think back to that great British comic strip, Dan Dare. ‘Dare’ is rightly regarded as a classic, not least because of the superb artwork. It was created by the Rev. Marcus Morris as a wholesome antidote to the American horror comics, and Dare is in many ways the quintessential British hero. He can be seen as an RAF air ace, projected into a future world of rockets and alien worlds. And like British society of the time, there is a very definite class bias. Dare himself is upper class, while his sidekick, Digby, is very much a working class character. While I respect Frank Hampson’s strip, there is very much a danger that the class system which permeated it will come back to inform other strips.

Julie Walters, Chumley-Warner and Upper Class Portrayal of the Proles

Julie Walters also makes the point that if the trend continues, it will result in middle and upper middle class people attempting to portray the working class, just like it used to be. My mother has a story of just how patronising and inflexible this was, and how intolerant BBC bosses were when told that their idea of how the lower orders behaved were when it was contradicted.

My mother grew up on one of Bristol’s council estates. One of her neighbours had a relative, who was an actress. She auditioned for a role as a working class lass with the Beeb. At the audition, she was told that as she was working class, she would be drinking tea out of a saucer. She tried to put the producer right, by telling him that working class people didn’t actually do that. No, said the man from the Beeb, working class people really did drink their tea from the saucer. The girl could not convince him otherwise, and didn’t get the job. I’ve also heard from Mum that she didn’t get acting work again after it, though I hope this is untrue. Harry Enfield’s character, Chumley-Warner, on the wireless-with-pictures, is a caricature. But the attitudes Enfield lampoons were very real.

And if we don’t watch out, they’re coming back.

Mike’s article is at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/01/24/class-divide-in-the-arts-is-it-just-for-the-toffs/.

On the subject of James Blunt, Dead Ringers took the mick out of him years ago. This contained the lyric ‘And Morrissey is telling me James Blunt is rhyming slang’. Quite.

Here’s the sketch: