Posts Tagged ‘H.G. Wells’

The Euthanasia of the Elderly in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 18, 2017

A few days ago I put up a post about the nightmare, alternative future described by the British SF novelist Stephen Baxter in his novel, Titan. Baxter’s a writer of hard SF, a subgenre in which the fiction is nevertheless grounded in solid, known science fact, though often with an element of artistic license. Titan was written in 1995, and is partly set in the decaying America of the first decades of the 21st century. A militantly anti-science president, Maclachlan, has been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan and Christian fundamentalists. Maclachlan shuts down NASA for good after a shuttle disaster. The launch complexes are closed down. Those that aren’t demolished become simply tourist attractions, as do the agency’s headquarters and mission control. One of these, a museum to the Apollo moon landings, is altered so that it promotes instead the spiritual experiences many of the astronauts did have during their missions. Maclachlan also introduces legislation demanding that only the Aristotelian cosmology of Thomas Aquinas, with its crystal spheres, is taught in schools. What is left of the agency is given over to the USAF under the paranoid and nationalistic General Hartle, who is very much like the rogue American General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s classic nuclear black comedy, Doctor Strangelove.

Against this, the agency attempts to launch one last, great space mission, a crewed voyage to Titan, where the Cassini probe has found evidence of active biological chemistry.

I commented in my post on the remarkable similarity between the policies of the fictional Maclachlan and Donald Trump. Maclachlan is fiercely nationalistic, and withdraws American peacekeepers from their stations around the globe, as well as pulling America out of NAFTA and the various other free trade agreements. America also pulls out of the World Bank and the IMF, and the UN is kicked out of New York. Like the real anti-Semites of the America Far Right, Maclachlan believes that the US is under ‘Israeli occupation’. Maclachlan also dismantles the country’s welfare programmes, especially those benefiting Blacks and other minorities, and starts building a wall with Mexico.

He also devises a policy to deal with America’s increasingly aging society: euthanasia chambers for the unwanted or neglected elderly. These are euphemistically called ‘Happy Booths’. There’s a very touching scene in which the last, fictitious surviving Apollo spaceman, Marcus White, is gassed to death in one of these chambers by a couple of nurses, who are every bit as malign as Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. By this time, however, White is so confused with dementia, that he is lost in the delusion that he is back as a middle-aged man at NASA in his prime, suiting up and breathing the pure oxygen in preparation for another flight to the Moon.

This is interesting, as it completely turns on its head one of the truly despicable pieces of propaganda the Republicans were running ten years ago to make sure the American public didn’t get single-payer healthcare. Instead, we had Sarah Palin and the rest of the maniacs screaming that the introduction of single-payer healthcare, where all Americans would have free medical treatment financed by the state, would lead to ‘death panels’. Palin herself made a speech about how she didn’t want her children facing them. The idea was under a socialist system, medical care would be rationed. Those individuals deemed to be a waste of state money and resources, such as the elderly, would thus be humanely killed.

It was a disgusting piece of propaganda, based partly on the murder of the disabled in Nazi Germany. The Nazis were also pro-euthanasia, producing propaganda forms with titles such as I Don’t Want to Be Born. It was also based partly on the vile views of some of the founders of the Fabian Society, particularly H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who were very much in favour of eugenics and the sterilization of the biologically unfit.

Unfortunately, many Americans were taken in by this bilge. There was a BBC report on the truly horrific state of American healthcare, in which a clinic offering free treatment in California immediately attracted 50,000 + prospective patients. These are the 20 per cent of Americans, who couldn’t afford their private healthcare before the introduction of Obamacare. The Beeb’s reported also attracted the attention of Republican supporters, who’d believed all the rubbish they’d been fed by Palin and her stormtroopers. One of these was an elderly man, who rushed up to the Beeb’s crew and shouted ‘Your healthcare system stinks!’ When they politely asked him how so, he looked confused, and began to mutter about ‘death panels’.

There are no death panels in Britain, or anywhere else with a socialized, or state-funded medical system. As for Germany, state financing of medical treatment for the workers was introduced by Bismarck in the 1870s, nearly fifty years before the Nazis seized power. There is a problem, where dying individuals may be refused treatment of expensive and/or experimental drugs or other procedures on the NHS because the costs far exceed any chance of success. This is very much a controversial issue, as we’ve seen the past week with the parents fighting to send their dying son over to America for treatment. However, there are no death panels.

The ‘Happy Booths’ described in the book are a piece of artistic invention by Baxter. Conventional Christian morality rejects euthanasia for the same reasons it has traditionally ruled out abortion, except in certain very restricted circumstances. This is because both judge that there are certain forms of human beings, such as the unborn and the disabled, who are held not to have the same rights to life. If it is permitted to kill the disabled and the unborn, it is argued, there is a danger that the same attitude will spread to other groups also considered inferior, like the Jews and other ‘untermenschen’ in Nazi Germany. And Baxter is aware of this, as elsewhere in the book he describes how the British relative of one of the astronauts, stricken by CJD or ‘Mad Cow Disease’, is going to a euthanasia clinic even though their parents consider it unchristian.

A president dependent on the support of right-wing Christian fundamentalists would alienate a sizable part of his constituency if he did. What happens instead is that, through its hostility to state medicine and the welfare state, Republican politicians of Maclachlan’s type make it impossible for the poor, severely ill to support themselves. Hence Bernie Sanders’ chilling statistic that 50,000 Americans die each year because they cannot afford private medical treatment.

This is basically the same attitude of Tory party under David Cameron and Theresa May. They have extended the sanctions system and the Work Capability Tests to make it as difficult as possible for the unemployed and the disabled to quality for state support. The result of that has been that researchers at Oxford University found that in 2015 alone, 30,000 people died through the Tories’ austerity policies. And Mike over at Vox Political reported yesterday that, according to the Skwawkbox, there’s a nasty clause in Universal Credit, which means that the claimant has to find a job in two years, or they lose their benefit.


This is a right-wing ‘genocide of the disabled’, as Mike, Johnny Void, Stilloaks, Tom Pride and the Angry Yorkshireman have said on their blogs, and Jeffrey, one of the great commenters here, has said on this. But it’s carefully hidden. The victims aren’t actually killed, they’re simply left to die. And the few politicos, who dare to call it what it is, are denied their ability to sit in parliament.

On Friday Mike commented on a piece in the Disability News Service about Mr. Jared O’Mara, a disabled Lib Dem MP, who has called the Tories’ policies towards the disabled ‘eugenics’, and stated that they want disabled people to ‘suffer and die’. Mr. O’Mara is to be commended for the way he tried to tackle Iain Duncan Smith, the former head of the DWP and therefore the government’s chief minister responsible for implementing this policy. However, Mr. O’Mara finds it impossible to find anywhere in the House of Commons to sit during debates. There is insufficient seating for all 650 MPs, and there is no form available for disabled MPs to fill in stating that they have particular seating needs. As Mike says, this is all very suspicious.

As a religious person, I can’t say I’m happy about the anti-religious stance of Titan. I went to a Christian college for my undergraduate degree, and some of the students were Creationists. I am not saying that their literalist reading of the creation story in Genesis is correct, but I have to say that they were, by and large, decent people. Those I met weren’t racists or political extremists, and I know that one or two were actually left-wing. I also can’t say that they were anti-science, outside of the very specific field of evolution. Moreover, since the election of Donald Trump there has been the emergence of a religious Left in America, something which couldn’t have been predicted when Baxter wrote the book back in the 1990s. One of the authors of the collection of articles attacking the Neo-Cons, Confronting the New Conservatism, pointed out that the Neo-Cons were not necessarily going to be politically dominant for ever. Kansas, and many of the other mid-western Republican states, had in the 1920s been centres of the Social Gospel movement, which combined Christianity and Socialism. It’s possible that as more Americans recognize how truly disgusting Trump and his party are, Christians over the other side of the Pond may return to it.

However, Trump and his administration are anti-science. The Republican party is strongly opposed to climate change, and so there has been a concerted attack on environmentalism since Trump took office. Legislation protecting America’s glorious natural heritage has been repealed, and federal scientists responsible for monitoring the environment have been effectively gagged. They may not publish any scientific papers supporting climate change, and the federal agency itself has been effectively gutted.

Titan also portrays a future suffering from global warming and catastrophic climate change, as do very many of the SF novels written during the same decade, such as Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather. So far Trump hasn’t wound up NASA, though I don’t doubt that the agency is still under considerable pressure to keep expenses under control. But the real harm is being done by Trump’s deliberate rejection of climate change to appease powerful donors from industry, particularly the Kochs in big oil. This denial of climate change, and that of the other world leaders, will lead to the deaths of millions worldwide. If it hasn’t already.

Real Steampunk Inventions from the Pages of ‘The Engineer’

May 29, 2017

I’ve posted up several pieces this weekend about some of the real inventions of the Victorians, and how they have inspired and resemble the science and machines of steampunk Science Fiction. This is a branch of SF, which imagines what would have happened had the Victorians invented space travel, computers, time machines and were able to journey to parallel worlds. One of the founding works of the genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which was set in an alternative Victorian Britain, which had entered a steam-driven computer age after building Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title.

Some of the most amazing examples of Victorian and Edwardian engineering and technology can be found in the pages of The Engineer. This was the industry’s trade magazine, founded in 1856 by Charles Healey. In 1976 the magazine issued a glossy book celebrating the history of the magazine and the legacy of its founder. The book said of him

Healey has been described as a man of great strength of mind and character who always had ‘a smile, a question, and a penetrating look’. He had financial interests in railways in the Bourdon gauge, and among his many friends were leading men in railway engineering including Robert Stephenson, Isambard Brunel, and Sir William Fairbairn. But there is no evidence Healey used his editorial pages to promote his financial interests.

The magazine’s purpose, as it confessed in January 1916

was to spread the gospel of engineering. ‘Whilst engineering knowledge was the possession of but few men great progress was impossible, and it is the object of the paper to expand and distribute technical and scientific information. In so doing so it may fairly claim to have been a factor of no little importance in the great developments that have taken place during the late 60 years.’

And the magazine celebrated the practical work and achievements of engineers over the more abstract theorising of scientists. The book states

The Engineer pointed out that men of abstract science had done something, ‘but not much for us’. While applied science ‘has done for the physical world everything which science so far provide capable of accomplishing at all – railroads, manufactories, mines, the electric telegraph, chemical factories. And by who is it applied? Why the civil engineer, the mechanical engineer, the mining engineer and the shipbuilder who himself represents an important branch of engineering.

‘The wide earth over, we find the engineer working on principles, dealing with physical truths, using the investigations of those who have preceded him as stepping stones to knowledge, and leaving behind him through each generation mementoes of his labours. Mementoes, the result of a perfect acquaintance with such physical truths as men of the most exalted intellects have discovered-mementoes which will endure when the existence of the “leading journal” has become a matter of history’.

The ’70s were a period of economic depression, and part of the purpose behind the centennial volume was to counteract the mood of the times and inspire a new, fresh generation. The magazine declared

Today, when the economy is depressed, is an opportune moment to produce a book which will remind industry of its glorious past and act as a spur to project it into the future. It will also remind engineers and manufacturers of the power, grace and majesty of engineering.

Very much the same could be said today. Later this week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 will be discussing Britain’s critical lack of engineers, and asking how more young people can be persuaded to enter the profession. I’ve said in my previous blog posts that one way could be to link it to the interest people have in restoring and repairing motor vehicles, and the cyberpunk milieu of Science Fiction enthusiasts, who design fashions and exotic machines for this Victorian technological age that never was.

Much of the material in the book is about industrial machines and processes, which to most lay people, myself included, probably isn’t that interesting. Such as various types of manufacturing machines, industrial smelters, metal and chemical refining processes, pumping engines and so on. There’s also a chapter on railway engines, which is clearly of interest to steam enthusiasts and the people, who played with Hornby Railway sets when they were children.

But the machines and buildings I find the most interesting, are where the Victorians’ ideas prefigure those of modern technology, both real and in the imagined worlds of SF.

In architecture, the magazines shows two designs for a colossal tower for London, that was intended to rival the Eiffel tower in Paris. One of these shows very clearly the influence of the French structure.

Another was more straightforwardly British in design. Except for its size. It was going to be 1,240 feet.

We’re almost looking here at the soaring tower blocks of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or indeed, Judge Dredd’s Megacity 1.

Instead of a channel tunnel, a massive bridge was proposed to span La Manche, and link Britain to France.

And to warn ships of dangerous rocks and water, they also designed a floating lighthouse.

As well as normal railways, they also designed an overhead railway and rainwater collector.

The book also showed contemporary illustrations for the steam carriages and buses that were being developed in this period as the first precursors to modern vehicles driven by the internal combustion engine.

This included the Randolph Steam Coach of 1872.

Other vehicles included Goodman’s velocipede of 1868, which could reach the amazing speed of 12 mph, and the Liquid Fuel Company’s steam van of 1985, which was entered in a competition the magazine ran for road carriages.

There was also an illustration of a one horse power road steamer, which could carry two people.

It also included the schematics for another vehicle, the Serpollet Steam Phaeton of 1891.

From this, it looks like a budding car enthusiast could possibly build one of these machines, in the same way people also build their own custom cars, and cyberpunk inspired machines like the one I posted up yesterday.

A Mr Nairn, an engineer from Leith in Scotland, also published his design in 1870 for a three-wheeled steam omnibus.

There was also this illustration of an early motorcycle, Duncan and Superbie’s bike of 1894.

and an early car, Panhard and Lavassor’s two-seater from 1894.

And to show that waiting at traffic lights were also a blight that afflicted the Victorians, there’s an illustration of the traffic signals at Bridge Street in Westminster in 1868.

The Victorians and Edwardians were also experimenting with new ways to move vehicles across ground, such as caterpillar tracks. These included traction engines, such as Ingleton’s Automatic track of 1868. This was engineered to allow the tracks to be raised when the engine reached the end of the field, and needed to make a tight turn.

Even after petrol began to supersede steam in the early 20th century, some firms were still experimenting with caterpillar tracks on the new petrol-driven tractors. The photo below shows the caterpillar tractor and train produced by the Holt Manufacturing Company of Peoria in America.

In some cases, the search for alternative means of locomotion went so far as reinventing the wheel. In 1909 Diplock patented a design for putting ‘walking feet’ on a wheel.

This is interesting, as H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads was about warfare conducted using machines some have seen as predicting the tank. The land ironclads of the title, however, are much more like contemporary naval vessels. They are long, contain rows of snipers along their sides. And unlike tanks, they walk across the ground on mechanical legs like vast, mechanical millipedes, somewhat like the Walkers in Star Wars, but with more legs.

The Victorians were also keen to solve the problems of ships navigating shallow waters. Bourne’s Steam Train, proposed in 1858, attempted to solve this problem through using the paddle wheels as terrestrial wheels, allowing the vessel to climb over sandbanks, and the engine could be geared down to provide more power.

It struck me looking at this that if it had been developed further, you’d have had amphibious landing craft like the DUK of World War II.

This was also the age in which people were making their first attempts at flight. One of the bizarre vehicles featured in the book was Carlingford’s aerial chariot of 1854. This was launched from a pole ranging from 6 to 9 feet in height, carried forward by a falling weight. This was like the Wright Brother’s early planes. Unlike the Wrights’, the aerial chariot didn’t have an engine and the pilot tried to crank the propeller by hand.

The magazine also published illustrations of the British military’s experiments with balloons in 1874.

As well as wings, engineers were considering more exotic methods of flight. In 1916 there were a series of designs for planes held aloft by spinning discs. Looking at them, it is hard not to see them as the first predecessors of the helicopter.

As for balloons, this led to the development of dirigibles like the Zeppelin, a 1923 design for which was also published in the magazine’s pages.

Petrol driven cars and motorbikes are now ubiquitous, though there is still great affection and interest in vintage, veteran and historic road vehicles. One businessman in Leckhampton, one of the suburbs of Cheltenham, proudly displayed his early motorcycle from about the time of the First World War in his shop window.

The steam vehicles weren’t as efficient as modern petrol and diesel vehicles. They also faced stiff political opposition from traditional, horse drawn vehicles. Nevertheless, you do wonder what Britain would have been like if these machines had caught on to the point where they were the preferred method of transport, rather than horse-drawn carriages.

And these carriages, and the other machines and designs shown above, still have the potential to fire the imaginations of fans of historic technology, steam enthusiasts, and Cyberpunks. And perhaps, if more people saw some of these machines and their designs, some of them might try to make some of them. This would not only bring them to life, but also possibly inspire more people to take an interest in engineering and the great heritage of invention.

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.

Arthur C. Clarke Book on the Terraforming of Mars

March 18, 2017

Arthur C. Clarke – The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars – The Illustrated History of Man’s Colonization of Mars (London: Victor Gollancz 1994).

A little while ago I put up a number of articles on the possible terraforming of various planets in our solar system. The prime candidate at the moment would be Mars, but people have also suggested ways to terraform Venus and the Moon. I’ve managed to dig out from my bookshelves a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s book, The Snows of Olympus, which I bought way back in the 1990s. Clarke’s been called ‘The Space Prophet’ because of his article published in a radio hobbyists’ magazine shortly after the War predicting geostationary communications satellites. He has jokingly said in an article ‘How I Lost a Million Dollars in My Spare Time’ that he should have patented the concept, and so made himself a billionaire because of its immense value to the telecommunications industry. This book is no less prophetic in that it uses computer simulations to depict the gradual greening of the Red Planet over a thousand year period from the next few centuries to c. 3000.

The book has a prologue, in which Clarke gives the text of a speech he gave to future Martian colonists as part of the Planetary Society’s ‘Visions of Mars Project’. Launched by the late and much-missed astronomer and space visionary, Carl Sagan, this was a project to send the future colonists the gift of a collection of SF short stories about Mars aboard two probes due to land there. There’s then a short introduction in which Clarke lays out the aims of the book. The first chapter, ‘Prelude to Mars’, discusses the history of the exploration of the Red Planet by terrestrial astronomers and writers, such as Giovanni Schiaparelli, Percival Lowell, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, and the controversy surrounding the supposed ‘face’ on Mars, made by Richard Hoagland and others.

Chapter 2 – ‘The Curtain Rises’ – is on the probes sent to explore Mars, such as the Mariner probes and discussion between himself, Sagan, Ray Bradbury and the JPL’s Bruce Murray at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the probes and their findings. He goes on to discuss Viking probes and the debate about American and Russian cooperative ventures in space research. This last ended for a time because of international tensions created by the Solidarity crisis in Poland.

Chapter 3 – ‘Going There’, describes the problems and suggested methods for reaching Mars, establishing crewed bases there, including various types of rocket from the conventional chemical to nuclear-thermal and atomic; solar sails and space elevators, George Bush seniors’ intention to launch a crewed mission to Mars by 2019, and the tasks that would immediately face the astronauts landing there.

Chapter 4- ‘Virtual Explorations’ is on the use of computers and VR to explore and map Mars, and particularly the Vistapro programme used in the generation of many of the images in the book.

Chapter 5 is on the artistic and computer depictions of Olympus Mons, the planet’s highest mountain and the gradual reclamation of its surface by vegetation, beginning with lichens, during the long centuries of terraforming. This culminates in the emergence of liquid water and creation of a sea surrounding the mountain.

Chapter 6 does the same for Eos Chasma, the ‘Chasm of the Dawn’, in the Valles Marineris.

Chapter 7 shows the same process as it would affect the Noctes Labyrinthes – the Labyrinth of Night. This forecasts the growth of forests in this part of Mars, beginning with pines but later including deciduous trees.

Chapter 8 – ‘The Longest Spring’ discusses the various methods that could be used to terraform Mars, such as coating the ice caps with carbon from Mars’ moon, Phobos, the use of orbiting mirrors to melt them, raising its temperature by turning Phobos into a miniature sun for about 40 days using ‘muon resonance’ – a form of nuclear reaction, and bombarding the planet with comets to cover it with water, and ‘Von Neumann’ machines that would gradually terraform the planet automatically.

‘Disneymars’ looks forward to a museum display and audiovisual presentation that would show the colonists what their planet would look like in the future as the terraforming progresses.

Chapter 9 – ‘Concerning Ends and Means’ discusses the moral dimension of terraforming, the immense historical importance of exploration and the need to continue this exploration to the Red Planet in order to preserve human civilisation and progress.

There are two appendices. The first is an extract from a speech, The Mars Project: Journeys beyond the Cold War, by US senator and WWII hero, Spark Matsunaga. The second, ‘So You’re Going to Mars’, is fictional advice given by the immigration authorities to people moving from Earth to Mars.

The quality of the computer graphics is mixed. Many of them, which were without doubt absolutely astonishing for the time, now look rather crude and dated as the technology has improved. Others, however, still stand up very well even today. The quality of the computer simulations of the terraforming process can be seen from this image below of what Eos Chasma might look like in 2500 AD.

There are also plenty of illustrations of Mars, rendered using more traditional artistic methods such as painting, including photos of Percival Lowell’s own drawings of what he believed was the planet’s network of canals.

Although the computer tools may have been superseded and improved in the decades since the book’s publication, I think the science, and the social issues Clarke discusses, are still solidly relevant and contemporary. Certainly there is now a popular movement to send humans to the Red Planet at some point in the coming decades, and prospective future colonists have even come forward to volunteer a few years ago. There is, however, a greater awareness of the medical dangers from radiation and microgravity that would affect – and possibly destroy – a mission to Mars. The dream, however, is still there, as shown by the success of the film The Martian a few years ago.

H.G. Wells’ Visionary Political SF Back in Print

January 7, 2017

Looking along the Science Fiction shelves in Waterstones in Bristol last week, I found a large selection of H.G. Wells’ books are now being republished. These include not only well-known favourites like The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, First Men in the Moon and The Island of Dr Moreau, but also two of his explicitly political SF novels, When the Sleeper Wakes and A Modern Utopia. When the Sleeper Wakes is about a merchant banker or stockbroker, who falls asleep and wakes up centuries in the future to find that his activities have created a nightmare capitalist dystopia. A Modern Utopia is about a group of travellers from our world, who enter an alternative reality in which the Earth is ruled by a single world government, everyone speaks the same language and there is complete racial and sexual equality. On the negative side, it also shows Wells’ disdain for democracy, as political power is held by four ‘samurai’, unelected guardians with absolute power.

I haven’t bought them, and so don’t know what they’re like. However, it’s clear that they are vehicles for Wells’ socialist views, like his The Shape of Things to Come.

British Interplanetary Society Paper on Terraforming Mars with Microorganisms

January 1, 2017

Yesterday I put up a couple of articles on terraforming the various planets of the Solar system, including Mercury, Venus and Earth’s Moon, as well as Mars. There have been a couple of really interesting comments posted to them. Florence, one of the great people, who read this blog, stated that she was a microbiologist. She was very much looking forward to working on microorganisms for Mars, but unfortunately that, and much of the rest of the space programme, vanished.

As well as Carl Sagan’s suggestion in the 1960s that blue-green algae could be used to create a breathable atmosphere and Earthlike environment on Mars, a number of scientists have also suggested using microorganisms to terraform the Red Planet. Twenty years ago the American Astronautical Society published a series of papers, edited by Robert M. Zubrin, about the colonisation of Mars, From Imagination to Reality: Mars Exploration Studies of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society: Part II: Base Building, Colonization and Terraformation (San Diego: Univelt 1997). This included a paper, ‘Genetic Modification and Selection of Microorganisms for Growth on Mars’ by Julian A. Hiscox and David J. Thomas.


The abstract for this paper reads

Genetic engineering has often been suggested as a mechanism for improving the survival prospects of terrestrial microorganisms when seeded on Mars. The survival characteristics that these pioneer microorganisms could be endowed with and a variety of mechanisms by which this can be achieved are discussed, together with an overview of some of the potential hurdles that must be overcome. Also, a number of biologically useful properties for these microorganisms are presented that could facilitate the initial human colonisation and ultimately the planetary engineering of Mars.

After an Introduction, in which they state that the terraformation of Mars could be a two-stage process, with the construction of an Earthlike environment by microorganisms being the first, they then proceed to the following sections:

2. Selection of Bacteria for Mars The Search for a Marsbug, which discusses the suitability of terrestrial microbes for the process, such as the cyanobacterium Chroococcidiops and the extremophiles, which occupy of extreme environments here on Earth;

3. Genetic Engineering – A simple Matter of Cut and Paste;

4. Genetic Modification and Selection;

5. Gene Expression, with subsections on

1) Survival Properties – Tolerance to Peroxides; Osmotic Adaptation; UV Resistance; Tolerance to High Intracellular Acid Concentrations; Endospore Formation;

2) General Properties, with further subsections on photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, and denitrification;

6. Uses of GEMOS and Some Speculations,

and then finally the conclusion and acknowledgments.

The conclusion reads

The introduction of microorganisms on Mars will greatly facilitate colonisation, both during initial attempts and in establishment of a stable ecosystem, either in enclosed habitats or at the end of ecopoiesis or terraformation. During the initial stages of ecopoiesis climatic conditions on Mars will be limiting for most terrestrial microorganism. By using genetic modification and directed selection under simulated Martian conditions, it may be possible to greatly enhance the survival capability of microorganisms during the alteration of the Martian climate to more clement conditions. Such microorganisms could be used to facilitate any planetary engineering effort. For example, they could be used to release Co2 and N2 from putative carbonate and nitrate deposits.

The genetic alteration of microorganisms will not be so much of a problem of introducing foreign genes into the organism but more a matter of understanding and controlling the regulatory pathways for the expression of such genes. However, such understandings will provide valuable insights into genetics, not only for increasing the productivity of microorganisms on Mars but possibly for Earth.

I’ve got very strong reservations about genetic engineering and modification, but here there is a strong case if it can be used to bring life to a sterile world. Assuming, that is, that Mars does not already possess life. In a way, the article’s ironic. Over a century ago, H.G. Wells had a germ, the common cold, destroy the invading Martians in his book, The War of the Worlds. Now terrestrial scientists are discussing using such organisms as ways to creating a living environment on the Red Planet.

Florence on the Fabians and the Labour Right

August 15, 2016

Florence, one of the great commenters on this blog, posted this comment on the links between the Fabian Society and the Thatcherite entryists on the Labour right.

The Fabian Society is a small group, they say dedicated to networking, I call it as a closed shop for privilege, the white middle class, and the political dynasties. The Fabian Society has also been spotted hovering in the shadows with the Blairites, such as Benn and Kinnock, and especially those who seem to be trying to redefine feminism to their own liking, Jess Philips, Jo Cox, Tessa Jowell, Hariett Harman, to name but a few in Fabian Women’s section. They run a mentoring programme, and in their own words,

“The programme has already delivered some incredible results for its 125 participants and the Fabian Women’s Network. Mentees have been selected or shortlisted as Parliamentary candidates, as candidates for the London and Welsh Assembly with brilliant support from other mentees. Many others were shortlisted. 27 women have been elected into local government positions and a number of women have gone on to become school governors and trustees on the boards of charities. The majority has gained promotion, been nominated for awards and written or spoken in national media.”

Not bad for a society with only 6,000 members in total. A lot of influence for the few. Don’t get me wrong, women’s mentoring to prepare for public life is great, it’s just that an awful lot of the “parachuted” or more correctly imposed New Labour candidates into winnable Labour constituencies proves there is a link between THIS Fabian programme and the actual elected MPs, notably those who are very vocally anti- Corbyn and anti-Socialism. This also shows how far the webs reach between the PLP problems, and the disconnect with the actual membership and in the country. The graduates of the programme seem to know very little about the Labour movement or socialism, it’s aims and more about neo-liberalism as a “good thing”, and of course Corbyn as democracy as a “bad thing”.

The source of Fabian Society funding also bears some inspection, where there are a number of corporate donors and sponsors are powerful lobbyists for corporate interests, and not known for their support for socialist ideals- such as Barclays and Lloyds banks, Bellendon PA (political lobbyists) the Portman Group (lobbyists for the drinks trade), Sanofi – a large pharmaceutical, and so on.

This is depressing. The Fabians have always had a reputation for being ‘milk-and-water’ Socialists, but I used to have far more respect for them than I do today. I was briefly a member of the society back in the 1980s, when I felt I had to do something to stop the rampant privatisation under Maggie Thatcher. My great-grandfather had been a member, and I was impressed with the intellectual work they’d done. This was a time when there was still a variety of opinions in the Society. Indeed, one of the sources I’ve used for my blog posts and pamphlets against the privatisation of the NHS was a Fabian pamphlet by Robin Cook against it. It’s not just from Florence that I’ve heard about the Fabians forming part of the network of Blairite groups. A friend of mine also remarked on it, with the suggestion that if Corbyn wanted to destroy the Blairites, he could do much by simply expelling the Fabians.

It’s a profoundly depressing development for the organisation of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and, briefly, H.G. Wells. The Webbs did much to promote Socialism in Britain, and their report on the state of British healthcare laid some of the foundations for the development of the NHS decades later. It’s now become a mouthpiece for the corporate shills trying to privatise everything, and break up that greatest of British institutions.

H.G. Wells’ The Rights of Man Back in Print

May 16, 2016

This probably may not be news to many of you. Looking along the politics section of the Bristol branch of Waterstones this afternoon, I found that Penguin have reissued H.G. Wells’ The Rights of Man, which is his defence of human rights, written during the first two years of the Second World War. The blurb for it on Amazon states

H. G. Wells wrote The Rights of Man in 1940, partly in response to the ongoing war with Germany. The fearlessly progressive ideas he set out were instrumental in the creation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the EU’s European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s Human Rights Act.

When first published, this manifesto was an urgently topical reaction to a global miscarriage of justice. It was intended to stimulate debate and make a clear statement of mankind’s immutable responsibilities to itself. Seventy-five years have passed and once again we face a humanitarian crisis. In the UK our human rights are under threat in ways that they never have been before and overseas peoples are being displaced from their homelands in their millions. The international community must act decisively, cooperatively and fast. The Rights of Man is not an ‘entirely new book’ – but it is a book of topical importance and it has been published, now as before, in as short a time as possible, in order to react to the sudden and urgent need.

With a new introduction by award-winning novelist and human rights campaigner Ali Smith, Penguin reissues one of the most important humanitarian texts of the twentieth century in the hope that it will continue to stimulate debate and remind our leaders – and each other – of the essential priorities and responsibilities of mankind. See:*Version*=1&*entries*=0

Looking at the Amazon entry, it appears it came out last year in 2015, so obviously I’m somewhat late in just noticing it. Or perhaps it’s only recently that it’s found its way onto the bookshop shelves. I didn’t buy it, but I’m mentioning it here in case there are people, who are interested. And the blurb is right: human rights in Britain are under attack, and the millions of displaced people around the globe have been left without homes through murderous and oppressive regimes, so it is, as the blurb says, still very relevant.

I also thought I’d mention the book because, as the Channel 4 skit Mike put up on his site pointed out, the team that drafted the European Convention on Human Rights included British lawyers. Traditional, historic British conceptions of what constitute our inalienable human rights are a fundamental part of the European Human Rights legislation Cameron, Osborne and IDS despise, and wish to replace with a much weaker British Bill of Rights. And they, like Bliar and Broon, are totalitarians, who wish to expand the secret state while doing everything they can to prevent public scrutiny of government and officialdom. They were trying to find ways to water down the Freedom of Information Act to prevent the release of information they may find awkward or embarrassing. In the view of the present Tory administration, information released under the Act is only to be used to understand how a particular official decision was made, not to challenge that decision. And they have done their best to protect the firms that have signed up to workfare by steadfastly refusing to release their names, in case public pressure forced them to withdraw from this highly exploitative scheme and it ceased to work.

This is a government hell-bent on taking our rights away, and reducing Britain to what Jeremy Corbyn has rightly described as ‘a zombie democracy’, a political sham, which retains some of the forms of democracy, but where they substance has long been hollowed out and removed. In this ominous political climate, it’s good that Wells book is being republished.

TYT on Trump’s Real Contempt and Exploitation of America’s Veterans

February 2, 2016

I’ve written two pieces already today attacking Trump. I thought I’d go for the hat trick. Trump was holding a special event four days ago on the 28th of January, specially for America’s veterans. Like the rest of the Republican party, Trump is enthusiastically pro-veteran. Or he is, so long as it suits him. Otherwise, he doesn’t want to know and is actively hostile to them. And his loud support for them really appears to be nothing but a very cynical fundraiser.

In this piece, Cenk Uygur talks about how, in 1991 and 2004, Trump tried to get the food stands run by wounded veterans cleared out of Wall Street or wherever it was in New York they were located. The stands have been there, by law, for over a hundred years. They were first allowed there to give wounded soldiers the opportunity to make a living. So they’re something of a grand old Noo Yawk tradition, and a small thing in themselves to give back to people, who have given limb, if not life, for their country.

But Trump couldn’t stand that. The food stalls lowered the tone of the area and threatened to put respectable businesspeople off. And so, while claiming that he fully supported the old troopers’ rights to make a living selling food, he wanted them moved from the area. This is all very much like Victorian England, where the respectable middle and upper classes really didn’t want to see their streets cluttered with proles, artisans, tradesmen and servants. There were designs for London with whole subterranean streets laid out, where the working and lower middle classes were to be sent to move and toil like the Morlocks from Wells’ The Time Machine, while their social superiors took the air in the boulevards above. Pittville in Cheltenham was laid out according to such notions of social snobbery by the bigoted and reactionary Francis Close. It was to be an exclusively middle and upper class suburb. The main streets, wide and spacious, were for the exclusive use of the respectable classes. Behind the houses was a warren of narrower streets for the tradesmen and others from the Great Unwashed, so they could come and go without being seen or heard.

While it seems that Trump has changed his attitude to America’s squaddies, if you look at the donation form it just appears to be a cynical scam to finance his election campaign. The online form for donating to his campaign for wounded soldiers goes to the Trump Foundation. It doesn’t go to the squaddies themselves, or their organisations.

This seems to encapsulate just about the cynically manipulative attitude to the damaged servicemen and women of the Republican party as a whole. Under George Dubya, the Republicans closed down whole programmes of state aid for soldiers with physical and mental injuries inflicted during their tours of duty. And they’re still doing it. I reblogged a list I found a few days ago of the various state aid programmes they’d forced to shut down. They’re all for US veterans, and ‘support the troops’ when it comes to getting people to vote for them, and start another war. But when it comes to the veterans themselves, they don’t want to know.

It reminds me of some lines from Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads, about the contempt Britain had for its squaddies. Until they were called on to fight.

‘Well it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that,
And ‘throw him out, the brute’,
But it’s the thin red line of heroes
When the drums begin to beat.’

Or something like that. Either way, Trump and the Republicans have the same brutal cynicism towards America’s soldiers. They, and the public, who really care about their husbands, sons, wives and daughters in the military, should repay the compliment and turn their backs on him and them.

Steampunk Airplanes from the 19th Century

November 18, 2015

A few days ago I put up a post about 19th century attempts to produce steam-driven carriages and cars, which were very much like the kind of vehicles imagined by 20th century Cyberpunk writers. Cyberpunk is the type of science fiction, which takes as its starting point the fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and imagines what the world would have been like, if the Victorians had had spacecraft, flying machines, cars and so on.

As well as inventing steam cars, carriages and buses, the century also saw a series of inventors put their minds towards flight. Balloons had been known about and used since they were invented in the 18th century. While some scientists and engineers, like Cugnot in France, attempted to create dirigible balloons – the ancestors of the Zeppelins and other airships of the 20th century, others tried to create heavier-than-air craft using wings, partly based on observing the way birds fly. These were the precursors and ancestors of the Wright brothers’ plane flown at Kittyhawk.

Such flying machines appear in the Science Fiction of the period. There are flying ships in Bulwer-Lytton’s early SF novel, The Coming Race. These frequently had fantastic designs, that would have been completely impossible to fly, such as the flying machine invented by one Mr Broughton in the short story, The Fate of the Firefly, by the Rev. J.M. Bacon. This is described as like

the skeleton of some antediluvian monster bird or flying fish. There were huge lateral wings, in texture like a bat’s, there was a pointed beak and a neck whose vertebrae were jointed pully blocks, but the body was too complex for comprehension, though it clearly contained an engine of some sort, with a tank which also did duty as a table. The story was accompanied by the following illustration of the ‘plane’.

Steampunk Aircraft 6

See Hilary and Dik Evans, Beyond the Gaslight: Science in Popular Fiction 1895-1905 (London: Frederick Muller Ltd 1976) 81-5 (pp. 81, 82).

Other, more serious attempts to create a flying machine, can be seen in the book Images of Aviation: A Century of Flight, by John W.R. Taylor (Brimscombe Port: Tempus 1999). This includes Leonardo da Vinci’s attempts to produce the airplane, as well as various early balloons. It also has a photo of a model of the glider invented by George Cayley in 1849, which successfully lifted a ten year old boy off the ground. This was succeeded in 1853 by a vehicle, which successfully carried one of Cayley’s servants. The vehicle crash landed, however, and although the man mercifully survived, he and Cayley were so shocked by the crash that Cayley turned his back on flight. He is, however, now recognised as one of the founders of the airplane and the science of aeronautics.

Steampunk Aircraft 1

Another British inventor, William Henson, produced a design in 1842 for an ‘aerial steam carriage’. Henson built the machine, but it failed to fly when it was tested in 1847. The steam carriage was launched from a ramp, but the small steam engine driving its two propellers lacked the power to keep it in the air. It is, nevertheless, a very good piece of engineering, as all the components are exactly where they should be in a working aircraft.

Steampunk Aircraft 2

After experimenting with clockwork models in the 1850s, the French naval officer, Felix du Temple, successfully launched a monoplane carrying a sailor in 1874. The device was powered by a steam engine, and took off from a ramp. It wasn’t very successful, staying aloft only for a few moments. Still, this was another important milestone on the way to powered flight.

Steampunk Aircraft 3

Twenty years later, the pioneering Russian aviator, Golubov, managed a flight of between 65 to 100 feet in monoplane – a plane with only one set of wings – designed by Alexander Fedorovich Mozhaisky. like du Temple’s plane, this was also launched from a ramp.

Steampunk Aircraft 4

Another French inventor, Clement Ader, made what French historians still claim was the first recognised flight in a powered airplane in the Eole. Powered by a 20 hp steam engine, this flew eight inches off the ground for 165 feet at Armainvilliers in October 1890. The flight was uncontrolled, however, and the design of the machine itself was basically impractical with its bizarre bat wings.

Sir Hiram Maxim also tried his hand at flight, creating an immense steam-powered biplane, which he attempted to fly at Baldwyn’s Park in Kent in 1894. This briefly cleared its guide rails before it hit a guard rail and crashed, after which Maxim called an end to his experiments in flight.

Steampunk Aircraft 5

The end of the 19th century saw further developments in flight from Otto Lilienthal in Germany, who constructed a series of man-carrying gliders, as well as other aviators in the very first years of the 20th century, such as Richard Pearse in New Zealand and Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Their machines are much more like those of the Wright brothers, which came after them.

I find the Victorian machines interesting, however, as they show not only the immense imagination and invention of the engineers and scientists of the period, but they are so much like some of the machines of Cyberpunk SF that you really do wonder what they world would have been like, if they had been more successful and flight had been successfully invented fifty years or so before the Wright brothers.