Posts Tagged ‘H.G. Wells’

Adam Savage Hitches Rickshaw to Four-Legged Spot Robot

June 21, 2020

This is another video which has absolutely nothing to do with politics, but I’m putting it up simply because it’s fun. In it, Adam Savage, the engineer and Science Fiction fan behind Mythbusters, builds a joint for Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot so he can hitch a rickshaw he built for himself to it. Boston Dynamics have developed a series of robots, some of which are humanoid and bipedal. They produced another quadrupedal robot, Big Dog, as a carrier for the American army. However, the programme was cancelled because the robot’s electric motors produced too much noise for it to be used in combat, as this would have alerted the enemy to the soldiers’ approach.

Savage says of the rickshaw he built, that it was originally going to be very brightly coloured after the Indian vehicles. When he came to build it, it became darker, and much more European so that it had a Steampunk look. Steampunk is the type of Science Fiction that imagines what would have happened if the Victorians had really developed the kind of technology in the early SF of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and had space and time travel and computers. One of the founding books of this genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which is set in a Britain where Lord Byron has led a revolution and is now the head of government and Charles Babbage’s pioneering early mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title, has been built.

The Spot robot itself is semi-autonomous. As Savage has shown in previous videos, it can be operated by remote control. However, it recognises and avoids obstacles, and so it’s impossible to steer it into a brick wall. It will just stop, or try to go round it. When Savage and two other engineers and technicians are testing how it performs with the rickshaw attached, the robot comes to a halt on a slope. This is because it doesn’t realise that it needs to put in more power to pull the rickshaw up it, and so the two technicians work on its software so that it can correctly assess the force it needs and perform accordingly.

The robot and rickshaw together really do look like something out of Steampunk SF, or the 19th century SF art of the French author, Jacques Robida. Or even a scene from the Star Wars’ galaxy, which similarly mixes high technology – spaceships, robots and landspeeders with very low-tech forms of transport like animals. The fact that this is reality in 2020 shows that we are living in an age of SF.

Radio 4 Serialising New Version of ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’

May 21, 2020

Interesting news for fans of the Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Radio 4 begins a new version of his short story, ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ on Monday, 25th May 2020. It’s split into ten parts, and is being broadcast on weekdays at the same time of 7.45 pm. It’s been updated by the show’s writer, Julian Simpson, so that the the pair investigating Ward’s disappearance from a secure psychiatric hospital are a couple of podcasters, Matthew Heawood and Kennedy Fisher. In several of Lovecraft’s short stories, the main characters’ final act is to write down their adventures for others to find just before they’re finally killed or captured by whatever nameless cosmic horrors are pursuing them. ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, in which a sailor, who has narrowly survived an encounter with the malign elder god in his sunken island of R’lyeh, and writes down his account of the experience shortly before his own death, is one classic example of this. However, as it’s now 2020 instead of the 1920s, and it’s for the radio, Friday’s edition of the show, according to the Radio Times, has the pair uncovering his audio files.

This could be good. The Beeb has broadcast some of Lovecraft’s works before. Radio 4 Extra a few years ago serialised ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, which was read by a narrator. That seemed to stick faithfully to Lovecraft’s text. While this obviously takes a few liberties, it could still be worth listening to. On the other hand, it could be like the BBC 1’s version of the War of the Worlds last year, which diverged so much from Wells’ book that it was ultimately disappointing. Let’s hope it isn’t.

Collection of Science Fiction Stories Tackling Racism

January 18, 2020

Allen De Graeff, ed., Human And Other Beings (New York: Collier Books 1963).

Science Fiction, it has been observed, is more often about the times in which it was written than about the future. Quite often it’s been the ‘literature of warning’, in which the author has extrapolated what they feel to be an ominous trend in the present to show its possibilities for the future if left unchecked. Thus H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine presented a nightmarish far future in which capitalist elites and the working class had diverged into two separate species. The Eloi – descendants of the elite – were small, dreamy creatures, with no industry of their own. They were the food animals instead of the Morlocks, descendants of the working class, who had been forced into lives of underground toil by the late Victorian and Edwardian class system. Other SF stories have tackled the problems of overpopulation – John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, the catastrophic over-reliance on mechanisation for, well, just about everything – E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, or the horrifying potential of genetic engineering and mass psychological conditioning, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and so on. I borrowed this colllection of SF stories from a friend. It’s interesting because it uses the theme of contact with alien and other non-human intelligences to criticise and denounce the very real, present issue of racism. The book’s blurb begins with the quotation ‘”Everything that diminishes human dignity is evil,”‘, and continues

With this timeless truth as his theme, Editor Allen DeGraeff has collected a group of superbly told science fiction tales that support it with horror or humor. Other planets, other centuries, living beings of shapes and colors other than “human” are the imaginative ingredients. Shock, surprise, and sympathy are the emotions they act upon.

  • Would you join the Anti-Martian League? Or, like Sam Rosen, would you fight it?
  • Would the gentle Adaptoman – four arms, two brains, three eyes-arouse your hostility if he worked in your office?
  • Could you live as a Professional in a world of Categoried Classes if there were also people known as Wipers, Greasers, and Figgers?
  • Would you marry an Android, a person physically just like you, but artificially “Made in the U.S.A.”?
  • Would you mock or make a friend of Narli, the charming fur-bearing exchange professor from Mars?
  • Could you serve with a soldier Surrogate, a human being reclaimed from the dead with biological techniques of the future?

In settings ranging from the Second Battle of Saturn to Earth 2003 and shining blue-green globe Shaksembender, these authors portray the ideas of human dignity.

The authors, whose work is collected in the volume include some of SF great masters – Ray Bradbury, William Tenn, Leigh Brackett, Frederick Pohl, both alone and with his frequent collaborator, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley and Eric Frank Russell.

The stories were written at a time when the Civil Rights movement was gaining power, although still bitterly opposed by a viciously racist, conservative state apparatus and politicians. A number of other SF writers were also using the genre to denounce racism. Sometimes that was through metaphor, such as in Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’. This tale’s titular heroine is a young woman genetically engineered from cats. She is a member of an oppressed servile class of similarly genetically engineered animals. These creatures are denied all rights by their human masters, and humanely killed by euthanasia is they are unable to perform their functions. Through telepathic contact with another such creature, a dove of immense intelligence and wisdom, C’Mell is able to persuade a human board of inquiry to grant her people human rights. Other SF writers tackled racism directly, such as Harry Harrison in his 1963 story, ‘Mute Milton’. This was his angry reaction to a comment by a redneck southern sheriff’s response to the news that Martin Luther King was highly respected in Sweden and Scandinavia, and had been awarded the Nobel prize. The sheriff responded that King might be popular in Norway, but back in his town he would be ‘just one more n***er’. Harrison’s story is about a Black American college professor, who comes to a southern town on his way to another university to present his invention: a radio that runs on gravity. A stranger to the racial repression of the Deep South, he falls into conversation in a bar with a wanted civil rights activist while waiting for his bus out of town. The Black activist tells him what it’s really like to be Black in the South. The sheriff and his goons burst into the bar looking for the activist. He escapes out the back. The sheriff and his men shoot, but miss him and shoot the professor instead. When one of the goons tells the sheriff that they’ve killed an innocent man, he just shrugs it off as ‘another n***er’.

Racism has since gone on to be a major topic of much SF. It’s been explored, for example, in Star Trek, both recently and in the original 60’s series. It also inspired Brian Aldiss 1970s short story, ‘Working in the Spaceship Yards’, published in Punch. This was about a man with a Black friend having to come to terms with his own feelings about androids as they started working alongside them in the spaceship yards of the title, and going out with human women. It’s a satire on the racial politics of the day, when many White Brits were, as now, concerned about Black and Asian immigrants taking their jobs. And specifically anti-Black racism was tackled in an episode of Dr. Who written by award-winning Black children’s writer, Mallory Blackman. In this tale the Doctor and her friends travel back to the American Deep South to make sure Rosa Parks makes her epochal bus journey against the machinations of White racist from the future determined to stop Blacks ever gaining their freedom.

Not everyone is satisfied with the metaphorical treatment of racism pursued by some SF. I can remember arguing with a friend at college about Star Trek, and how the series explored racial tension and prejudice through Mr Spock. Despite being half-human, Spock was still an outsider, distrusted by many of his human crewmates. My friend believed instead that the series should have been more explicit and specifically explored anti-Black racism. More recently there has been the rise of Black SF writers, who use their work to address issues of race and the Black experience. An anthology of their work was published back in the 1990s as Dark Matters, a pun on the dark matter of astronomy, that is supposed to give the universe its missing mass.

Even if not explicit, the metaphorical approach allows writers to say what otherwise may not be said, as in the former Soviet Union. There, writers such as the Strugatsky brothers used the ‘Aesopian’ mode – SF as fable – to attack conditions in the Communist state, which would have been subject to censorship and severe punishment if said openly. Over in the capitalist world, the political situation was much freer, but there were still limits to what could be portrayed. Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss, between Kirk and Lt. Uhuru in the episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, but the network faced deep opposition from broadcasters in the Deep South. An indirect treatment also allows people to think about or accept ideas, which they would have rejected through a more straightforward treatment of the subject. Some readers may have been more receptive to anti-racist ideas if presented in the form of aliens than through an explicit treatment of colour prejudice against Blacks and other races.

This anthology, then, promises to be very interesting reading both through the tales themselves, and what they have to say about the times in which they were written. Times in which Science Fiction was joining the other voices denouncing racism and demanding equality and freedom for all, human and non-human. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hooray! BBC War of the Worlds Adaptation Begins on Sunday

November 13, 2019

At last! The BBC is set to screen its adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic SF novel, The War of the Worlds, on Sunday 17th November 2019 on BBC 1 at 9.00 pm. The blurb for it on page 64 of the Radio Times runs

Dramatisation of the HG Wells’s classic Sci-Fi tale, set in Edwardian England. Lovers Amy and George are among the first to notice when a mysterious capsule lands on Horsell Common near Woking in Surrey. Some thing it is an asteroid, but then it starts to shudder and move.

The additional article about the drama on page 63 by Alison Graham says of it

There’s an angry red planet, burning with fury, and its murderous emissary is falling to Earth, ready to destroy life as we know it by landing directly on, er, Woking. Blameless Woking in Surrey, the heart of the Home Counties. Surely it can’t be a twisted dislike of middle-class southerners that powers this gigantic beast?

The HG Wells sci-fi classic is dusted off in a thumping adaptation, with Rafe Spall as journalist George and his “wife” Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), who have scandalised the town by living together unwed. She’s very progressive, considering this is Edwardian England, having a degree and a job as an assistant to an astronomer, Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle). 

But one night there’s a shattering noise, strange clouds fill the air and soon an unspeakable foe stalks the land, killing at will. Woking will never be the same again.

The I wrote a little piece about the adaptation yesterday, but instead of talking about the plot concentrated instead on the changes to the female lead, who is barely mentioned in the book, and that the astronomer, Ogilvy, is now gay. Peter Harness, who has adapted it, said that this made the story more interesting as Amy and Ogilvy were both outsiders. It’s definitely an attempt to make it more contemporary. Amy’s character obviously has been changed in order to introduce a strong female lead, and I suspect the decision to make her a scientist follows the campaign to get more women into science and engineering. As for the pair’s domestic arrangements, this seems partly based on some of the ideas circulating in very radical circles at the time – that marriage was a burden to women, and should be abolished and free love practised instead – and Wells’ own promiscuity. The decision to make Ogilvy gay also seems to me to be an attempt to make the story more contemporary. Or it might simply be following the lead of Dr Who, which has had a series of gay characters since its revival.

Regardless of the precise reasons for the changes, it looks excellent. It’s also been a long time in coming. It was due to be released last October and I wondered if it was ever going to be released at all. Now it seems it will, and I’m looking forward to it.

Trailer for Movie of HP Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space’

November 8, 2019

I found this trailer for a forthcoming movie version of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, The Colour out of Space, over on YouTube. It stars Nicholas Cage and is directed by Richard Stanley.

Lovecraft was a master of cosmic horror, and the creator of the Cthulu mythos about malign, alien gods that seeped down from the stars untold aeons ago. Although they were banished from Earth by the ancient Elder Races, they are constantly seeking ways back. And when the stars are right, and the sunken city of R’lyeh rises from the deep, Cthulhu, the bat-winged, octopus-headed god will rule over a mankind reveling and killing. And in untold aeons even death may die.

The trailer says it marks the return of Stanley to directing. This is welcome news. He made an excellent film about a berserk robot going on the rampage in a decaying future, Hardware, back in 1989.  2000AD sued and won for plagiarism, as the film’s plot appeared to be stolen from a short story from comic, ‘Shocc!’, drawn by the master of macabre art, Kevin O’Neill. This was about an explorer, who finds a war robot and gives it to his girlfriend. It then comes back to life, and goes on the rampage. The film has cameos with Lemmy, a member of the Goth band The Mission, and Iggy Pop as the DJ, Angry Bob, and the soundtrack includes Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’, The Mission’s ‘Power’ and Pil’s ‘Order of Death’. There’s a reference to the earlier film in the trailer. A shot of the family’s kitchen shows a framed Biblical quotation, ‘No flesh shall be spared’. This was also used in Hardware to explain the B.A.A.L. robot’s genocidal mission to exterminate all humanity.

Stanley disappeared from directing movies, although he continued to make documentaries and pop videos, after the debacle of a version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Stanley originally intended it to be a relatively low budget film, but the studio wanted a big star. Stanley chose Marlon Brando. Big mistake. Once in the movie, Brando proceeded to do his best to wreck it through bizarre demands and massively arrogant behaviour. There was a documentary made about this whole shambles a few years ago. One of the actresses provided an example of Brando’s weird, cavalier attitude to the film. She went to him to ask the great Hollywood star for acting tips. He told her to carry on doing whatever she liked, because it didn’t matter as the film would be shut down in three weeks anyway. He also asked a member of the production crew if they should ‘f**k with’ one of the producers. When the man asked why, as the producer was a good guy, Brando made a very lame excuse. It’s pretty clear from this that Brando didn’t have any respect for the film. With costs and time overrunning, Stanley was sacked, and a veteran Hollywood director brought in instead to salvage something from the mess. The result apparently is a competent film, but it’s not the really amazing movie that would have appeared if Stanley had been able to complete it according to his vision.

It’s a pity that there was that plagiarism case between 2000AD and Stanley over Hardware. 2000AD want to produce films based on their characters. Two films have been made of ‘Judge Dredd’, but both have performed less than expected at the box office. The most recent, 2012’s Dredd, starring Karl Urban, was a critical success. There’s too much enmity there, but I’d say that if anyone could direct a great movie based on 2000AD’s cast of heroes, Stanley is the man for the job.

Looking at the trailer for the movie, it seems to have rejected Lovecraft’s original plot for the Hollywood cliche of a happy American family that moves into a rural area, only to find something sinister and threatening. It’s a long time since I read the original story, but I don’t think it’s the one Lovecraft wrote. Still, it looks like it could be a really good film, even if it is somewhat less than faithful to Lovecraft.

And to show everyone what Stanley’s Hardware was like, here’s a video for Pil’s ‘Order of Death’ using clips from the film from Hert Zollner’s channel on YouTube.

Enjoy!

Trailer for BBC War of the Worlds

October 4, 2019

Here’s the Beeb’s trailer from YouTube for its forthcoming adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic SF novel, The War of the Worlds.

As you can see, the adaptation follows the original novel in being set in the 19th century, unlike the screen adaptations by George Pal in the 1950s and the Steven Spielberg/ Tom Cruise flick in the ’90s. That doesn’t mean, however, that they haven’t made other changes to the story.

This was supposed to come out last October, but didn’t. I really honestly don’t know why not. But hopefully it’ll come out soon, because from this it looks absolutely amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

France Recruits SF Writers as Military Strategists

July 22, 2019

I’m afraid I’ve lost the cutting for this, so I can’t really give you the details. But it was reported in last week’s I that the French have recruited five science fiction writers for one of their defence organisations. I realise that some people will consider it so far-fetched that SF writers can have anything sensible to say on the subject of present day warfare or possible terror attacks, that it’ll sound like a joke to them. There may well be muttered sneers about these peeps protecting la patrie from the Daleks, Klingons or some other threat from beyond the stars. But there’s some very sound sense in it. SF writers have written about terrible threats to global security, wars and terror attacks almost from the very beginnings of the modern genre in the 19th century. Jules Verne described an anarchist waging war against the rest of the world in his story, Robur le Conquerant. H.G. Wells predicted something like modern tank warfare in his The Land Ironclads, although these massive vehicles were more like ships and moved on dozens of mechanical legs like centipedes. Another short story, The Stolen Bacillus, dealt with the attempted use of germ warfare by terrorists. In this story, an anarchist works his way into the confidence and laboratory of a biologist working on a new type of infectious germ. The anarchist seizes a vial of the cultures, and escapes, running across London with the scientist in hot pursuit. When it appears that he will be cornered and caught, the anarchist drinks the vial, deliberating infecting himself with the disease organism, and then runs on, taking care deliberately to bump into people. All is well, however, as rather than being a lethal pathogen, the disease is actually quite harmless. All it does is to make those infected with it turn a different colour. Which is either yellow or blue. The story may have had a happy ending, but for its late Victorian audience it raised a real, terrifying possibility.

With warfare moving into areas previously considered the realm of SF, like Trump’s call for a space force, the US navy testing laser weapons, war robots being developed by Boston Dynamics and the very real threat of cyber attack, it makes sense for the French to recruit suitable SF writers. After all, back in the 1980s before 9/11, one of the major thriller writers published a novel about a group of terrorists flying a plane into the Twin Towers. It’s possible that their recruitment by the military may also be a gesture to show how hip and modern Macron’s presidency is. Alongside old, trusted methods and guides, he’s turning to imaginative popular culture. But it also shows that we really are increasingly living in an age of Science Fiction.

Black British Politico John Archer’s Address to African Progress Union

May 31, 2019

I think for most of us outside the Black anti-racist movements, this country’s Black history and its tradition of Black activism against racism, imperialism and exploitation is largely unknown. It’s overshadowed to a large extent by the inspirational American civil rights movements of the 1960s, and its heroes and heroines. Towering figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. A few Black British anti-slavery activists from the 18th and 19th century, like Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, are known to a certain extent, as well as the Crimean War nurse and heroine Mary Seacole. But that’s it. And I think for most mainstream Brits, Blacks and other non-Whites only entered politics and got elected to public office in the 1980s with Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and others.

But Black and Asian activism goes right back to the 19th century, and Britain has had elected BAME politicians since the early 20th century. The BBC 2 series, Victorian Sensations, mentioned two in the second episode of the series broadcast Wednesday night, 29th May 2019. Victorian Sensations is about the massive scientific, social and political changes that shook Victorian society in the 1890s. Last week’s was on scientific advances in electricity and Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays, which revolutionised medicine. The pioneers of X-ray examination, however, paid a terrible price for their research in skin cancer caused by their machines. One British pioneer ended up losing the fingers on one hand, and another arm was amputated completely.

This week’s edition was on ‘Degeneration’, and the late Victorians’ fears of racial, social and imperial decline. This covered the ideas of racial decline in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Francis Galton and the birth of the eugenics movement, aimed at preserving and improving British biological stock; the controversy over the New Woman, liberated Victorian ladies, who dared to move out of the traditional female domestic role and pursue masculine hobbies like cycling; Hans Nordau’s book, Degeneration, Lombroso’s Criminal Man, and the fears about mental illness, which resulted in entirely blameless people banged up in lunatic asylums for the most trivial reasons, like a pathetic young man, who was incarcerated for masturbation. It also covered Oscar Wilde, the Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents, including Arthur Symonds, Havelock Ellis and the first sympathetic scientific research in homosexuality. But one of the most interesting pieces in the programme was right at the end, when presenter Paul McGann spoke to a modern Black activists about two Black British activists, who came to Britain from the West Indies, and founded pioneering Black anti-racist movements. One of them was Celeste Matthews, who became a Methodist minister, and founded a Black rights magazine attacking imperialism, Lux.

Another pioneering Black rights activist, who gained public office later in the second decade of 20th century was John Archer. He was elected Mayor of Battersea in 1913, becoming the first person of African descent to hold public office in London. In 1918 he became the first president of the African Progress Union, a post he would hold for three years. This was formed to promote ‘the general welfare of Africans and Afro peoples’ and spread knowledge of Black history. There’s an extract from the speech he gave at the Union’s first meeting in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s great anthology of British radical writing and activism throughout history, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2013). This runs

The people in this country are sadly ignorant with reference to the darker races, and our object is to show to them that we have given up the idea of becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water, that we claim our rightful place within this Empire … That if we are good enough to be brought to fight the wars of the country we are good enough receive the benefits of the country … One of the objects of this association is to demand – not ask, demand; it will be ‘demand’ all the time that I am your president. I am not asking for anything, I am demanding. (p. 189).

Unfortunately we really don’t know about the great history of Black activism in this country. Victorian Sensations gave a small glimpse of this on Wednesday, and I’d like to know more. Not only is this worthwhile in itself, as a piece of British history that’s been unfairly neglected, but we also need it to combat that growing racism that’s spreading across Europe and which has resulted in Farage’s Brexit party getting 36.7 per cent of the vote in the Euro elections last week.

Time Travel Tale of Scientists Warning of Ecological Collapse: Gregory Benford’s ‘Timescape’

May 10, 2019

Gregory Benford, Timescape (London: Victor Gollancz 1980).

Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, has asked me to do a review of Gregory Benford’s time machine book, Timescape. I read it a few years ago, having bought the 1996 edition, over a decade and a half after it was first published. It is just a bit dated now in its prediction of life in 1998, but still well-worth reading if you’re into physics and hard SF.

Benford, the ‘Galactic Centre’ Novels and Timescape

Gregory Benford is an American astronomer and hard SF writer. He’s probably best known for his ‘Galactic Centre’ series of novels. Set thousands of years in the future, this is about the last remnants of humanity battling for survival against a ruthless and almost overwhelmingly superior machine civilisation, the Mechs, at the centre of the Galaxy. Hard SF is the type of science fiction that tries as far as possible to keep to established scientific rules. Such as, for example, the inviolability of the rule of Relativity, so that there are no Faster Than Light drives taking humans to the stars in a matter of hours, days or months rather than years. But that doesn’t mean ruling out other scientific advances, like time travel. Several of the ‘Galactic Centre’ novels are set in an artificial environment within the Black Hole at the centre of our Galaxy, where careful engineering by alien creatures formed of pure magnetism have merged two Black Holes to form an artificial environment of warped space time, within which humans and organic aliens are able to seek sanctuary from the Mechs. The curvature of spacetime and stress cracks within it in this environment allow the inhabitants to travel backwards and forwards in time. One of the novels features the adventures of a modern human family, who are forced to flee forward in time as the Mechs invade, almost to the end of time itself.

Brief Synopsis

Timescape doesn’t go that far, and is very firmly set in the recent past, and near future according to the time it was written. It’s the tale of two scientists and their friends, Gordon Bernstein and his fellows at CalTech in 1963, and Gregory Markham, an American scientist and his friend Markham, at Cambridge Uni in 1998. Bernstein is a young graduate student, who detects strange signals from an experiment he and his fellows are running, signals that he gradually begins to realize cannot be explained as just random noise or the product of background radiation. In 1998 Markham and Renfrew are working on ways to generate tachyons, faster than light subatomic particles that will travel back in time through bombarding iridium with high energy particles. They hope that by creating such particles, they may be able to use them to send a warning to the past.

The Earth in this very near future is dying. The ecology is collapsing through a deadly bacteriological bloom that destroys vegetable and animal life. The result is global famine, poverty and social unrest, with food rationing and bands of hostile, violent beggars moving across England. Markham and Renfrew hope they can send a message to the past detailing how the disease can be fought and eradicated in order to save civilisation by preventing the catastrophe occurring in the first place.

Time Travelling Subatomic Particles from Space

The idea of using subatomic particles and quantum physics to contact the past is highly speculative, of course, but not unreasonable. Some interpretations of quantum physics suggest that information is able to move backwards through time, so that events in the future are able to determine the results of certain experiments, for example. There was also speculation in the 1990s that some subatomic particles reaching Earth from despite might be tachyons in origin. I can’t quite remember whether these were a type of neutrino or meson, but the theory was that they were produced by high energy events in space, such as supernovas. This produced tachyons, which traveled backwards in time until they decayed to become neutrinos or mesons or whatever, which were then able to be detected by scientists.

The Connecticutt College Professor’s Time Machine

Also in the 1990s came a plan by a Black professor at Connecticutt Community college to build a real, working time machine. This wouldn’t be able to transport people, just other subatomic particles back into the past. The idea was to create an Einstein-Rosen Condensate of iridium ions. An Einstein-Rosen Condensate is a strange state of matter where a plasma – an ionised gas is supercooled so that its component particles behave as a single particle. This plasma was to be whirled around in a chamber mimicking the spin of stars. Stars are so massive that as they spin, they pull the fabric of space time itself around after them. The effect has been observed around the Sun, providing confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It has been suggested that this effect could be used in the case of extremely massive objects, like Black Holes, to travel back in time. You simply enter the region of space being dragged around by the Black Hole, and then travel in the opposite direction to the local movement of spacetime. This should make you go back in time, it is suggested, and so you should be able to leave that area of space some time in the past, before you entered it. The professors plan worked along similar lines. Electrons would be shot into the chamber in the opposite direction to the circulation of the condensate. This should allow them to travel back into the past. If the scientists running the experiment found a larger number of electrons in the condensate than normal or otherwise explained, before they had started shooting them into it, then it would mean that the electrons had traveled there from the future. Time travel, or at least that possibility of communication between past and future, would be possible.

This obviously got very many people very excited. H.G. Wells’ grandson, who directed the ’90s version of his grand-dad’s classic, The Time Machine, appeared in a documentary telling us that the age of time travel was almost upon us. The experiment was due to be run aboard one of the space shuttles, but I think it must have been cancelled when one exploded, thus grounding the fleet and finally endings its use.

Time and the Weird World of Quantum Physics

Benford warns in his acknowledgements that

Many scientific elements in this novel are true. Others are speculative, and thus may well prove false. My aim has been to illuminate some outstanding philosophical difficulties in physics. If the reader emerges with the conviction that time represents are fundamental riddle in modern physics, this book will have served its purpose.

Which must be one of the rare occasions when a scientist writes a book to show how mysterious and incomprehensible a scientific phenomenon is, rather than how it can be grasped and understood. This famously applies to quantum physics. As one prominent scientist said of this subject, you don’t understand it, you just get used it.

Science and Society in the ’60s and ’90s

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of physics in the book, though none of its so hard that only physics graduates, let alone the late Stephen Hawking, would be the only people that understand it. And the book does an excellent job of showing what it must have been like doing physics at an advanced level in the early 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. Gordon Bernstein, the hero of the early years, is a New York Jew, whose girlfriend, Marjorie, is a Conservative gentile. As his investigations proceed, he first believes that the signals are messages from space before coming to understand they’re from the future instead. He faces scepticism and opposition from his colleagues and academic supervisors, and risks being failed and his academic career and research terminated. as he goes on and his theories become public, he suffers from the attentions of the press and a procession of cranks, who traipse through his office door offering their own weird theories. I think this is a common experience to many astronomers and cosmologists. I can remember reading a comment by one such scientist that hardly a week went by without him receiving in the mail letters from people explaining their ‘theory of the universe’. At the same time, Bernstein’s relationship with his girlfriend also comes under pressure. His family don’t approve, and would like him to marry a nice Jewish girl instead. There are also political disagreements. Penny and her friends fully support the Vietnam War, views that aren’t shared by the liberal Bernstein. But in a twist, it’s Penny who understands that the waiters at their favourite restaurant are gay, is comfortable with that fact.

Back in Blighty in 1998, Markham’s and Renfrew’s backgrounds are solidly middle class. This is still a world where women were expected to stay home and cook, and the aristocracy still wields power and influence. A society in which entitled public school boys shout their food and alcohol choices in the local pub in Latin. It’s a world in which Markham is an outsider, and resents the privilege and condescension of the upper class Brits among which he moves.

Timescape and ’70s Fears of the End of Civilisation

Like much near-future SF, the book’s now dated. 1998 is now twenty years ago, and fortunately civilisation has not collapsed. Not yet. The book was partly a product of the sense of crisis in the 1970s, when many people really did fear the end of civilisation through industrial and social unrest and ecological collapse. It was predicted that overpopulation would result in mass famine, while the resources would run out and the Earth itself become uninhabitable through massive pollution. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened. Not yet. But there is still a real danger of global civilisation collapsing through irreversible ecological damage from climate change and pollution, and algal blooms are poisoning the water in some parts of the world. Despite it’s age, the book thus remains acutely relevant.

Social Change and the Rise of Domestic Computers

In other respects, the book as a prediction of the future hasn’t worn quite as well. The advance of feminism in the 1980s and ’90s meant that traditional gender roles were breaking down as women sought careers outside the home. By 1998 there was the expectation that both partners in a relationship would be working, and the old domestic arrangement in which women looked after children and the home and were supported by their husbands was seen as anachronistic. At the same time, he also doesn’t predict the advances in information technology that has produced the home and personal computers or mobile phones. There is, however, a machine called the Sek, which is a type of answerphone and database, if I recall correctly.

Conclusion

These differences between the book’s expectation of what the ’90s would be like and the reality actually don’t make much difference to the enjoyment of the story. Science Fiction tends not to be very good at predicting the future. If it was, then humanoid robots with a comparable level of intelligence and genuine consciousness, like Star Wars’ C3PO, would be in every home and we would already have colonies on the Moon, Mars and Earth orbit. We don’t have any of that. But we do have personal computers, the internet and mobile phones, as well as a variety of industrial machines, which weren’t predicted. Many SF novels still remain worth reading even though their predictions of the future, or the contemporary present in which they were set, are dated. These include such classics as those of H.G. Wells’, Jules Verne, John Wyndham and so on. What matters in the story and the writer’s ability to create a convincing, fascinating world, which Timescape does.

While some of its details are inaccurate, this is still a readable, gripping story with a solid base in plausible science, and whose warning about environmental decline is, horrendously, just as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1980.

 

Antisocial Media’s Funniest Conservative and Far Right Self-Owns of 2018

January 1, 2019

Christmas and the New Year is the time when the media traditionally look back over the events of the preceding year. It’s in this spirit that left-wing YouTuber Antisocial Media presents this video of what he has judged to be the funniest Conservative and Far Right self-owns of the past year. As a run down of the right’s greatest fails, it naturally has the old Top of the Pop’s music, which was played when the programme went down the charts for that week. It also begins with someone who looks a bit like Trump, or maybe is Trump, dancing with a load of other businessmen. Antisocial Media says he’s had to leave many fails out, simply because there’s been so many of them and he doesn’t have time to fit them all in. But if there’s enough interest, perhaps he’ll do another video looking at other fails.

These fails are all attempts by the Conservatives and the Far Right to ‘own the libs’ by triggering them. These have repeatedly backfired to such an extent that Trump aide Nikki Haley has appealed to college Conservatives in the US not to do it. But like the Martians in H.G. Wells’ War of the World, ‘still they come’.

The first fails covered include Charlie Kirk, an American right-wing media voice, losing his temper and trying to start a fight with Cenk Uigur of The Young Turks at Politicon, a Conservative gathering. Kirk also made himself look massively stupid by posing outside a university wearing a nappy and with a baby’s dummy. Presumably this was done to try to suggest they were all sensitive crybabies. It didn’t work, and Kirk was just left looking stupid. These fails are all just shown in passing, before Antisocial Media goes on to give a more detailed look at particular instances of spectacular right-wing failure. These are

* The Trumpy teddy bear, that came complete with an American flag stuffed inside it.
* Canadian right-wing psychology professor Jordan Peterson, for saying in an interview that men and women can’t work together because of lipstick; and for publicly opposing pornography as harmful, then appearing – clothed, mercifully – in the pages of Penthouse, a pornographic magazine.
* A member of Fascist gang, the Proud Boys, trying unsuccessfully to rip up a placard he’d just snatched from left-wing Antifa protesters.
* Female YouTube gun nut Gun Girl trying to sell her fans T-shirts with the slogan that nothing would make feminists angrier than buying it. Because feminists are angry at the patriarchy, not someone trying to rip off their fans.
* The Generation Identity anti-immigration group building a fence on the Franco-Swiss border to prevent illegal immigration. A fence so flimsy that illegal immigrants could knock it down or jump over it.
* Right-wing internet personality Ian Mile Cheong getting grumpy on Twitter because of a woman’s comeback to one of his tweets.
* James Wohl, a 20 year old MAGA troll and massive Trump fan, who was caught for his part in a massively inept plot to smear Special Counsel Robert Mueller as a sexual predator.

And then comes Antisocial Media’s top 3 greatest fails. They are, in reverse order

At No. 3, the NPC Meme. This is an internet meme of grey people all repeating the same empty slogans and phrases. It was supposed to show how the Left is all mindlessly alike. But instead, it’s popularity shows how mindlessly alike the Right are with their limited vocabulary of slurs and insults like ‘Soyboy’, ‘Cuck’ and so on.

No. 2, internet right-wingers Carl Benjamin, AKA Sargon of Akkad, Mark Meechan, alias Count Dankula, Paul Joseph Watson and Milo Yiannopolis joining UKIP. UKIP as a party are irrelevant and nearly dead. They campaigned for Britain to leave the EU, and achieved it with the referendum. There is thus absolutely no point to them. This section of the video also shows former Tory MP Neil Hamilton welcoming them into the party. Antisocial Media remarks that no-one really remembers him either. If they do, they’ll probably be like me, and remember him primarily because of the court case between him and Mohammed al-Fayed, then the owner of Harrods. Al-Fayed had bribed him to ask questions in parliament, which is illegal. Hamilton took the money without doing what the Phoney Pharaoh requested, so al-Fayed sued him for breach of contract. It was the kind of case you wished both could lose. And then there is was the instance where Benjamin, who believes he’s ‘centre left’ and a liberal, albeit of the ‘classical’ type, showed himself cutting up his Conservative party membership card and displaying his new, UKIP card. Obviously, he would have a Conservative membership card if he was really a liberal. Then the party put up a poster with Benjamin, Dankula and Watson on, proclaiming that it was ‘the party of British values’. This failed because they were all shown looking utterly miserable. And then there’s Gerard Batten’s utterly reprehensible appointment of Islamophobe Tommy Robinson.

But at No. 1 is the balloon satirizing Sadiq Khan. Antisocial Media says he chose it because it’s not just one fail, it’s thirteen all rolled into one.
The balloon was supposed to be a response to the Trump balloon, which showed the American president as a literal manbaby in a nappy clutching a mobile phone. This instead showed Sadiq Khan as an adult wearing a bikini. Here are some of the reasons it failed.

* It was changed from the initial design, which was a straight out copy of the Trump balloon design.
* It came two months after the Trump balloon.
* The balloon’s bikini has to be explained. It’s a reference to Khan’s banning of an advertisement telling women to get ‘beach body ready’. But everyone’s forgotten that. In fact, Khan banned the advert for a very good reason. He was afraid that it would promote an unhealthy obsession with body image in girls. And I think he was right.
* They gave the balloon a hooked nose, which Khan doesn’t have. Yanni Bruere, who organized it, was also caught tweeting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. A law student told him online that he had just destroyed any chance he had of a legal career.
* It was a colossal failure to provoke Khan. He not only approved the balloon’s flight, but was entirely untroubled about people trying to send him up.
* Bruere himself lives in Spain, not London, so it’s a good question why he’s bother about the safety of Londoners.
* He also gave up a managerial job, because they wouldn’t give him the time off to organize his balloon and demonstration. So he made himself unemployed.
* It cost 60,000 pounds to make and organize, and hardly anyone turned up.

Antisocial Media concludes that the Right could cure depression if they put on a stunt like this every week, and calls for them to carrying on doing so!
He also attacks Piers Morgan for getting upset about the Trump balloon passing the statue of Winston Churchill. So Trump balloon had an added bonus for upsetting him. It’s always good to annoy Piers Morgan, now destroying Susanna Reed on ITV’s breakfast TV.

This obviously isn’t a complete rundown of right-wing madness and ineptitude, but it does include some of the best. There are some others, which weren’t in there. Like deranged conspiracy theorist Alex Jones coming on his show dressed as a gay frog. It also doesn’t have Tweezer dad-dancing onto the stage at the Tory conference. However, it does show some of the greatest, most ridiculous antics of the transatlantic right, which are well worth laughing at. And I’m sure this year will bring us many, many more.