Posts Tagged ‘Mars’

‘I’ Article on Planned British Lunar Rover

October 13, 2019

Friday’s I for the 11th October 2019 also had a really cool piece of space news. It seems that there are plans to send a British rover, designed by a start-up company, to the Moon in 2021. It is, however, tiny, and looks something like a four-legged, boxy mechanical spider. The article, ‘Give us a lift: Britain’s first lunar rover hitches a ride to the Moon’, by Nina Massey, runs

The UK’s first Moon rover will be sent into space in 2021 – and will be tiny.

Announced at the New Scientist Live event in London’s ExCel, British space start-up SpaceBit created and designed the robot. SpaceBit founder Pavlo Tanasyuk said: “Our goal is to go and see what is available there for all humanity to explore.”

He added that, unlike rovers with wheels or tracks, this robot with its four legs would provide an opportunity for “something a little bit like a human” to explore the lunar surface.

Only three other countries have put a rover on the Moon: the US, Russia and China.

In May, NASA announced that Astrobotic and two other companies had been awarded funding to build lunar landers.

US firm Astrobotic was awarded millions of dollars to carry up to 14 NASA instruments to the Moon, as well as 14 payloads from other partners.

SpaceBit will be one of those partners, sending the rover to the surface inside Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander.

It is expected to land in June or July 2021. Once the lander reaches the Moon, the 1.5kg rover will drop from beneath it to the surface along with other payloads.

It will scuttle across the surface taking measurements and collecting exploration data that can be analysed for scientific and exploration purposes.

It also has two cameras that will enable it to take “robot selfies”, SpaceBit said.

The reason for the legs is that in future lunar missions, the rover will go into lava tubes, which has not been possible before, Mr Tanasyuk said. he added: “It will spend up to 10 days on the Moon before going into the night and basically then freezing for ever.”

The article carried two photographs, one of the rover, and the other of Mr Tanasyuk holding a model of it.

This is great news, as it shows that British entrepreneurs are getting into space exploration. With luck, this rover should do better than the Beagle probe sent to Mars a few years ago. This was intended to find life, but crashed on its surface. SpaceBit join a number of other British space companies that have been set up, like Orbex, now building a spaceport in Scotland, and the expected development of the Skylon spaceplane. It seems that Britain may now be developing a full-fledged space industry, after the cancellation of the British space launcher project in 1975. I wish them God speed, and every success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Review of Russian UFO Conspiracy Book Now Up At Magonia Blog

September 12, 2019

My review of Nick Redfern’s Flying Saucers from the Kremlin (Lisa Hagen Books 2019) is now up at Magonia Review of Books. Magonia was a small press UFO magazine, which ran from the 1980s to the early part of this century. It took the psycho-social view of the UFO phenomenon. This is a sceptical view which sees the UFO phenomenon as an internal experience generated by poorly understood psychological mechanism, whose imagery was drawn from folklore and Science Fiction. It took the name ‘Magonia’ from Jacques Vallee’s groundbreaking UFO book, Passport to Magonia. Vallee, a French-American astronomer and computer scientist, along with the American journalist and writer on the weird and Fortean, John Keel, took the view that UFOs weren’t real, mechanical spacecraft piloted by beings from other worlds, but were created by the same paranormal phenomenon behind encounters with fairies and other paranormal entities. The name ‘Magonia’ itself comes from a statement by a sceptical 7th-8th century Frankish bishop, that the peasants believed that storms were caused by men in flying ships, who came from a country called Magonia.

The magazine didn’t just discuss UFOs. It also covered other paranormal phenomena and subjects, such as witchcraft. It provided a very necessary sceptical corrective to the Satanism scare of the ’80s and ’90s. This was a moral panic generated by conspiracy theories, largely from the Christian right but also from some feminists, that Satanic groups were sexually abusing and ritually sacrificing children. The Fontaine Report, published by the British government over 20 years ago now, concluded that there was no organised Satanic conspiracy. This effectively ended a real witch-hunt, which had seen innocent men and women accused of terrible crimes through warped, uncorroborated testimony. It needs to be said, however, that sociologists, social workers and law enforcement authorities do recognise that there are evil or disturbed individuals responsible for horrific crimes, including the molestation of children, who are or consider themselves Satanists. But the idea of a multigenerational Satanic conspiracy is absolutely false. See Jeffrey S. Victor’s excellent Satanic Panic.

Nick Redfern is a British paranormal investigator now resident in Texas. In this book, subtitled ‘UFOs, Russian Meddling, Soviet Spies & Cold War Secrets’, he proposes that while the UFO phenomenon is real, the terrible Russkies have been manipulating it to destabilise America and her allies. This comes from the Russians attempting to interfere in the American presidential elections a few years ago. In fact, the book doesn’t actually show that the Russians have. Rather it shows that the FBI, Airforce Intelligence and CIA believed they were. Prominent figures in the UFO milieu were suspected of Russian sympathies, and investigated and question. George Adamski, the old fraud who claimed he’d met space people from Venus and Mars, was investigated because he was recorded making pro-Soviet statements. Apparently he believed that the space people were so much more advanced than us that they were Communists, and that in a coming conflict Russia would defeat the West. Over here, the founder and leader of the Aetherius Society, George King, who also channeled messages from benevolent space people on Venus and Mars, was also investigation by special branch. This is because one of the messages from Aetherius called on Britain to respond to peace overtures from the Russians. This was seized on by the Empire News, which, as its name suggests, was a right-wing British rag, that denounced King for having subversive, pro-Commie ideas and reported him to the rozzers. King willingly cooperated with the cops, and pointed out that his was a religious and occult, not political organisation. But he and his followers were still kept under surveillance because they, like many concerned people, joined the CND marches.

It’s at this point that Redfern repeats the Sunset Times slur about the late Labour leader, Michael Foot. Foot also joined these marches, and the former Soviet spy chief, Oleg Gordievsky, had declared that Foot was a KGB spy with the codename ‘Comrade Boot’. It’s malign rubbish. Redfern notes that Foot sued the Sunset Times for libel and won. But he prefers to believe Gordievsky, because Gordievsky was right about everything else. So say. Actually, Gordievsky himself was a self-confessed liar, and there’s absolutely no corroborating evidence at all. And rather than being pro-Soviet, Foot was so critical of the lack of freedom of conscience in the USSR that he alarmed many of his Labour colleagues, who were afraid he would harm diplomatic relations. The accusation just looks like more Tory/ IRD black propaganda against Labour.

Other people in the UFO milieu also had their collar felt. One investigator, who told the authorities that he had met a group of four men, who were very determined that he should give his talks a pro-Russian, pro-Communist slant, was interrogated by a strange in a bar on his own patriotism. The man claimed to be a fellow investigator with important information, and persuaded him to take a pill that left his drugged and disorientated. Redfern connects this the MK Ultra mind control projects under CIA direction at the time, which also used LSD and other drugs.

But if Redfern doesn’t quite show that the Russians are manipulating the phenomena through fake testimony and hoax encounters, he presents a very strong case that the Americans were doing so. During the Second World War, Neville Maskelyn, a British stage magician, worked with the armed forces on creating illusions to deceive the Axis forces. One of these was a tall, walking automaton to impersonate the Devil, which was used to terrify the Fascists in Sicily. Redfern notes the similarity between this robot, and the Flatwoods monster that later appeared in America. The Project Serpo documents, which supposedly show how a group of American squaddies had gone back to the Alien homeworld, were cooked up by one of the classic SF writers, who was also a CIA agent. And the scientist Paul Bennewitz was deliberately given fake testimony and disinformation about captured aliens and crashed saucers by members of the agency, which eventually sent the poor bloke mad. He was targeted because he was convinced the saucers and the aliens were kept on a nearby airforce base. The American military was worried that, although he wouldn’t find any evidence of aliens, he might dig up military secrets which would be useful to the Russians. And so they set about destroying him by telling him fake stories, which he wanted to hear. And obviously, there’s more.

It’s extremely interesting reading, but Redfern does follow the conventional attitude to Russian. The country was a threat under Communism, and is now, despite the fact that Communism has fallen. He is silent about the plentiful evidence for American destabilisation of foreign regimes right around the world during the Cold War. This included interference in elections and outright coups. The most notorious of these in South America were the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile by General Pinochet, and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. He also doesn’t mention recent allegations, backed up with very strong evidence, that the US under Hillary Clinton manufactured the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2012 to overthrow the ruling pro-Russian president and install another, who favoured America and the West.

If you want to read my review, it’s at

http://pelicanist.blogspot.com/2019/09/ufology-meets-kremlinology.html

 

 

Brian Cox Reveals Great Cthulhu on Pluto

June 27, 2019

Brian Cox’s astronomy series, The Planets, shown on BBC 2, came to an end on Tuesday. After taking the viewer on a tour of the solar system and its creation and history, looking at Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, it finished by looking at the planets in the freezing depths of space almost at its limits – Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and the various other dwarf planets believed to have come in from the Kuiper Belt, like Quaeor, Varuna, Eris, and one of the strangest objects discovered in the group, Ultima Thule. This last has a dumb-bell shape, formed by two spherical asteroids collided and fused. It also showed some of the spectacular photographs sent back by recent NASA probes into that almost unimaginably remote part of the Solar system.

Far from being a featureless ball of ice, Pluto was shown to be a world of mountains, with craters like the Moon and a heart-shaped plain. This was believed to have been created through liquid water welling up from beneath its icy crust, smoothing over any impact craters on the surface. And one of these topographical features had a name to delight fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s SF/Horror fiction: Cthulhu Macula. Of course, the cold, dim, icy edge of the solar system is very suitable for a place named after one of the malign cosmic gods of the Cthulhu mythos, the Great Old Ones, who seeped down from the stars. Like Great Cthulhu himself, sleeping in his house in the sunken island of R’lyeh in the Pacific, they are dormant, just waiting their chance to return and once again subdue humanity to their hideous power. It also shows how there must be at least one person in NASA, if not the rest of the Astronomical Union, who’s into Lovecraft.

But there’s another, historical reason why this part of Pluto should have been named after one of Lovecraft’s monstrous fictional creations. One of the evil extraterrestrial races in his short stories is the Fungi from Yuggoth, otherwise known as Pluto. These are space travelling giant insects, at least in appearance, who have established bases on Earth. They are masters of surgery. Unable to bring their agents to their homeworld complete, they surgically remove their brains, keeping them in a suitable life-support container when they fly through the depths of space. Lovecraft wrote the story in which they make their appearance the year Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and so wrote the newly discovered world into the story.

The Planets has been an excellent series, not least for its computer recreations of scenes from the solar system’s remote past. It also had a fitting choice of band for its signature music: Muse. The Bournemouth band have written a series of hits about space and physics, like ‘2nd Law’, ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, while the video for ‘Sing For Absolution’ had them as astronauts fleeing an Earth in the grip of a new Ice Age, to travel into a future when the Sun is hotter and the Earth a burned cinder.

I don’t know if there will ever be a crewed mission to Pluto. Given that it’s five decades since we put men on the Moon, and are only now considering returning there, it’s not going to be any time soon. And I really doubt that we will find Great Cthulhu himself there when we do. Perhaps that’s what was need to keep up interest in space exploration: we should have found Cthulhu there, in his city where the angles are wrong, waiting for when the stars are right.

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu R’lyeh ftagn!

 

Astronauts Could Live in Moon Caves

May 22, 2019

Bit of science news now. Monday’s I, for 20th May 2019, carried an article by Francis Blagburn, with the same title as this article, on page 22, reporting that an American lunar scientist, Daniel Moriarty III, has suggested that astronauts to the Moon could live in its caves. The article ran

Astronauts could make use of the Moon’s nature cave structures to live inside small, natural shelters, according to Nasa.

The novel approach could see astronauts making camp in tunnel-like chambers on the surface of the Moon left by molten activity.

Dr Daniel Moriarty III, a post-doctoral lunar scientist, was speaking as part of an “ask me anything” session on social networking website Reddit when he discussed the concept.

“I think it makes sense to work within some of the structures and resources that are already there,” he wrote.

“It could be interesting to set up shop within a pre-existing lava tube, which could provide shielding from temperature variations and incoming solar radiation.”

Nasa’s next bout of lunar exploration is the Artemis mission, due to be launched in 2024. President Donald Trump has backed the plans and embraced space travel as a theme. “I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6bn so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!,” he tweeted last week.

It’s a good idea, but not as new as the paper believes. Scientists have argued for some time that future explorers of the Moon and Mars would have to build their bases underground in order to shelter from the ambient cosmic radiation. It’s why the lunar base in Kubrick’s class 2001 is underground, and the Martian city in Paul Verhoeven’s ’80s’ version of Total Recall is built into the sides of a canyon. As are many of the Martian cities in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic trilogy charting the colonisation of the Red Planet, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars. And the British space scientist, Duncan Lunan, suggested that future colonists of the Moon would live in the caves there in his book, Man and the Planets, published in the early 1980s. He drew on science fiction for some of the ideas discussed in the book, and the SF work he used for that suggestion had the colonists walking about in conditions of near nudity in lunar caverns. Well, I suppose the engineers would keep it at a constant, regulated temperature, so you wouldn’t have to worry about getting cold, except perhaps in an emergency when these systems failed. But that idea now seems very dated now in contemporary, post-AIDS culture. The idea clearly reflects the changing attitude towards nudity and sexual morality of the late ’60s and ’70s rather than a realistic prediction of future lunar fashions.

I am very solidly behind these proposals for humanity’s return to the Moon, whether done by NASA with the Artemis project or their private competitors, Jeff Bezos and co. Hopefully it won’t be too long at all before we see people living in lunar and Martian caverns for real. Though more suitably dressed for television reports back to Earth.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Plans to Take Us Back to the Moon

May 12, 2019

One of the other interesting pieces in yesterday’s I for 11th May 2019 was David Parsley’s article, ‘Amazon tycoons furthest delivery – putting people back on the Moon’. As the headline says, this is about the plans by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for a crewed mission to the Moon within the next five years. The article runs

The man who made billions from sending parcels around Earth is taking one giant leap towards the Moon.

The world’s richest man and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos aims to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024, 55 years after Neil Armstrong took his first small step.

Mr Bezos said his space company Blue Origin will initially land an unmanned robotic ship about the size of a small house, but would also help Nasa to meet its target to put humans back on the surface of Earth’s satellite in five years’ time.

“We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago,” said Mr Bezos. “It’s time to back to the Moon, this time to stay.”

Known as Blue Moon, the reusable lunar lander is capable of carrying four rovers and uses a newly designed rocket engine powerful enough to carry up to 6.5 metric tons of cargo on the 238,000-mile journey.

Mr Bezos, who is worth £100bn, unveiled a model of one of Blue Moon’s proposed rovers, which was roughly the size of a golf cart, and presented a new rocket engine called BD-7 which can blast 10,000 lb of thrust.

“We have been given a gift – this nearby body called the Moon,” Mr Bezos added.

In March, US Vice President Mike Pence called on Nasa to build a space platform in lunar orbit and put American astronauts on the Moon’s south pole by 2024 “by any means necessary”, four years earlier than planned.

Blue Origin said the group would “share our vision of going to space to benefit Earth”. Based in Kent, Washington, the group is also developing the New Shepherd rocket for short space tourism trips and a heavy-lift launch rocket called New Glenn for commercial satellite launches. It is aiming to deliver the New Glenn rocket by 2021, while launching humans in a suborbital flight later this year aboard New Shepherd.

Elon Musk also develops plans to take humans to Mars with his company SpaceX. He previously set the first cargo-carrying Mars mission for 2022 and a crewed mission for 2024.

Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson achieved Virgin Galactic’s first manned flight last year and plans to launch the first space tourism flights later this year. (p. 13).

This is very exciting, and I’m really looking forward to Bezos to take humanity back to the Moon, and Musk to send us to Mars. But I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for Branson to take tourists into space, as he’s been promising that ‘soon’ or ‘next year’ for decades.

However, I’d like Bezos to pay his Amazon workers a living wage first. From what I gather, the peeps working at his warehouses really are paid starvation wages. Which, I ‘spose, is how he get to be worth £100 billion. But he can afford to earn a little less, and workers a lot more. Sending people into space does not mean ignoring or exploiting the folks back on Earth. If he gives his workers a proper wage, then I’ll be behind him and his plans to take humanity to the planets 100 per cent.

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.

 

Reviewing the ‘I’s’ Review of Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’

April 21, 2019

George Barr’s cover illo for Lloyd Biggle’s The Metallic Muse. From David Kyle, the Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams (London: Hamlyn 1977).

The book’s pages of last Friday’s I , for 19th April 2019, carried a review by Jude Cook of Ian McEwan’s latest literary offering, a tale of a love triangle between a man, the male robot he has purchased, and his wife, a plot summed up in the review’s title, ‘Boy meets robot, robot falls for girl’. I’d already written a piece in anticipation of its publication on Thursday, based on a little snippet in Private Eye’s literary column that McEwan, Jeanette Winterson and Kazuo Ishiguro were all now turning to robots and AI for their subject matter, and the Eye expected other literary authors, like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, to follow. My objection to this is that it appeared to be another instance of the literary elite taking their ideas from Science Fiction, while looking down on the genre and its writers. The literary establishment has moved on considerably, but I can still remember the late, and very talented Terry Pratchett complaining at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that the organisers had looked at him as if he was about to talk to all his waiting fans crammed into the room about motorcycle maintenance.

Cook’s review gave an outline of the plot and some of the philosophical issues discussed in the novel. Like the Eye’s piece, it also noted the plot’s similarity to that of the Channel 4 series, Humans. The book is set in an alternative 1982 in which the Beatles are still around and recording, Tony Benn is Prime Minister, but Britain has lost the Falklands War. It’s a world where Alan Turing is still alive, and has perfected machine consciousness. The book’s hero, Charlie, purchases one of the only 25 androids that have been manufactured, Adam. This is not a sex robot, but described as ‘capable of sex’, and which has an affair with the hero’s wife, Miranda. Adam is an increasing threat to Charlie, refusing to all his master to power him down. There’s also a subplot about a criminal coming forward to avenge the rape Miranda has suffered in the past, and a four year old boy about to be placed in the care system.

Cook states that McEwan discusses the philosophical issue of the Cartesian duality between mind and brain when Charlie makes contact with Turing, and that Charlie has to decide whether Adam is too dangerous to be allowed to continue among his flesh and blood counterparts, because

A Manichean machine-mind that can’t distinguish between a white lie and a harmful lie, or understand that revenge can sometimes be justified, is potentially lethal.

Cook declares that while this passage threatens to turn the book into a dry cerebral exercise, its engagement with the big questions is its strength, concluding

The novel’s presiding Prospero is Turing himself, who observes that AI is fatally flawed because life is “an open system… full of tricks and feints and ambiguities”. His great hope is that by its existence “we might be shocked in doing something about ourselves.”

Robots and the Edisonade

It’s an interesting review, but what it does not do is mention the vast amount of genre Science Fiction that has used robots to explore the human condition, the limits or otherwise of machine intelligence and the relationship between such machines and their creators, since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. There clearly seems to be a nod to Shelley with the name of this android, as the monster in her work, I think, is also called Adam. But Eando Binder – the nom de plume of the brothers Earl and Otto Binder, also wrote a series of stories in the 1930s and ’40s about a robot, Adam Link, one of which was entitled I, Robot, which was later used as the title of one of Asimov’s stories. And although the term ‘robot’ was first used of such machines by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920s play, RUR, or Rossum’s Universal Robots, they first appeared in the 19th century. One of these was Villier de l’Isle-Adam, L’Eve Futur of 1884. This was about a robot woman invented by Thomas Edison. As one of the 19th centuries foremost inventors, Edison was the subject of a series of proto-SF novels, the Edisonades, in which his genius allowed him to create all manner of advanced machines. In another such tale, Edison invents a spaceship and weapons that allow humanity to travel to the planets and conquer Mars. McEwan’s book with its inclusion of Alan Turing is basically a modern Edisonade, but with the great computer pioneer rather than the 19th century electrician as its presiding scientific genius. Possibly later generations will have novels set in an alternative late 20th century where Stephen Hawking has invented warp drive, time travel or a device to take us into alternative realities via artificial Black Holes.

Robot Romances

As I said in my original article, there are any number of SF books about humans having affairs with robots, like Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, Lester del Rey’s Helen O’Loy and Asimov’s Satisfaction Guaranteed. The genre literature has also explored the moral and philosophical issues raised by the creation of intelligent machines. In much of this literature, robots are a threat, eventually turning on their masters, from Capek’s R.U.R. through to The Terminator and beyond. But some writers, like Asimov, have had a more optimistic view. In his 1950 I, Robot, a robot psychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, describes them in a news interview as ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’.

Lem’s Robots and Descartes

As for the philosophical issues, the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem, explored them in some of his novels and short stories. One of these deals with the old problem, also dating back to Descartes, about whether we can truly know that there is an external world. The story’s hero, the space pilot Pirx, visits a leading cybernetician in his laboratory. This scientist has developed a series of computer minds. These exist, however, without robot bodies, but the minds themselves are being fed programmes which make them believe that they are real, embodied people living in the real world. One of these minds is of a beautiful woman with a scar on her shoulder from a previous love affair. Sometimes the recorded programmes jump a groove, creating instances of precognition or deja vu. But ultimately, all these minds are, no matter how human or how how real they believe themselves to be, are brains in vats. Just like Descartes speculated that a demon could stop people from believing in a real world by casting the illusion of a completely false one on the person they’ve possessed.

Morality and Tragedy in The ABC Warriors 

Some of these complex moral and personal issues have also been explored by comics, until recently viewed as one of the lowest forms of literature. In a 1980s ‘ABC Warriors’ story in 2000AD, Hammerstein, the leader of a band of heroic robot soldiers, remembers his earliest days. He was the third prototype of a series of robot soldiers. The first was an efficient killer, patriotically killing Communists, but exceeded its function. It couldn’t tell civilians from combatants, and so committed war crimes. The next was programmed with a set of morals, which causes it to become a pacifist. It is killed trying to persuade the enemy – the Volgans – to lay down their arms. Hammerstein is its successor. He has been given morals, but not to the depth that they impinge on his ability to kill. For example, enemy soldiers are ‘terrorists’. But those on our side are ‘freedom fighters’. When the enemy murders civilians, it’s an atrocity. When we kill civilians, it’s unavoidable casualties. As you can see, the writer and creator of the strip, Pat Mills, has very strong left-wing opinions.

Hammerstein’s programming is in conflict, so his female programmer takes him to a male robot psychiatrist, a man who definitely has romantic intentions towards her. They try to get Hammerstein to come out of his catatonic reverie by trying to provoke a genuine emotional reaction. So he’s exposed to all manner of stimuli, including great works of classical music, a documentary about Belsen, and the novels of Barbara Cartland. But the breakthrough finally comes when the psychiatrist tries to kiss his programmer. This provokes Hammerstein into a frenzied attack, in which he accidentally kills both. Trying to repair the damage he’s done, Hammerstein says plaintively ‘I tried to replace his head, but it wouldn’t screw back on.’

It’s a genuinely adult tale within the overall, action-oriented story in which the robots are sent to prevent a demon from Earth’s far future from destroying the Galaxy by destabilising the artificial Black and White Holes at the centre of Earth’s underground civilisation, which have been constructed as express routes to the stars. It’s an example of how the comics culture of the time was becoming more adult, and tackling rather more sophisticated themes.

Conclusion: Give Genre Authors Their Place at Literary Fiction Awards

It might seem a bit mean-spirited to compare McEwan’s latest book to its genre predecessors. After all, in most reviews of fiction all that is required is a brief description of the plot and the reviewer’s own feelings about the work, whether it’s done well or badly. But there is a point to this. As I’ve said, McEwan, Winterson, Ishiguro and the others, who may well follow their lead, are literary authors, whose work regularly wins the big literary prizes. They’re not genre authors, and the type of novels they write are arguably seen by the literary establishment as superior to that of genre Science Fiction. But here they’re taking over proper Science Fiction subjects – robots and parallel worlds – whose authors have extensively explored their moral and philosophical implications. This is a literature that can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed as trash, as Stanislaw Lem has done, and which the judges and critics of mainstream literary fiction still seem to do. McEwan’s work deserves to be put into the context of genre Science Fiction. The literary community may feel that it’s somehow superior, but it is very much of the same type as its genre predecessors, who did the themes first and, in my opinion, better.

There is absolutely no reason, given the quality of much SF literature, why this tale by McEwan should be entered for a literary award or reviewed by the kind of literary journals that wouldn’t touch genre science fiction with a barge pole, while genre SF writers are excluded. It’s high time that highbrow literary culture recognised and accepted works and writers of genre SF as equally worthy of respect and inclusion.

‘I’ Newspaper: NASA Planning Permanent Return to the Moon

February 12, 2019

Before the deep political stuff, a piece of space news. According to yesterday’s I for 11th February 2019, NASA is planning to go back to the Moon and found permanently manned bases. The article by Clark Mindock, ‘NASA wants to station humans on the Moon’ on page 23 ran

NASA is planning to send astronauts to the Moon again, but this time it wants to keep them there.

The US space agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, called yesterday for “the best and brightest of American industry to help design and develop human lunar landers”, in response to what he said was a clear mandate from President Donald Trump and Congress to once again get astronauts out of Earth’s orbit.

In a post detailing Nasa’s lofty goals – to return astronauts to the Moon, and one day send them to Mars for the first time in human history – Mr Bridenstine said that the US was playing for keeps this time.

“I am thrilled to be talking once more about landing humans on the Moon,” he wrote on the Ozy website.

“To some, saying that we are returning to the Moon implies that we will be doing the same as we did 50 years ago. I want to be clear – that is not our vision.

“We are going to the Moon with innovative new technologies and systems to explore more locations across the surface than we ever thought possible. This time, when we go to the Moon, we will stay.”

Mr Bridenstine said that the ambitious plans would begin later this week, with partners from private industry and elsewhere invited to NASA headquarters in Washington DC to discuss the next generation of lunar landers.

So far, Nasa has already co-operated with nine companies to send cargo tot he Moon, with the ultimate goal being to develop landers that can take astronauts back there.

As a space fan, all I can say is that it’s about time. Way back in the 1970s and 1980s space experts and commenters, like Sir Patrick Moore, the presenter of the Sky At Night, were predicting that we’d have bases on the Moon and elsewhere in solar system by now. But that was before space budgets were drastically cut and NASA instead concentrated on the Space Shuttle. This was supposed to open space up to just about anybody who could afford the cost of a ticket and was in reasonable health. Its crews experienced 3Gs at lift-off, but this was considered to be so low that a 70-year old man could tolerate it. Unfortunately the Shuttle was massively overengineered and the Challenger disaster put the programme on hold while its causes were investigated and corrected. Even then its use remained risky, as we saw a few years ago when one disintegrated during re-entry over America and the programme was subsequently cancelled.

There were plans in the 1990s for a private, commercial return to the Moon, according to Focus Magazine, but that didn’t seem to get anywhere.

My guess is that NASA is finally getting round to putting a permanent human presence on the Moon not just because Trump fancies going back to the glory days of the Cold War space race, but because the EU and the Chinese are also planning the serious exploration of the Moon. A little while ago ESA – the European Space Agency – announced they were planning to put people on the Moon, while last week the Chinese successfully landed a probe on the Moon’s far side. The Chinese are putting such effort into their space programme that the quantum physicist and SF writer, Stephen Baxter, predicted back in the 1990s that the first person on Mars would probably be Chinese sometime in the next decade. Under Reagan, one of the big aerospace conglomerations and think tanks published a report arguing that America needed to develop its space technologies and industries, and move out onto the High Frontier, in order to secure its place as world leader. It’s likely that this is the same thinking behind this announcement by NASA.

As for exploring the next generation of lunar landers, I wonder if they’ll be able to use any data or blueprints remaining from the original lunar modules that landed Armstrong, Aldrin and co all those years ago. After the Apollo programme was cancelled, the massive Saturn 5 rockets were broken up, with the exception of those on display at the Kennedy Space Centre, and the plans destroyed. This has outraged many space scientists like John S. Lewis, the author of Mining the Sky, who compared it to the destruction of Chung He’s fleet by the Chinese eunuchs in the 14th century. Chung He was a Chinese admiral, who led a fleet of ships on an exploratory mission to the outside world, going as far as the Bight of Benin in West Africa. However, when he returned the eunuchs at the imperial court had his fleet destroyed and further exploration banned because they feared that opening the country up to foreign contact would have a destabilizing effect on its society. The result of this was that the country remained isolated and stagnated until it fell prey to foreign colonialism in the 19th century, most famously through the Opium Wars.

Hopefully NASA’s announcement will mark the beginning of a new, serious wave of interplanetary exploration which aims to put people on the Moon and other planets, as space scientists, engineers and SF fans and writers have been dreaming about and working towards since before the great German director Fritz Lang made his epic movie Die Frau im Mond (‘The Woman in the Moon’) about a German moon landing back in the 1920s.

The Operation of Worker-Owned Companies in Martian SF

December 9, 2018

A week or so ago I put up a few passages from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars (London: HarperCollins 1996), a science fiction book about the colonization and terraformation of the Red Planet. In Robinson’s book, on breaking away from terrestrial domination the Martians establish a constitution which makes all the companies not owned by the global Martian state or its constituent cities worker-owned cooperatives, partly modelled on the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain. On page 301 Robinson describes how Nadia, the new Martian president in the capital, Sheffield, works to transform the planet’s industries, including those formerly owned by terrestrial metanats – vast multinationals that now dominate the industries of whole countries – into the new system. Robinson writes

Nadia, however, never made it to this conference. She got caught up by affairs in Sheffield instead, mostly instituting the new economic system, which she thought important enough to keep her there. The legislature was passing the law of eco-economics, fleshing out the bones drawn up in the constitution. They directed co-ops that had existed before the revolution to help the newly independent metanat local subsidiaries to transform themselves into similar co-operative organisations. This process, called horizontalization, had very wide support, especially from the young natives, and so it was proceeding fairly smoothly. Every Martian business now had to be owned by its employees only. No co-op could exceed one thousand people; larger enterprises had to be made of co-op associations, working together. For their internal structures most of the firms chose variants of the Bogdanovist models, which themselves were based on the co-operative Basque community of Mondragon, Spain. In these firms all employees were co-owners, and they bought into their positions by paying the equivalent of about a year’s wages to the firms equity fund. This became the starter of their share in the firm, which grew every year they stayed, until it was given back to them as pension or departure payment. Councils elected from the work-force hired management, usually from outside, and this management then had the power to make executive decisions, but was subject to a yearly review by the councils. Credit and capital were obtained from central co-operative banks, or the global government’s start-up fund, or helper organisations such as Praxis and the Swiss. On the next level up, co-ops in the same industries or services wer associating for larger projects, and also sending representatives to industry guilds, which established professional practice boards, arbitration and mediation centres, and trade associations.

I can’t say I’m happy about the idea of worker managers buying their share of management with the equivalent of a year’s pay. This seems far too easy for someone to exploit to me. And I’m also not sure how practical it would be to turn all companies into co-operatives. However, we do need industrial democracy, if only to overturn the massive exploitation of working people that has gone on under Thatcherism. Under the current Thatcherite orthodoxy, wages are frozen, jobs insecure and the welfare system undermined and destroyed. A quarter of a million people have been forced to use foodbanks to save themselves from starvation, and 330,000-odd people are homeless. And the number of people dying on our streets, and the elderly in their homes due to Tory cuts in the cold weather payments, has shot up. And this has all been to give the rich tax cuts and provide employers with a cheap, cowed workforce.

Enough’s enough. We need a proper government with a proper vision that treats working people decently, with proper wages and rights at work, invigorates trade unions, restores a strong and health welfare state, builds properly affordable homes and reverses the privatization of the NHS. Only Corbyn’s Labour promises all that. And part of this promise is to put workers on the boards of all firms with over a certain number of employees.

Corbyn is the person we need to have in No.10. Not Tweezer and her gang of crooks and profiteers. Get them out, and Labour in.

Zarjaz! Rebellion to Open Studio for 2000AD Films

November 26, 2018

Here’s a piece of good news for the Squaxx dek Thargo, the Friends of Tharg, editor of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. According to today’s I, 26th November 2018, Rebellion, the comic’s current owners, have bought a film studio and plan to make movies based on 2000AD characters. The article, on page 2, says

A disused printing factory in Oxfordshire is to be converted into a major film studio. The site in Didcot has been purchased by Judge Dredd publisher Rebellion to film adaptations from its 2000 AD comic strips. The media company based in Oxford hopes to create 500 jobs and attract outside contractors.

Judge Dredd, the toughest lawman of the dystopian nightmare of Megacity 1, has been filmed twice, once as Judge Dredd in the 1990s, starring Sylvester Stallone as Dredd, and then six years ago in 2012, as Dredd, with Karl Urban in the starring role. The Stallone version was a flop and widely criticized. The Dredd film was acclaimed by fans and critics, but still didn’t do very well. Two possible reasons are that Dredd is very much a British take on the weird absurdities of American culture, and so doesn’t appeal very much to an American audience. The other problem is that Dredd is very much an ambiguous hero. He’s very much a comment on Fascism, and was initially suggested by co-creator Pat Mills as a satire of American Fascistic policing. The strip has a very strong satirical element, but nevertheless it means that the reader is expected to identify at least partly with a Fascist, though recognizing just how dreadful Megacity 1 and its justice system is. It nevertheless requires some intellectual tight rope walking, though it’s one that Dredd fans have shown themselves more than capable of doing. Except some of the really hardcore fans, who see Dredd as a role model. In interviews Mills has wondered where these people live. Did they have their own weird chapterhouse somewhere?

Other 2000AD strips that looked like they were going to make the transition from the printed page to the screen, albeit the small one of television, were Strontium Dog and Dan Dare. Dare, of course, was the Pilot of Future, created by Marcus Morris for the Eagle, and superbly drawn by Franks Hampson and Bellamy. He was revived for 2000 AD when it was launched in the 1970s, where he was intended to be the lead strip before losing this to Dredd. The strip was then revived again for the Eagle, when this was relaunched in the 1980s. As I remember, Edward Norton was to star as Dare.

Strontium Dog came from 2000 AD’s companion SF comic, StarLord, and was the tale of Johnny Alpha, a mutant bounty hunter, his norm partner, the Viking Wulf, and the Gronk, a cowardly alien that suffered from a lisp and a serious heart condition, but who could eat metal. It was set in a future, where the Earth had been devastated by a nuclear war. Mutants were a barely tolerated minority, forced to live in ghettos after rising in rebellion against an extermination campaign against them by Alpha’s bigoted father, Nelson Bunker Kreelman. Alpha and his fellow muties worked as bounty hunters, the only job they could legally do, hunting down the galaxy’s crims and villains.

Back in the 1990s the comic’s then publishers tried to negotiate a series of deals with Hollywood for the translation on their heroes on to the big screen. These were largely unsuccessful, and intensely controversial. In one deal, the rights for one character was sold for only a pound, over the heads of the creators. They weren’t consulted, and naturally felt very angry and bitter about the deal.

This time, it all looks a lot more optimistic. I’d like to see more 2000 AD characters come to life, on either the big screen or TV. Apart from Dredd, it’d good to see Strontium Dog and Dare be realized for screen at last. Other strips I think should be adapted are Slaine, the ABC Warriors and The Ballad of Halo Jones. Slaine, a Celtic warrior strip set in the period before rising sea levels separated Britain, Ireland and Europe, and based on Celtic myths, legends and folklore, is very much set in Britain and Ireland. It could therefore be filmed using some of the megalithic remains, hillforts and ancient barrows as locations, in both the UK and Eire. The ABC Warriors, robotic soldiers fighting injustice, as well as the Volgan Republic, on Earth and Mars, would possibly be a little more difficult to make. It would require both CGI and robotics engineers to create the Warriors. But nevertheless, it could be done. There was a very good recreation of an ABC Warrior in the 1990s Judge Dredd movie, although this didn’t do much more than run amok killing the judges. It was a genuine machine, however, rather than either a man in a costume or animation, either with a model or by computer graphics. And the 1980s SF movie Hardware, which ripped off the ‘Shock!’ tale from 2000AD, showed that it was possible to create a very convincing robot character on a low budget.

The Ballad of Halo Jones might be more problematic, but for different reasons. The strip told the story of a young woman, who managed to escape the floating slum of an ocean colony to go to New York. She then signed on as a waitress aboard a space liner, before joining the army to fight in a galactic war. It was one of the comic’s favourite strips in the 1980s, and for some of its male readers it was their first exposure to something with a feminist message. According to Neil Gaiman, the strip’s creator, Alan Moore, had Jones’ whole life plotted out, but the story ended with Jones’ killing of the Terran leader, General Cannibal, on the high-gravity planet Moab. There was a dispute over the ownership of the strip and pay between Moore and IPC. Moore felt he was treated badly by the comics company, and left for DC, never to return to 2000 AD’s pages. Halo Jones was turned into a stage play by one of the northern theatres, and I don’t doubt that even after a space of thirty years after she first appeared, Jones would still be very popular. But for it to be properly adapted for film or television, it would have to be done involving the character’s creators, Moore and Ian Gibson. Just as the cinematic treatment of the other characters should involve their creators. And this might be difficult, given that Moore understandably feels cheated of the ownership of his characters after the film treatments of Watchmen and V For Vendetta.

I hope that there will be no problems getting the other 2000 AD creators on board, and that we can soon look forward to some of the comics many great strips finally getting on to the big screen.

Splundig vur thrig, as the Mighty One would say.