Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

Spectre of Dune’s Axolotl Tanks as Professor Suggests Brain Dead Women Could Be Kept Alive as Surrogate Mothers

February 4, 2023

I found this horrendous issue being debated by Leo Kearse and the rest on GB News this morning. A philosophy professor in Oslo has suggested in a paper that brain-dead women could serve as surrogate mothers for women who were unable or unwilling to go through pregnancy themselves. The general reaction to the idea was revulsion, though the presenter said that philosophers often make extreme or outrageous suggestions just to start a conversation. There were also jokes about how mixed any children would be, born of a corpse. Of course, such women wouldn’t be corpses, just living women artificially kept alive through life-support machines. But one of them makes the serious point how you can tell if someone is braindead. The professor has made the comparison between his idea and organ donation. This is a reasonable moral problem – how is harvesting the organs of the dead any different from using the bodies of the braindead to bring children into the world? I suspect that the professor’s suggestion is really part of an attempt to explore the moral dimensions around donor organs. In that sense it’s a deliberately provocative statement intended to stimulate debate, not a serious suggestion.

But for readers of Dune it immediately raises the spectre of the Tleilaxu and their axolotl tanks, as one commenter pointed out. The Tleilaxu are one of the races in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. They specialise in genetic engineering and the creation of a form of clones, known as gholas. But they’re also clones themselves, born from the axolotl tanks. Only men are seen, which makes the other peoples of the galaxy suspect that the axolotl tanks themselves are the remains of their women. It’s a truly horrendous idea, and is part of SF’s tradition of exploring the shocking and dystopian. If the unnamed professor’s suggestion was serious, it would come a step closer to becoming reality rather than science fiction. But I don’t think it is serious, and if it was, it would face a number of serious moral objections.

On the other hand, the story is reported in the Heil, many of whose journo are, I believe, products of genetic engineering themselves. People that right-wing and bonkers are surely the products of deranged technology.

An Artist’s Image of the Tleilaxu axolotl tanks.

A 19th Century Proto-Feminist SF Novel

December 30, 2022

Brian Aldiss argues in his history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree, that Mary Shelley is the founder of modern SF, because she based Frankenstein on real science as it was then known in the early 19th century. Nevertheless, there were other women writing works of Science Fiction both before and after Shelley. One 18th century story has four men visiting the Moon, which is a female society ruled by a queen. The queen of the Moon gets fed up with the four and sends them back to Earth, because she’s repulsed by their drinking, swearing and smell. Later in the 19th century there was the feminist utopia of Gilman’s Herland, which imagined a women-only society in the Amazon which enjoyed high technology such as electric cars. One of the early SF stories mentioned in Mike Ashley’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows is The Mummy, published anonymously in 1827 but written by Jane Webb, who was then 19. The book intrigued the horticulturalist John Loudon that he sought out its author, marrying her three years later in 1830.

The book is set in 2126, and forecasts such inventions as weather control, steam-driven robot lawyers and surgeons, and a postal service that sends letters via steam cannon. Many of these new inventions are by the queen, who, along with the ladies at her court, wears trousers. This sounds like the kind of roughly Victorian era SF that would provide much inspiration and material for a steam punk novel. Over in America a steam man featured in one of the magazine stories published slightly later, The Steam Man of the Prairie, while Harry Harrison includes a steam driven robot in one of his Stainless Steel Rat tales. I like the idea of steam-driven robot. It appeals to me as both an artistic and technological project, but as the world cuts down on fossil fuels to combat climate change, I very much doubt if one will ever be built.

Many of the SF stories discussed in Ashley’s book seem fun and thought-provoking, even if they are dated to a greater or lesser extent. It would be great to know if some of them are archived on the internet somewhere so they can still be read and enjoyed without scouring the country for original, published editions sold at exorbitant prices.

Friar Roger Bacon’s Technological Prediction

December 29, 2022

Roger Bacon was a 13th century English friar and early scientist. He was an Aristotelian, but believed in experiment rather than just relying on observation and the acceptance of received opinion. He also predicted some of the inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as self-driving ships, cars and flying machines. He made these startling predictions in a letter to a William of Paris in a letter, the Epistola de Secretis Operibus of 1260. This stated

‘Now an instrument for sailing without oarsmen can be produced such that the larger ships, both riverboats and seagoing vessels, can be moved under the direction of a single man at a greater velocity than if they were filled with men. A chariot can be made that moves at unimaginable speed without horses; such we think to have been the scythe-bearing chariots with which men fought in antiquity. And an instrument for flying can be made, such that a man sits in the middle of it, turning some sort of device by which artificially constructed wings beat the air in the way a flying bird does’.

(Trans. Michael S. Mahoney, quoted in Mike Ashley, Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books (London: British Library 2020) 56.

As you can see, he doesn’t know how such devices could be constructed, and his description of how an aircraft would work is wrong, although people have constructed such ornithopters. But nevertheless he was right in that science and technological has led to the invention of these kinds of machines. It also struck me that there’s material in there for SF and Fantasy writers to imagine the kind of Middle Ages that would have arisen had Bacon or his contemporaries invented such devices, or what the ancient world would have been like had Bacon been right about the technology he believed they possessed.

Have A Happy Cthulhu Christmas

December 27, 2022

This is for all the fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. I found this piece of funny art on the net sometime ago and, as a fan of Lovecraft myself, really enjoyed it. I hope you do too, and may ‘orrible, squamous things from beyond not trouble your sleep tonight.

Did SF Writer Poul Anderson Invent the Gaia Concept Before James Lovelock?

December 26, 2022

Here’s another instance where you wonder if an SF writer got there first in creating a scientific or philosophical concept before the people who are usually associated or credited with it. One of the stories collected in the SF anthology Born of the Sun is ‘Garden in the Asteroids’, published by Poul Anderson in 1952. In this story, a team of husband and wife prospectors land on an asteroid that, amazingly, has plant life growing on its surface, exposed to space. Landing on the tiny worldlet, they examine the plants and meet their gardener, another prospector, who has been marooned there for 20 years. Although they’re of different individual types and varieties, the plants have established a symbiotic relationship with each other and so act as a single organism. Gronauer, the castaway, has himself become part of this ecology through caring for the plants. In exchange for his help, they supply him with food and oxygen. Vines not only trail up and across his spacesuit, but they also wrap themselves around his body, feeding on his blood and providing him with vitamins in return.

This sounds more than a little similar to the Gaia hypothesis proposed by James Lovelock. This holds that the Earth as a planet is alive as it and the creatures that inhabit it are a huge, self-regulating system and so form a kind of superorganism. It has been particularly influential in the New Age milieu in the 1980s and ’90s, quite apart from being discussed in the science literature. It did contribute to the wave of interest in earth mother, ecofeminist spirituality. I also remember that it also inspired one of the earliest New X-Men stories, in which the mutant superheroes had to fight against an island that achieved such group consciousness due to the radiation from a nuclear blast.

Obviously there are differences between Anderson’s story and Lovelock’s theory. In Anderson’s story, the asteroid is exceptional and its plants may even have come from outside the solar system. It is definitely not Earth. I don’t know when Lovelock proposed the Gaia hypothesis, but I think it might have been later than Anderson’s story by a few decades. And so this might be another instance where an SF author through up an idea independently of later writers, or it could be that Lovelock took an idea that was already around and simply applied it to Earth.

Did H.G. Wells Predict or Invent the Grays?

December 26, 2022

I’ve been reading various SF books over the past few days. These have been the collections of classic SF stories edited by the British Library’s Mike Ashley. One of these is a history of British SF in 100 stories. This doesn’t collect the stories themselves, but consists of precis of what he judges to be the 100 best British SF stories. It begins with H.G. Wells, as you’d expect and includes a number of other well-known SF authors from the period, like Aldous Huxley and Brave New World. But there are many others that are now obscure, but seem to be really interesting and sometimes chillingly prescient. For example, the 1918 novel, Journey to Meccania, is a terrible warning of what will happen if Germany wins the War and dominates Europe. It’s the account of visit to Meccania, a Nazi-style totalitarian superstate in 1970 by a Chinese traveller, Mr Ming. Another story, written by Charlotte Haldane, the wife of the scientist J.B.S. Haldane, written in 1932, describes another racist, eugenicist dystopia. This is a state in which the government rigidly controls who may be allowed to marry and breed. The scientist, who has founded this totalitarian society, has also created a poison designed to only kill Blacks. At the moment, this is the only such toxin of its kind, though the story states that there are others working on a similar poison to destroy east Asians. In the ’60s or ’70s the South African secret service, BOSS, was really working on a racist poison like it. The book also uses the term ‘holocaust’, though not in connection with the Jews. Charlotte Haldane was Jewish. Her maiden name was Franken, and so I wonder if she was just looking at the direction the contemporary craze for eugenics and racial ‘science’ was going and showing just how horrific this would be in reality. And it did become horrific reality in Nazi Germany.

Back to H.G. Wells, the book obviously discusses The Time Machine, possibly the first serious book about time travel. Wells based the future races in the book, the Eloi and the Morlocks, on what would happen if present social trend continued. The Eloi are the descendants of the aristocracy and the artists, living above ground but farmed like cattle by the Morlocks, the descendants of the working class, who have been forced underground to tend the machines. Wells set that part of the story 800,000 years in the future because that was when he predicted, using then current theories of speciation, that the two post-human species would have diverged. Apparently the book originally included a section on racial degeneration, which was later cut from the book and published as The Gray Man.

Years ago, Martin Kottmeyer, one of the contributors to the small press, sceptical UFO magazine, Magonia, ran a series of articles ‘Varicose Brains’ on how the Grays of UFO lore conform to the aliens in much SF literature. These were based on contemporary theories of evolution, which predicted that as humanity advanced the brain would develop and become larger while the body would consequently become smaller. As humanity became more intelligent and intellectual, so it would become less sensual and food become increasingly simpler. The result would be small people with large heads and atrophied digestive systems. This sounds exactly like the Grays. And some UFO theories state that these are the degenerate remnants of an alien race following mutation and racial decline due to nuclear war. But it’s also the name Wells’ gave his future, racially degenerate humans that also fascinates me: the Gray Man. Did Wells invent the Gray as a cultural motif, which then became incorporate into the UFO experience in the late 1960s and ’70s following the abduction of Betty and Barney Hill? Or did he just predict the figure’s appearance based on nothing more than his literary imagination and scientific insight?

And there are other connections between UFO encounters and early SF. One female SF writer in the ’20s and ’30s wrote a story about Martians coming to Earth to take water back to their own world. UFOs have often been seen over water, including instances like the Joe Simonton encounter, where they appear to be siphoning it into their craft. And then there’s the film The Man Who Fell To Earth, directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring David Bowie, in which an alien travels from his desert world to bring back some of Earth’s water. Is it a case of the human imagination taking these images and narratives and turning them into accounts of encounters with aliens during extreme psychological experiences? Or is the phenomenon behind the UFO encounters taking these images and stories and manipulating them? Or is it just coincidence?

Danny Huynh Animatronic Sings ‘My Way’

December 23, 2022

Here’s a fun little video I found on Apuk Tube Channel and decided to put it up. I hope it helps to spread some seasonal cheer this Christmas/Hanukkah. It’s of one of the robots created by Danny Huynh singing that old Sinatra classic, ‘My Way’. Huynh tends to create robots and vehicles with a distinctly beaten, grungy look, as if they’d come from a Mad Max style future dystopia. I’ve put up a series of his videos where he’s had these robots and also the Aliens from the SF/Horror franchise singing. This one is no exception with this robot looking distinctly like it’s seen better days, quite in contrast to the dapper Sinatra. There are also videos about the robot’s creation and how it was given a suitable SF vehicle on Huynh’s channel. Enjoy!

Saturn as the Abode of the Dead in Victorian Science Fiction

December 22, 2022

I put up a post the other day about an early 20th century SF story from 1901, in which Jesus Christ is raised on Mars and sent to Earth by the Martians to enlighten us. They rescue Him from the crucifixion, and bring Him back to Mars. It struck me that the story may have been an influence or at least prefigured the idea that later arose among UFO contactees and researcher that Christ was an alien. The best-known of the various UFO religions that believe this is the Aetherius Society, founded in the 1950s by former taxi driver George King. King was into eastern mysticism, and became aware of his mission as spokesman for the Space Brothers when he heard a voice in his kitchen one day telling him to prepare to be the voice of interplanetary parliament. The Aetherius Society believes that King was the recipient of spiritual messages from Aetherius, an alien on Venus, and that Jesus is also there on the planet. Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Israel, also claimed that he’d been taken aboard a UFO and shown how Jesus and his predecessor as head of the religion, W.D. Fard, were also on Venus. Both Christ and Fard were Black, and Fard was directing and preparing for the coming apocalyptic war against the Whites that would free Black America.

Looking through the SF collection Born of the Sun again today, I found another early SF story with a religious or supernatural dimension. This was John Jacob Astor’s 1894 A Journey in Other Worlds, in which Saturn is inhabited by the spirits of the dead. I think this was influenced by contemporary spiritualism and trends in psychic research. The followers of the 18th century Swedish scientist and mystic, Immanuel Swedenborg, believed that he had travelled in spirit across the Solar System and that the various planets were inhabited, including by the spirits of the departed. This was also the same time, I think, that mediums like Helene Smith believed that they were receiving telepathic messages from Mars. The Surrealists were fascinated by these mediumistic accounts, and one collection of Surrealist writings contains a drawing, done automatically, of Mozart’s house on either Jupiter or Saturn. There’s definitely a religious element in much Spiritualist speculation about space and early Science Fiction, and I’m very sure that this has had an influence on the UFO phenomenon and its accounts of contacts with spiritually advanced, benevolent alien beings.

Poul Anderson and Ideas about Terraforming Venus Before Carl Sagan

December 21, 2022

This might appeal to readers of this blog, who aren’t fans of the late astronomer, Sceptic and presenter of the blockbusting TV science series, Cosmos. I put up a drawing I’d done of Sagan a week or so ago along with a piece explaining why I thought he was a great TV personality. While Sagan was a brilliant astronomer and space scientist, some of the readers of this blog were less impressed by his attitude towards the UFO crowd. Sagan was a fervent rationalist, who saw it as his mission to attack ideas he thought were irrational, and particularly the paranormal. He was one of the founders of the Sceptical organisation, CSICOP, or the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, along with the stage magician James Randi and the mathematician Martin Gardner. One of Sagan’s last works was The Demon-Haunted World in which he worried about the tide of irrationality creeping over America and the world and foresaw a time in which the New Age would have taken over completely, leading to a new Dark Age and people earnestly consulting their horoscopes each morning.

Some commenters remembered how Sagan had been wheeled on TV in the 1960s to debunk UFO encounters. They didn’t like his superior and condescending attitude towards the experiencers. Now I’ll admit that I don’t regard UFOs as nuts and bolts alien spacecraft. Much of the imagery and the basic plot of UFO encounters seems to come from science fiction and supernatural encounters with gods, demons and fairies before then. One of the alternative views of the UFO phenomenon is the psycho-social hypothesis, which sees it as an internal psychological experience which uses the imagery of contemporary culture. In previous centuries this was of fairies. Now, as belief in the supernatural has declined in the West, the imagery is from science fiction. But both the imagery of fairies and alien spacecraft represent the same theme of encounter with a cosmic other. Some UFO writers and researchers like John Keel and Jacques Vallee believe that there is a genuine paranormal phenomenon at work, and that the force that was previously responsible for encounters with fairies and so on has simply now changed to using that of space craft as society has changed. See Keel’s Operation Trojan Horse, for example. Many UFO encounters can be explained as misidentification, hoaxes, and sightings of top secret military aircraft. I’m also convinced that some are due to the intelligence community deliberately messing with people for their own purposes. In one of his books, Vallee suggests that the Cergy-Pontoise abduction in France may have been faked by French intelligence as an experiment to see how people would react to a real alien encounter. And then there’s the case of Paul Bennewitz, a defence contractor in the US who was driven out of his mind by a pair of intelligence agents at a nearby USAF base. Bennewitz thought he had got in touch with an alien held captive at the base. The pair claimed to be whistleblowers and fed Bennewitz a whole load of spurious documents apparently confirming it, and then told him that it was all fake. It’s a tactic apparently known as the ‘double-bubble’ used by the intelligence services to destabilise their enemies. It worked on Bennewitz, who I think was driven to a nervous breakdown.

Even with the hoaxers, the top secret aircraft and the misidentified objects, there are still some UFO encounters that are very difficult to explain. I think the best explanations are probably the paranormal and psycho-social rather than the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re any the less puzzling nor that genuine people, who have had a truly inexplicable experience, should be sneered or condescended to.

But back to Sagan. One of Sagan’s achievements was to suggest a way Venus could be terraformed. This involved planting genetically-engineered bacteria in the Venusian atmosphere. These would consume the carbon dioxide and exhale breathable oxygen. But Sagan wasn’t the first person to suggest ways of terraforming the planet, and he didn’t invent the concept of terraforming. You can find the idea, but not the name, in the Martian books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, in which the Martians have built giant machines to replenish the atmosphere on their dying world. The great SF writer Poul Anderson wrote a story in which a similar technology is used to terraform the Venusian atmosphere.

This is mentioned by Mike Ashley, the editor of the anthology of classic SF stories about the worlds of the solar system, Born of the Sun, published by the British Library. In the introduction to the story about Venus, Ashley writes

‘The 1950s saw some authors taking note of recent research which suggested Venus was far from a watery world. Leading the way was Poul Anderson. In ‘The Big Rain’ (1954) he describes a harsh, sweltering Venus that, when it does rain, rains formaldehyde. The story considers how Venus might be terraformed, using the formaldehyde locked in Venus’ clouds. Airmaker machines, spread all over Venus, accelerate a reaction with the formaldehyde, ammonia and methane to produce hydrocarbons and oxygen, whilst bombs reinvigorate volcanos so that in time it starts to rain – and rains for over a hundred years, by which time Venus starts to be more Earth–like’. (p. 93).

To me, this is an example of one the instances where informed Science Fiction, even if wrong in the details, has advanced scientific thinking. And there are plenty of other examples in some of the other stories Ashley discusses in some of the other books in the same series.

Sagan, for all his faults, was a brilliant scientist and he did much to make people aware of the environmental crisis and opposed the threat of nuclear war and the New Cold War Reagan and Thatcher started ramping up in the 1980s. But in this case, while his ideas about terraforming Venus are most likely to be correct, he wasn’t the first to invent the idea.

Sometimes SF writers get there first.

‘Women with Wings’ – The SF Novel about Interbreeding with Aliens to Save Humanity from Racial Degeneration

December 21, 2022

As I wrote in my last piece, I’ve been reading a number of collections of SF stories published by the British Library. These collections are on various themes – other planets, life in space, the threat of the machines taking over – and the short stories are mixed with introductions describing the history of the depiction of that planet or theme in SF. The introduction to the story about Venus notes that before the modern space probes revealed that it was hell planet of scorching heat, crushing pressure and sulphuric acid rain, Venus was often thought of as an Edenic world with peaceful, angelic inhabitants. But I found myself particularly interested in the brief description of the plot of a book published in 1930 by Leslie F. Stone. In his ‘Women with Wings’ the Venusians are humanoids descended from flying fish. Both they and humanity are declining from racial degeneration, which the two peoples successfully combat by interbreeding.

I find this fascinating, as much SF is about the threat of alien invasion, including the rape and forced interbreeding with human women, and occasionally men. You think of fifties B-movies like Mars Needs Women or the lurid covers of the mid-20th century SF pulp magazines with square-jawed earthmen attempting to stop evil Martians or Moon people or whatever carrying off the heroine. Then there’s the plot of Hammer’s notorious Devil Girl from Mars, in which a Martian woman lands in Scotland in order to kidnap a man and bring him back as breeding stock to the Red Planet. This kind of cosmic rape is part of the contemporary UFO abduction myth, in which evil grey aliens from Zeta Reticuli are abducting humans and either physically raping them or harvesting their sperm and eggs in order to create a hybrid race. In some forms of the myth, it’s because the greys are racially degenerate and need to incorporate human genetic material in order to continue. Alien abduction and hybridisation were an integral element in the original X-Files, in which FBI agents Mulder and Scully were pitched against a secret organisation, the Syndicate, who were at the centre of a global conspiracy to create a race of alien hybrids who would be the only survivors of an alien takeover.

At the time Stone was writing, many European and American intellectuals feared real racial degeneration. This was at the hearts of the eugenics movement, that held that the biologically unfit would outbreed healthy people and so the human race would inevitably decline. One element of these fears was the threat of racial interbreeding with the non-White races judged inferior in the contemporary racial hierarchy. Hence the legislation passed by various American states to prevent the congenitally disabled having children and to limit immigration and prevent intermarriage with racial inferiors. These not only included non-Whites, but also Whites from southern Europe. These fears were also expressed in the SF and fantasy of the period, such as in H.P. Lovecraft. Several of Lovecraft’s stories are about racial degenerates preying on normal humanity and forced interbreeding from outside. In ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, an entire fishing community has been taken over by a murderous cult and its people racially mixed through generations of interbreeding with a race of fish people. Stone stands out against these fears through presenting racial mixture with aliens as improving the biological stock of both races. He’s a curious exception to the trend, and I wonder if there were other writers with similar ideas.

These racial fears were the basis for the horrendous legislation and political moves against people of different race and the disabled that culminated in Nazism and the Holocaust. It’d be interesting to know a bit more about Stone and whether he had the same attitude to terrestrial peoples of different colours intermarrying and having children. It might be that such anti-racist attitudes were just confined to that fiction and involved the idea of people breeding with an equal or superior race. But nevertheless, it is remarkable that someone wrote a story that had a positive view of it at all, especially as racist regimes like apartheid South Africa, banned literature with similar themes and messages long into the 20th century. And in Israel there are still Jewish groups devoted to stopping Israelis forming liaisons and marrying Palestinians.