Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

The Black Prof Who Proposed a Trans-Time Radio

May 31, 2022

Simon Webb of History Debunked put up a video yesterday asking if Black people wrote about anything other than race. He contrasted a book, Don’t Touch My Hair, written by a young Black woman studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies, with pop-science books written by Richard Feynman and Michio Kaku. He argued that there were other ethnic groups who had suffered just as much as Blacks, but these nevertheless wrote about something other than race and racism. It’s a good question, as Black Conservatives like Thomas Sowell have argued that Black people have taken the wrong road to improving themselves. He states that rather than being intent on taking political power, they should instead of have concentrated on raising their economic status through building business, education and so on, as the Jews, Chinese and other ethnicities have done. In the case of the Jews, there’s clearly a large amount of Jewish literature about anti-Semitism, but also about other subjects. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for example, is about Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell.

I’m no expert at all on Black literature, but there are a couple of Black SF writers: Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler, and looking through Waterstone’s the other year a found Dark Matters, an anthology of Black SF. I don’t know how much SF written by Black authors concerns racial issues. I got the impression that it was a significant theme in Butler’s work, though this also includes alien contact and genetic engineering. Delaney’s bisexual, and his novels also cover gay issues, though at least one is about an immortal wandering a devastated Earth.

At the moment there are very few Black scientists, which the discipline is trying to change. However, I do remember that way back in the 1990s, at about the same time the remake of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine came out, a Black American lecturer at a Community College was in the scientific news for his proposal for a type of time machine. This used a supercooled gas to create an Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen condensate. This is a weird type of plasma in which the ions in the gas all behave as single one. The ideo was to start the ionised gas whirling in one direction, and then send an electron into it travelling in the opposite. Stars and Black Holes are so massive that they drag space-time around after them when they revolve. This is why Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and its predictions about the way gravity distorts the fabric of space-time has been useful in predicting the orbit of Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun. One of the suggestions for achieving real time travel is that a spacecraft could travel in the wrong direction against the rotation of a Black Hole and thus against the direction of the bits of space-time it’s pulling with it, and so travel into the past that way. The scientist suggested that if you suddenly saw two electrons in the condensate, it would mean that the electron had travelled from the future back into the past, where it joined itself. The experiment and its proposer were featured in New Scientist and there was even a programme on Channel 4 about it and the Time Machine film, looking forward to a future in which we in the present could communicate across time with the future. The experiment was due to be taken into space for testing aboard one of the space shuttles, but I think the shuttle that carried it was one of those that disastrously blew up, thus leading to a cancellation of the programme.

I’m not sure that a cross-time telephone would be a good idea. It raises awkward questions of predestination. If history cannot be changed, how would humanity cope with the news from the future about crimes, wars and disasters yet to happen, but which we would be unable to avert? And if history could be changed, this could lead to chaos with messages coming back to us from the future, which would affect the present and thus their past. One solution to this is that if we attempt to change the past, it leads to the creation of an alternative universe following the consequences of the change while the first universe continues with its set progression to an immutable future. Gregory Benford used this in his book, Timescape, about a physicist receiving messages from the future through one of his experiments, warning him and the rest of humanity of an ecological disaster that would destroy Civilisation As We Know It. The messages have been sent by his future self, and in that future civilisation is indeed collapsing and leads to the hero, his friends and family taking refuge in a farmhouse as society prepares to collapse. In the other, alternative time path, he is able to convince the world that the messages are genuine and persuade the world to use the techniques sent back to him and his colleagues to destroy the algae blooms devastating Earth and humanity is saved. I read in a book on the SF pulp magazine, Astounding, and its editor John W. Campbell, and most prominent writers Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard, that Benford had indeed been researching the possibility of time travelling radiation, dubbed Tau radiation in the novel, so I think the book may have been based on his own research. Since the shuttle explosion, nothing’s been heard of the real, cross-time communication experiment. If it had gone ahead and worked, the prof who invented it would have got a Nobel prize, no problem, and the world would have been very different.

But the point here is, beyond the issues raised by time travel, that a Black academic certainly was actively pursuing something that didn’t have anything to do with race. And while I dare say that race and racism is an issue that informs much Black SF, it isn’t the only issue. I also recall a video I found on YouTube contrasting the situation today, where the arts are being increasingly defined and compartmentalised by race, with that in the 1960 when Black writer James Baldwin published one of his novels. The characters in the book were mostly White, and the book was praised by the critics as a great piece of modern literature. Baldwin was praised as a great novelist in his own, individual right, and not as a great Black novelist. He was praised for his literary skills, rather than simply because of his race. This is one of the reasons Sowell and other Black Conservatives don’t like books by Black authors being promoted and included in the canon of great works simply because of their race. They want talented Black writers and artists to be respected because of their individual merits, and are afraid that they will have their deserved reputations tarnished because of more mediocre literature promoted simply because of the authors’ race.

You may also remember that a little while ago, BBC 4 showed a 4-part series, the Lost Civilisations of Africa, fronted by a Black academic. I think he was an art historian, rather than archaeologist, but he sported the Indiana Jones-style hat. Going through my local branch of Blackwells, when it still existed, I found the book that accompanied the series. Now I realise that it could be argued that this was about race, as the presenter was discussing Black civilisations, just as another Black presented did in another programme about the African city of Timbuktu and its wealth of medieval philosophical and scientific literature. But these programmes are no more about race than a White presenter talking about the general history of Britain and Europe, or a Chinese presenter talking about the history of his country.

It seems clear to me that Black people are capable, and certainly have written about other matters quite apart from race. It simply appears that way at the moment because of the way anti-Black racism has become one of the dominant contemporary issues following Black Lives Matter and the rise to prominence of Critical Race Theory.

Incidentally, BBC 4 is one of the BBC channels about to be culled due to cost-cutting measures. I’m not surprised, as it’s devoted to highbrow subjects like history, archaeology, literature and the arts. I can’t say I’ve watched much of it, but I do remember that it has broadcast programmes like The Lost Civilisations of Africa, as well as a number of other programmes about the Lost Civilisations of South and Central America. There was also one fascinating programme on historic maps and what they told you about the attitudes and politics of the time they were made and who made them. I’m afraid the cancellation of this channels represents another attack on high culture and serious arts programming, in order to appease the Beeb’s right-wing critics who want it privatised anyway. It’s an assault on genuine Reithian values by people who would like to keep this country uneducated and uniformed in the name of making TV another conduit for Thatcherite propaganda, delivered by Rupert Murdoch.

Barry Norman’s 1977 Review of Star Wars

April 29, 2022

Here’s a blast from the past to cheer up fans of Star Wars and who miss the genial, avuncular tones of film critic Barry Norman on their TV screens. I found this little snippet from Film 1977 on YouTube, in which Norman looks at, and actually likes, Star Wars. He states that it has become the biggest grossing film in history, as it was when it first came out, although it’s since been overtaken by Titanic and Avatar. The film contained the right mixture of romantic adventure, including the knights of the round table and Science Fiction. Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi is described as a kind of elderly Sir Galahad with the film also starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. But, adds Norman, the real stars are likely to be the two robots, R2D2 and C3PO. He also mentions how the film was already becoming a merchandising phenomenon. The action figures wouldn’t be out by Christmas, but a whole range of other toys, including ray guns, would. He quotes one Fox executive as saying that it’s not a film but an industry.

The film’s success took writer and director George Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz by surprise. Lucas spent years writing and re-writing the script before it was ready for shooting, and the film was initially rejected by two studios. Even more amazing is that it was shot on the low budget of £6 million – which was obviously worth a lot more in 1977 than it is now – and that the special effects and many of the live action sequences were created by British special effects technicians at Elstree. But none of the film’s massive profits will be coming back to them, unfortunately.

Before Star Wars, Lucas was best known for his film American Graffiti, but the seeds of Star Wars are in an earlier film he made as a 27 year old graduate film student, THX1138. And now, two films later, at the age of 32, Lucas is so rich he need never work again. But there’s no point being jealous, says Norman, adding ‘Damn him!’ He nevertheless concludes that Lucas is a good director who deserves his success.

The review rather surprised me, as I can remember Bazza complaining in the 1980s that there wasn’t a cinema for adults, and Star Wars, while a family flick, was aimed at children. The review surprised me even further with the statement that Lucas is a good director. I think he was, at least in the first trilogy. Unfortunately the first of the prequels, The Phantom Menace, caused some people to drastically revise their opinion of Lucas as a director. Mark Kermode, reviewing it for BBC radio, declared that Lucas ‘couldn’t direct traffic’, which is far too harsh. I’m not a fan of the The Phantom Menace, which is rather too juvenile for my tastes. But it definitely wasn’t the Nazi propaganda flick poet and critic Tom Paulin claimed it was in a bug-eyed bonkers segment for the Beeb’s Late Review. And watching the next two prequels on DVD, I found that they recaptured some of the wonder and excitement I’d had watching the original trilogy as a child in the ’70s and ’80s.

As for Bazza, his retirement from the show and death a few years ago has, in my opinion, left a hole in the Beeb’s film criticism. Yes, Kermode and Mayo are good on Radio 2, and Kermode’s series a few years ago on the essential elements and plot structures of various film genres was very good. The Beeb did try bringing in Jonathan Ross and then a couple of female presenters, one of whom I believe was Claudia Winkleman, to replace Bazza on Film –. Ross was responsible for the Incredibly Strange Film Show on Channel 4, in which he reviewed some truly bizarre and transgressive movies. At least one of these was by John Waters, the man responsible for Hairspray amongst other assaults on the cinematic sensibilities of the mainstream American public. I was afraid when Wossy took over that he’d drag the show downmarket. But he didn’t. He was knowledgeable and intelligent, offering reasoned criticism and insight. Nevertheless, neither he nor the two ladies could match Norman and his quiet, genial tones giving his opinion on that year’s films. Bazza was so popular, in fact, that 2000AD sent him up as an alien film critic, Barry Abnormal, in the story ‘DR and Quinch Go To Hollywood’. This was about a pair of alien juvenile delinquents trying to make a movie from a script they’d stolen from an alcoholic writer after he’d passed out and they thought he was dead. The film stars Marlon, a parody of a certain late Mr Brando. Marlon is illiterate, but his acting is so powerful, as well as the fact that no-one can understand a word he says, that people so far haven’t actually figured that out. Marlon dies, crushed by an enormous pile of oranges after trying to take one from the bottom of the pile. Which Dr and Quinch film and release as ‘Mind the Oranges, Marlon!’

It’s good to see Barry Norman giving his surprisingly positive views about Star Wars, 45 years, and many films, as well as countless books, comics and toys later. Star Wars is, I believe, very firmly a part of modern popular culture, as shown by the way it’s casually discussed by the characters in the film Clerks and the Channel 4 TV series, Spaced. And Norman himself, though having departed our screens years ago, is still fondly remembered by fans of his series, even if we didn’t always agree with him.

And why not?

Model Millennium Falcon Levitating over Sand Dunes

March 11, 2022

This is another awesome video about unorthodox flight technology, although here it’s magnetic levitation rather than ionic propulsion. From the ‘Glen Makes’ channel on YouTube, it shows a diorama of Han Solo’s spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, hovering above sand dunes being made. The spaceship’s held up by magnetic levitation. It’s an amazing piece of work.

The possibility that magnets could be used to levitate objects has been around since the Middle Ages. One of the legends going round medieval Europe, for example, was that Arab natural philosophers had used magnets in the construction of Mohammed’s tomb, so that it appeared to float in the air. And then in the 18th century Swift, in Gulliver’s Travels, has a country of scientists float around the world on an island held up by a giant magnet. Gullliver’s Travels is a satire against some of the policies and attitudes of the times, and I think this part of the book is a dig at the Royal Society.

Looking at this and other technologies, I think there’s great potential for them to be used in high art. One of the sketches I found recently in one of the books of SF art I’ve read was of a similarly floating obelisk on an alien world. Something like that could be made for real, I feel. But instead what passes for official art is Conceptualism, though I think that’s been rather passe since its heyday in the ’90s. And compared to the artistic possibilities opened up by technology, it just seems even more banal than ever.

But applause and respect to this expert piece of modelling and its maker!

Muse Go Back to the 80s & 90s with ‘Something Human’

February 20, 2022

Here’s another fun video for those of us, who grew up in the ’80s enjoying some of that decade’s SF and Fantasy movies. I’m a sort of fan of Bournemouth rockers Muse. I like the way their music and videos include science, space and SF themes. ‘Unsustainable’ and ‘Isolated System’, for example, are about the world running out of energy and society collapsing according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that entropy, disorder, in a system only increases as usable energy is expended and transformed into waste heat. Hence, billions of billions of years from the universe will end as a positron-electron plasma just a few degrees above absolute zero. The tracks and the accompanying video are about the possible collapse of society due to an economics centred on growth which uses up all the available resources, a subject of great concern to the ecological movement since the 1970s.

On a lighter note, their video for ‘Something Human’ contains a number of 80s pop SF references., It features one of the band heading out of a city with a population of 213 million plus in a car carrying a video tape. The sign for the city has ‘Infected’ scrawled across it, which might be a reference to either the Resident Evil game and film franchise, or the later Danny Boyle film, 28 Days Later. He’s pursued by the other two, armed with massive guns. As he races down the road he goes back in time, which is surely based on Back to the Future and the time-travelling DeLorean car. Arriving in the past, he finds an abandoned, delapidated video store. His pursuers arrive behind him in an American phone box, which is obviously based on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Then the full moon appears and he turns into a werewolf, which could be based either on Teen Wolf or An American Werewolf in London. After killing his pursuers, he gets back into the car, the moon passes and he becomes human again as he drives back to the future. I’m sure there are other references in there. The big guns could be a reference to the massive weapons sported by the heroes of the various action movies, especially those starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. But those are the only references I’ve been able to recognise. Still, it’s a bit of fun nostalgia for those of us, who enjoyed 80s movies and the video technology that made the films available to see at home.

History Debunked on the Popularity of Conspiracy Theories in the Black Community

January 3, 2022

I’ve an interest in conspiracy theories. It partly comes from studying the rise of Fascism as part of the history course at college and having friends, who were huge fans of the Illuminatus! books. They’re a series of science fiction books about various secret societies competing to bring about the end of the world, or take it over, written by Robert Anton Wilson and Michael Shea. Conspiracy theories can be an extremely powerful political force. The Nazis gained power and popularity because of the ‘stab in the back’ myth that the Jews had secretly conspired to cause Germany’s defeat in the First World War from within. The infamous Tsarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is a classic example of this kind of poisonous conspiracy theory. Written by the monk Nilus for the Tsar’s secret police, it was intended to persuade Nicholas II to increase the persecution of the Jews even further. It claimed to prove that the Jews were secretly controlling both socialism and capitalism in order to enslave gentiles, and has been a major force in the rise of Fascism and anti-Semitic movements throughout the world. Some of its readers have continued to believe it even after it was shown to be a forgery, claiming that it is ‘symbolically true’. Although thoroughly discredited in the West, it remains popular in other parts of the world. I’ve read that it can be freely bought from kiosks in Russia, while in the 90s it was serialised on Egyptian television. I was therefore particularly interested in this video from Simon Webb’s ‘History Debunked’ channel.

In it Webb discusses the influence of conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus and fake history among the Black community. An American study had found that Black Americans were far more inclined to believe conspiracy theories. He had been visiting a Black female friend, who told him she wasn’t going to take the Coronavirus vaccine because of the grossly unethical Tuskeegee Experiment that ran from the 1930s to only a few decades ago. A group of Black sharecroppers had been deliberately infected with syphilis, which was left to go untreated until it culminated in their deaths. The intention was to study the progress of the disease, and in return the victims had their funerals paid for. Webb’s friend was afraid the Covid vaccine was a similar experiment. Back in the ’90s, a similar conspiracy theory arose about the origins of AIDS. This was supposed to have been developed by the US military as a germ warfare experiment at Fort Detrick. In fact the story was a fabrication by the KGB in retaliation for the Americans claiming that the Soviet Union had been responsible for the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II by a far-right Turkish nationalist. One American doctor, writing in the US conspiracy magazine Steamshovel Press, stated that in his experience many Black Americans in particular believed that AIDS was an engineered bio-weapon because of the Tuskeegee Experiment. There is a problem with Blacks and some Asians refusing to accept the Covid vaccine because of similar fears.

Of course, these bizarre and malign beliefs aren’t confined solely to Blacks and Asians. There are also Whites who refuse to have the vaccine because they also believe it is some kind of malicious experiment. One such theory claims that Bill Gates and Microsoft are putting computer chips in it to control people, or wreck their health, or something. All completely false.

These destructive theories have also harmed the campaign to eradicate killer diseases like Polio in Pakistan. Government officials and aid workers there have been attacked and murdered because of the widespread belief that the vaccine is really intended to sterilise Muslims. As a result, a terrible disease that has been successfully fought elsewhere is still very much a threat to the life and health of the people of Pakistan and other areas which have similar theories. I noticed that the government and the TV companies have tried to combat the conspiracy theories about the Covid vaccine by reassuring people that this is just a conspiracy theory, and showing Black doctors and patients administering and receiving the vaccine.

In the 19th century the kidnapping of Asian labourers during the infamous ‘Coolie Trade’, and the subsequent loss of contact with their families for years, even decades, resulted in another conspiracy theory. This claimed that people from India and what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh were being killed for the cerebrospinal fluid in their skulls, which was being used as lubricant for Europe’s machines. A similar theory also emerged in Latin America, where it was believed that a White or mestizo man in a black coat, armed with long knives, was murdering Amerindians. In this myth, it was the victims’ body fat that was being used to grease the wheels of Europe’s machines.

Commenting on the Tuskeegee Experiment, Webb wonders if he wouldn’t also believe in the conspiracy theory about the Covid vaccine if he was Black. But he goes on to consider the role of fake history in convincing many Black Brits they’ve been cheated by a racist society and deserve government assistance. A couple of examples of this fake history is the belief, expressed by a Black friend, that it was a Black man, who invented the lightbulb, and David Olasuga’s claim that there was a 15,000 strong Black community here in Britain in the 16th century. He speculates that the greater belief in conspiracy theories among Black Americans may well be due to a comparative lack of education. Blacks are more likely to leave school earlier and fewer Blacks go to university than other groups. But it could also be that the fake history, to which they’ve been exposed, has resulted in a widespread feeling of resentment and feeling cheated, thus fuelling demands for affirmative action programmes.

It’s possible, though I think the resentment and widespread suspicion of racial injustice comes from the real racism and exploitation many Blacks have experienced during the slave trade and after, when the British and colonial governments deliberately imposed highly discriminatory legislation on the newly freed Black workers in order to keep them tied to the plantations and maintain the Caribbean nations’ economies. There’s also the often vicious racism and blatant discrimination that Black and Asian immigrants have faced in Britain. The affirmative action programmes, dubbed over here ‘positive discrimination’, began following the 1981/2 race riots, which were partly caused by the particularly large unemployment rate and consequent despair in Black communities in Bristol, Liverpool and London. The Black community continues to be generally poorer, less educated and suffering greater unemployment and marginalisation than other racial groups. Hence the continued demands for affirmative action campaigns on their behalf. Structural racism or its legacy may well play a role in the Black community’s impoverishment, although this would conflict with Webb’s own views that some of the Black community’s problems are rooted in biology. He believes in the ‘Bell Curve’ nonsense that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites, who are in turn less intelligent than Asians. He is also impressed by neurological medical papers noting the greater genetic inclination towards schizophrenia among Blacks.

But researchers into conspiracy theories and the people, who believe them, have come to the conclusion that lack of information is a powerful factor in their emergence and spread. Without any proper information to the contrary, stupid and destructive conspiracy theories, like those about the Coronavirus and Polio vaccines, can arise and spread. I also suspect that the prevalence of such theories in parts of the Middle East, Iran and Pakistan also comes from these countries being dictatorships or absolute monarchies. In this anti-democratic culture, the state may be distant or exploitative and so there is an immediate suspicion and resistance to its interference. Hence the stupid ideas about the Covid and Polio vaccines. Folklorists also noted a similar theory among Black Americans about Coca-Cola in the 1990s. This was supposed to have had a chemical added to it to sterilise young Black men. A fellow volunteer at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol also told me that there was a conspiracy theory believed by many Black South Africans that the government was also covertly trying to destroy them through similar methods. This last belief is perfectly understandable, given the immense poverty and oppression caused by apartheid. And it does seem that the South African secret service, BOSS, was working on a germ warfare weapon which would only target Blacks.

These poisonous conspiracy theories need to be tackled and disproven, just as the widespread fake history also needs to be refuted. But this has to be alongside policies to improve the conditions of Blacks and other ethnic minorities so that they can enjoy economic, social and educational equality. If that’s achieved, then perhaps so many won’t distrust their government so much that they mistakenly think it’s deliberately trying to poison them.

90s Space War SF Programme’s Christmas Message of Peace

January 1, 2022

One of the things I’ve been doing over the Christmas season is watching videos of the old Science Fiction series Space: Above and Beyond on Guy With Beer’s channel on YouTube. Created by X-Files’ writers Glenn Morgan and James Wong, the show followed the adventures of a flight of American space marines fighting a future war between humanity and race of aliens known as the Chigs. Humanity was moving out into the Galaxy and was unaware of intelligent alien life, until the Chigs launched an unprovoked attack on two human colonies. The series heroes were the Wild Cards, whose members included an Asian-American, Paul Wang, a Black female engineer, Damphousse, whose father was the chief engineer in a nuclear power plant; Nathan West, an aspiring colonist for one of the attacked planets. West had been due to go there as a member of a colonising party with his girlfriend, but had lost his place due to an affirmative action programme that gave it instead to a group of in-vitros. These were artificially gestated humans developed to serve as slave labour and an unfree police force. Although now free, they were subject to massive prejudice and widespread discrimination. One of the other members of the Wild Cards, Cooper Hawkes, was one. He had escaped from the In Vitro facility after being told he was due to be killed because his natural born officers regarded him as a failure. He had been arrested by the cops simply for depending himself after a group of natural born humans tried to lynch him simply for getting a job on their building site. The judge at his trial sentenced him to join the marines. Leading the squadron was another woman, ‘Queen’ Vansen. The squadron was based on the space naval vessel, the Saratoga, commanded by Commodore Ross, a Black man, while their immediate commander, Colonel McQueen, was another in vitro. This followed the general pattern of Science Fiction of the time. Like Star Trek, it looked forward to men and women of different races working together in harmony and equality, where they were simply accepted without comment. The issues of racism, prejudice and discrimination was dealt with through the In-Vitros. Behind the scenes was the Aerotech Corporation, the space conglomerate leading the colonisation missions, which may have known far more about the Chigs than they let on. As does a blind American politico aspiring to be chief of the UN. She’s leading a peace initiative to the Chigs and their allies, the AIs, androids created as a police force, who rebelled after someone typed a virus into the computer system governing them with the message, ‘Take a chance’. When she is about to award West with a medal for protecting her against an assassination attempt, he asks if her if the rumours are true and that they knew the Chigs were out there. She says nothing more, but drops the medal on the floor and turns away from him.

The Chigs, a nickname because in their space armour they resemble Chiggers, burrowing tropical flees, remain a mystery until the very end of the series. They remain constantly hidden in their armour. Any attempt to remove it results in them dissolving into a green goo. There are hints of what they look like – the odd clawed, three fingered hand and arm is seen, but their faces are not revealed until the last two programmes when their envoy finally comes aboard the Saratoga to discuss peace terms and finally removes his mask to reveal his true alien features. They’re methane breathers, who come to a moon of their world to incubate their eggs in a special brood chamber. Allied to them are the AIs, who found sanctuary with them after escaping Earth following their defeat by the humans. These run the prisoner of war and forced labour camps, torturing their prisoners and attacking and stealing fuel and vital minerals from mining worldlets in the Oort Cloud. Both the Chigs and the AIs are utterly ruthless, killing without mercy, including the wounded.

The series only lasted for one season of 23 episodes, which seemed to be the lot of the vast majority of SF shows that weren’t Star Trek, although Farscape managed to go for four, plus the three part miniseries, The Peacekeeper Wars, and Babylon Five lasted five seasons. At the time I wondered if it was inspired by the success of the film Starship Troopers directed by Paul Verhoeven. Based on the book by Robert Heinlein, this was about a future war between a militarised humanity and the Bugs, a race of intelligent alien insects. In this future society, only those who had done their military service had the right to vote and enter politics, a view which Heinlein himself held. Verhoeven subverted this by satirically portraying them as Nazis, based on his experience of growing up in the occupied Netherlands. Heinlein also really did believe that war was ennobling experience. But I also wonder if it was partly inspired by Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, about a thousand-year war between humanity and another alien race, the Taureans, which sees one of the recruits, who hasn’t aged thanks to relativistic time dilation, returning to a vastly changed society in which he has no place. It was SF’s treatment of the alienation and maltreatment by the armed forces many squaddies experienced in Vietnam. Space: Above and Beyond, by contrast had no explicit message about war either pro or contra. Rather it was about about a people doing their best to defend their country and planet against a ruthless, genocidal enemy. During this they see their friends die. Paul Wang, initially very religious, loses his faith due to what he has seen and done. There is the constant danger of hospitalisation and permanent trauma from PTSD. And Wang is tortured into making a propaganda video by the AIs, a tactic used by America’s enemies.

The series’ Christmas show had a rather more positive storyline in keeping with the season. It was clearly inspired by the Christmas truce between Brits and Germans at the start of the First World War, as it showed in contemporary footage in a historical flashback. The Wild Cards are sent out on sortie in one of the space Armoured Personnel Carriers. They are discovered and attacked by a Chig squadron, which abandons them for dead. Their ship is disabled and left drifting in space. The radio is damaged so that they can hear the Saratoga looking for them, but not respond. And to cap it all there’s a comet headed right at them.

They are saved when messages in garbled English started coming in for them in Morse code. These messages tell them how to repair their spacecraft enough so that they can put themselves in orbit around the comet instead of getting smashed by it. They’ve been drifting further into Chig territory, but the comet will take them away from it and back to the human lines. It looks like the person sending these messages was not human, Which means he was a Chig.

The programme ended with a written message from the cast and crew of Space: Above and Beyond wishing everyone peace during the holiday season. I thought the series had a lot of potential and was disappointed when it ended. At the time it had the same figures the X-Files had when it started, and there were rumours that it was cancelled so the X-Files could get Morgan and Wong back, but this was denied. My favourite episode was ‘Who Monitors the Birds?’, telling the story of how Hawkes escaped from the in-vitro facility. He had been marked as a failure because he observed birds flying, and had asked the commanding officer training them to be killers, ‘Who monitors the birds?’ When the officer replies, ‘I( do’, he asks, ‘But who monitors you?’ Hawkes is sent on a highly secret mission to assassinate a senior chig general. This goes wrong and his partner is killed. he therefore has to roam the planet fighting to get to the extraction point. During his journey he runs into a Chig trooper, and is about to shoot him when he sees him watching a flying, bird or bat-like creature. Hawkes pauses long enough for the Chig squaddie to move on. He later runs into the same alien again running away from a Chig patrol. They’re about to shoot each other, but put down their guns momentarily to swap dog tags and go their separate ways. Hawkes nevertheless has to shoot him during their next encounter, which naturally upsets him. Punctuating his adventures is a strange woman, appearing as a corpse with grey skin and the marks of decay. She has designs on his body and tries to thrust her attentions on him. At other times she grabs his head to show him the Chig patrols coming for him. And after he pushes her away, she vanishes into thin air. She’s silent or inaudible throughout, except at her final appearance when she says ‘Till next time then’. She is never explained, and you’re left wondering if she’s an hallucination, another alien or what. At the end of the story, Hawkes rips up the contract he was offered, in which he would gain his freedom on killing the alien general. I think it works as a stand-alone story, and is in its way a classic of SF TV, like many episodes of Dr. Who and Star Trek.

Although it was made well over 20 years ago, the series’ seasonal message still remains relevant at this Christmas season. We need peace now as much as ever, with Iran and Israel seemingly gearing up to attack each others’ nuclear facilities, tensions rising with China and with Russia over Ukraine.

May we look forward to peace this year and an easing of tensions, as programmes like Space: Above and Beyond have wished at this season.

Cartoonist Kayfabe Look at the Art and Career of ‘American Hero’ Steve Ditko

December 10, 2021

More comics stuff, and a rather longer video than usual at 1hr 9minutes, but the subject deserves it. Steve Ditko is one of the great, legendary figures of American comics. He’s probably best known for creating Spiderman and the occult hero Dr. Strange with Stan ‘the Man’ Lee for Marvel. But as this video shows, Ditko worked for many other American comics companies – DC, Charlton, Dale and EC among them as well as self-publishing his personal works. In the video, the Kayfabers Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg go through the volume Ditko Unleashed: An American Hero, which accompanied an exhibition of the great man’s work. The book’s bilingual in English and Spanish, which suggests that the exhibition may have been in Spain. The volume not only describes Ditko’s career, but gives plentiful illustrations of his art.

Ditko, like Kirby, came from a blue-collar, working class background. He went into art school to study cartooning, as he wanted to be a comics artist. His career was uneven, working for a number of different publishers and in a variety of different genres – monster, science fiction, horror as well as the superheroes for which is he is best known. He also worked with some of the great names in American comics. At times he inked the awesome Jack Kirby, at other times he was inked by Frank Miller, the artist and writer chiefly responsible for turning Daredevil into one of Marvel’s leading heroes. I think he may also have been inked by John Byrne, one of the major artists behind the New X-Men. He was admired by many of these new artists. The epic Jim Starlin, in one edition of his Warlock comic, ‘One Thousand Clowns’, dedicated it to Ditko for showing us a new reality. Starlin’s art was rather more naturalistic, but he also used the same floating paths and mystic portals in his work. He also went through several hard times in his career. At one point he moved away to New York to recover from tuberculosis, then, as in Britain, a major killer. There were also years when he struggled, as many others did, to get work. He also worked on a number of merchandising tie-ins, like Micronauts and Rom: the SpaceKnight, which were intended to promote toy figures. I read the comics, which were excellent without having any interest in buying the toys, which might indicate they were too successful. Like the adverts for Cinzano Bianco wine with Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins. Everyone enjoyed them and they’re still fondly remembered by peeps of a certain vintage, but the people watching the ads couldn’t remember the brand of booze and so didn’t buy it. Ditko, like Kirby, broke off from Marvel for a time, before he returned, working on the above tie-ins along with the robotic superhero Machine Man.

Ditko, Politics and Morality

Unlike Stan Lee, who was a liberal, Ditko was very Conservative, a follower of Objectivism, the philosophy of supercapitalist ideologue Ayn Rand. He also had very black and white views on morality, which were expressed in his personal creations, Mr. A and The Question. He believed that heroes should be heroes, their morals pure and uncompromised. True to his ideals, he turned down work when the characters he was being asked to depict didn’t live up to them. A few years ago Jonathan Ross made a documentary for BBC 4 or one of the other channels searching for Ditko. One of those interviewed was Brit comics titan Alan Moore, who described meeting Ditko at Ditko’s home. He says that Ditko had a very narrow, inflexible view of morality, telling Moore, like one of his characters, that there were only two ways, a right way and a wrong way. Ditko’s politics are very definitely not mine, and I’m very much aware that in the real world, things are very often never a case of black and white but more shades or grey and motives can be less pure than we’d like. But after the comics industry went through a phase in which they tried to make their heroes darker – Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the foremost – and it was difficult telling the heroes from the villains, it’s refreshing to have someone who believes in old fashioned heroics.

The Kayfabers believe that if he were working today, Ditko would be cancelled or at least severely annoy and alienate 50 per cent of his audience. I think the first is certainly true. There has always been a left-wing message in American comics and an awareness of social issues. In the late 1960s into the 1970s both Marvel and DC tackled issues like racism and the rise of the feminist movement. As a response to the latter, Marvel created the Valkyrie, original a woman scientist who revolted against the patriarchy after having the credit for her discoveries stolen by her male colleagues. The Hulk comic also questioned American militarism, while Captain America, in disgust at Watergate and the contemporary corruption of American politics, renounced his patriotic monicker to become Nomad. Of course it wasn’t long before he rediscovered his faith in the rightness of the American way and put his uniform back on. However, Lee has also said in an interview that he was careful not to make the message too shrill so that it alienated readers that didn’t share his politics. Now many Conservative and moderate left comics creators and fans believe that in many strips, the political message has become too overt at the expense of traditional qualities like plotting, characterisation, dialogue and sheer fantasy. This was the motive behind Comicsgate a few years ago, when a number of comics creators, like Ethan van Sciver, broke away from the main comics companies of DC and Marvel to set up on their own.

Heroism and Its Absence in Modern Genre Film and Literature

One of the problems Az of Heels vs. Babyface and The Critical Drinker is that many of today’s pop culture heroes actually don’t act like heroes. For example, in one episode of Batwoman reviewed by Az, he comments critically on the way Batwoman treats the villain, a woman who has murdered several innocents. When Batwoman confronts her, she tells Batwoman that she’s killed so many people out of rage at her persecution as a lesbian. As a result, Batwoman, a lesbian herself, lets her go. This is simply immoral. The persecution of otherwise perfectly decent people because they’re attracted to the opposite sex is wrong, but it doesn’t justify the murder of innocents. Whatever political views real policemen and women have, they still have to act impartially and arrest those, who break the law and especially those who commit terrible crimes like mass murder.

The Critical Drinker put up a whole video about the failure of contemporary SF heroes to live up to the standards of true heroism with the latest Star Trek iterations as a case in point. He contrasted these were the high standards of professionalism demanded of the captain and crew in the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that series, the characters knew the importance of duty and respecting the command hierarchy even if they disagreed with it. At the same time, Picard and the other senior officers demanded and got the best from their crew. Several of the episodes involved leading characters learning the difficulties of command. There is one episode where one of the characters is training for promotion. Part this training involves trying to find ways to prevent a warp core breach that will destroy the Enterprise. The problem is insolvable until nearly every option has been tried except the one the prospective leader has been consciously trying to avoid: they have to send Jordi into the warp core to fix it, a command which will result in his death. But it’s unavoidable, and both characters know their duty is to their ship. The would-be commander has to give the order, which Jordi calmly accepts. And a hard lesson is learned. Instead, the crew of the new Trek franchises are grossly unprofessional. They bicker over there personal relationships in front of a superior officer, react badly to the stressful conditions they should, as crew aboard a quasi-military spacecraft, be trained to deal with and try to undermine their superior officers. Case in point: one sequence where Kirk and Spock attempt to beat the living daylights out of each other. Yeah, I’m aware that it happened in an episode or two of the original Trek, like the classic ‘Amok Time’, but there were extenuating circumstances. I like Star Trek and have got a couple of the recent Trek films on DVD. But I think the Drinker has a point, even if it comes from a jaundiced, booze-soaked mind. I think we need a few more heroes who are genuinely heroic in the old fashioned sense, even if the social views they hold may be those of the left.

Stylistic Strong Points

But Ditko’s own career also had its contradictions. At one point he was working on BDSM/ fetish comics, and there were certainly questions raised about the spectacular and surreal effects in several of his strips. Many of his characters, like Dr Strange, enter strange realms in which roads float apparently in mid-air, and doors and portals appear leading to elsewhere, like the mobile holes in many a cartoon strip. Strange shoots beams of light and conjures up strange geometrical figures in his incantations. These effects resemble the entoptic imagery seen when people start to hallucinate after using mind-altering drugs. Which led to the obvious question: was Ditko also on ’em. Ditko was too straitlaced to use recreational chemicals, and answered ‘No’. It all came from within, from his own unaided imagination. Which says to me that Ditko had an awesome imagination on his own, and that the really great, creative people don’t need drugs.

I can’t say that I was ever a fan of Ditko, as his artistic style with Marvel seemed rather too simple. I really admired those artists who were rather less stylised and more detailed and naturalistic. Nevertheless, this video shows that Ditko was a master of his art. The Kayfabers point out that he’s great at cityscapes and portraying fluid action sequences in which the characters are constantly in motion. In some of the strips, Ditko also used colour washes to enhance his line art, and the result is stunning. There are also a couple of strips where Ditko’s inkers were beginning to use computers to add inks and colour to his pencils, which are also very striking.

The Kayfabers also think that some of the pictures come from the private collections of people who acquired them less than legally. There is a black market in comics art, and Ditko was a victim along with many others. They won’t name names, of course, because they don’t want to get writs from m’learned friends. But they also state they’re just glad that someone, somewhere has preserved these pictures that would otherwise have been lost. Ditko also suffered into inadvertently giving people his autograph, thus cheating himself of money. He didn’t give autographs. However, if someone wrote to him asking for his autograph, they’d get a polite reply for Ditko saying ‘No’. Which he’d sign. People cottoned on to this, and exploited it.

Comics and Other Genre Artists True Artistic Innovators Deserving Academic Respect

The Kayfabers also lament that Ditko and that other American comics legend, Jack Kirby, weren’t more articulate. If they had been able to use the kind of language critics and intellectuals use about art, they could easily have been up there with Warhol and the Factory. But they were working artists, who had to grind out their strips to make a buck, and so didn’t have time to mix with people in art galleries. I completely agree. It’s been my opinion for a very long time that the truly great, innovative art exploring new visions, directions and tools is that of the space, science fiction and fantasy artists, including book illustrators and comics artists. And there are others who feel the same. I can remember watching one video about comics, in which one of the speakers said he felt angry seeing the work of artists hung in art galleries, who had based their work on comic artists. He felt that the original comics artists should have got the money and their work hung instead. Way back in the ’90s I tried to get one of the art magazines to accept an article in which I argued this point, and showed the stylistic similarities between respect fine artists like H.R. Giger and those of the Soviet austere school and such comics greats as Kirby and the British master of aliens, robots and the grotesque, Kevin O’Neil. Unfortunately, it was turned down because it would have been too expensive to run. But the point remains. And it'[s shown in Ditko’s art. There’s a panel in which the exhibition shows a clear influence on one of Ditko’s weird geometrical designs in a portal in Dr. Strange with a painting from the Russian avant-garde artist Vassily Kandinsky. The two debate whether there is a genuine influence there, before concluding that their probably is. I can easily believe it. Many comics artists have their own heroes and influences in fine art as well as other great illustrators of the past. Way back at the comics festival UKCAC ’90 I remember going to a talk by Charles Vess, who talked about the great artists and illustrators he admired. I can well believe that Ditko absorbed and incorporated ideas from fine art as well as cartooning and illustration, and that his own work pushed these ideas forward into new directions.

The book goes up to 2016, nearly the end of Ditko’s life. He died only a few years ago. Wossy in his quest to find the great man managed to track him down to an advertising agency in the Big Apple. Ditko agreed to meet Woss and the other host, but it all had to be off-camera. The programme concluded with Wossy stating that when they met Ditko he was very sweet, gave them lots of copies of his work, but they couldn’t repeat what he said to them. And so walked off into the New York crowd.

Well, RIP Steve Ditko, one of the greats of American founders. The book and the video by the Kayfabers are a great overview of one of the creators of some of the most iconic modern American superheroes.

Mr H Reviews on Guillermo del Toro’s Plans to Make Lovecraft Miniseries for Netflix

December 3, 2021

If this goes ahead, it’s going to be great news for Horror fans and especially aficionados of the great American Horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft. In this video posted on YouTube, Mr H talks about an interview on one of the film sites with director Guillermo del Toro in which he states that he is currently rewriting a script he wrote for a film version of Lovecraft’s novella ‘At the Mountains of Madness’. Del Toro is a massive fan of Lovecraft, who is a huge influence on his movies. He has been hoping to make a film of Lovecraft’s classic story for ages. He wrote a script 15 years ago for a film version which would have starred Tom Cruise and been produced by James Cameron. However, it failed to get off the ground because of the massive costs involved. After the failure of the project, del Toro turned to making other movies like Pacific Rim, which shows a certain similarity in the confrontation of humanity with raging monsters. The script, however, is available to read on the net. Mr H here mentions that he’s also a great fan of Lovecraft, and has turned several of his stories into audiobooks, which can be heard on his channel on YouTube. These were not necessarily easy to make, because of the archaic style in vogue at the time.

‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is about a group of Antarctic explorers, who uncover alien creatures from a civilisation that arose millions of years before humanity. In the novella the humans follow the aliens as they head back to the remains of their civilisation, uncovering its history before finding that it has fallen, overthrown by the shoggoths, genetically engineered servants of the aliens. Del Toro states that the film version was his attempt to make a blockbuster. He now believes he can cut it down to make it smaller and weirder. There are only four set pieces he wishes to retain from the original script, and he intends to change the ending to make it darker. He’s therefore planning to turn it into a miniseries for Netflix. Mr. H is very optimistic about this, as it should mean that del Toro will have less studio interference and an access to a distributor as well as a studio. He believes that del Toro’s reworking of the script shows real commitment to getting the project off the ground. And he makes the point that Lovecraft’s cosmic horror doesn’t need big effects. Much of it can be portrayed with a character going mad with fear at something he sees off camera. On the downside, it has to be said that many of his commenters are not optimistic about the miniseries’ quality if it comes from Netflix. It also means that it will be on a streaming service, rather than the cinema, which may make it difficult for people to watch.

Video on the Use of Toys as Models in the Gerry Anderson Shows

November 23, 2021

Here’s a bit of fun for a Tuesday morning. I found this short video on the Gerry Anderson channel in YouTube, in which the hosts talk about the times the show used toys while filming the various cult series Anderson created. Sometimes it was simply a case where a commercial toy was cannibalised for its parts, which were then used in the creation of one of the shows’ models. This happened to a model tank, which was taken apart and its pieces used for a number of models, including the armoured vehicle hunting down the aliens that made it down to Earth in UFO. At other times commercial toys of the spaceships and other vehicles seen in the show were used while filming, including one of the spacecraft from Terrahawks.

I was interesting in this, because I had a Super Eight cine camera when I was lad, and like many others me and a few friends went and made our of SF films with it using action men and spaceships made from plastic model kits. These were hung from strings across a painted space background and flown about by hand. We really enjoyed making them, but I always felt a bit frustrated as I would have loved to have been able to make something of more professional quality. Of course, this was far beyond my boyhood capabilities. I knew that the SF films used matte work and TV series like Dr. Who and Blake’s 7 used Colour Separation Overlay, or Chromakey, to superimpose their spaceships on a space background without strings, and wished I could do the same. You were supposed to be able to do something like it with Super Eight by exposing a section of film twice to produce ghosts etc. Or so I was assured by the manuals. In fact you couldn’t with Super Eight, as one you reached the end of the cassette holding the film, that was it. It was all over and locked. I think you could do it with Standard Eight, however.

Since then I’ve found out that many of my favourite SF shows hadn’t used such sophisticated optical techniques, but instead had models dangling from wires. If I’d known about this at the time, and particularly about the use of commercial toys as props, I would have felt better about my own efforts.

Making these short films – Super Eight lasts only 3 minutes 20 seconds – were immense fun, and like a number of other children I dreamt of being a film director like George Lucas or Spielberg. Well, that hasn’t happened. But I do think Super Eight filming did encourage creativity among the children and young adults who used it. If you can remember that far back, Screen Test with Michael Rod also used to run an annual competition for the best Super Eight film created by the show’s young viewers. Some of these were very good, others not so impressive. I think several of them were about a future in which everything was done on computer. Obviously, it was very far-fetched!

Super Eight was rapidly made obsolete by videotape and the new video cameras, which have also been superseded by DVD, Blue Ray and digital media. Editing software is available for computers so that people in their homes, using footage from their phones or digital cameras, can produce their own films for YouTube and other social media platforms of extremely high quality, far above what could be done with ordinary amateur cine film. And it’s great that the technology has moved on, so that more people are able to do this and share their creations with a wider public than just themselves, their family and friends in the privacy of their own homes.

The hosts here also talk about how they threw their model Gerry Anderson spaceships into the ground, or pulled them along in the hope that it would look like the special effects sequences on screen. Its says much about Anderson’s series that they’re still so fondly remembered after decades. They’ve even revived Thunderbirds, though it’s now computer generated rather than puppets. Which, I have to say, is a bit disappointing for fans of practical effects, but you can’t have everything. I hope Anderson will continue to inspire new generations of young SF film-makers for some time to come.

Lab Grown Goats and the Shape of Wombs to Come

November 19, 2021

I found this photo of goat fetuses growing in tanks filled with amniotic fluid in a Japanese lab in an old an old issue of Scientific American Presents – Your Bionic Future from autumn 1999. It illustrated an article by Tabitha M. Powledge, ‘The Ultimate Baby Bottle’, which had on the contents page the comment ‘Aldous Huxley was right. Artificial wombs are in our future.’ I hope, I really hope that they aren’t. At least, not in the way he portrayed it in Brave New World. In the book, the Fordists have abolished natural reproduction so that everyone is grown artificially in hatcheries. As a result, sex is only for pleasure – and as this is a hedonistic society there are plenty of orgies – and the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are dirty terms of abuse. This is definitely not a society anyone would want to see realised. On the other hand, milder forms of such reproduction have also been suggested. The people of humanity’s first extraterrestrial colony also reproduce in hatcheries in Brian Aldiss’ and David Wingrove’s history of the future, The Third Millennium. And in Paul McAuley’s book, In The Belly of the Whale, the two human species on Fomalhaut also reproduce through cloning in hatcheries, but are placed with surrogate parents who raise them in something like a normal family structure after their birth.

The success of the Japanese scientists in growing the goat fetus’ generated a considerable interest at the time. It was widely predicted, as the Scientific American article did, that this would lead to artificial wombs. In fact there was speculation about possible breakthroughs in such research a decade earlier in the 1980s. About 1984/5 I remember an article appearing in the Absurder which predicted that some day people would be gestated in such devices.

I’ve got very mixed feelings about this. I can admire the scientific skill behind it, and it does touch that part of me that enjoys seeing Science Fiction become reality. I can also see that it would benefit women, who for one reason or another could not carry a baby to term. But I don’t know how women would react to such machines if they became possible. I realise that pregnancy and childbirth are fraught, dangerous times for women and their children. Many women go through everything from the discomfort of bad backs and morning sickness to far worse conditions that may seriously damage their health. The other night there was a piece on the One Show, for example, about the dangers to pregnant women from a condition that causes severe nausea. And then there are the problems and dangers in childbirth itself.

But femininity throughout history has been intimately bound up with motherhood. So much so that in many traditional societies the view of women has been that of baby factories, whose primary role is the bearing and raising of children. Modern feminism challenges this in order to give women the freedom to work outside the home in previously masculine roles and professions. But I am not sure if women would welcome the complete separation of femininity from motherhood. Would women feel somehow diminished, deprived of a vital component of their womanhood, if there was a wholesale move towards artificial reproduction? Part of the psychological motivation behind gender critical feminisms opposition to transwomen being accepted as women is a powerful feeling that this is men usurping and appropriating femininity, while marginalising natural biological women. Reading through some of the comments on Kellie-Jay Kean’s videos, I came across some women talking about the joy they felt as women bearing children. One women said that men’s lives must be so empty because of their inability to do so. Now these are just a few women’s views, but I do wonder how women with a similar attitude would look upon artificial wombs.

I also wonder whether there would be the same strong bond between parents, and especially mothers, and their children if babies weren’t born naturally but collected from the hatchery. I realise that the parents of adopted children are in a similar position, and generally greatly love their children, as, of course, to step-parents. I’m also well aware of the dreadful neglect and abuse some parents inflict on their kids. It’s perfectly possible, therefore, that bringing your baby home from the lab for their first time would have all the emotional impact of a natural birth and that the parental bond wouldn’t be affected. But nevertheless, I wonder.

And I’m also worried that such hatcheries could lead to the further mechanisation of what would once have been considered essential human traits, to produce genuine post-human creatures like the cyborgs of the transhumanists. These could be far beyond us in their capability while at the same time lacking in what we consider to be our essential human natures, like the Cybermen and Sontarans of Dr. Who.

These are deep, ethical issues. But fortunately, they have become pressing just yet, as the promised artificial wombs have yet to appear.