Posts Tagged ‘Space Travel’

Modified Version of Einstein’s Relativity Would Allow Faster Than Light Travel

January 3, 2023

I came across a really interesting piece of science news yesterday. Scientists at the universities of Warsaw and Singapore have proposed a modification of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which would permit objects to travel faster than the speed of light. They propose that this would be possible in a universe that was pretty much the opposite of ours with the number of space and time dimensions. Our universe has three dimensions of space and one of time, although it has been suggested that we may also have extra dimensions of space as well, but which are currently rolled up smaller than atoms. The universe the scientists modelled had only one dimension of space and three of time. Objects in this universe could travel faster than the speed of light, but these objects would still experience the speed of light as an unbreakable barrier from their point of view. The reports say that it’s unknown at the moment how this theory could be tested and observed, but they’re working on it.

This is very interesting, but I don’t know what help it is for the scientists and engineers who are seriously interested in FTL travel and warp drives, because as far as I and everybody else is aware at the moment, we don’t live in such a universe. This would only become relevant to us if somehow it was proved that we did, or a way could be found of entering and exiting such a universe similar to the hyperspace theory of FTL travel. Hyperspace is a dimension in which spacecraft can exceed the speed of light. The idea is that a spaceship enters hyperspace at the beginning of its journey to the stars, and comes out of it at the end. Unfortunately, no-one knows how to enter such a dimension. Furthermore, work a few years ago said that in hyperspace, although it would allow FTL travel from the point of view of our universe, for reasons that unfortunately I’ve forgotten the speed of light would remain as a barrier there, so in effect it would still forbid exceeding the speed of light. This new theory suggests that there are universes in which the speed of light would not be a barrier, but there’s still the problem of getting to them and utilising them.

As for extra dimensions of time, I did wonder what our world would be like if there were extra, hidden time dimensions. Would this explain the folktales in which a person travels to fairyland only to find years or centuries have passed since they left when they return?

Charles Cole and the Origin of the Belief that Jesus was an Extraterrestrial

December 21, 2022

I’m sorry I haven’t been posting much over the last few days. Our boiler here packed in last Friday, and we’ve spent the past few days trying to get it fixed. Part of the problem has been trying to get through to the gas company that installed it. We were on the phone for three hours the other day trying to get through to someone. But we’ve managed to sort things out and hopefully it’ll all be fixed before too long.

I’ve started reading a few Science Fiction books I ordered a few months ago, but have only just got around to reading. They’re collections of early, classic SF short stories edited by Mike Ashley and published by the British Library. Each collection is devoted to a different theme. There’s one on the Menace of the Machine, which traces the idea of robots rebelling and taking over from the 19th century to 60s predictions of the rise of the internet. Born of the Sun is an anthology of SF stories set on the various worlds of our solar system, from Mercury out to Pluto, including the false planet Vulcan.. This was a planet a 19th century astronomer believed he had seen inside the orbit of Venus. It’s existence has since been disproved, but as the book says, it lives on in the name for Mr. Spock’s home planet in Star Trek. Each of the stories is prefaced by a brief history of these worlds in Science Fiction. And these are often fascinating.

The introduction to the short story about Mars in Born of the Sun notes the way the planet has also been used to explore theological and religious issues, such as in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. This was one of a trilogy of books, the others being Perelandra, or Voyage to Venus and That Hideous Strength, all with a very strong theological dimension. The other planets of the solar system, in Lewis’ SF, are unfallen and ruled by angels, and there is a war going on with the demonic forces on Earth. In Out of the Silent Planet a philologist, Ransom, is kidnapped by an evil scientist and his commercial partner, and taken to Mars. Ransom manages to escape and at last makes contact with the indigenous Martians. Meeting the Oyarsa, the angel ruling the planet, he is told of its Edenic state and that neither he nor his captors can remain there, and they are sent back to Earth.

But SF stories about Mars with Christian theological dimension predate Lewis’ by some years. The book states that in 1901 Charles Cole published a story, Visitors from Mars, in which Jesus is raised on the Red Planet. He is sent to Earth to help us, and rescued by the Martians at the Crucifixion, who return Him to Mars. This is very similar to some of the beliefs among the UFO fraternity about Christ. The Aetherius Society, set up in the 1950s by ‘Sir’ George King, knight of the Byzantine Empire (self-awarded) teaches that Christ is alive and well and on Venus, along with Aetherius, an ascended being who sends messages of spiritual improvement to us via King. It also reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human raised by Martians who has great spiritual and psychic powers, and who founds a religion back on Earth. This was one of the influences on the emerging New Age movement back in the 1960s. One of the first neo-pagan religions was the Church of All Worlds, which was an attempt to put the religion founded by the book’s hero into practice. Heinlein himself wasn’t impressed with it, not least because he didn’t believe psychic powers existed. It might be that Cole’s book and other SF stories of the period in which the peoples of Venus and Mars were depicted as angels started that line of mystical speculation which eventually produced the New Age idea that Jesus was an alien. Or it could just be that it prefigured them when they arose later in the century with the emergence of the UFO phenomenon.

Graham Hancock – A Crank, Possibly, But Definitely No Racist

December 9, 2022

My discipline, archaeology, has been massively going after Graham Hancock this week. Hancock’s ah, um,, ‘maverick thinker’, I suppose you’d say, who’s been presenting a series on Netflix arguing that thousands of years ago there was a highly advanced civilisation that perished in a cataclysm, but passed on its secrets to other ancient civilisations around the world. This has understandably annoyed archaeologists and a number have put up videos, some of them lengthy and quite detailed, disproving him. Hancock’s been promoting this idea for some time now. Going back two decades and more, he had a series on Channel 4 with the title ‘Water World’ or something like it, also arguing that there was a global advanced civilisation, whose monuments have been covered up by a flood, as recorded in the Bible and other ancient religions. Now I’m sure that Hancock is wrong, and the criticisms of his dodgy history and archaeology are right. But I take exception to one of the other accusations levelled at him, which is that he is racist.

This accusation is partly based on his false ascription of the achievements of indigenous cultures around the world to this putative prehistoric civilisation. It denies those people the credit for their achievements. But the accusation is also that it’s similar to the ideas of some bonkers White supremacist groups, who are using Hancock’s ideas to promote themselves. One archaeologist posted a video saying that Hancock should have disavowed the use of his ideas by these fascists. It also criticised him for being friends with Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson. There are fair criticisms to be made of both of these men. Peterson’s an arch-conservative and anti-feminist, but hardly a Nazi. Rogan was pushing anti-vax nonsense and is an advocate for some mind-expanding drugs. A few years ago people were accusing him of being a ‘gateway to the Alt-Right’. Possibly, but he also talks to people from the left, who are otherwise denied a platform by the lamestream media. Journalists like Abbie Martin, who talked about Israeli propaganda against the Palestinians and how she found, when she visited the beleaguered Arab nation, that the reality was nothing like the picture painted by the Israeli state. He’s also talked to biologists and journalists exposing the lies of the trans ideology. This is not Alt-Right, no matter what groups like Mermaids, Stonewall, Antifa and the rest say. The people criticising the gender ideology tend to be radical feminists, many from the socialist left. Part of their opposition against it is that it reduces masculinity and femininity to traditional, stereotypical sex roles. One of the feminist vloggers interviewed one of the leading activists against the trans ideology, who was furious that people like her were being presented as right-wing. Another feminist activist criticised Matt Walsh for misrepresenting feminists as uniformly in favour of trans ideology, and then criticising them for it. Rogan gives a voice to people outside the mainstream. Sometimes it’s rubbish, and sometimes it’s immensely valuable. He has also interviewed a number of Black celebs, so again, not a Nazi.

The White supremacist ideas being referred to seem to me to be the Traditionalist ideology of Giulio Evola. Evola was an Italian Fascist and occultist, who was a major ideological influence on the scumbuckets behind the Bologna railway bombing in the 1970s. A fascist group bombed the station, killing and maiming over a hundred people. Evola believed that there was a strongly hierarchical, ‘Aryan’ civilisation in Hyperborea in the arctic, which was responsible for all the subsequent cultural achievements of the civilisations around the world. This is twaddle. But Hancock’s ideas are also similar to those of others, which don’t come from people in the fascist fringe. A couple of years ago I picked up an old book, Colony Earth, which had been published in the 1970s. This claimed that Earth may have been an extraterrestrial colony, whose advanced civilisation was destroyed in a nuclear war. The pyramids may have been fall-out shelters, as were the megalithic tumuli in Britain. It’s an interesting read, but certainly wrong. I think Charles Berlitz, who started the Bermuda Triangle myth, also believed in this, supporting it in one of his books with artefacts from Aztec tombs that look like aircraft. Berlitz is someone else, who I’m fairly certain has absolutely no connection to fascism whatsoever.

And I don’t believe Hancock is either.

When he was travelling the world on his Channel 4 series he was accompanied by his wife, who is Sri Lankan. Now, White supremacists do not, as a rule, marry dark-skinned people from outside Europe. If they do, they’re angrily denounced as ‘race traitors’. In one edition of this earlier series, Hancock reported on the mysterious ruins of ancient city found off the coast of the Bay of Bengal. He was shown talking respectfully to an Indian gent, who told him how such findings tie in with Hindu ideas of the antiquity of civilisation and ancient Indian legends of flooded cities. Again, this isn’t quite behaviour you’d expect from a genuine White supremacist. He also travelled to South and Central America, where he proposed the old theory that the Mayans, Aztecs and other ancient Amerindian civilisations must have learned how to build their pyramids from someone else. I think this was once again ancient Egypt. But who brought that knowledge to the New World? Black Africans. He pointed to an Olmec bas relief of a warrior’s head, and declared its features to be ‘proudly African’. If this is racism, then its Afrocentrism rather than White supremacy. As for the ancient race behind these monuments, Hancock doesn’t say what colour they are. In this, he breaks with some of his predecessors, who say they must have been White because the legends of numerous Amerindian peoples state that vital parts of their culture were brought to them by White gods. Hancock is therefore less racialised in what he says than his predecessors.

I disagree profoundly with Hancock’s ideas, but he has a right to say them like everyone else. And if it piques people interest in these ancient cultures so that they want to find out what they were really like, that’s all to the good. But I do think it’s profoundly wrong to accuse him of racism. That just further cheapens the word and weakens it as a weapon against the real thing.

Video on Orion, the US Navy’s Nuclear Space Battleship

December 4, 2022

I found this very interesting video on the Found and Explained channel on YouTube. It’s about Orion, a massive space battleship designed, but fortunately never built, by the US navy. The vehicle would have been propelled by nuclear bombs thrown out from the rear of the spacecraft. The force of the explosion would have been caught by a buffer plate on four retracting struts. This would have absorbed the shock, while allowing the spacecraft to move at immense speeds. The ship would have had a complement of 120 men, who would have rested and worked, at least at times, in a centrifuge that would have generated artificial gravity. It would also have carried four shuttle craft, and an arsenal of 140 nuclear bombs. It would also have carried another type of nuclear bomb, the details of which are still classified. This would have been thrown out of the spacecraft and when it exploded would have released a deadly beam of charged particles at its target. It would also have been equipped with a number of conventional naval cannons. I think the intention was to dominate the Earth militarily from space. The navy also planned a number of peaceful missions, including expeditions to Saturn by the 1970s. They didn’t work out any detailed plans but created a detailed model which they showed to Kennedy to persuade him to back the project. It had the opposite effect. Kennedy realised that it would have made the Cold War much worse, and wisely cancelled it.

The video’s sponsored by a Star Trek computer game, and so there’s much comparison between the USS Enterprise and other ships in that series with the Orion battleship. It also goes into the methods by which the spacecraft could be used to become a real starship enabling humanity to reach Alpha Centauri. With its conventional nuclear fuel, it could attain 3.3 per cent of the speed of light, which would enable humanity to reach Alpha Centauri in 144 years. But other techniques could be used, including matter-antimatter annihilation. This could propel the ship to 80 per cent of the speed of light, cutting the journey time to a decade or so. Unfortunately, anti-matter is immensely expensive and so unless or until a cheap method of mass producing it is found, that means of propulsion is impossible.

Sagan mentions the Orion spacecraft in Cosmos, and how it could have taken humanity to the stars. He doesn’t mention, however, the fact that it was intended as a warship. Either he didn’t know, which is unlikely, or that aspect of the ship’s design was classified at the time, and he wasn’t at liberty to divulge it. However, the use of bombs to push a spacecraft forward is actually a sound one. It was tested experimentally on a scale model, and there are clips of this about. The idea goes back to before the Russian Revolution, when an imprisoned revolutionary sketched a platform taking off from the ground propelled by exploding gunpowder bombs beneath it.

Nuclear explosions in space are currently banned under international law, which has helped to prevent atomic war but means that so far only chemical rockets can be used for space exploration. The Beeb a while ago made a science fiction programme about humans exploring the solar system in a nuclear rocket and confidently predicted that, although now fiction, this would actually happen sometime in this century. I’m also struck about how closely the spacecraft resembles the Discovery, the spacecraft that travels to meet the alien monolith around Jupiter in Kubrick’s 2001. That was also nuclear propelled, and its crew also lived in a giant centrifuge to simulate gravity.

I also wonder if JFK cancelled the project for financial as well as geopolitical reasons. Such as spacecraft would have been massively expensive. As it was, the Moon programme absorbed 5 per cent of America’s GDP, and that was for conventional, chemical rockets carrying no more than three men. I can see the construction of a spacecraft like Orion practically bankrupting the entire country, just as trying to keep up with Reagan’s wretched Star Wars programme did the Soviet Union. Scientists have estimated that the technology isn’t necessarily the problem with building spacecraft to other stars. We can almost do it now. It’s just the expense. It’ll be about 200 years before the world can afford to build such spacecraft.

One day a ship like Orion may be built to take us to Alpha Centauri and beyond. But hopefully, not as a warship.

Sketch of Legendary Astronomy Author and Presenter Patrick Moore

December 3, 2022

Moore was for many years the face of astronomy on television in the UK, thanks to him presenting The Sky at Night from the 1950s almost to his death. He was known as much for his eccentric appearance as his subject, so there were plenty of jokes about him wearing the same rumpled suit down the decades. He was sent up on programmes from The Two Ronnies to Dead Ringers, who spoofed him as ‘Old Moore’, a fairground fortune teller. But he remained dedicated to his subject, publishing a plethora of popular books on the subject. This included a series of Sky at Night books, one of which I found in the school library when I was a lad, as well as editing the annual Yearbooks of Astronomy. He also collaborated with the amazing British space and science fiction artist David A. Hardy on books such as The Challenge of the Stars. He also wrote at least two books on Mars. I found one in the central library in Bristol in the 1980s. A decade later, during the excitement about the series of probes NASA and other countries were sending to the Red Planet, he published Patrick Moore on Mars. Its title invites all manner of jokes along the lines of ‘best place for him.’ He also wrote a series of children’s science fiction books about a boy space explorer, Scott Summers. These were hard SF based on the science of the time and what was expected to develop later. They’re now obviously very dated. In one of these, Wanderer in Space, Summers flew to intercept an antimatter asteroid that was threatening Earth aboard an ion driven rocket, clearly anticipating developments in such propulsion that haven’t materialised. Ion drives exist, but they aren’t being used for manned space missions. Another of these was about a human colony on Mars, living in a glass dome. This ends with the colonists looking forward to one day emerging and living free on its surface. This one has been superseded by Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of books about the settlement and terraforming of Mars. As well as these books, he also contributed to a string of popular science and astronomy magazines like Astronomy Now, New Voyager and Focus.

I think he was one of those scientists, with Arthur C. Clarke, who worked on radar during the War but I’m not sure. He never had a formal qualification in astronomy but was always strictly amateur. He was, however, granted an amateur doctorate by one of the universities. I’m sure, however, that at the level he was active in astronomy he would have probably easily passed a university degree in the subject. His maps of the Moon were so good that they were used by NASA in selecting landing sites for the Apollo missions. He never married because his sweetheart was killed during the War in an air raid. In his personal politics he was extremely right-wing, founding the One Country party, which was later merged with another small, extreme right-wing group. I can also remember him appearing on one of the chat shows and remarking that we’d be ‘in the cart’ without Maggie Thatcher. Like many people who have genuinely been through a war, he was deeply critical of it. In one of the chapters in The New Challenge of the Stars, about a possible hostile encounter between an asteroid ark and the inhabitants of an alien planet in whose system it has appeared, Moore makes a sharp comment about man’s folly of war entering a new battleground in space. He was also a staunch opponent of fox hunting. Back in the 90s he was a guest on the comedy programme Room 101, in which guests compete to have various useless and irritating objects or people consigned to the room made famous by Orwell’s 1984. In the vast majority cases, this is just light-hearted fun. But Moore was absolutely serious about sending fox hunting there and talked about how he’d written to various authorities to get it banned. Away from astronomy he also taught himself to play the xylophone and composed numerous pieces for the instrument. One of these was published in a classical music magazine. This did not translate into a career in music, however. He got very annoyed when his planned concert at the Hippodrome was cancelled due to lack of interest.

As well as serious, professional and amateur astronomers Moore talked to during his long career, he also met and talked to various eccentrics, including UFO contactees. One of those he interviewed on the Sky at Night was a man who believed he was in contact with peaceful aliens, and could speak four of their languages, including Venusian and Plutonian. This gentleman demonstrated it by saying the greeting, ‘Hello, space brothers’, in one of them. And although Moore persistently denied it, it seems he was one of the hands behind a hoax book by ‘Cedric Allingham’ about how he encountered an alien spacecraft and its inhabitants during a walking tour of the Scottish Highlands. This was during the first wave of UFO encounters in the late 40s and 50s. When people wrote to the publisher hoping to contact Allingham, he could not be traced. One excuse was that he was off walking in Switzerland. Computer analysis of the text reveals that it was probably written by Moore and revised by someone else in order to disguise his authorship. Moore remained very willing to meet ordinary members of the public and talk to them about his subject even in his retirement. He publicly gave out the address of his home in Herstmonceux, Sussex and said if people had questions or wanted to talk to him, they could drop in, shrugging off the obvious dangers of theft, burglary and so on.

Moore belonged to an age when popular science broadcasters could be real characters, often with eccentric mannerism. There was Magnus Pike, who was famous for waving his arms around while speaking, and the bearded dynamo of Botanic Man himself, David Bellamy, sent up in impressions by Lenny Henry. Since then, popular science programmes have been presented by people who are younger and/or a bit more hip. One BBC programme on astronomy a few years ago was presented by Queen guitarist Brian May, who had studied astrophysics at university before getting caught up in his career as an awesome global rock star. May had just handed in his astrophysics thesis after decades of touring the world with Mercury, Deacon et al. His co-presenter was the comedian Dara O’Brien, who had tried to study maths at university but had dropped out because of its difficulty. The Sky at Night is now presented by about three different hosts, including Black woman Maggie Aderin-Pocock. And I think the face of astronomy and cosmology now is probably Brian Cox after all his series on the subject. But for all this, I prefer the science presenters of a previous generation with all their quirks and foibles. These people were enthusiastic about their subject and were able to communicate their enthusiasm without trying to be too slick to connect with a mass audience. And they succeeded.

The 1984 Yearbook of Astronomy and What’s New in Space, just two of the books edited and written by Moore.

The Amazing Art of Stuart Cowley’s ‘Spacewreck’

October 5, 2022

More utterly amazing space art from Sci-Fi Art’s channel on YouTube. In this very short video, he flips through Stuart Cowley’s Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space. Cowley took the art for various Science Fiction paperbacks and then wrote stories around them, publishing them as guidebooks to the spacecraft of the future produced by a global trade organisation, the Terran Trade Authority. I bought one of these when I was a schoolkid, Spacecraft 2000-2100, which pretended to be a guide to the spacecraft of the 21st century and with a story about humanity’s contact with two species of aliens from Alpha and Proxima Centauri respectively, and humanity’s and the Alpha Centaurian’s war with the latter. I can remember being absolutely amazed by the astonishingly beautiful art of these imaginary worlds and spaceships. Cowley published a series of such books and didn’t confine himself just to Science Fiction. He also created one from the cover art for a number of Horror novels as The Tourist’s Guide to Transylvania. Another book he produced was the alarmingly named Home Brain Surgery and Other Household Skills. I’ve seen a copy for sale in some secondhand book shops and left it meaning to buy it later. When I came back it had vanished. Which just shows that somehow you have to get something while you can. The artists featured in Spacewreck, according to Sci-Fi Art, include Angus McKie, Tony Roberts, Fred Gambino, Bob Layzell, Colin Hay, Jim Burns, Alan Daniels and the music is by All India Radio. I think some of their music has also been used for a video someone made of the spacecraft from Spacecraft 2000-2100 zooming around in CGI animation.

The Art of Bono and Gatland’s ‘The Frontiers of Space’

October 5, 2022

More space art for anyone who’s interested. This is a fascinating look at the great art in the 1971 book, Frontiers of Space by Philip Bono and Kenneth Gatland, taken from Sci-Fi Art’s channel on YouTube. Gatland was, I think, one of the leading members of the British Interplanetary Society, set up in the late 1930s to promote spaceflight and whose alumni includes Arthur C. Clarke and David A. Hardy. They’re still going, and I was a member for a few years. They have two magazines – a newsstand magazine, Spaceflight, and a technical Journal, which is far more academic. Looking through the art, I recognise some of the concepts. Several of the pictures show what looks like three space shuttles fixed together before flying off separately into space. That was the British Project MUSTARD concept for a spaceplane. If built, it would undoubtedly have made us a leading space power. But I think it was too advanced and too expensive, and so went the way of a number of similar British ideas. Earlier in the book there’s a German design for a spaceplane, in which the orbital spacecraft rides piggy-back on an air-breathing plane. It’s similar to the Sanger spaceplane concept which the Germans also developed in the 90s.

But aside from the interest in looking at visions of a spacefaring tomorrow that never happened, the artwork is brilliant.

Peru Using Incan Engineering to Solve Water Crisis

August 16, 2022

I found this little snippet in today’s Independent fascinating. I’m a fan, sort-of, of Frank Herbert’s classic SF epic, Dune. This is set on Arrakis, a desert planet, whose sandworms are the only known source of the drug Spice, whose mind-expanding effects allow the mutated human navigators to guide their spacecraft across the galaxy without the use of computers. The planet’s original settlers, the Fremen, use stillsuits, technological body suits that harvest water from their sweat and body fluids to produce drinkable water, enabling them to survive for weeks even in the deep desert. And the Fremen have also established a network of cisterns to gather water as part of a project to turn their arid world green.

That type of technology and engineering, used to reclaim and channel water in desert areas, fascinates me. There are ingenious machines now that collect water from the humidity in the atmosphere, to produce drinking water. Nearly 2,000 years ago, a Greek engineer created a huge moisture-gatherer in one of the ancient Greek colonies on the Black Sea to provide the town with water despite the absence of rain or rivers. Now, according to the Independent, Peruvian engineers are renovating the ancient system of canals the Incas used to irrigate their land. The article by Samuel Webb, ‘Ancient Incan technology being used to harvest water to combat Peru’s crisis’, begins

Techniques used by servants of the Inca empire to build canals 500 years ago are being resurrected in Peru to funnel much-needed water to remote mountain communities and the city of Lima below.

Gregorio Rios, 74, oversaw the renovation of the vast network of canals above San Pedro de Casta, a town 3,000 metres above sea level in the South American country’s Huarochiri district.

The canals were built centuries ago by the Yapani ethnic group, using clay and rocks ingeniously compressed over a long period of time.

The local municipality previously used concrete to build new modern canals, but it stifled plant growth, affecting the local ecosystem, and crumbled after just 10 years.

The Yapani canals, by contrast, are more than 500 years old. New canals built with the ancient techniques could last for more than 100 years if built correctly. They are also permeable, so the water is filtered and plant roots help anchor the structure in place.

Mr Rios, whose work is supported by Warwickshire-based charity Practical Action, said: “Our ancestors built the canals with rock and clay. That knowledge is being lost and it’s in our interest to recover it.

“We have got to take control of the management of water for the crops. This is all being done thanks to the knowledge of our ancestors.”

See: https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/ancient-incan-technology-being-used-to-harvest-water-to-combat-peru-s-crisis/ar-AA10DXaP?ocid=msedgdhp&pc=U531&cvid=17e09ff4479f425caad8d64f8d71ad6d

In Chile, farmers use networks of string placed across their fields to collect moisture from the sea mists for their crops despite the lack of rainfall in that part of the country.

And over in Iran and Afghanistan, there’s an ancient system of subterranean canals, the qanats, irrigating those countries deserts and arid regions.

I find it absolutely fascinating that such ancient methods and modern technology are together being used to combat the desert and the contemporary water shortage caused by climate change.

Steampunk Music: The Dwarven Factory

July 20, 2022

Here’s something a bit different and, hopefully, more soothing after the politics. I found a lot of Steampunk music on YouTube yesterday. Steampunk is the subgenre of Science Fiction that imagines what would have happened if the Victorians had put some of their more ambitious and far-sighted inventions into practice, and so had computers, flight, motor vehicle and space travel. It takes its inspiration from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, as well as real inventions such as Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine – a mechanical computer – and Giffard’s dirigible airship, which flew round the Eiffel Tower in 1854, as well as the futuristic drawings of the pioneering French Science Fiction writers and artist, Jacques Robida. Notable books include William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, about a Victorian future in which Lord Byron is now king and Babbage’s Difference Engine is a reality. It’s also produced a milieu of fans, who design and wear clothing based on these futures that never were, and build mock-Victorian technological props, like ray guns. One of the most popular fashion accessories is suitably elaborate, 19th century-style futuristic goggles.

But there are also composers producing works inspired by this type of SF. This seems to be orchestral, but with the addition of synthesisers and other electronic effects, often with an underlying ticking of clockwork or a beat suggesting this or the rhythm of the heavy industrial machines of the period. Its composers include Peter Crowley, who also produces more traditional fantasy music, Landon Zientara, and Shannon Chiang. I’m delighted that someone is still producing music in the classical idiom, and some of these pieces sound like the scores for SF and Fantasy films that were never made. Here’s one piece of Steampunk music, The Dwarven Factory.

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.