Posts Tagged ‘Spaceships’

Crowdfunded Solar Sail Spacecraft Makes Successful Flight

August 6, 2019

Bit of science news now. Last Friday’s I for 2nd August 2019 reported that a satellite developed by the Planetary Society and funded through internet fundraising had successfully climbed to a higher orbit using a solar sail. This propels spacecraft using only the pressure of light, just like an ordinary sail uses the force given by the window to propel a ship on Earth, or drive a windmill.

The article on this by Joey Roulette on page 23 ran

A small crowdfunded satellite promoted by a TV host in the United States has been propelled into a higher orbit using only the force of sunlight.

The Lightsail 2 spacecraft, which is about the size of a loaf of bread, was launched into orbit in June. 

It then unfurled a tin foil-like solar sail designed to steer and push the spacecraft, using the momentum of tiny particles of light called photons emanating from the Sun – into a higher orbit. The satellite was developed by the California-based research and education group, the Planetary Society, who chief executive is the television personality popularly known as Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The technology could potentially lead to an inexhaustible source of space propulsion as a substitute for finite supplies of rocket fuels that most spacecraft rely on for in-flight manoeuvres.

“We are thrilled to declare mission success for Lightsail 2,” said its programme manager Bruce Betts.

Flight by light, or “sailing on sunbeams”, as Mr Nye called it, could best be used for missions carrying cargo in space.

The technology could also reduce the need for expensive, cumbersome rocket propellants.

“We strongly feel taht missions like Lightsail 2 will democratise space, enable more people send spacecraft to remarkable destinations in the solar system”, Mr Nye said.

This is very optimistic. The momentum given to a spacecraft by the Sun’s light is very small. But, like ion propulsion, it’s constant and so enormous speeds can be built up over time. It may be through solar sail craft that we may one day send probes to some of the extrasolar planets now being discovered by astronomers.

In the 1990s, American scientists designed a solar sail spacecraft, Star Wisp, which would take a 50 kg instrument package to Alpha Centauri. The star’s four light years away. The ship would, however, reach a speed of 1/3 that of light, meaning that, at a very rough calculation, it would reach its destination in 12 years. The journey time for a conventional spacecraft propelled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen is tens of thousands of years.

Although the idea has been around since the 1970s, NASA attempt to launch a solar sail propelled satellite a few years ago failed. If we are ever to reach the stars, it will be through spacecraft and other highly advanced unconventional spacecraft, like interstellar ramjets. So I therefore applaud Nye and the Planetary Society on their great success.

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

April 21, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robots and the Edisonade

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

Robot Romances

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

Lem’s Robots and Descartes

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

Morality and Tragedy in The ABC Warriors 

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

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

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

Conclusion: Give Genre Authors Their Place at Literary Fiction Awards

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

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

Pat Mills – Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD and Judge Dredd: The Secret History: Part Three

March 30, 2018

Although the comic has been revived and managed very successfully by Rebellion and its new editor for the past 15 or so years, some of the joy has gone. The close collaboration between writers and artists has disappeared, and the editor himself avoids close contact with the other creators. This is partly because of budget and time constraints. The attitude throughout the industry now seems to be one of diligent, quiet efficiency, rather than some of the fun-filled, boisterous meetings Mills and the others had, acting out what they wanted the characters to do in an atmosphere of playful fun. Not that it was always the case. Mills also worked hard, and as an editor he was often called up to deal with artists experiencing some form of crisis, including trying to stop one fellow from committing suicide. But the underlying cause of the decline in British comics remains unaddressed. This is the lack of ownership by the creators for their work. He states that this is the real reasons comics are declining, not computer games. They have those in France, but kids are still reading comics. He also talks about the immense fun he had over there with his Requiem: Vamnpire Knight strip, also available in English translation on the Net.

Mills also talks about some of the other strips he has worked on, which have influenced 2000AD, such as Battle, the notorious Action, Crisis and Toxic. Battle was a war comic, which Mills subverted with Charlie’s War, a First World War strip which had an anti-war message. Mills has come across a number of men, who joined the army through reading such comics. He’s very proud that Charlie’s War had the opposite effect, and after reading it one young lad decided he really didn’t want to after all. Mills is very political, and criticises British literature for its lack of working class heroes. He sees this as partly deliberate, as so many of the great adventure writers were connected to the Intelligence Services and the secret state. Names like John Buchan, Dennis Wheatly – who would have been gauleiter of London, had Hitler conquered Britain – and Ian Fleming. He describes how the script editor of Dr. who in the ’80s turned down a story he’d written, as it included a spaceship captain who was working class. The story has since been made into a CD adventure by Big Finish, and there have been absolutely no complaints.

Action was initially suspended, and then banned outright for its violence. It was also controversial as the first strip to feature a sympathetic, non-Nazi German hero in Hellman of Hammer Force. The comic was so hated by respectable society, that one of the presenters of Nationwide, a 70s current affairs magazine show pretty much like today’s One Show, tore a copy up on camera in front of one of the writers. After it returned, the violence because even more over the top to the point where it shocked Mills, leading to its eventual ban.

Mills is unhappy with SF as a vehicle for social comment, as he feels it is ducking the issue. And so he created Crisis and its Third World War strip, which was all about the exploitation of the Developing World and the politics of food. He’s particularly proud of one story about the scandal of Nestle’s baby milk. But this was completely beyond management’s ability to understand why he included this issue in a boy’s comic.

And Mills and his co-creators were also accused of anti-Semitism by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. They did a story about Palestinian, in which a militarised cop, or a member of the IDF, beats a protester so badly, that they break all his limbs, and he falls to the ground. The Board complained that the man’s broken body resembled a swastika, which shows they were reading things into it which weren’t there. The three other creators of the story were Jews, and Mills thought that the Board couldn’t accuse them all of being self-hating. The strip was published by Robert Maxwell, who told them where they could stuff their idea. He was a crook, who robbed the Mirror’s pension fund, but here he did the right thing. You can beat the Israel lobby if you stand up to them.

Mills is clearly a hard-working, passionate enthusiast for comics, and a determined supporter of his fellow writers and artist. He wishes the industry to go back and try to appeal again to young children, although he makes the point they’re ruder than the adult fans, with whom you can have interesting conversations at conventions. He admits that its much harder now to get published in 2000AD, but not impossible, and gives valuable, careful advice to aspiring writers and artists.

As well as a fascinating account of the rise and career of 2000AD, it was for me also quite a nostalgic read. I remember some of the strips Mills wrote for and created, including the comics Whizzer and Chips, Battle and Action. I have mixed feelings about Action. I enjoyed strips like One-Eyed Jack and Death Game 1999, based on the film Rollerball. I wasn’t so keen on Dredger, which did have some horrifying stories. One of these was a Russian dissident punished by having his brain gradually removed by surgery until he was vegetable, and another tale in which a foreign politician is murdered. Sulphuric acid is poured into his shower so that he literally goes down the drain. But the strip I really didn’t like was ‘Kids Rule UK’, set in a future where all adults had died, and Britain was run by violent kid’s gangs. I was bullied at school, and this was for me an all-too frightening concept. I also stopped reading 2000AD for a time, because the stories there were a bit too sadistic. Which was a pity, as I later found out, because I missed some great strips.

2000AD will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in a decade’s time, thanks to the inspiration of Pat Mills and his fellow creators. And I hope that afterwards the comic will go on to enjoy another fifty years under new, equally enthusiastic, committed and inspiring creators.

Splundig vur Thrigg, as the Mighty Tharg used to say.

Blade Runner 2049: ‘Time to Live’

September 1, 2017

This is another trailer for the forthcoming sequel to Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049. Described as a ‘featurette’, it’s a short film mixing scenes from the film with soundbites from the stars Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, the director Denis Villeneuve, and various members of the production crew, including its art director, and the director of the original classic himself, Ridley Scott.

It begins with Ford describing the immense impact of the scope and look of the original movie, and says it’s great to be back in his character’s, Deckard’s, old clothes. He’s glad they fit. Ridley Scott says he had no idea at the time the first movie came out that it would be so iconic. Later he says that it was meant to be a stand-alone movie, but there’s always more than you can tell in a two hour film. The production team tell how they wanted to preserve the look of the original, while also doing something that was ‘divergent’. And Villeneuve says that he never felt anxious while making it that Scott was watching over his shoulder.

I put up a previous trailer for Blade Runner 2049, the short prequel, Nexus Dawn, yesterday, and said that, while I’m looking forward to the film’s release in October, I also have mixed feelings about it. The film is now rightly regarded as one of the classics of science fiction cinema. It was a dark, dystopian vision of the future, that also mixed in French film noir, to create a dismal but stylish ‘Future Noir’. I’m afraid that the original is such a classic, and has set the standards so high for its sequel, that it will be simply impossible for the film to fulfill them, no matter how good it is. I think part of the problem many people were disappointed with the Star Wars prequels, and Scott’s prequels to the original Alien film, Prometheus and Covenant, is partly because these films are also cinematic classics.

There’s also the problem that part of what made these films classics was that at the time, they had a unique quality or vision that set them far apart from other films of the same type. In the case of Star Wars, it was Lucas’ creation of an entire galactic society, complete with its own form of mystical religion in the force, as well as the superb special effects. The spaceships and robots looked good. The film also broke with previous SF movies in that the technology looked used. I can remember reading in Starburst that it was the first SF movie to ‘dirty up’ the spacecraft. Rather than everything appearing antiseptically clean, the ships in Star Wars looked like people actually flew and maintained them in real conditions, in working hangers full of grease and whatever people in A Galaxy Far, Far Away use for enjoy oil.

In Alien, you also had the dirty, worn look of the spaceship Nostromo. It was dark, and dingy, stacked with equipment, and looked like what it was supposed to be: a functioning industrial complex, built for work, not beauty. And then there was the weird, biological design of the alien spacecraft the Nostromo’s crew encounters and explores, with the space jockey and the Alien itself, all designed by the Austrian surrealist, H.R. Giger.

The imagery and designs of these films have been so influential that they’ve become part of the stock visual language of much of the science fiction that followed them, to the point where it might be difficult for some younger film enthusiasts to understand just how exciting and revolutionary they were when they first came out.

As for Ridley Scott’s comment that he had no idea that Blade Runner would become the classic it is, this is very true. It flopped in the cinemas. This was partly because the studio didn’t think audiences were intelligent enough to work out what was going on, or understand some of the future slang, so they insisted that Ford also did a voiceover during certain scenes. There’s a rumour that Ford thought it was such a bad idea, that he deliberately made his voice as flat and monotone as possible in the hope the result would be so terrible the studio wouldn’t use it. But they did. And unfortunately it did affect the way audience received it. Put bluntly, it made the film a laughing stock. A friend of mine went to see it – he was a few years older than me – and he said that people in the cinema were laughing at the voiceover.

What saved the movie were the fans, who discovered it on video, who turned it into a cult movie, so that its audience and reputation increased. This reached the point where it allowed Scott to do something that had never been done before: he released a director’s cut of the film. Which critically removed that stupid voiceover.

And the result of that long process of rediscovery and growing appreciation is that the original movie is a cinematic classic. Blade Runner 2049 has a lot to live up to, but I’m really looking forward to it.

The Fantastic Space Art of Tony Roberts

April 22, 2017

This is another video from Martin Kennedy on YouTube, showing the work of another amazing space and science fiction artist from the 1970s, Tony Roberts. As you can see from the video, he was another whose art was used in Stuart Cowley’s Spacecraft 2000-2100. And as this video shows, he also painted the cover for a British edition of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

The Space Art of Bob Layzell

April 21, 2017

Here’s another video I found on YouTube by Martin Kennedy about one of the great space and science fiction artists of the 1970s, whose work appeared in Stuart Cowley’s Spacecraft 2000-2100, Bob Layzell. You may recognise some of the pictures from the previous videos I’ve reblogged on the book.

Ross Forster-Fraser on the Terran Trade Authority’s ‘Great Space Battles’

April 21, 2017

I’ve put up a series of videos this week about Stuart Cowley’s Spaceships 2000-2100, and the great space art on which it was based. The book was supposedly published by the Terran Trade Authority, a future international governmental organisation administering the world’s trade, particularly with other worlds. It was a ‘future history’ SF tale, about the spaceships that would take humanity first to the planets of our solar system, and from thence to the stars Alpha and Proxima Centauri and beyond. The illustrations in the book were taken from SF book covers, which were used by the writer, Stuart Cowley, as the basis for descriptions of these craft and their fictional histories.

Spacecraft 2000-2100 was one of series of similar books published by the fictional TTA. The others included Great Space Battles. In this clip I found on YouTube, Ross Forster-Fraser, another enthusiast for the books, talks about this book.

Animated Video Based on Terran Trade Authority Spacecraft

April 14, 2017

Looking through YouTube, I found that someone had made an animated video about the spacecraft depicted in Steward Cowley’s Spacecraft: 2000 to 2100 (London: Hamlyn 1978).

The book’s supposed to be a handbook of 21st century spacecraft, published by the Terran Trade Authority. In fact, it’s a collection of illustrations from SF book covers by the great space artists Angus McKie, Bob Layzell, Tony Roberts and others, which Cowley then described as real spacecraft. These were part of a ‘future history’ of human space exploration and colonisation which included humans travelling to encounter intelligent alien civilisations on Proxima and Alpha Centauri, and fighting a war with the Proximans. As well as Spacecraft 2000-2100, Cowley also wrote Great Space Battles, the Tourist’s Guide to Transylvania, based on Horror book covers, and Home Brain Surgery and Other Household Skills. The artwork is stunningly beautiful. Here are a few examples.

As with so many books on space written in the 1970s, it had a timeline of what we could expect in the coming decades, predictions which now seem hopelessly dated and optimistic. For example, the ‘key historical dates’ in Spacecraft: 2000 to 2100 are

1987 – Introduction of nuclear powered engines: ion and plasma systems.

1990 – Foundation of the World Community Research Council.

1998 – WCRC North African Space Research Centres now operational.

1999 – World Trade Authority formed to co-ordinate international commerce.

2004 – The first spacefreighter, Colonial I, enters service.

2005 – Work starts on Lunar Station.

2011 – Lunar Station operational.

2012 – Work starts on Mars Station.

2014 – Introduction of the McKinley Ion Ultradrive in Colonial II.

2015 – Martian Queen makes first commercial passenger flight to Mars.

2018 – First shipment of new alloys from Lunar industry.

2027 – Warp0 Generator perfected by Henri devas.

2036 – Manned survey ship makes contact with Alpha Centaurians.

2038 – Language barrier broken.

2039 – Trade & Technology Exchange Agreement signed with Alpha.

– World Trade Authority becomes Terran Trade Authority.

2041 – First orbital industrial centre off Jupiter completed.

2042 – First Energy Absorbent Defence Shield (EADS) produced by the TTA.

2045 – Dr Hans Berger introduces the Gravity-Resist Generator.

2046 – Mars Shipyards completed.

2047 – Pathfinder IX Survey Ship destroyed by Proxima Centauri.

– Alpha Centauri attacked.

2048 – Interstellar Queen destroyed by Proxima Centauri.

– War declared.

2049 – Terran Defence Authority formed.

2052 – Battle for Mars.

2060 – Invasion of Proxima Centauri.

2068 – Peace Treaty negotiated.

2073 – First jet tube opened on Earth, between Europe and America.

2078 – First settler ship leaves for Arcturus.

2090 – Second settler ship.

2096 – Starblade introduced as first Alpha spaceliner.

If only!

Here’s the video:

Simon Pegg and SF and Comic Book Infantilism

May 23, 2015

I was on holiday last week, which was why I haven’t put anything up for a few days. Never mind – I’m back now, and ready to pour more scorn, criticism and bile on the Tory government and the establishment sycophants and global corporate exploiters that support it.

But before I do, I’d like to tackle one issue that’s been bothering me, ever since I read about it in the papers and Radio Times last week. Simon Pegg got in the news for claiming that contemporary culture was being infantilised through Science Fiction, comic books, and the movies that were based on them.

As Pegg himself admitted, this is deeply ironic comic from him. He’s made his name as an SF and comic book nerd. In Spaced, the comedy he co-wrote, he played a struggling comic book artist/writer, who worked behind the counter at his local SF and comic shop. As well as the zombie rom-com, Shaun of the Dead, he also wrote Paul, his homage to science fiction geekdom, in which he and Nick Frost play a pair of SF geeks, who stumble upon the real alien that the US government has kept secret ever since the Roswell crash. The interview in the Radio Times, in which he made the comments, begins with a discussion of his role as Scotty and one of the writers on the new Star Trek movie.

Pegg made his comments about the infantilising effects of comics and SF when talking about how he was trying to smarten up and not be a ‘slobby husband’ for his wife, Maureen. As part of which, he had stopped drinking, turned to living a healthier life style, and stopped dressing as a teenager. The Radio Times then went to state how this new, adult perspective had changed his view of Science Fiction and comics. It said

This new grown-up perspective chimes with Pegg’s views on the culture in which he made his name and plies his trade. As Mark Gatiss said in Radio Times last month, “The geeks have indeed inherited the Earth.” On the other hand, this empowers the fanboy who wrote an autobiography called Nerd Do Well.

But on the other… “Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed.

Now, I don’t know if that is a good thing. Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things comic books, superheroes … Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

It is a kind of dumbing down in a way, “he continues. “Because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

Now Pegg hasn’t said anything that a multitude of other, SF writers haven’t said before. Ray Bradbury, the author of The Martian Chronicles, famously said that the ‘Golden Age’ of Science Fiction was thirteen. Brian Aldiss, who amongst his various works wrote the short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long, on which the Kubrick/ Spielberg film A.I. was based, was highly unimpressed by Star Wars. In his history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree, he made the sneering observation of its massive fan popularity that ‘a thousand throats thirsting for escapism must be slaked (if not cut)’. Many SF authors moved away from writing SF over their careers, such as Christopher Priest. Priest denies that he was ever an SF writer, but does not despise the genre or its fans. He’s said that he still has affection for the genre. Michael Moorcock, the editor of the SF magazine, New Worlds, leader of the SF ‘New Wave’, and author of the cult Elric novels, in the edition of the 1979 series on SF writers, Time Out of Mind, also stated that Science Fiction was essentially an immature form of literature. Moorcock then considered that the reason why so many SF writers had stopped and gone on to other forms of literature was simply that they’d grown up.

The great Polish writer, Stanislaus Lem, made pretty much the same point from his own personal experience in his book on Science Fiction, Microworlds. Lem’s an extremely highbrow Polish writer, who amongst his various works wrote Solaris, which was later filmed by the Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. Lem has been very strongly influenced by the South American ‘magic realist’ writer, Borges, and was deeply impressed by Philip K. Dick. In Microworlds, he talks about the ‘transformation of trash’, in which the shop-worn props of Science Fiction – robots, aliens, mutants and spaceships – were transformed into a new kind of serious literature by Dick. He hoped, through his own writing and literary criticism, to make a similar contribution and raise the literary standards of the genre so that it could take its place as serious literature. He abandoned this, and the genre itself, as impossible.

Moorcock also began his career keen to raise the literary standard of Science Fiction. He was keen to import the experimental styles explored by William S. Burroughs and other, contemporary, literary writers. Again, in Time Out Of Mind, he talks about how he find his attempts to do so rejected and condemned by the SF old guard, particularly Frederick Pohl.

Now it’s fair to say that much Science Fiction is escapist fantasy, as is much literature generally. Nevertheless, much Science Fiction literature and cinema has tried to tackle serious issues. SF at times has been the ‘literature of warning’, exploring the terrible consequences that could arise if a particular political, social or technological course is pursued now. It’s also been used to critique and criticise existing society. This was particularly true of SF in the former Soviet Union, where writers like the Strugatsky brothers wrote in the ‘Aesopian mode’, to present Science Fictional fables to say obliquely observations about the true state of Soviet society, that could not be said openly.

It’s possible to draw up a list of Science Fiction novels, films and short stories, that have made serious points about human existence and the state of society. Most fans of the genre undoubtedly have their own favourites, or can think of others, that also do this. This is just happens to be the list I’ve drawn up at the moment.

1. War of the Worlds.

H.G. Wells’ novel of the devastation of Earth by Martian invaders had its origins in a discussion between Wells and his brother about the destruction of indigenous, primitive societies, by European colonialism. Wells wondered what it would be like, if a similarly technologically superior invader came and did the same to Great Britain, the leading imperialist power of the late 19th century.

The book remains relevant to contemporary society even today, more than a century after its publication. Stanislas Lem has praised the book for its depiction of the nature of total war, and what it feels like to be the victim of an invader determined to wipe you out utterly. Lem lived through the Nazi invasion and occupation of his home country. Apart from their aim of exterminating the Jews in the Holocaust, the Nazis also saw Poles, along with Russians, Ukrainians and the other Slavic peoples as ‘subhuman’, who were to be worked to death as slave labour. Their treatment of the Poles was similarly brutal. Lem felt that Wells’ novel of alien invasion gave a far better depiction of what the Nazi occupation was actually like, than many purely factual accounts of this dark period in his country’s history, to the point where he got annoyed with them and discarded them.

2. Brave New World.

Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel of the dehumanising effects of biotechnology, in which humans are artificially gestated in hatcheries. In this technocratic, hedonistic society, real culture has withered away and society itself grown static because of the concentration on the purely sensual.

3. Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Karel Capek’s stage play introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. It was one of the very first to explore the possibility that humans could one day be overthrown by their mechanical creations. The robots in the play aren’t mechanical so much as artificially created humans, very much like the Replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Capek was writing at the time working class, radical Socialist and Communist revolutions had broken out in central and eastern Europe, and the play can also be read as a parable about their threat to the bourgeois European order.

If anything, the book has become even more relevant today, as scientists and social activists have become increasingly alarmed at the threat that robots might shortly do exactly as described in the book. Kevin Warwick, the Reader in Cybernetics at Reading University and former cyborg, begins his pop-science book on robots, March of the Machines, with a chilling depiction of the world of 2050. In this world, the machines have very definitely taken over. The mass of humanity have been exterminated, with those few remaining either living wild, if lucky, or enslaved as domesticated animals by their mechanical masters.

Some international agencies share this alarm. There is a pressure group actively campaigning against the construction of killer robots. A few years ago the international authorities were so alarmed that they actively forbade the use of such robots on the battlefield after one country made the suggestion that such machines should be used today, based on existing technology.

4. Silent Running

After working on 2001, Doug Trumbull wanted to produce a less coldly-intellectual, more emotional SF film than Stanley Kubrick’s epic. This was film is one of the first with a ‘green’ message, about humanity’s destruction of the environment. It’s about one astronaut’s quest to save the last green spaces from Earth, now preserved on spaceships, from destruction. He disobeys the command to scupper his ship and return to Earth, and takes them to safety in the rings of Saturn.

Other films exploring similar themses include Zero Population Growth and Soylent Green. In Zero Population Growth, the world is massively overpopulated to the point where most animal and plant species, including domestic pets, have become extinct. The government therefore mandates a total cessation of reproduction for a generation. The film tells the story of a couple’s attempts to preserve the life of their child after the wife finds out she’s pregnant. The husband and father is played by Oliver Reed, who was a brilliant actor as well as notorious drunk.

Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston, and based on Harry Harrison’s book, Make Room! Make Room!, was the first SF book to explore the possible consequences of the global population explosion and mass starvation.

5. Solaris

Based on Lem’s novel of the same name, Tarkovsky’s novel explores the problem of communicating with a genuinely alien intelligence, and what this would say in turn about human nature. The story follows the attempt of an astronaut to find out just what is happening aboard a space station orbiting the eponymous world. The planet itself is one vast organism, which creates replicas drawn from the human explorers’ own minds to try and work out what they are. One of these replicas takes the form of the hero’s ex-lover, with whom he begins a second, doomed romance.

Among its comments on space and humanity’s place in the universe are the lines ‘There are only a few billion of us. A mere handful. We don’t need spaceships. What man needs is man.’

The film was remade about a decade or so ago by Steven Soderbergh. His version is shorter, but apart from adding a sex scene and making Snow, the physicist, a Black woman rather than White man, there really isn’t much difference between the two, to the point where in some places they’re shot for shot the same. I prefer Tarkovsky’s original version, but you may feel differently.

6. Stalker

This is another movie by Tarkovsky, based on the novel by the Strugatsky brothers. The stalker of the title is an outlaw, who makes his money taking people into, and retrieving objects from, a mysterious, forbidden zone. In the book, the normal laws of nature do not apply within the zone, and its hinted that it is due to the crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. In Tarkovsky’s version, the zone is result of some kind of disaster. Tarkovsky’s film explores the nature of guilty and responsibility as the various characters attempt to venture further into the zone. The highly polluted, dangerous environment has a destructive effect on the biology of those entering into it. The Stalker himself has a disabled daughter, Monkey. Some hope for humanity is indicated by the fact that, although she cannot walk, Monkey nevertheless has developed psychokinesis.

Although this is another classic of Soviet, and indeed SF cinema generally, I think it’s seriously flawed. Tarkovsky cut out most of the special effects sequences from the books on which Stalker and Solaris were based, in order to concentrate on the human characters. As a result, the film suffers from a lack of genuine, shown menace, and instead is verbose and actually rather boring. Also, the central character in the book is far nastier. In the final scene in the novel, he wilfully sacrifices his accomplice to one of the Zone’s traps, so that he can retrieve the central, alien object coveted by everyone venturing into the zone – a golden ball that grants wishes. This is a film, which in my view does need to be remade by a director like Ridley Scott.

7. Blade Runner.

Apart from its sheer immense style, and the beauty of some of the scenes, this is another film that attempts to explore human nature through the mirror of its artificial, bio-mechanical opposite. Although it’s told from Deckard’s perspective, in many ways he’s actually the villain. The Replicants he hunts are bio-engineered slaves, who have escaped their bondage and come to Earth in the hope of extending their extremely short, artificial lifespans. They can’t, but in the process grow and develop in psychological depth and as moral beings. To the point where they are morally superior to their human creators. The penultimate scene where Batty saves Deckard from falling shows that he has passed the Voight-Comp test, which judges a subject’s a humanity according to their empathy and desire to save a trapped, struggling animal. It also has one of the most quoted poems in SF cinema – I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe, ships on fire off the shores of Orion…’

8. They Live.

This alien invasion drama is also a sharp satire on modern, global capitalism. A homeless construction worker discovers that the world is secretly dominated and exploited by skeletal aliens, who are at the heart of global capitalism. While it’s a low-budget action piece, Carpenter has said in interviews that he intended to give it an extra element by using it to criticise contemporary politics and economics. In the film, humanity’s exploitation by the interplanetary corporate business elite and their human shills and partners is responsibility for mass poverty, unemployment and homelessness – all to boost profits. If you cut out the aliens, this is pretty much what the bankers and global corporate elite have done and are still doing today. And it’s got the classic line, ‘I’ve come to do two things: kick ass and chew gum. And I’m all out of gum.’

9. V For Vendetta

This is another film, which has been denounced by the author of the work on which it’s based, in this case the SF strip of the same name by Alan Moore, which first appeared in the British anthology comic, Warrior before being published by DC in their Vertigo imprint. The strip was very much a product of its time – Thatcher’s Britain, and the new Cold War with the former Soviet Union. The strip envisaged the emergence of a Fascist Britain following a nuclear war between the US and the Eastern bloc. Moore has said in interviews that the strip attempted to explore the moral ambiguities of violence, whether it can be justified against innocents as part of a wider campaign against an unjust system. He also wanted to make the point that many of the supporters of the Fascist regime could be considered otherwise good people, just as many otherwise decent Germans supported the horrific Nazi regime.

It’s a superhero movie, which does nevertheless accurately show the realities of life in a Fascist dictatorship – the mass internment of political prisoners, arbitrary censorship, and experimentation on those considered subhuman or ‘dysgenic’ – in the language of eugenics – by the authorities. It lacks the contemporary relevance of the original strip, as Margaret Thatcher and the Tories did have strong links to the far right. Thatcher was an admirer of Pinochet, for example. The strip explored many of the issues thrown up by contemporary stories of corruption in the political, social and religious establishment, like paedophile clergy. Despite Moore’s rejection of the movie, it’s still a piece of genre, comic book cinema that does try to make an extremely serious point about Fascism and intolerance by placing it in modern, 21st century Britain.

10. Children of Men

Based on the book by P.D. James, and starring Clive Owen and Thandie Newton, this is another dystopian yarn. This time it takes a completely different view of the future and its perils from Soylent Green and Z.P.G. In this future, humanity has been afflicted with mass sterility. No children have been born for 18 years. Owen plays a policeman, charged with protecting an immigrant woman – Newton – who carries the only child to be conceived for over a decade. As a consequence of the sterility, society in volatile and unstable. Only Britain has a relatively stable system thanks to the establishment of a Fascist-style dictatorship.

Although fiction, James’ book nevertheless explores a genuine social issue. Globally, populations are falling, to the extent that some demographers have predicted a population crash sometime in the middle of this century. In Britain and much of Europe, they’re below population replacement level. This is particularly acute in Japan, and is one of the causes of that country’s massive investment in the development of robot workers. Much of the fall in birth rates is due simply to people limiting the number of children they have in order raise their quality of life. There is, however, the additional problem in that the sperm counts of western men is falling, to the point that during this century a significant number will be considered medically sterile. Children of Men is another dystopian work that is chillingly plausible.

It’s possible to go on, and add further works of serious SF cinema, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and The Zero Theorem and Gattaca, with its depiction of a stratified society ruled by the genetically enhanced. Now I have to say that I agree with Pegg that an awful lot of SF films since Star Wars has been escapist fantasy, and can see his point about some of it having an infantilising effect. This is by no means true of all of it, as I’ve attempted to show.

Even films like Star Wars that are pure, or mostly spectacle can be worth serious discussion and consideration, if they’re done well. For all its escapism, Star Wars was astonishing because it showed a detailed, convincingly realised series of alien worlds, machines and space craft. Moreover, the second movie – The Empire Strikes Back – did present Luke Skywalker with a genuine moral dilemma. His friends Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids have been captured and are being tortured by Vader and the imperials. Skywalker is faced with the choice of trying to help them, and in so doing losing his soul, or preserving his moral integrity by letting them suffer and die. His confrontation with Vader present him further with another, particularly acute moral dilemma. Vader reveals himself to be his father, and so if he kills him, he commits parricide, a particularly abhorrent crime. This also has literary antecedents. In one of the medieval Romances, the hero is faced with the revelation that the leader of the foreign army devastating his lord’s realm is his father, and so he is confronted with the terrible dilemma of having to kill him.

Now I don’t think that the potential of Science Fiction to explore mature issues and genuinely relevant problems has been fully explored in the cinema. One of the solutions to the problem is for fans of genre cinema to try and support the more intelligent SF movies that are released, such as Moon, which came out a few years ago. This would show producers and directors that there’s a ready audience for genuine, thought-provoking, intelligent SF as well as the gung-ho, action escapism.